Geek Speak: Renee Black, executive director of Peace Geeks
Renee Black’s mission is to empower nonprofits doing good work on peace and human rights in non-democratic, developing, or conflict-affected countries. The Halifax-born, 34-year-old policy analyst and entrepreneur is the cofounder and executive director of Peace Geeks.
Peace Geeks, which is the process of incorporating, came together in May and held its launch on October 23. According to Black, the Vancouver-based group’s role is to “support nonprofit organizations that work on peace, accountability, and human-rights issues by helping them get access to the technology, tools, and training to help them be most effective in their communities and their work”. One of the projects that Peace Geeks is already providing support to is HarassMap, an effort to map sexual harassment in Egypt using text-message reporting.
Previously, Black spent nine years in the private sector, working on technology projects and as a business analyst. In 2006 and 2007, she travelled to the Middle East and Africa. Black’s experiences abroad led her to get a master’s degree at the University of Ottawa studying women in conflict, and ultimately to establish Peace Geeks.
The Georgia Straight reached Black by phone at her Commercial Drive home.
Why did you found Peace Geeks?
It was basically in response to what I saw—an interest in people in engaging in issues overseas, around the world and not knowing where to get started, and also seeing, at the same time, that there was a gap in the technical capacities of a lot of the organizations that were working on really important issues, who, if they had access to some of these tools, could be much more productive, effective with their work.
What exactly will your nonprofit be doing to help other organizations in developing countries?
Well, it’s not only developing countries. It’s developing, nondemocratic, and conflict-affected countries. In some cases, they’re not the same thing for sure. So, what we’re trying to do is help build their capacities.
We’re trying to develop an inventory, first of all, of open-source tools that we know about, that are being used interestingly by nonprofits around the world, so they can learn about the tools that are available to them. In some cases, we will also work with some of these organizations in order to help them get access to relevant tools that can solve critical pain points within their organization.
So, for example, one of the problems we received for our pilot project with Egypt was about managing contacts. They were a very new organization, and they were struggling to maintain all their volunteers and their media contacts and people who were talking about providing funding and so on. They didn’t know how to do that. Everything was happening over email. So, one of the tools we’re eventually going to be helping them get access to is a contact-management solution that is specifically designed for nonprofit organizations. It’s a free, open-source tool.
How did you contribute to the HarassMap project?
So, that’s one of the projects for HarassMap. We are doing a number of things with them. First of all, we really kind of started out by just hearing about what they are, what they do, and where their pain points are. Once we had a good sense of what those were, we actually picked a number of projects to work on. One was the contact management. The other one was kind of like team coaching. We helped them think about how their team was structured and also provided support to specific people.
One of the people in particular is a girl named Heba, and she is basically in charge of the film program and the video strategy for HarassMap. So, we’ve helped them to design a bit of a campaign—what that would look like, to start to think about where they’re going to get the videos from, what the content should be, how they’re going to measure success, that sort of thing. We are also helping them to produce a film at this point in time—an animation film that will be used to explain exactly what they are and how they work.
How can local geeks get involved with your work?
We have a place where you can actually register as a volunteer on our website. That’s one way to get involved, and we will connect you with projects.
In fact, our second project, the way that it came about was because one of our current volunteers came to me and said that she had a project for one of her courses. So, she told me what she had to do, and we actually found an organization that needed that type of support, and we connected them. They’re in Uganda. So, you can submit a school project for consideration, in case we can find an organization that can benefit from that.
We are looking for organizations to partner with us, either to sponsor particular projects or provide support in terms of hosting or other types of professional capacities. Office space would be swell.
Every Friday, Geek Speak catches up with someone in Vancouver’s technology sector, video-game industry, or social-media scene. Who should we interview next? You can tell Stephen Hui on Facebook and Twitter.