Ani Martinez “There is always a challenge of creating opportunities for new audiences to participate meaningfully.”

Ani Martinez works as the Community Manager for the Remake Learning Network in the greater Pittsburgh region and beyond. She is an experienced educator with a focus on tech, advocacy, and inclusion, committed to creating a network of accessible, hands-on problem solvers and educators. She has been a regular, consistent, and enthusiastic contributor to the Internet health movement and Mozilla projects through multiple avenues including Mozilla Clubs, Hive Pittsburgh, and MozFest. Ani has developed communities teaching the web in Pittsburgh, delivers high-quality programs in her local learning spaces and inspires other educators in our networks.


Ani’s Story

Start by giving me an overview of your work and the aims of your work.

I’m the Community Manager for the Remake Learning Network, a professional network of educators and innovators working together to shape the future of teaching and learning in the Greater Pittsburgh Region. The network represents more than 250 organizations, including early learning centers & schools, museums & libraries, afterschool programs & community nonprofits, colleges & universities, ed-tech startups & major employers, philanthropies & civic leaders.

I help facilitate our core events and community support services, but the Network also manages a rich communications, and documentation suite of services around open innovation for learning and equity here in the city of Pittsburgh.

Over the last 10 years, the Remake Learning Network has connected almost 300 organizations and 5,000 individuals to relevant, engaging, and equitable opportunities both locally and on a national (and even global) level.

I think the Network serves as an opportunity for many different sectors in Pittsburgh to come together and has set a national example of what a learning network can look like when you collaborate with all parties. We see the city as a campus, a lesson from connected learning through multiple channels and organizations. However, we’ve found that approach less effective in our suburban and rural communities, so we’re thinking of new ways to approach the work in those spaces.

In relation to Mozilla, we’ve always been active in the Hive community. The ability to share our model with the Hive community has been a great success — to see how it shifts perspectives on their practice, and also how the practice of other Hive cities has informed our work is very important to me.

This community has helped us really look at how each city’s approach is unique and how things like staffing and population greatly impact how to approach the work — it’s been really interesting.

When you’re talking about these shifting perspectives, do you mean the organizations that make up Hive Pittsburgh?

There was a Hive Pittsburgh. As the MacArthur’s support of that work has sunset, we’ve absorbed Hive Pittsburgh into the greater Remake Learning Network.

Flipping that, how about an example of a challenge?

There is always a challenge of creating opportunities for new audiences to participate meaningfully. Often that means shifting locations of meetings or the types of requests that you’re sending out to people or how you are going to fund something and how that kind of funding is communicated to people.

There are many other challenges. Another one of the big challenges, and possibly one the Mozilla Foundation in particular is facing, is how to accurately and clearly but simply communicate “what it is that you do to a broader audience” — to get out of the cage that our niche community is really familiar with. To do this we really have to check our language-use.

In terms of the sun-setting of the Hive, did that go smoothly? Was there enough lead time?

It went smoothly for us because we had other supports in place and a greater network to support that work. I can’t speak to other cities, other than I know the transition has been an ongoing process.

Jumping back to the challenge of creating opportunities for new audiences to participate meaningfully and to clearly communicate — how do you approach that?

It’s changing the way you talk about the work — meaning you don’t necessarily use terms specific to the practice, but use words and phrases people can relate and connect to.

You have to do that differently with each audience — maybe you talk about it one way with school teachers and administrators, another if it’s parents and families, and yet another for funders as they have their own language, too.

It’s translating work over and over again, while still maintaining the truth of what it is. It’s part marketing, messaging, and communications, but it’s also a lot of community building — really listening to people and trying to understand their work before you try to talk about what you’re doing.

Could you give me a more specific example with one audience, in what ways have you shifted terms?

Certainly. The language at schools is more focused on how the Network can help them get kids to graduate and have successful lives outside of their K-12 experience. So we show them opportunities within the Network like professional development, grants to build STEAM programs, and host conversations so that teachers can talk about their practice.

Our Network means that many educators have greater access to opportunities, and therefore may better serve the young people they work with so that they have a higher chance of graduating, getting a job, or going to college. Sometimes that conversation narrows to focus on workforce development. Sometimes it’s bringing in deeper connections to higher ed, or even parent engagement! That isn’t necessarily the entirety of why a learning network is important, but you have to meet everyone in a space that is relevant, engaging, and equitable for them in their context.

One of the things that came out of the Hive New York interviews was the challenge around learning pathways — once kids finish up a program with one partner, where do they go next if they want to continue?

There is this space for opportunity, for organizations to partner with others. What surfaced was the idea of brokering. Has that surfaced in your work also?

That is the work — brokering relationships between organizations and institutions and individuals on any level and finding ways their work intersects — or if it doesn’t intersect, finding ways to address that.

When you add in the fact we are often trying to broker on-behalf of young people, or historically non-dominant, misrepresented, or underrepresented people, you get into a hairy space that is filled with inequity. Young people have their own voices that need to flow between organizations, institutions, their home lives… Imagine if that multi-modal skill was cultivated, valued, and used to address these inequities? What would that system (of brokering or otherwise) look like? It’s a particular challenge.

There are various elements that contribute to the difficulty of brokering within a network like Remake Learning, such as competition (for funding, for participants, etc), and less sharing  because of it. Networks can help share metrics, data, and build pathways for young people to participate between programs, but it’s still not working for everyone. It’s a multi-sector problem, which is why it’s important to work with organizations like Mozilla, or with the government, or with the private sector, in addition to all the nonprofits, academia, and K-12.

It seems that is the challenge of your work — how your practice and your programs are built and run to address the issues surrounding learning pathways — am I understanding correctly?

We are a network, not an organization, so we don’t run youth programs directly. My role is more to act as a third party intermediary. There are instances where we will be the catalytic partner, in terms of getting one institution to speak to another, or we can spur on relevant conversations, or bird dog resources to bring back to the Network. But for me, it consistently goes back to helping each other recognize the value of innovation in diverse contexts.

Plus, we have the freedom to reach out to the boundaries of innovation when it comes to relevant, engaging, and equitable learning. And it’s beautiful because it’s held together through relationships and stories. We’re so lucky to have the support and the resources to keep it going.

Thank you for making that clarification about the funding in that way it’s programmed. Turning now to the broadest issue in this whole universe, which is a free and open internet, a healthy internet. What for you is a healthy internet?

For me, a healthy internet is setup to support humans and human knowledge; that doesn’t split into different lanes. A healthy internet for me is one that is deinstitutionalized — one without corporate entities that control access to the internet exclusively. A healthy internet is one that is considered a utility — to be accessible like electricity or water.

There’s still problems surrounding those things, but that same kind of support is so necessary in the society I live in. Basically, we need to de-monopolize access to the internet.

Can you give me an example of how you’ve benefited from a healthy internet, in your work or even personally?

Well, I have access to the internet, so that’s very helpful, if you’re going with the same rationale of what I consider a healthy internet. That’s a pretty broad question, can you narrow that down, please?

I keep it broad intentionally, to focus on what’s important to people, where their concerns are and where they focus. This question is meant to seek what first comes to mind for each person.

That’s what is problematic about the foundation’s work in general — that it makes all these assumptions that people can answer that without some boundaries. When I have had really successful “healthy internet experiences,” it’s when it’s put into a frame. That it’s action-oriented, and it’s something that is both consumable, but usable.

So there’s a piece of utility around the internet always, rather than say the luxury of it (although, obviously I indulge). I’ve found those kind of open sharing and finding experiences to be the most useful.

Great. Thank you. Then, getting more specific about Mozilla, how did you get involved with them, and what has that been like for you?

I got involved with Mozilla through Hive and my work at a local organization, The Sprout Fund. It’s been a fruitful working relationship — a community of practice, a group of peers, and  coordinators of the other Hive networks. These are the people who understand what it is we do in the spirit of the Network.

That’s been really valuable for people to have, to be able to talk about problems, or spaces where they’re making their work easier, or their research.

Like the other research hub in Chicago and in New York and really seeing why other cities don’t take off and looking at the unique position that we have of being able to staff those roles in the cities where it does seem to work.

I think more cities are starting to catch on, though. It’s really informative to see how it works in different regions. Mozilla provides great opportunities to bring those parties together.

Do you still have projects you work on that are Mozilla-related or have you stepped back more from that?

Maker Party and Hive have both shifted since I first started working with Mozilla. I felt comfortable in that space of the work, but my relationships with the staff help keep me connected to what is going on at Mozilla. Plus, Pulse!

I love working with the learning teams, and was happy to help work on some instructional videos.

When you say, open innovation, how would you define that? I noticed there’s many positions on that.

I would counter that by saying the same thing you did to me about a healthy internet. We talk about innovation in the same sort of expansive way.

I’m starting to wonder, though, if that’s really useful for people, or if those broad terms are actually making people feel disinvited because they can’t see themselves in it, or are nervous that they don’t belong. It’s ironic, no?

More practically, we believe in Creative Commons licensing, as evidenced in the Remake Learning Playbook.

That’s really helpful. Thank you. Can you tell me about a time that these interactions with Mozilla have had some kind of impact on your work in the organization? Again, I’m looking for a specific anecdote.

The most obvious to me is MozFest — that and having great, highly productive work happen because of the community calls and the space in between. And of course, Work Week! I love those intense pockets of working with people you don’t get to see most of the year. It sparks my creative energy, and I like to contribute to the work.

Again, it’s hard to talk about now because those opportunities have been a bit sleepy, but being able to just see that community in the field at different conferences, particularly ones like the Digital Media & Learning conference, or Hivebuzz — really having people that know the work on a level that other people just don’t have an instant appreciation for.

You’ve already alluded in our conversation, but can you tell me about a time when Mozilla didn’t meet your expectations, or what specific feedback would you have?

I think it’s been hard for them to understand or appreciate nascent users. I know that they’re trying, and I know that they have done a lot of productive work around helping people understand the culture of the internet. They come from a production, programmer, producer mindset, and don’t yet understand the headspace of people who are just consumers of the web — people who think that Facebook is the internet. I think that is a missed marketing opportunity, especially for so many people that could and should be using tools like Thimble.

That’s super-helpful feedback. Thank you.

So we’re collecting these stories — I’ve now done over 70 interviews — and as we build out the Story Engine project, I’m trying to also think about ways that these stories might be useful to people like you, who have given an hour of their time to participate. I’m just wondering if you can think of any ways, if at all, these stories might be useful to you.

Stories about Mozilla and someone’s experience with Mozilla?

More broadly, stories about people’s aims, and their main challenges, their solutions, I mean the process that we’ve just been through. Definitely Mozilla is like half of that, but it is also a broader conversation.

Connecting, sharing, and archiving people’s stories is a very human practice. So far, and this is what, 40 years now? The humans of the internet have done a very poor job of doing that. What is the cultural history of the internet? I’m starting to see small press books that have authors and philosophers thinking about this, but we don’t talk about it to our kids. No wonder folks aren’t deeply connected to the fight for net neutrality, because I don’t think they have the memory or the experience of what we’re fighting for. People see sharing and they think of social media.

Projects like this are very important to help capture moments in time. I see it in my work locally, too. We have so many stories, so many resources, it’s gotten to the point where we need to consider our options like… do we need an archivist or should there be a Remake Learning Network Librarian?

OK, that’s fine. Is there anything more that you’d want to tell me or ask me?

I think that Mozilla has been doing inventive work for a long time. They went through a process where they got very, very broad, and I think they are trying to narrow it back down.

I hope that they find a way to make that work more approachable for people who don’t have a specific inroad into it, and that they can find a way to market the research they’re doing, and the services that they do have available to people. I’m seeing that happen, but I want Mozilla’s stance on the internet to be a household conversation. That’s my vision.

OK, that’s super clear and helpful feedback, so thank you so much for that. Ani, I’m really glad to have been able to connect with you. Did you go to MozFest this year?

I did.

I’m just curious — even though your Hive work isn’t really connected to Mozilla anymore — is that something you plan on continuing to invest in?

Of course! However, it’s a big investment to attend. If my session wasn’t accepted this year, I wouldn’t have been able to go — and that was sort of like tooth and nail, which, frankly, was kind of surprising, given the history of our work together.

There were some feelings that we were being pushed out a little bit from that space, because we are in the United States, and our work isn’t focused in Africa or India — it seems that’s where they’re starting to push much of the learning work. I want all the communities I work with to have the opportunity to see these global perspectives on web literacy, right?

And when you say tooth and nail, you mean in terms of getting your session accepted?

Yes, getting my session accepted — finding a place for it and the communication that happened after that — it really didn’t seem to fit in the arts and culture zone, and felt a bit lost in the shuffle. I’ve never had that experience at MozFest before.

And I was disconnected from the learning space, because I wanted to figure out what the arts and culture zone was all about. The sessions I was able to attend felt disjointed, like they weren’t telling a cohesive story about the core values of Mozilla’s learning strategy. They were just fighting for their bit of space at the conference.

I’d love to help accepted proposals connect in a more purposeful way in 2017!

OK, that’s good to know. Ani, again, thanks so much. You’ve brought us a really fresh perspective to these interviews, and I am super grateful for that.

Good, I’m glad! Thank you for speaking with me.