Steffania Paola “We are working with social movements and vulnerable groups — raising awareness about how the internet works, what the risks are, and the power of this tool to fight for more rights.”

Steffania is a feminist, self-taught developer, multidisciplinary designer, and visual artist. She also works as a digital security and coding trainer. Steffania has collaborated with civil society organizations and independent groups in Brazil that engage with issues like solidarity economy, intersectional feminism, privacy, and free speech. Steffania uses her skills to help these organizations increase the impact of advocacy efforts, build websites, applications and data visualizations, and plan workshops and toolkits. As an Open Web Fellow, Steffania is collaborating with Derechos Digitales to help the civil society sector in Latin America better promote human rights in the digital environment.


Steffania’s story

Can you start by telling me your name and a bit about your work, beginning with an overview and then highlighting projects that you are working on now?

My name is Steffania Paola. I’m from Brazil, and am currently working in Chile as part of Mozilla’s Open Web Fellows program. In general, I work with social movements, especially with feminist groups and gender issues on the internet. I am always thinking from the point of view that life for women,  offline and online, is the same because women suffer from the same things offline that they do online.

Here in Chile I am involved in a series of workshops on security and privacy for women and trans women. The workshops are designed to establish a relationship and continuity with these communities, instead of simply teaching tools. The idea is that we must first understand what the risks and threats are to these communities in the digital environment, and to do that in a collective way.

Many times these groups are suffering from violence online and they don’t know it, just like it happens offline. So the idea is to work collectively with these groups in our workshops. In general, we are working with feminist groups, trans women, and with reproductive rights.

In Latin America, we are living at a very complicated time politically — a time of brute right-wing force against the rights of women, sexual minorities, traditional populations, black people…

Because we are working with social movements and with some of the most vulnerable groups that are using the internet, I think the work we’re doing now is very important. That’s the main focus of my work here in Chile — raising awareness about  how things work on the internet, what the risks are, and most importantly, the power of this tool that we have to fight for more rights.

Can you tell me about a time when you’ve felt a sense of success in your work?

Success? I don’t really like that term, because the opposite of success is assumed to be failure. When we talk in terms of social movements, I think the most important thing is to continue fighting, doing the work, establishing networks, making connections, meeting people, exchanging ideas, and at some point, achieving greater change. In that context, and using your term, I believe that continuing our work should always be considered a success.

I’d like to mention an important moment that we had here. At the beginning of my fellowship we had a workshop about menstruation apps. We had the opportunity to meet with a large group of doctors, communicators and activists. As a result of the workshop we were invited to do a couple of radio shows in Chile. The issue of digital security was not covered in the mass media before, especially with a gender focus. And there we were — as feminists who work with the internet.

Can you give me an example of a challenge that persists in your work?

The most challenging thing about my work now is knowing how to approach digital security issues in contexts that I’m not familiar with, and to have the humility and openness to listen more, learn more, and work in ways that are more collaborative and less top down. We don’t want technical knowledge to result in a hierarchical relationship.

Another challenge is to talk about the internet, privacy and digital security, even with all its problems, from a more positive point of view —  in terms of freedom instead of fear. We must think about these issues from the point of view of the South, from our own needs, and about how we can decolonize the digital security discourse that comes from the North. In other words, having our own tools, making our own guides, building our own way of doing things.

How do you confront this challenge?

Along with my colleagues at Derechos Digitales, we are making an effort to think of different ways of approaching the issues: from the South, from the feminist perspective, from the needs of the groups and people we work with. In addition, there is an effort towards openness so that knowledge is always a constant exchange.

On a critical level, and continuing with the cultural theme, I have a Mozilla scholarship. Mozilla is a foundation from the Global North and I am in Latin America. This is a challenge for me and I believe for the organization as well, because things can be very different. The organization can not always understand how things work here. For example, you are the first person from Mozilla that I can speak to in Spanish.

Shifting now to the broadest issue in the Mozilla universe — the “health” of the internet. What for you is a healthy internet?

I think it is an internet that is diverse, open, accessible, fair, and where we do not have big companies dominating the digital environment.

What does working openly mean to you?

I think it has to do with the same concepts of transparency, where everything is very accessible and easy for people.

Do you work openly?

I am working more openly now because in the organization I here is working on a data management plan. The idea is that the organization work in a more open way with its data. This is on more of an organizational level. But also when I am working on my own, I do try to share my work.

Have you seen impacts of working openly?

Yes. I think it’s good that people who are involved can see what we’re doing. But at the same time, the challenge is more about how to organize the data. You can have a lot of data from your work, but it doesn’t work if you share it in a disorganized way. That is not so open. We must try to share our work in ways that will be more accessible.

Now more specifically about Mozilla, how are you involved with them and what are your impressions?

I have some criticism about how an organization like Mozilla that is global works with someone like me, for example, from the Global South. If you are an organization that works globally, you should be more attentive to cultural differences.

On the other hand, with the Mozilla scholarship, and with the stipend I have, I am able to do things that I could not do before, like traveling, going to events, and networking with people. This is very important for me. I see the work of the organization as being just as valuable as the struggle for a more open internet.

Can you give me an example of how Mozilla has impacted your work and life?

I believe that being in this program has totally changed my life and my job prospects. On a personal level I am living in another country and having contact with new things. I am from a small town in the interior of Minas Gerais in Brazil. Although I no longer lived in that small town before coming to Santiago, my life is totally different now.

It’s the first time I have lived in another country. This has completely changed my perspective of the world and what I can do. In this sense it has been very important. I am learning a ton of things here in the organization where I am working, with the people that I have met, with the groups that we work with and the trips we have taken. I’ve had a chance to reflect on my way of being in the world and this has been very valuable.

Can you give me an example of a perspective you had before that is different now?

I think I used to work with a much more local perspective in Brazil, but now I can do things all over Latin America or the world. Before I could not. I think that’s it — how to think and act on a more local, but also global level, because now I have contact with other people and projects.

That’s a good example. Thank you. Can you tell me a little more about the experiences with Mozilla that have been disappointing, or feedback to improve the work of Mozilla?

As I already mentioned, my main criticism has to do with the difficulties related to working with people who are not from Europe or the United States. For example, I was not able to travel to many places because I had a lot of problems with my visa and Mozilla was late sending  me the documents.

Another thing is that such a large organization with so much money could work more with populations like traditional communities. That would be interesting because Mozilla could get a better understanding of other people’s problems — not just the problems of  those who are using the internet the way it is being used in the United States and Europe. This way, you could have a change of perspective in the organization.

If you had access to 10 skilled volunteer collaborators or contributors — what would their skills be, and what would you ask them to do?

Ten people? What kind of thing?

The question is to highlight places where volunteers might be able to contribute. As part of these questions, we would like to connect people so we’re asking people to imagine, say, that you had ten really good volunteers. What would their skills be. What would you ask them to do? So if you’re thinking about one of your projects, what are the needs that you have? Do you need coders, do you need editors, do you need translators, do you need facilitators, do you need engineers?

I would like to have female programmers, translators are also important, people from the Global South in general, designers, a person who has the ability to make connections between advocacy and technology, people who can train trainers.

It’d also be nice to have someone with a more  human approach who can talk about meditation and things like that.

In English we call that self care.

Yes! Self care.

Is there anything else you’d like to say or ask?

No. I think that’s it.

Well Steffania, thank you very much.

Thank you.

Photo credit: Larissa Ribeiro