Rita Geladze is the Founder of Educators Camp, a network of educators dedicated to providing exceptional professional development services, youth-driven curriculum design, and capacity building workshops. She has been active in the internet health movement as a Hive NYC member and is part of Mozilla’s first Network50 cohort.
Rita Geladze has contributed as a key Hive NYC leader in many ways over the past few years — from facilitating small group discussions to leading workshops and developing web literacy curriculum. She cares deeply about online privacy and web literacy and has been a dedicated advocate and educator in pushing Mozilla’s priorities and activities.
Start by giving me an overview of your work and the goals you are working towards.
I’m from New York City. I’ve been working in youth leadership for about 10 years now. I do program development, curriculum design, and professional development. I currently work for NYCID (New York Center for Interpersonal Development), a small non-profit focused on improving the lives of people from all walks of life. We work closely with the Department of Probation, mentoring youth who get involved in the criminal justice system and help them towards achieving their goals like finishing high school and enrolling in college. We also work in high schools all over the city and train their staff and students in restorative justice — an alternative to suspensions. I serve as the afterschool programs coordinator, overseeing the implementation of six self sustaining afterschool programs serving over 1,000 children a week.
I have been in the afterschool field for over a decade and that is how I got involved with Mozilla. Working in this field is very rewarding but it is truly a labor of passion. Many of our programs are underfunded and under supported. Besides lacking tangible resources like technology, many programs lack training and support from people who work in the field. This gap led me to start a personal initiative of building a peer to peer network of educators that can support one another online through resources and offline through trainings and retreats. We are currently in the very early stages of development and looking for anybody that is interested in sharing their skill set with the world and learning from other.
I’m wondering, thinking about your work, could you highlight a particular moment where you really felt a sense of success?
I felt proud to be at the participatory budget city hall meeting and being the only representative from Staten Island to be there. I moved here in 2012 as I was finishing my Urban Studies degree — and between Sandy hitting my house a month after we purchased it to being told by my professors that we can just “skip” Staten Island during our field work — my views radically changed.
Staten Island is one of the boroughs that nobody ever mentions when you think about New York City. It actually has a negative and stigmatizing reputation. I had never stepped into the island before moving here, so I was one of those people who had no care for Staten Island. For me to bring Staten Island into the conversation, being the only person in a room that represents this borough of just over 400,000 people is important. To be relatable and speak about Staten Island with ownership is something that I am proud of. Most often than not, people who mobilize here — the natives — often speak of the island in disdain. I can’t support that — I am raising children here and it is a beautiful natural enclave.
My pride in my work is always small moments. Seeing my campers updating their LinkedIn profiles makes me feel proud — and old! Watching them be successful and knowing that I had something to do with shaping their confidence —writing their recommendation letters, providing them with leadership opportunities — is a guilty pleasure of mine. I really enjoy seeing my success through others.
What are some of the issues or challenges that you highlight when you’re talking about Staten Island or when you’re meeting with others?
There’s a huge age gap on Staten Island. Our median age is projected to be 70 in 2020. That could change — since the Island is experiencing the most rapid growth out of all the boroughs. It is at no surprise since we are the only affordable place left in New York City — that is why my family moved here. You get more land for what you pay for. The North Shore schools I supervise are filled with families who moved from Park Slope and Kensington. There’s a certain indie glamour we posses here that people are starting to catch on.
Many people just assume that Staten Islanders are either white middle class or poor white republicans who don’t want to leave the island and trapped in a century old mentality. There is some truth to that — people aren’t riding a horse and buggy but they might as well be. But there are also people of color here, immigrant communities, communities of refugees, and people from all walks of life and the political spectrum — they just don’t get the proper exposure.
Because of transit it’s hard to get people on board to come here. As a programs coordinator I have over and over experienced program managers, projects consultants, people who are supposed to come and provide our childrens with services, cancelling or never showing up. It is also difficult to send our folks over — when on average you are spending 1.5 — 2 hours traveling into Manhattan for a professional development training. This is why we need to mobilize on our turf first. We need to stop being embarrassed about living here.
We could have started already talking about this. My next question was about an example of a challenge. You’ve mentioned some of those things, is there any more detail you’d want to provide around or a specific instant of a challenge that you’ve face recently?
I’m working with Hive on a privacy advocating project, which is part of the Participatory Budget City Hall thing. One of the huge issues that we have around privacy is, people just don’t realize that it’s an important aspect of their life. Online privacy is so elusive that people don’t realize how much personal information they are giving away on the web that they wouldn’t give away otherwise in person. People feel the pressure to feel connected on social media and they enjoy the convenience of linking all their account through Facebook, and targeted ads from Amazon, and face recognition from apple for “privacy”, that they don’t feel the immediate impact of what they are doing like they would if they caught a stranger looking through theirs personal files at home. Making this a tangible experience is important — and that is really where my training comes in.
How do you think creatively and find the right language to illustrate to people that their online identity is just as valuable and just as rich as their tangible identity? How do you instill a sense of urgency in them?
Yeah, absolutely. I’m wondering what are some of the strategies that you’ve been trying, to deal with that? How do you approach addressing this challenge?
We tried to pilot a workshop with Hive NYC where we would create a lesson on online privacy that can be done in any community but we eventually forfeited the project and Hive ended up hiring an outside company that did a phenomenal project called the “Glass Room” that became a walk in public exhibit on online privacy.
This of course didn’t mean that the work was over. In my personal life I joined the New York City Privacy Advocates — with whom I became affiliated when I volunteered for the Hackers On Planet Earth conference. Our group was comprised of people from all walks of life; technologists, lawyers, teachers, hackers who only go by aliases, and politicians.
One of the things that we’re doing is we really want to change the city charter to include privacy provisions in New York City. We meet once a month and we plan our course of action. For the first time in my professional life — I get to sit back and listen and learn from people who get this stuff way better than me. Usually I’m the loud mouth with the “great ideas” — and I don’t mean this arrogantly. But with the NYC privacy advocates I get to be a fly on the wall and watch as something amazing (hopefully) unfolds. Except that they don’t treat you like a fly, they treat you like a valuable person of the team. It’s almost intimidating because here I am trying to educate people about tracking cookies and google and these folks are light years ahead of me with encrypted cell phones and computers and private servers.
Which highlights the dense layers of the online privacy problem. I am trying to bring people from the superficial “sleep mode” layer to wake up and realize there’s a problem and teach them the basics while time is literally against us.
People just hear this stuff and think — you’re paranoid — this is a conspiracy — there is no issue — I don’t care. And then by the time they do care they have given away so much personal data.
I’ve struggled with this issue a little bit myself. I run into people, friends and family, who have that argument that they have nothing to hide, or that it’s inevitable, so why fight it?
All the time. They think that if you have nothing to hide, that it doesn’t matter. It’s a hard argument to me. We live in a society where everybody is innocent until we’re proven guilty, but in the internet world, we’re guilty until proven innocent.
Maybe trying to teach people that that when you mass surveil everybody and collect everybody’s information, you’re assuming everybody is guilty and then you screen people out.
One of my favorite speakers, Steve Rambam, argues that privacy is dead and we need to get over it (not really but our approach towards this reality needs to be very tactical). See the thing with crime is that it has an elusive definition that legally changes all the time. Interracial marriage was illegal a few decades ago, talking about communism, protesting, and many things we are involved in now are considered illegal or can be considered overnight with a new administration. The difference between 20 years ago and now is that we are practically giving away private correspondence to third parties like google and facebook who would sell us out in a heartbeat. And now, our government can easily target us for domestic terrorism based on our google searches — even if it has nothing to do with building a homemade bomb and everything to do with our political beliefs and what blogs we read.
In America now a days, terrorism can be anything and it’s a fluid definition. If they want, they can say you’re a terrorist if we attend a Black Lives Matter rally — like we heard in the ’60s, if you are a Black Panther, you’re a terrorist. But now we learn about the panthers as freedom fighters. Next administration, the political spectrum can flip and everyone who supported Donald Trump will be a Neo Nazi and a domestic terrorist. It goes both ways — it affects everyone. Does it matter that people were arrested and murdered and exiled for their political beliefs during that time? It might not matter for society as a whole but real people lost the one thing they can never get back — time — just for society to catch up with them.
I think many people can agree with that fact and maybe making them realize that with social media and social activism on the scale that it is today considering the online platform, everyone participating in the conversation is a co-conspirator whose contributing data that labels them and files them away into a permanent database. And many people are opting out of the conversation out of fear — “I’ll just keep my mouth shut.” Well, that is not the America I know and love. People like me moved here for freedom and now we are being censored. I just want people to have a basic level of understanding what’s at stake — that’s where I’m struggling.
We cannot bypass our constitutional rights online the same way we wouldn’t in real life — it’s one in the same. Yuval Noah Harreri argues that artificial intelligence will change our world in the next 50 years or less. Humans will have to keep up with machines — and part of it will have to be becoming part machine (just read what Elon Musk is up to lately to be convinced). The internet is going to be the driving force behind all of this. The potential of the internet is still not fully realized, we’re just getting started. And it’s important to question who runs the cyber world just like we would question property lines and the quality of the air that we breath here on earth.
I want to make those parallels obvious to people and present it to them in a way they can understand without pushing them away — you have an identity on the internet, you’re not an anonymous being. Your profile can be created easily. Just like you wouldn’t want to give this information to some stranger on the street, you don’t want to do the same thing. It’s hard. You have rights.
Turning to the broadest issue in the Mozilla universe, which is keeping the web open and free. What for you, and I really want to emphasize the “For you” part, is the open internet?
The way I understand the open internet, goes back to this idea of real estate. Right now the internet is not free just like my home isn’t free. You have to pay to play. Moreover access is being controlled by private companies and our browsing history is being tracked. The potential of the open internet is so important that it can single handedly eradicate social problems with a click of a button. The key is to unify it and make it equal. The global potential of the internet is obvious and must be open — power must shift from corporations and governments to citizens. The ones who own and control access to it realize this and they are way ahead of us in this game.
The more open it is, the more accessible it is. The problem is that even with free wifi there’s a cost — and yes you guessed it, your personal data. So how do you convince corporations to give you free access and not track you at the same time? Can we trust that if the government mandates the internet as a basic human right (which would probably be on the ballot in 2064 or sooner) that it would uphold our constitution on it? All we can do is hope, and educate our young as fast as they are educating themselves in the use of the internet.
Can you give me an example of how this open aspect of the internet or how this access has been important for you personally?
I don’t think people realize that when access to the internet is regulated it is the same as going into the library and not being able to fully browse the books you want for information. One of my favorite things to do is to search for the same terms with my friends on google and compare how different our search results come up. This type of “personal” approach makes me uncomfortable and resentful. Peoples views are being skewed further — further dividing us. It is easier to conquer a broken population than a united one. We need to realize and see that privacy is a unifying agent for us all and is important for everyone regardless of what they believe in. The internet has no borders so this is a global issue.
Because the quicker we begin to self censor ourselves we begin to change how we think — and no one should tell us how to think.
Getting more specific about Mozilla, you touched on this a little bit, if you could just go into a bit more detail. How did you get involved with them? What has that been like and felt like for you?
I came from a traditional workplace. I say that a lot because I feel Mozilla is the opposite of that. It really takes people as individuals and asks them, “What is unique about you? How can you add to our community?” versus other organizations that say, “Hey, this is what we do. How can you mold yourself to be more like us?”
I got involved with Mozilla through the PASE Explorers Project in 2014. I went from being a facilitator in one of the pilot sites (JCH) to coming on board with Hive and helping train 100 educators and overseeing the implementation of the project in 9 sites across the Bronx and Queens. Traveling to different boroughs and communities and educating them in web literacy really opened my eyes to the potential of bringing people together through the internet. I’m continuing to be a part of that. I really enjoy that because it opens the doors to other unique individuals, which I really like to hear from, learn from, and connect with.
Sometimes, it’s hard to network and find people that are doing the same work that you are doing. Here, Mozilla really just gives these opportunities to you, all these resources, through such easy mediums of reaching it. It makes me a better youth professional.
How did you learn about Mozilla initially?
I knew about Mozilla firefox as a citizen but I never knew about the foundation until I got involved with PASE explorers. I knew basic HTML & CSS from being a tween on Myspace who would constantly update my background and embed widgets in my page to showcase how “unique” I was. Who knew those cringe worthy days will pay off. Being a good educator and pretty decent at reading code made me stand out in the crowd — and got my first Mozilla gig of training the next generation of the PASE explorers project.
Marks JCH, the community center I worked for at the time, took lots of pride and invested lots of time in training youth professionals with whom young people can identify with. I owe lots of my professional training to them and it’s part of the reason why the JCH has such an amazing pipeline of young professionals — they are constantly investing in them from the day they walk into their day care center, to their first day of camp and their first internship as a CIT. They have a very ethnocentric model and even though I left the J for particularly that reason I am always adapting their model wherever I go.
What would you have for pieces of feedback? Was there a time that you could tell me about where Mozilla didn’t meet your expectations or things didn’t go well?
Not really. Over time I have learned that my training at the J has been an anomaly. I used to get frustrated with non-profits who weren’t about “getting things done” quickly and efficiently — bypassing people’s personal lives and mental well being. I joke sometimes and say I have non-profit PTSD after my military style training. Now I am slowly recovering and really thankful for NYCID for showing me that my family and I come first and work can wait. This made me appreciate what Mozilla is doing — and sometimes not doing “fast enough.”
I understand now that being personable and relatable is important and sometimes things need to wait, ferment, and then flourish. The criticism that I might have had in the past about moving projects forward are really a self reflection of myself and my growth. I understand now the process and look forward to this initiative.
We’re collecting these stories from all across the Mozilla network. How might these stories be useful to you, if at all?
I’m building this network called Educators Camp, where I invite educators from all different aspects of our field to connect with one another. By being part of this network I want people to access professionals, resources, support and trainings. I want to give people exposure and at the same time give them opportunities for face to face interactions and retreats. Building a camp — building this grassroots tribe of people who are passionate about what they do and want to improve their craft. We aren’t looking for people who just do the same thing. People can learn from one another at all walks of life. A grant manager can learn to public speak. The grant manager can teach the public speaker how to write — or mountain bike! That’s the beauty of it!
I love to bring people and take them outdoors! But I know a lot of people are afraid and get uncomfortable. I really wish they wouldn’t and would be open to going to the catskills together where they cant constantly update their instagram and twitter and really immerse themselves by detaching from the world. That’s the ultimate goal — but for now we can use “traditional” meeting places with wifi and toilets — with time! I hope that with StoryEngine, I’ll get to hear about other people that are doing amazing work and we can build a network of leaders. I want people to reach out to one another and say “Hey, I heard your story on StoryEngine. It would be great if we can connect and do something together.”