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Episode 130: Spotlight: B Cordelia Yu

Content strategist and independent researcher B Cordelia Yu tells us about a variety of projects and practices for communicating effectively with different communities.

The most important part about sustainability isn’t about the technology, it isn’t about the tools, but it’s about building a culture around care.

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This Week’s Guest

B Cordelia Yu

Content & editorial strategist

B Cordelia Yu is a content & editorial strategist and independent researcher at the intersection of social justice, civic tech, public policy, and digital design. They help organizations build inclusive editorial teams and products to foster democratic communities and expanding access to communities of knowledge. Their research is in creating models for open governance and technology-mediated deliberative democratic practices. Cordelia cohabitates with two bunnies who have no patience for authoritarian shenanigans.


Episode Transcript

Editors’ Note: If you are looking for a content strategist, particularly if you are a non-profit or need help reaching underserved communities, you should get in touch with Cordelia.

Ethan:

Hi, this is a Responsive Web Design Podcast, where we interview the people who make responsive designs happen. I’m your host, Ethan Marcotte.

Karen:

And I’m your other host, Karen McGrane.

Ethan:

And this week, well, as you might remember from the last few weeks, we are continuing our series of shining a spotlight on some people that are doing interesting digital work somewhat adjacent to responsive design. And continuing on with that spotlight series, we couldn’t be more excited to be speaking with B Cordelia Yu, who is a content strategist and independent researcher. Cordelia, thank you so much for taking a few minutes to chat with us.

Cordelia:

Thanks for having me.

Ethan:

So Cordelia, could you just spend a few minutes telling us a little bit about yourself? What kind of work are you doing these days, and what’s generally interesting to you right now?

Cordelia:

So, I’ve mostly done content strategy and digital strategy work around nonprofits. Last year, I was one of the core coordinators for one of the original activists in a Google Doc project called “Letters for Black Lives,” where it started with Asian and Pacific Islanders writing about anti-blackness in our communities, and it sort of grew up and ended up translating into over two dozen languages and stuff like that. I come from a political philosophy background, so in the last year or so, I’ve been going back and doing research around deliberative democracy and how to sort of build a democracy that is immune to fascism, which feels… useful these days…

Ethan:

[laughs] Mildly timely. Well, that’s all really fascinating, and like I said, we couldn’t be more excited to have you on the show. I’d love to hear a little bit more about some of the work that you do. Maybe we could talk about some of the nonprofits you’ve worked with. What part of the digital process does your work tend to come in? Are you helping them formulate a content strategy? Broader issues around messaging? Tell me a little bit about how you like to work.

Cordelia:

So, I hate the term “unicorn,” and I hate the term “full stack,” and yet when I started, I was just the web person in a small science policy nonprofit that is now gone. But I was managing the science policy part, so the activism part, and also a lot of the web development stuff. So, I was dealing with servers, and I was writing CSS, and I was writing PHP, and I was doing none of it perfectly but decently enough. And from there, I started consulting with nonprofits around science policy, both nationally and internationally, helping them build sites, helping them build digital communities. And then most recently, I spent a couple years at a nonprofit called Green America, who’s doing activism around environmental policy, around corporate responsibility, as well as doing print publishing, helping them migrate from primarily print to digital-first publishing and making their projects more inclusive of marginalized communities. Because environmentalism, as often practiced, is a very, for lack of a better term, white endeavor, and yet a lot of the communities that are most involved in fighting for climate justice are the ones on the ground, and they’re marginalized communities and communities of color, and a lot of times, we don’t talk to them, or we don’t work with them.

So, I was both helping them build the websites as well as using my tech skills to sort of, as my boss would have called it, “back-door inclusive content strategy” into how they were thinking about building their projects; helping them think about how they build their projects and think about who their audiences are. So, that’s where we get more into the content strategy, of let’s make personas not just of our audiences but also of the audiences we aren’t talking to, and figure out why our programs aren’t talking to those people, and figure out how we can create editorial processes so that when we’re thinking, Alright, we have this campaign against “insert multinational corporation here,” it’s not just talking to the people who have the money and the resources to participate, but also to the communities that actually are being hurt by unethical or unsustainable practices, and empowering them to rise up.

Karen:

Well, that’s a subject that’s of great interest to me. One of the things that I’m really fascinated by is the use of mobile devices by people in less-served or under-served populations as their primary route to accessing the internet. Can you talk a little bit, just as sort of a nod in the direction of the theme of our podcast here, about any perspective or any work that you’ve done on mobile or responsive design and how that might help get important messages to the communities that you want to reach?

Cordelia:

Yeah, so one of my last projects before leaving Green America—we had a program area around fair finance. If you talk about fair finance in the environmental activism context, it’s often about divesting; it’s often about going to Wells Fargo and saying, “Hey, you need to take your money out of the Dakota Access Pipeline,” which is huge and important. But for a lot of communities, especially marginalized communities, especially black communities, they never had access to those banks anyway. One of Green America’s members is a credit union that specifically serves black communities, and they really grew big right after Katrina. Because after Katrina, the large banks weren’t giving access to people in the Mississippi Delta. And then after the great recession in 2008, even more large banks just straight up pulled out of marginalized communities, which meant that a lot of them no longer had access to a bank unless they drove sixty minutes away.

So, what ended up happening was people still need access to financial services, except the only financial services they have around are predatory lenders. Except everyone still has a smartphone—it might not be an iPhone, but they have a smartphone. So, the credit unions made a smartphone app that you could just use and have access to a fair financial institution. And so, that became a primary way for them to serve black communities in the Delta that no one else was willing to serve. And for Green America, up until then all of our programs and all of our content was written around, Here’s how you divest, here’s how you go to a bank and say, “I’m leaving you because X, Y, and Z.” But very little content was about, Here’s how you find a bank that is inclusive, here’s how you find a community bank that is not just taking money out of communities, here’s how you find a bank that isn’t investing in fossil fuels.

As part of our process for figuring out how to create new content around fair finance, I went, Here is an entire community that we’re supposed to be serving, that we’re not. So, now the next time we start writing around these issues, let’s find someone who can write on this beat. Let’s find someone who can create something that is easy to read, that is accessible. When we publish the next version of our fossil fuel-free banking guide, we’ll make it responsive, we’ll make it mobile-first, and we’ll have right at the top, “Here’s what you do if you don’t have access to a bank. And by the way, this bank is also serving the local communities, and by the way, this bank also isn’t investing in fossil fuels.”

Karen:

Cordelia, I really loved the story of the “Letters for Black Lives” that you were involved with, and I’d love if you could maybe tell for our listeners a little bit about the background on that, if people aren’t familiar with it. But I think—near and dear to my heart, and probably for yours as well—is the story of how the editing process on something of that magnitude took place, and the work that everybody was doing in Google Docs and the spreadsheets. And honestly, I’m just thrilled to have you here because I’d love to hear a little bit of your perspective on how you actually physically made that happen.

Cordelia:

So, it was the beginning of last July, it was right after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile had been killed by police, and one of their girlfriends livestreamed it on Facebook, and one of her comments was, “The policeman is Chinese,” or, “He’s asian.” And my friend, Christina Xu, who’s an ethnographer in New York, immediately went, “Oh no, I can’t have this conversation with my family anymore.” Because before, when the policeman, Peter Liang, killed a black man in his own apartment complex, Chinese-American communities came out in droves to protest the fact that Peter Liang, the man who shot a man and killed a man, was being tried for killing someone. Asian-American communities, particularly Chinese-American communities, have sort of this proximity to “whiteness,” that we feel like we’re protected, and so sometimes we side with whiteness, and we really shouldn’t be.

So, she went, I can’t have this discussion with my family again. She tweeted out, “I’m starting this letter maybe a few friends will help me write, talking about why we have to stand up against anti-blackness in our own communities.” And it grew ridiculously quickly; I joined a couple hours afterward. It started out that we were just talking in a group. People were joining the Google Doc; we really quickly figured out that Google Docs kind of crashes when about 200 people join and try to edit, and then when even more people try to read it, it just outright stops anyone from seeing it, which was interesting. So, about ten of us were in Twitter DMs, going, “Alright, how do we organize ourselves around this?” So, everyone was contributing their ideas to the letter. Almost completely organically people were going, “We need to keep this a certain length so it’s readable. We need to keep it at a certain level, because not everyone understands the terminology around social justice. So, here are a couple ideas we think we want to talk about, here are ideas we don’t think fit here but maybe we can talk about later; we’ll move that down…”

A lot of it happened really quickly, and it’s still a little bit of a blur to me. But that evening, the English letter was finished, and then immediately there were about a dozen teams working on translating it into their own community’s language. And when I say translate, it wasn’t only a word-for-word translation of the English template. A lot of communities were translating it for their particular cultural and historical contexts. So, people from refugee communities were writing about how imperialism contributes to racism, and people in communities that had clashes with black communities were talking about the difficult relationship that they’ve had, and putting it up front and saying, “Yes, we know this is hard, but we need to be doing this anyway.” That’s one of the things that really struck as powerful to me, because it ended up not only being all of us getting together to write a thing that none of us could have written ourselves, but it was also empowering everyone to create a thing that we could actually take home.

In the first couple weeks, we kept hearing stories of people posting the letter on their Facebook page and saying, “Brother, sister, let’s show this to mom and dad after dinner and let’s have a conversation.” If we really want to fight for social justice, we can’t only be doing the big things at the national level. We ultimately have to be having these conversations in our own homes. The letter sort of created one pathway to do that. That’s what I now keep in mind when I think about how do we build digital projects, and how do I build a content strategy process for projects that promote social justice. It’s, “How do we go back to that dinner table?”

Ethan:

Cordelia, that is a really beautiful and powerful story, especially after coming out of such a tragedy. From a personal standpoint, it’s been really interesting to watch that organizing process happening in these freely available tools—like in Google Docs, for example—sort of patterned after the work that you did last year, you and your colleagues, especially after the election. So, this might be an interesting time to talk a little bit about a term that I heard you mention earlier, that I know is a big thread in your work, which is sustainability. That’s something that I’ve seen you speak about, that I’ve seen you write about. Could you tell our listeners a little bit about what sustainability means to you and how that informs your practice and your work?

Cordelia:

So, a lot of times when we talk about sustainability, it’s about building things that are recyclable, or whatever. All those things are important, but for me, especially if you look at the literature around sustainability, sustainability is also about having a community that survives and a community that thrives. And so for me, the most important part about sustainability isn’t about the technology, it isn’t about the tools, but it’s about building a culture around care. As a technologist who works around policy and politics, I think about the last election a lot. One of the things I think about is how, coming to the end, there were a lot of lies getting spread everywhere, especially on social media, especially on Facebook. Facebook had their trending news feed, which originally had live people and journalists filtering it, and then people complained so they turned it into an algorithm. And then immediately after turning it into an algorithm, it was constantly spreading falsehoods.

So for me, that’s fundamentally a content strategy problem. You build a thing, it’s about communicating, it’s about spreading ideas, and you’re spreading shitty ideas. It doesn’t only create a bad technical ecosystem, it perpetuates a bad, unhealthy society. A society based around lies getting spread everywhere is fundamentally unsustainable, because we stop trusting each other and we stop trusting what we see. That trust is everything a community is built around. If you don’t have trust, we can’t do anything together. So, sustainability for me, a lot of it is let’s create a culture where we can listen to each other and trust that the other person is telling me their truth, and I should take that into heart and use that to make my own decisions about what is good for me and help figure out what I can do to make the world better for them. And it’s through that sort of mutual care and mutual trust that we build collaboration and cooperation, and we build a healthier, more interdependent community where we’re working together for our own good, but also to make our community and our society better for the next generation, and the generation after that, and the generation after that.

Ethan:

Well, I think that is beautifully said, frankly. Cordelia, we have both deeply enjoyed our time together. But before we let you go, maybe I could just ask you if you have any advice for our audience. If there’s somebody who’s listening to the podcast or reading the transcript and they are in the process of undertaking some organizing, some activism, some research, some content strategy work, do you have any advice for them in their work? Something that you’ve found especially helpful to you in yours?

Cordelia:

I think the big one, and this is now the guiding principle of how I think about everything I do in my own work, is making spaces to listen to people. We do UX research or we do ethnographic research, and we say, “Yeah, listen to people!” But a lot of times, that only happens in the discovery phase, and that’s not enough. We need to make spaces where we do a thing and immediately we’re listening; and the core of our work isn’t doing the thing, the core of our work is listening to people saying, “I need this,” or, “This doesn’t work for me,” or, “This is so close, but not exactly right.” Or a doctor saying, “I can’t get off the plane, I have patients to see tomorrow.”

Listening has to be core to every moment in our work. If we create spaces to always be listening to people… And it doesn’t matter whether we’re creating a product or a new social platform, or an activist campaign, or anything else. If we’re creating spaces to listen to people and use what they’re telling us to make the next iteration better, we create more trust with our constituents and we create better products, and ultimately we create a society that cares more about one another. Because then if our product has something that people like because we’re listening to them, it demands that the rest of the market has to start listening as well. Heaven forbid we create a community where everyone listens by default. I mean, that’d be wonderful! So yeah, creating spaces for listening and for people to tell their own stories, I think is the biggest thing for me.

Karen:

Well, I’m really glad that you have taken some time out of your day to tell us your story, as well. Cordelia, this has been fantastic. I’ve admired your work for a while, and I’m really grateful that you were here. So, thank you.

Cordelia:

Thanks for having me.

Ethan:

Thanks to everyone for listening to this episode of a responsive web design podcast.

If your company wants to go responsive but you need help getting started, we offer a two-day onsite workshop to help you make it happen.

If you want even more from us, you can sign up for our newsletter, subscribe to this podcast, and read full transcripts of every podcast episode at responsivewebdesign.com.

Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back next week.


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