Living in Washington DC: 5 Interesting Things about the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) Reagan – Fascell Fellowship

In recent times, I have been asked about my experience as a fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. In this piece, I would like to share five things that I found exciting about living in DC and the Fellowship. Yes, because you cannot take out the DC life from the fellowship, and I hope prospective and new NED fellows will benefit from these highlights. Caveat: This was my personal experience between during the winter of 2017 as a Reagan – Fascell Democracy Fellow, and I urge you to read until point 5, as I saved the best for the last. Happy reading.

1. Exploring living with a host was my best decision. While preparing for my move to DC, I was given the options of renting an apartment or living with a host. I took the latter and did not regret that. In terms of rent, I was paying a thousand dollar bucks a month at my host apartment in Woodley Park. I had access to a bathroom, a kitchen and a room, no I think room(s). My host introduced me to other networks and families in the DC area, which to me, was the most important part of my fellowship – nothing else. Giving out cookies for treats on Halloween, and making pies and turkey for the family on Thanksgiving was a super memoir. When my family came visiting DC, they were super helpful in advising on where to go for family events and family gatherings.

2. Planning for your project. “I wanted to write a handbook,” I told Sally during our initial meeting on my plan on my fellowship project. She responded that writing a book within your few months here might not be feasible but that nevertheless if I want to go ahead, I should draw up an action plan on how to achieve that within the next five months. Before leaving for DC, I already had an outline for the handbook, and I just had to work on drafting a plan and working with my research assistant to get the work done. Yes, I had a super cool research assistant, who helped in proofreading my excerpts and writing notes during meetings. I finished writing the manuscript of the book in the third month. Of course, there was 24 hours of power, access to a million + resources, and it was during the winter cold. No brainer, having an action plan did the work – Voila!

3. The upcoming policy events for the week. On Monday mornings, I always get a policy event in DC email from NED highlighting the list of policy events that will happen in DC during the week. Looking at those events, it reaffirmed to me that DC was the capital of the world. The policy events were organized for top policy discussions around continents in the world. As a fellow, you will also be privileged to hold a policy event at NED. My event was titled – Decaying Institutions: How Corruption Undermines Democracy in Nigeria. Want to know about what’s brewing in Africa, there is a dialogue or discussion about it. Think of any continent – there is always a policy event about that continent. I enjoyed attending a few of them at the Atlantic Council, Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, The OpenGovHub, The Brookings Institute, and The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP). This gave me the opportunity to network with scholars and practitioners who were interested in my work, and to also explore possible ways of collaboration. Of course, I am currently consulting with one of the organizations I encountered during the policy events. Absolutely, your network is your net worth – no be lie!

4. Fellowship Brown bags and museums in DC. There was at least one brown bag every week. A Brown bag is an informal one hour knowledge sharing on a topic during lunchtime. Brown bags are organized for fellows or past fellows who are in DC, NED staff or the NED leadership. There are more than thirty museums in DC. During my fellowship, I was able to visit twelve. Top on my list was the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Hirshhorn National Museum of Modern Art and the recently opened Museum of the Bible. Most of the museums in DC are free, so feel free to explore one every weekend. NED Fellows do visit other places of interest in DC, at least two places in a month. The visit to the Library of Congress remains the most memorable, aside from the visit to the African American History museum. Ask me why? I think The Library of Congress houses the history of America, and if you have a knowledgeable tour guide, he will give you an insight into the history of America within three hours.

5. Some other important stuff. The fellowship activities were engaging but I still find time to involve myself in other “extra – fellowship activities”. For instance, I was at the Hip Hop Institute for three weekends to learn Hip Hop culture and Graffiti. There are other exciting stuff in DC you could learn as well during the fellowship. At Politics and Prose, you could hang out with book lovers to listen to book readings. Aha, one last thing, do not leave DC without hanging out at Busboys and Poets – it will leave your eyes, ears and tummies with such a unique experience. So what about the fellowship pay? To be frank, some were shy in asking this, but I think it’s very important as you will need it to pay bills and live the American dream – that’s if you have one. Total payment for the fellowship was US$28,500. Pay per month was 4,700 bucks but you always get around 4,017 bucks in your bank account at the end of the month owing to the tax deduction. When you arrive in DC for the fellowship, you will get a check by the end of the 2nd week of your arrival and your monthly payment at the end of that month. Happy Savings (Spend less!)

This was my fourth fellowship in five years, and I think this was the most useful because it allowed me to develop a product, interact with the American culture, network with people, reflect on my past work, and was a perfect segway for my launch to academics.

5 Big Takeaways on Technology from the Radical Networks Conference

Because the world needs a radical solution right now, accepting to attend the Radical Networks Conference in Brooklyn, New York City between October 19 – 22, wasn’t a bad idea. It was thorough days of examining the exegesis of technology, and I think many participants will accept we need to re-think how we are churning out technologies and how it is being used.

Many thanks to Andy for insisting I must attend, and that there are radical people like us that will want to connect with my work. Likewise, this a core area of my work as a Reagan – Fascell Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).I liked the progressive but was the three days event radical enough, I think so. Aside from that, I enjoyed my stay in Brooklyn – bringing back memories of Biggie and the great poet rapper -Nas. At least a memorable get-away from the official life of Washington DC, and I would not have stayed without sharing this five big takeaways from the erudite presenters at the event.

Oludotun Babayemi at radical Networks
Cross Section of Participants

  1. It is more rewarding to create technology for community networks that meet the needs of its communities. For instance, a community might decide to build its internet and use the internet for sharing security alerts within its neighbourhood. An example is the Redhook Wifi in Brooklyn; Peoples Open Network in San Francisco; Commons Telecommunications Network in Catalonia, Spain. “Less is more, the initiation of technology need not be sacrificial, and should not be done by sense of obligation” Dave Evans mentioned as he relates technology networks to the medieval Europe where the monks have to abstain from sensual pleasure for pursuing spiritual goals. In essence, you can decide to opt out of Facebook and create your network of communication. I refer to it as your decolonization from “their internet”.

2. Technology is making us inhuman as described by Bret Victor in “The Humane Representation of Thought.” In the last twenty years, technology has been about the four rectangle screen, changing from computers, to mobile phones, to smartphones. The real representation of thoughts and knowledge remain in the print technologies, in the form of books. “The kind of connection you have with books is not same as the one you have on a computer” Noah Cawley, A Senior Software manager at Nike mentioned in his presentation. The rate at which silicon valley is churning out technology is inversely proportional to the way the human brain will adapt or adopt the technology. Consequently, we should be thinking of how to decentralize critical infrastructures of technology, so it will be easier for niche networks to co-operate, coordinate, identify and take consensus on their network.

3. The Internet Wave is not meant to protect you by default, and you must defend yourself and be tactical in using tools associated with it. “Social Media is cool, but Facebook is a fuss” Nick Briz highlighted. I think this is not far-fetched anymore with the revelations from the voting influence pattern of the 2016 elections in the USA, and how “powerful people” that can control the internet can make bots and trolls to pass false information to millions of people on the internet. Brannon Dorsey shared how he used bots to generate Terabytes of Data in 24 hours! Danja Vasiliev and Julian Oliver, known as Critical Engineers, defined the internet as a deeply misunderstood set of technologies upon which we increasingly depend.In as much as I agree with them, I also think there is the other edge, in which internet has allowed people to collaborate more than before, and it has taken more people out of poverty. However, in doing this, we need to pay attention to literacy, and those that do not have access.

4. Digital Literacy or Technology Education is Very Important. At the time of writing this piece, I have interacted with people in Washington DC and New York at three other conferences and meeting, and significant importance was attached to literacy and digital literacy. Between 2005 and 2017, individuals using the internet inhabitants has grown from 15.8 per 100 inhabitants to 43.7 per 100 inhabitants, while literacy rate in the world has stagnated at 80 per 100 inhabitants between same period. There is a new world order, as a community of practice, we must start to create space for digital literacy – how to tactically use online platforms, in a way that does not harm us. The greatest worry in scaling digital literacy might be Africa, where the literacy rate is lowest, but mobile technology penetration is rapid.

5. But if technologists or programmers are not paying attention to peoples core needs, how do we then reverse engineer technology that can change the society? “Technology can solve every problem we mention in the world” affirmed Alfredo Lopez of May First, who asked all participants to discuss what we can do better to make this happen. After a 30 minutes group discussion, out of the 17 outlined pertinent issue, we should be considering, education and governance of technology came out resounding. Maybe this might be the way to go, as technology alone itself remains a tool, but other factors like “edugovernance” might be worth focusing on. What do you think? I will like to read your thoughts on this.

Oludotun Babayemi
What the Radical Movement highlighted as Solutions