Giovanna Alvarez-Negretti is the Executive Director at The Online Progressive Engagement Network (OPEN). She was previously Regional Director for the Middle East for the American Friends Service Committee in Jordan, and Co-Founder and Executive Director of ¿Oíste? The Latino Political Organization based in the US.
In this interview, she talks about what it means to be an organizer and an activist in our rapidly changing and digitally-connected world.
You have joined OPEN as their second Executive Director just a few months ago. Can you already share some impressions?
The OPEN network is a fantastic organisation — the leading global organisation seeking to build a sustainable global movement for progressive change. We connect and support national digital campaigning organizations around the world who provide opportunities for activists to influence national and international politics. By providing resources and building deep connections between the staff and volunteers who support these grassroots changemakers, OPEN strengthens and expands this powerful movement. Given my experience in advocacy, civic engagement, political participation and campaigning, and management in different contexts around the world, I feel like I am at the right place at the right time, with the right skill sets to take the organization to the next level. The OPEN network is coming out of its start-up phase. The focus now is to ensure that everything works really well internally so we can better serve our members as we also continue our growth to include more countries from the Global South. I am blown away by the tremendous impact and continued potential of OPEN in today’s world.
Leading a network-driven organisation like OPEN can be challenging. What advantages do you see in such a set-up?
By fostering deep trust and facilitating sharing in this global community of campaigners, technologists and organisers, we have created a one-of-a-kind space for expertise to rapidly cross borders. Through OPEN, our member organisations swap new ideas, technology and innovations. This cross-pollination of campaigns and strategies influences national political moments and social trends, which in turn shape our global political landscape.
Therefore, our impact is deep. From kids being released from Australian detention camps to the first pro-LGBT ad campaign in India, a grassroots Green New Deal movement in Canada to the fight for equitable access to mobile data in South Africa, OPEN member organisations and the activists who power them are transforming everyday people’s lives for the better, campaign by campaign. Thus the setup is, in essence, our collective strength.
How do you keep all the members engaged and motivated?
We engage members in several ways. We catalyse and support joint initiatives between member organisations on shared multi-national goals. We then connect the organisations to each other, facilitating the forging of relationships between members of staff teams, and provide the infrastructure for them to share resources and innovate together. I just recently went to a our global summit where knowledge and experiences were shared and debated by representatives of all 19 organisations. It was incredibly critical and inspiring. When you have those gatherings, not only do you have the learnings and the exchanges, but it also really recharges your battery to understand that you're not alone in this. We call it Resist and Regenerate because we have to continue the resistance, but we also have to regenerate ourselves.
OPEN is more tech and digital-driven than other organisations that you worked with before. How did you adjust to this?
I looked at this challenge in two ways. One, I played to my strengths. At the end of the day, organising is organising and technology is just a tool that enhances it. A good friend said to me that technology is only as good as the people behind it. I figured that I am good at organising and campaigning and I am a fast learner. Second, this way of thinking led me to reach out and learn as much as I could on the subject. During the interview process, I contacted folks in my network who were experts in the digital mobilisation field, many of them working in current political campaigns or with companies that develop mobilisation technology. I asked them all types of questions and learned quite a bit. I shared my learnings in the interviews and that was received really well. Now that I am in the position, I have made it a priority to continue learning on the subject, and I feel like I have a pretty good grasp on the basics, enough to help me perform my job well and contribute. It's a continuous journey as technology keeps evolving.
Right now, we are seeing this rise of right-wing and extremist governments everywhere — what gives you hope and motivation and how do you pass this on to your team?
Before coming into this job, I was like everybody else in the world. I was shocked about what is going on and unsure what I could do as an individual person, because what is happening is just too overwhelming. What gives me hope is activism; ordinary people pooling their voice, time and action to make their nations — and with them the world — more sustainable, inclusive, peaceful, democratic, equal and fair. Each organization that is part of OPEN provides folks with the necessary tools to organize on the issues they care about. What brings me hope is being part of an organization where we see purpose-built movement organisations dedicated to achieving this vision wherever there is demand for greater grassroots strength on behalf of justice. When we help these organisations become more powerful, efficient and wise by connecting, supporting and inspiring each other across borders - I feel like we have a chance to turn things around together. The need, in fact, is urgent. So we remind each other every day that, in the face of far-right projects rising around the world, it is more important than ever for the global progressive movement to build trust and connections, pool their knowledge and resources and win together. The OPEN network makes that happen.
All together, the OPEN network has a collective membership of 23 million people in different countries working daily to counter the far-right, many under very difficult conditions and circumstances. Knowing that people are so resilient and ready to resist, should give us all a sense of hope.
Being a Latin woman, what are your thoughts about the lack of women of colour in a position such as yours?
When I first considered applying for this position, I looked at the job description and I thought, I don’t have enough digital experience so I won’t apply, even though I had all the other required skills and experience. Research has shown that this happens often with women. We expect a lot of ourselves and this sometimes keeps us from pursuing things that we know we could be good at and can contribute to. This is at times intensified, I believe, by being a person of color. Our way of being is different, our approach is different and we don't “fit” into the mainstream thinking. We look different, dress different, have an accent, have cultural idiosyncrasies, we relate to people in different ways, all of this has an effect on how we act and how we are perceived. There is discrimination, racism and misogyny in the world, and this all contributes to the lack of women in leadership positions.
In my case, I come from a small island in the Caribbean. At times, I have felt intimidated by international roles. English is my second language and my vocabulary sometimes falls short. I hug people. I wear hoop earrings and red lipstick. I talk and laugh loud. I wear feminine clothes. I am very conscious of all these things as I move around in different spaces. This type of thinking can limit your professional development. I have chosen to embrace all these things and see them as strengths and contributions I bring to the table into how I see the world, relate to people and make choices.
Additionally, as a person of colour, I have a wealth of understanding and firsthand knowledge about class, race, ethnicity, culture, bias, and national context because I have lived and am living those realities. I believe it is quite powerful, particularly if you're talking about organisations that want to be inclusive and value-driven. I encourage women of colour to embrace who you are, the knowledge that you bring, and the incredible strength that you have. Think strategically about how you’re going to use those strengths to benefit yourself and the world and then do it.
I have to say that Mission Talent was particularly well positioned and experienced to help me, as a woman candidate of colour, to go through the interview process successfully. I felt valued, understood and supported throughout.