Esther Mwema is a youth leader passionate about gender, digital literacy, and grassroots advocacy. She is founder of the SAFIGI Outreach Foundation and President of Digital Grassroots.
She is also a 2019 IFF Community Development fellow, a 2019 Engineers Without Borders Canada Kumvana fellow, a Mozilla Open Leader, an Internet Society 2017 Youth@IGF fellow, an open knowledge advocate, and a champion for capacity building of youth and girls.
Mwema graduated summa cum laude in multimedia journalism, and is a contributor on Impakter.com and Africa.com. She is an emerging African writer, working on her debut fantasy novel and does photography in her free time.
Born in 1994, about the same time Tim Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web Consortium and a commercialized Internet started to take form, the Internet has inextricably shaped my life and career.
At 16 years old, I got my first job at an Internet café. I had taught myself to type, and that was all I needed to teach people that they couldn’t just guess a password if they had not already set up an email account. Many young people in developing nations are still grappling to learn the computer (it’s far worse for adults). This fact, however, has not stalled a social media boom. There’s a robust consumer market, but the consumers aren’t reflected in the faces of those making decisions for them in shaping the future of the Internet.
At 17 years old, after living abroad alone as a young girl, I founded the SAFIGI Outreach Foundation (Safety First for Girls) in an effort to create a world where girls are empowered, equipped, and fulfilled for the benefit of the entire world. UN Online Volunteers allowed me to collaborate with over 250 volunteers in 50 countries to use Safety Education, Research, and Advocacy in order to respond to core issues affecting safety for girls across the globe.
At 23 years old, I was named an Internet Society 2017 Youth@IGF Programme fellow, and received funding to attend my inaugural Internet Governance Forum (IGF) at the United Nations Office at Geneva in Switzerland. What would become a harrowing journey across borders without a passport, this was my first glance at the wires behind the glossy and bright screen called the Internet and the birthplace of my brainchild, Digital Grassroots.
Shape Your Digital Future! could not have been a more fitting theme for the 2017 IGF. It inspired me to create Digital Grassroots in response to what I see as a gaping digital divide. Despite being major stakeholders of the Internet, young people from marginalized communities are underrepresented in major policy developments and implementation processes that shape our digital future. Events like the IGF can often be taken for granted, and I believe it sets a dangerous precedent for the global IGF to be circulating throughout Europe, when digital rights abuses like Internet shutdowns, social media tax, and threats to journalistic freedom of speech happen predominantly outside the region. While the IGF is mainly for dialogue, for persons who live under administrations that believe “governance” in Internet Governance means government, such dialogue could make a world of difference.
Our team of 2017 Youth@IGF fellows, all under 25 years old and living in 11 different nations across the globe, are passionate about the core values of the Internet. Together we are striving towards ensuring openness, security, privacy, web literacy, and decentralization of the Internet. Starting at the grassroots level, Digital Grassroots created an Internet literacy course to address the existing lack of awareness of basic Internet literacy knowledge in local communities in the developing world. Our Cohort 1 Outcome Report highlights the impact we’ve had. After three cohorts, the final one being in French, we have released a Communiqué on Youth Resolutions in Internet Governance. Mozilla Open Leaders gave our team the tools we needed to work and lead Open, helping us to empower and collaborate within inclusive communities. In 2018, we trained at least 300 young people in digital literacy and mentored over 100 in youth participation in Internet Governance.
Now at 24 years old, I recognize that representation matters if we want to see transformative change online and off. And this is why Digital Grassroots is so important. If we do not create these spaces for ourselves to participate and to be heard, no one will.
Young people seem to have to do more to get a seat at the table, especially young people from underrepresented regions. For most of our team it has meant sleepless nights, working long hours, and sacrificing our own resources to create a relatable Internet literacy course, build a Digital Rights Monopoly game, mentor youth in Internet Governance, travel to meetings, and organize youth IGFs and national IGFs. Digital Grassroots has also recently raised a petition asking local and international Internet Governance bodies to include youth at the table and we invite everyone to sign it.
It’s our future
The journey may start at the IGF but it does not end there. In 2019, I will be curating the Internet Freedom Festival (IFF) as the Next Net IFF Community Development fellow. Next Net focuses on the future of the Internet, opportunities, and risks. The Internet we want.
The Web may not have been invented for a person like me, who did not start out life as a digital native regardless of the era. Policymakers may brush someone like me aside because I don’t fit the market group and seem to have little influence. This is an oversight.
Youth have the power and skill to reinvent and shape an open and healthy Internet, if given the opportunity.
Regardless of attitudes towards young people, girls, and the underrepresented when it comes to participating in Internet issues, it will remain that the Internet is on our side; a neutral platform that embraces all equally.
We are inventing the Internet we want because our future depends on it.
We need your help! Are you a young person who wants to be a part of the making the Internet for everyone? Here’s where you can get started.