“Economic Justice and Cryptocurrencies / Web3”: Jen-Mei Wu, Community Organizer at PaRTEE4Justice (Video + Transcript)

March 8, 2022

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Angie Chang: So our final session is Jen-Mei Wu, who will be talking about cryptocurrency and how it is a lever for inclusion and economic justice. Welcome, Jen-Mei.

Jen-Mei Wu: Hi everyone. Welcome to the talk about economic justice and cryptocurrency. My name is Jen-Mei, and I will tell you a little bit about myself. I am based in Huchiun, an unceded Lisjan territory, aka Oakland, California.

Jen-Mei Wu: I’m an activist, an engineer, an artist, and one of the founders of LOL Maker Space in Oakland. Also, Power and Resilience Through Experiential Education, our PaRTEE4Justice, and I have a bunch of experience working both in non-profit tech and also in for-profit techs as well. And I have a particular interest in digital privacy and security. And part of that is what brought me into this space. So this is just an overview of what I’ll be over today.

Jen-Mei Wu: We’ll be talking about an opportunity to address inequity in financial systems and going over some examples of projects that are making a difference in this space, and how small teams can have really big impacts and that there’s a role for everyone. So including you, if you want to come and join this stuff.

Jen-Mei Wu: I’m going to talk about the importance of self-determination and also some collaborations that I’m doing with Black Voices and Gaming and Sistah Scifi, as well as the future, which is the decentralized web or Web3, as you may have heard. And also about how to get started in this space.

Jen-Mei Wu: So this slide here is showing the market cap of cryptocurrencies altogether. As you can see, just in the last two years, we’ve had more than a trillion dollars flood into the space. A trillion. That’s a trillion with a T. That’s a lot of money. And actually, at some point last year actually, it was two trillion dollars, and I’m guessing it will get there again in the future. And so the question is, so all this wealth is being traded, but who’s benefiting? Well unfortunately, right now, cryptocurrency isn’t the most diverse space. It’s not the most inclusive space, and this talk is about how that can change.

Jen-Mei Wu: So moving on, before I get into the opportunity though, I just want to share a quick note doubts. So when I talk to people about cryptocurrencies some of them are really excited. But others are like, “well, but what about the dark web?” Or isn’t it bad for the environments? Or are there like a lot of tech bros running around doing tech bro things? And most of all, “isn’t it all made up? Is just fictional? Is there any value there?” So I’ve done my own research, encourage you to do your own research. I’m not particularly concerned about these. And in some cases I see some of these challenges, which are real and are legit, as being opportunities for us to make some really big and important changes.

Jen-Mei Wu: I just want to share what I found to be an inspiring experience that had to do with another disruptive technology, and that would be 3D printing. Some friends a few years ago, I think it was like eight, nine years ago, were really concerned that 3D printing is a technology that could take jobs away from workers. It’d be an opportunity for large corporations to create 3D printers and the materials that go into those 3D printers, and have people make stuff at home. Therefore, centralizing control and hanging out to the profits, which is ironic because 3D printing was meant to be decentralized and meant to be hyper local. And that’s kind of attention that you see and cryptocurrencies.

Jen-Mei Wu: But the interesting thing about this story is that a few days later, I went to a talk by Grace Lee Boggs, who’s very amazing. I encourage you to look her up if you don’t know who she is. And it wasn’t a talk about 3D printing, but she mentioned 3D printing. And what she mentioned was that she, and she’s 99 years old at this time, this is about a year before she passed away, and she said that she saw 3D printing as being really exciting because it could be a way to end capitalism. So she saw how 3D printers could be used to create other 3D printers and how a lot of initiatives are helping people create materials to feed into their 3D printers locally without having to rely on filament companies. And so, she was able to think big, and that’s what I would like us all to do is to think big. Think about how challenges can be opportunities. And in that spirit, I’m going to talk about what some of those opportunities are.

Jen-Mei Wu: We talk about some projects making a difference, just to give you a sense of the space. This is a screenshot from the Movement for Black Lives webpage. They take cryptocurrency donations, and they do that through this project here called The Giving Block. The Giving Block allows organizations to accept crypto and individuals to donate crypto. And that’s great. Endaoment is another website that’s similar. Except with Endaoment, they don’t already have to have signed up to accept crypto. You can give to Endaoment, and it’ll create a donor-advised fund for you. I’ll let you do some research on your own about what a donor-advised fund is. But the idea is that you can donate to Endaoment, a nonprofit organization, and then later have those funds go over as regular cash to the organizations that you want to support. For example, the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust. Sorry, I have to adjust my image. That’s for straightforward, right? That’s like, “Hey, you can give cryptocurrencies away.”

Jen-Mei Wu: Where it really gets interesting is when you can start doing some things that are pretty unique to decentralized finance, which is built on top of the blockchain. So this is an example of Angel Protocol. And their idea is that instead of donating directly to a nonprofit. You donate to a nonprofit’s endowment and Angel Protocol will reinvest those funds, generate a yield, and that yield can go to fund the nonprofit’s operations, potentially funding that nonprofit for forever. And the way that they’re able to do that is Angel Protocol is on the Terra Blockchain, which is a low energy blockchain FYI, and another protocol on that blockchain is Anchor protocol.

Jen-Mei Wu: And Anchor protocol is a savings account where people can take their U.S. dollar equivalents in UST. It doesn’t go up or down like some volatile cryptocurrencies does, it’s always equal to a dollar, and you can get 20% interest on them. Which is pretty amazing when you compare that to the savings accounts that banks typically offer. And that’s just an example of how one protocol, Angel, is able to leverage another protocol, Anchor, in this case.

Jen-Mei Wu: And another example of that is… I’m going to have to do this again. Is carbon credits. So Moss and Toucan, are two projects that have put carbon credits on the blockchain. Carbon credits are created by things like forestry initiatives, things that are good for the earth, and are purchased by polluters like airlines or manufacturing companies to offset the emissions that they do so that they can claim to be carbon neutral. And that’s interesting, just being able to buy your own carbon credit. So you want to be carbon neutral yourself, just like the airlines, so you can buy your carbon credits on the blockchain real easily. That’s great.

Jen-Mei Wu: But it also created at a building block for KlimaDAO to create a black hole for carbon. Using game theory, KlimaDAO has encouraged people to invest in locking up carbon so it is off the market. And the idea that if it’s off the market, then it becomes harder for companies to get carbon credits. It’s more expensive, which will either generate more money for the forestry initiatives and others, or maybe it’ll encourage companies to think about other ways to reduce emissions, such as by reducing emissions.

Jen-Mei Wu: And I also just want to mention that some of these projects that I mentioned are maintained by small teams. There’s many projects, in fact, that are maintained by small teams. So I’m used to, as many of you might also be used to, being in the tech space… Especially here in the Bay Area, there’s a lot of venture funding and a lot of startups are actually pretty big and require a lot of funding in order to make their work possible. But because projects can be small teams, that means that they have smaller budgets. A smaller number of people can do really interesting things. And protocols can build on top of each other so they can have a very narrow focus. And that also makes things a little easier and helps facilitate the small teams.

Jen-Mei Wu: And there’s a lot of different project types. Sure, there are big projects that have hundreds and hundreds of numbers, and thousands of numbers, maybe even. But there’s many project types that have maybe even one member. There are some artists who have created their own NFT projects. NFTs are non-fungible tokens. They’re basically a way to track art on the blockchain. So you always know the provenance of your art, or whatever, and where everyone’s unique and cannot be duplicated. But there’s individual artists who started these projects and don’t even have other people helping them out. That’s not everybody, but it has happened.

Jen-Mei Wu: And that brings me to my next point, which is just there’s a role for everyone. There are engineers and designers, of course. There’s some very lovely web apps that I showed you that engineers and designers did a big part in, but also game theory, as with KlimaDAO. There is a role for artists in NFT projects and other things as well. But also for community organizers, community is the lifeblood of many of the projects that exist. And people who facilitate community connections, who run events, who help connect other people together. They’re very important, and they come from a variety of backgrounds. Likewise, the space really needs a lot of educators because there’s a lot of unknowns in this space. And it’s important for people to have easy on-ramps. To be able to learn how to participate and about the different projects that are always coming out. There’s always something new as well as analysts and more people. So these are just some examples.

Jen-Mei Wu: And one of the things that I’m really excited about is trying to get away from this slide, which is funding with compromises. Which I feel is what a lot of us are used to. If you work for a VC funded tech startup, you’ll probably have noticed that VCs have the big influence on how tech companies survive. VCs are not after making companies successful. They may disagree with me, but I would say that they’re into helping companies gamble so that their successes are ginormous, but some of them are just going to explode. And in so doing, they pump funds into companies that allow companies to hire above market and at a very high pace. Bringing people from, for example, out of the area, into the area. This has fueled displacement and gentrification that we have all noticed, at least those of us in the Bay Area and other places where this phenomenon has happened. Foundations, similarly, have an influence on nonprofits. Many nonprofits get a significant amount of their funding from one or two or three foundations. And sometimes find that their priorities must be affected by what the foundations want.

Jen-Mei Wu: I see crypto as a way of moving towards funding without compromises, or at least with fewer compromises. Of course, you can do grassroots fund fundraising. You could have people contribute, for example, to an Angel protocol endowment and operate off of that. Or you could create an income generating project, some of which do not require years of development or even months of development, or even weeks of development. You can build projects, but there’s many other opportunities as well, like validation, NFT projects, content creation.

Jen-Mei Wu: And if we can fund our projects without compromises, then we can work towards self-determination. And just another example, like DEI efforts. I have been involved in DEI efforts at tech companies, many of you may have as well, and they’re great. They get people a seat at the table. And they get people in income and that cannot be understated. That’s really important. But having a seat at the table isn’t as good as owning the table, and it’s not as good as being able to design or build something, which might or might not be a table. Right now, if you feed into the existing infrastructure, then you’re playing by their rules, but self-determination means making our own rules.

Jen-Mei Wu: And with that, I’m going to mention a couple of collaborations that I am excited about. Alfonso is one of the folks behind Black Voices in Gaming. He’s also one of the other founders of Liberating Ourselves Locally, the maker space I mentioned earlier. He has this program where he teaches black and brown youth in Oakland how to do DevOps, which is pretty amazing, and we are going to be looking at building on that curriculum, and combining some crypto activities with that as well, to create a program that generates income, for example, by validating blocks on the blockchain.

Jen-Mei Wu: And the idea is that when students come in, and we’ll obviously have to do some investment upfront, and create some of that infrastructure. But when they come in, they can learn while also potentially getting paid to learn. The idea is that… Coding schools, great, but also not everyone can afford $20,000 or whatever in tuition and to take months off work. But if you can get paid to learn, that really changes the game. Now the work that they would be doing would be something that they can do on their own as well. And so they don’t have to join a VC funded startup in order to succeed. They could just keep doing this stuff, self-determination.

Jen-Mei Wu: So the second collaboration is with Isis, Sistah Scifi. She sent me a little video that I’m going to play for you so you can learn about her.

Isis Asare: Hi, I’m Isis Asare. And I just wanted to take a second to introduce you to Sistah Scifi, your new favorite book boutique. We focused on science fiction written by black women. In addition to selling books, we also host a lot of online and in-person events, book clubs, watch parties, you name it. It’s a black, queer own company. It’s owned by myself.

Jen-Mei Wu: What we’re doing is we’re starting an NFT project, which is an opportunity for us to diversify the NFT space. To tell our stories, to fund our initiatives, and increase representation and create opportunities for artists who are not currently in this space. NFTs are like other parts of crypto, not extremely diverse.

Jen-Mei Wu: That brings me to the future. So right now there’s a lot of stuff. A lot of promises in crypto that are not quite realized yet. Like the decentralized web or web3, it’s definitely not here yet. A lot of the websites I showed you are traditional websites. They run on the same hosting that you’re probably used to. If that hosting goes down, the website goes down, and unless people know how to interact with smart contracts on the blockchain directly, it’s definitely not decentralized.

Jen-Mei Wu: But in the future, hopefully there will be a future where corporations don’t control the infrastructure. Where the infrastructure will be distributed and decentralized across the world, and it won’t go down when a single computer goes down. It’s still being defined, and now is a good time to be part of that definition.

Jen-Mei Wu: So here’s some information about how to get started. Social media is a great place to learn about this stuff, but I would consider being anonymous because there are scammers out there. In any extremely non-diverse space, there’s some potentially unpleasant interactions that can happen. I, myself, interact with crypto communities using anonymous accounts, not the ones I’m about to show you. And also suggest some healthy skepticism. I think there’s a lot of opportunity here, but I think it should be balanced with some skepticism as well. And don’t be too quick to trust folks because people will offer to do tech support for you or show you all sorts of things, but they do not have your best interest in mind.

Jen-Mei Wu: I would suggest joining communities that are supportive. And there’s new communities starting all the time. Some of these are communities for women, non-binary folks, LGBTQ+, people of color. And also, we will be having a future workshop at PaRTEE4Justice.org, and you can check out our website to learn more about that.

Jen-Mei Wu: That brings me to the end of the presentation. I hope you go and build stuff. I hope you keep in touch. These are my socials. I’m not really the best at them. Feel free to message me more than once if I happen to miss your message. And a link to the website PaRTEE4Justice.org.

Jen-Mei Wu: And that brings me to the end of my presentation. I do see there’s a question, some questions, but I don’t think I have time to answer them. So I’m going to suggest that you follow up with me, and I can answer those questions, and I’ll hand it back to Angie.

Angie Chang: Thank you, Jen-Mei, for that talk on crypto and web3, and definitely see some possibilities. I like your argument, and I am going to look at all those projects that you’ve mentioned later and see how I can get involved. Thank you for sharing.

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