Hera Hussain is the founder and CEO of Chayn, a nonprofit that creates resources on the web relating to gender-based violence. Hera believes in using the power of technology, trauma-informed design and hope filled framing to solve issues taking place around the world.
In this episode, Hera discusses:
You're listening to Reckoning, the go-to resource for conversations about gender-based safety, survival, and resilience in the digital age. Reckoning is brought to you by Garbo. Garbo is on a mission to help proactively prevent harm in the digital age, through technology, tools, and education. I'm Kathryn Kosmides the founder and CEO of Garbo and your host for each episode. In the interest of safety, I want to provide a content warning for listeners as we do discuss some hard subjects in each episode. So please use your own discretion when listening, you can learn more about Garbo and our guests by visiting our website at https://www.garbo.io Thank you so much for being here and listening to this episode.
Today, our guest is Hera Hussein. Hera is the Founder and CEO of CHAYN - a global nonprofit that creates resources on the web to address gender-based violence. Chayn’s multi-lingual resources, designed with, not for, survivors, have reached more than 400,000 people globally. Raised in Pakistan and living in the UK, Hera knew from early on she wanted to tackle violence against women. She believes in using the power of open source technology, trauma-informed design and hope-filled framing to solve the world's pressing issues. Hera was on the Forbes 30 Under 30 and MIT Technology Review’s Innovators Under 35 list. Our conversations covers trauma-informed design principles, the survivor’s journey, and how we can use technology for good.
KATHRYN: We were connected maybe a year or two ago, and we were both deep in the trenches of this work. But we have seen each other grow so much in partnerships and the way in which we're expanding. And so, I just really wanted to first dive in a little bit about what your organization does and what makes it unique as a survivor resource.
HERA: I've loved seeing Garbo grow and connecting with you at different points. CHAYN is an organization that creates global resources for survivors of gender-based violence– resources that help survivors identify what's happening to them as abuse, in the form of guides, but also courses. We also developed digital services, which schools are more into, the healing aspect of trauma. Our work is available in more than 14 languages. The organization itself is run by volunteers and staff members from around the world. Most of our team and community are survivors of abuse themselves, which makes us a survivor led initiative as well, which is strangely not that common in the professionalized intimate partner violence sector. It's a really unique project in that way, and also in that way there's pretty much only a few organizations in the world that operate on a global level, and helps survivors across borders and we're one of them.
KATHRYN: And that's what I love about the resources that you have available. It's not just in English, which so many resources are today and you didn't just Google translate these articles and put them into another language. They're written by and for folks who live in these different countries, who speak these different languages, who are part of these different communities. You mentioned that it's built with and by survivors, not just for survivors. So what does that really mean? And how does that translate into the work itself?
HERA: Yeah, it means everything to CHAYN. When I started organization, I had been feeling quite disillusioned with the professionalized nonprofit sector at the time because I'm from Pakistan. That's where I grew up, but I was living in the UK and I was really desperately trying to volunteer and, or find partnerships with professional organizations, but they were mostly led by white women in leadership positions and everything was in English. Everything was very old fashioned. As a young person who grew up with the internet–not always grew up with the internet– but did see the traditional modern voice, and onwards, I just couldn't see the stuff that they had online as being relatable. And most of them didn't have anything at all. So, that's really the motivation to starting CHAYN and that's how CHAYN runs in a way that I wanted to help two friends very close to me, a few survivors. One was in Pakistan and the other one was Pakistani but living in the UK. I wanted to create something that they could see themselves in. So I started asking survivors that I knew and other survivors started approaching me because once CHAYN was up and running, they were like, “Wow, this is great.” So it really became a survivor led initiative. And that was the idea. And we've stuck to those roots ever since. We have a lot of survivors who want to volunteer because they want to make something more out of their experience. And all survivors are different and their healing journeys will be different. Their circumstances will be different, but there's a lot of commonalities as well. And because of the fact that we have a global team and we have survivors from different backgrounds coming and working together to create these resources, what it means is that we have very high quality globally, culturally aware output that is suitable for anyone on the web that reads it. So in that way, that's really our strong suit. Either in the staff forum, trustee form, or a volunteer form, you're going to be involved in every stage of the process of thought. It’s not just that they're getting feedback, they're coming up with ideas, they’re doing the research, the drawing, they're building the sites, they're involved at every stage. And I think that's what makes it really special too. It's a real distribution of power.
KATHRYN: You talk a lot in your work about “trauma-informed” design. For our listeners today, first, can you define what that is and why it matters, especially in today's digital age?
HERA: Yeah. So “trauma-informed”, is a term that's definitely catching on and you probably will hear it now and continue to hear it more and more. So what that term is referring to is this idea that you are informed by trauma and the impacts of that trauma on a particular person or a community. And therefore you keep those things in mind and design around them. So trauma-informed design then becomes the design of services, products, processes, organizations– however or whatever you want apply to would be the awareness of what trauma does to a person, what it is it to live with trauma, but also how things that you're doing can retraumatize someone and then it counting for that.
KATHRYN: That's the best way I've heard it described so succinctly and it's such a different approach to the way in which, especially technology has been built over the last 20 years or so, which is that kind of “move fast and break things” mentality. I always say, “Well, those things that you broke were human lives.” I don't think we realize that and this is a different approach to that.
HERA: I think speed is one factor. Sometimes it's not just about the speed because we work really fast in CHAYN. It is something that I'm really proud of, that we are able to combine the best of iterative agile approaches of working, yet working carefully. It's this complete ignorance by the tech sector of the harms that they can perpetrate because it's uncomfortable. I think the design teams, leadership teams– no one wants their product to be used to abuse people, but we know that that's going to happen. And the difference is that a trauma-informed approach is recognizing it's going to happen, it is recognizing the social inequalities, the social phenomenon around gender-based violence and misogyny, and that it's going to exist and then you design for it. Whereas what happened in the tech sector is they wait for scandals to happen and they react. And some of them don't even react after that. It's been a decade since Facebook and Twitter have just recently started acting on harassment issues. It's not new. I failed to believe that not a single person in Twitter’s original team didn't voice at any time a concern that there could be abuse on the platform. I think they knew, but it's just that we didn't know the magnitude, but it's that they were so uncomfortable to understand that and then to design around it. It was uncomfortable and it was also not profitable at that time to do that. So they just made a decision to go ahead. So I think the new wave of social tech startups and organizations, like yours and mine, are all about putting that at the forefront and designing carefully from the beginning.
KATHRYN: Exactly. And it's that being proactive instead of reactive to the situation and bringing people into the table at the very beginning to have these conversations of how can this be misused and used in a harmful way. But, like you said, the business case didn't exist for this. It used to be a “growth at all costs” mentality– just get people onto my platform, I don't want to know anything about them, frictionless experiences, trying to moderate itself and all of these things. And even reactive content moderation– having to wait for someone to report someone's bad behavior– and things like that versus thinking again, how can we do proactive detection of these types of things? And I always say organizations like Garbo and yours, they can only be built by survivors and people who have experienced what we've experienced. But like you said, it's not just my lens to the problem. I am a white woman. As a privileged white woman coming to this work, from a very privileged experience, bringing other people to the table who have different lived experiences that are different forms of trauma that they've maybe reported, they haven't reported. All of these different things coming together to build truly trauma-informed products because, and I'm sure this happens to you, I get asked all the time, “Hey, can you review this product?” Or “What do you think about this feature or something?” And it's always reactive. I'm like, “Ah, you should have asked me like six months ago.”
HERA: Yeah, exactly. And it's like, someone wants to pay you to check things out and the thing is that actually, I kind of just said the word payment, but usually they just expect you to do it for free actually. It's like you are really into the investment. You need the nonprofit to review this and do things for free. Maybe it would be like, “Wow, if that was offered upfront.” But like you said, it's this idea of how do we see these things from inception? We’re actually working on a project right now, Orbits, which is all about how do you create trauma-informed, intersectional lenses to develop technology and research and policies around technology-facilitated abuse. So it's coming out in summer 2022 and it's exactly looking into this question.
KATHRYN: That's amazing. And that goes into my next question is: should all technology companies implement trauma-informed design principles? And if they should, how do they go about doing that?
HERA: Absolutely. I think that if you're creating a platform, a tech platform, which is going to have users just by the very fact that there are going to be people who are going to be interacting with each other, you're creating space that allows for anti-social behavior, harassment, hate speech, disinformation, misinformation, all of these different forms of social problems that we have in the physical world as well, but the online world obviously amplifies it massively. So you really have to think about the kinds of trauma that could be introduced. When we enter the web, we don't enter the web with blind states, we carry our life into it. We carry our whole selves into it. So you also want to think about what it is that I can do to make the space that I'm creating more welcoming for people and users. So I see the business case really clearly, that it's about making spaces safe, harmonious, even if people disagree, but having the kind of civic space where we can coexist and interact in a respectful manner. I think that's it. I just wish more platforms and tech companies thought about what is the kind of community that I am creating, What is the community I want to create, rather than just thinking about, “Yep, I just need loads of users.” Everybody's excited about having users and what they're doing with your work. But I just wish more people thought about the culture that they're creating on their platforms and the fact that it's really hard to correct a culture once it's been set in a platform, but it's way easier to start off with better guidelines that are like checks and balances. All of those things are so much easier at the design stage than they are at the course corrections stage.
KATHRYN: It's so true that it's this big focus on users and not community, but I am hopeful because even community managers are taking off as a position right now. And I'm like, “Okay, someone to manage the community, foster the community, grow the community, and set these standards and expectations for platforms,” because again, you can have users all day, but what ethos are you trying to create? What brand are you trying to build? You can’t make sure that harm is completely eradicated from your platform. It's impossible, but what can you do? I talked to a lot of early stage companies, especially dating apps. A lot of new dating apps are popping up. Friendship apps, that's a whole other road I can go down, and they don't have trust and safety teams. They had an idea. This is usually what happens with entrepreneurship. They had an idea for an app and they built it. And then, they've tried to lift some trust and safety policies from big players. Just going on the frontend.
HERA: Which is a clever move, but it's not enough.
KATHRYN: It's not enough. If you look at how Bumble's reporting system is designed, you're only seeing the frontend. You don't know what happens on the backend. And so, I'm really excited that you're developing these policies, etc., to help guide these companies and navigate them, especially new companies who– it's this idea of being well-intentioned. Like you said, I don't think anyone is out there to cause harm. They're not building platforms to hurt people, but they are not doing enough to prevent that from happening as well.
HERA: Exactly. And I think that's where the culpability and the responsibility lies, is that when harms are happening, but you refuse to take the necessary steps to tackle them. Then not only are you letting that harm flourish on your platform, you're also endorsing it. So I think that's the tricky part. And I think that's what a lot of companies are now realizing, which is why they're taking action, but it should not have taken this long, especially with startups. I'm the most excited when a startup gets in touch with me, because I think if they get this right from the beginning, this is really starting to create that and set that precedent that we want in the tech sector. I think VCs have a big part of the incubators, all of these spaces that are about creating innovative ideas, they provide mentorship. They really need to provide mentorship on ethics as well. I think trauma-informed design is absolutely a part of that. Every time I talk about gender-based violence and the tech space people are really interested and it never was like that. In fact, I started [around in 2010 or 2013], when I used to present at Silicon Valley and that version of that space in the UK, I would generally be met with stunned silence and uncomfortable looks, people walking out of the room when I'm talking and it doesn't happen anymore. People stick around for the last few questions. So I feel like we have changed and there's been progress, but I really want to see action. Women are voracious consumers of the web. And what really frustrates me is that the distance between women being consumers and producers, women actually being an environmental, being creators on the web because of the abuse that exists, because of the harms and the risks and the trends, it stops all that creativity from being in front of us and from being shared with us. So, I just feel like it's a moral responsibility for anyone who is creating platforms that allow people to connect, to create, to express themselves, to ensure that marginalized identities feel safe in being their full selves. In many parts of the world, the physical world is just unsafe enough for queer people, for example, to really be themselves [and] form their own communities, date, fall in love, a lot of love, all of that stuff. And the web is so important in facilitating those spaces. So if there's not enough work done on the trust and safety side, we’re letting all those people down and shutting them off from the only spaces that have been safe for them. So this is how I look at it. I think about it as a moral responsibility for all of us who are part of the tech space to ensure that we really bake this into the very fabric of the creation process. I have a great feminist restlessness about me, which is what keeps me going. I'm just so restless inside. That's what keeps me going. Because I'm like, “No”, they're like, “I'm doing something about this,” and you may never feel like it's quite enough, but I'm happy with that. I think it's taken me many years to feel okay knowing that there's limitations to what I can achieve and I'm going to be happy and content with what I can do, always pushing myself to do more, but I'm just one player in a sea of many amazing feminists, organizations and entrepreneurs who are really tackling these issues. So I'm not alone. And we are and have been working on this together and we need more people. Absolutely. We need a lot more people.
KATHRYN: And you recently launched this partnership with Bumble and Badoo. Can you talk a little bit about what that partnership looks like and why it's so important?
HERA: It's so exciting. Yeah. I'm really excited about these partnerships. So, Bloom, our program is publicly available. It's free. So, but what we've done is, for Badoo and Bumble, we've created a parallel version with the same content. We've put that into more languages, which will all also be available publicly, but their users get a customized course as well. And they, the Bumble and Badoo teams, can track when someone their are reforging sexual assaults, through them they can then get that help through Bloom and Bumble and Badu can see that they've provided that support because both companies were providing other kinds of support, but they really thought this brought in a lot of expertise and different types of options for survivors. So, it's a first of its kind partnership in the industry and I'm super excited because I think this is the kind of thing that many other tech platforms shouldn't be doing, because they know that people are experiencing harm on their platform and they are complaining about it. They're asking for help and a lot of companies want to help as well, but they just can't figure it out because they're not experts in providing the healing support. So this brings it all in for them. And also then helps their users understand and use the same facilitation that we do with our public users and reflect on their experiences.
KATHRYN: I love it. And it is a first of its kind of partnership. And again, I hope it's not the first and last of its kind, because, like we said, harm will happen on any plot. You can't prevent all of it, you can reduce it, but you can't prevent all of it from happening. And so, I do believe that these kinds of reactive solutions to when something does happen that are trauma-informed, like you said, are so important rather than just saying, “Report to Bumble that someone seuxally assaulted you,” for example, and you have no idea what happens to with that report, etc. Now they can say, “Okay, here are resources available to help you heal from what happened in that trauma.” But like our partnership with Tinder, I did see some pushback in the press after the announcement came out and the articles basically say that this is a reactive solution and why be reactive when you can be proactive. And I disagree because, like we've talked about, you must do both. Proactive solutions will never solve all problems. What are your thoughts about that whole thing?
HERA: You can’t design out misogyny, you cannot design out misogyny. There's no way of doing that. If that was possible, families would not raise sons that turn out to be rapists. You would not have strong families that are torn apart by murders of family members from within the family. We wouldn't have excellent school systems that teach children ethics, human rights, how to behave with each other, and reporting problems of image-based abuse. We wouldn't have any of this stuff. Stalkers come from within our families. They come from within our societies. There is no way to design this stuff out in a tech setting because we can’t design it out in an in-person setting where we have a lot more control. We need to uproot the belief systems that raise a person to believe that they're entitled to this. And I think in the online space, it's interesting because, like we said, you can set the tone for a community. So there's so much that companies can do about setting the right tone, about creating those sort of community guidelines and also creating those design features that make it easier for people to be booted off, to restrict their rights on their platform. So those are all the tools that they should be using. So proactive and reactive approaches both need to work because what is the point of a survivor reporting something to the police if it's going to take a thousand days on average for the police to conclude the investigation of a rape complaint. And then it takes the court another nine months to then have the case resolved. So that is two years of someone just waiting around. The conviction rate in the UK is less than 2%. So what's the point of someone going through all that trauma and getting retraumatized and having absolutely no support whatsoever. So I'm not saying that people should not be reporting to platforms or to the law enforcement service, if it's safe for them to do so, they absolutely should, but we need to have all these things together. And laws are super important because I think they also set the tone for the country. I think we just assume that if we have a really good law, everyone's going to use it. And there's always an increase in people using that law, but there'll be a lot of people who will not use it. So what happens to them? We still need to support everybody irrespective of whether they choose to report or not. 80% of the survivors of sexual assault that we speak to have never reported what has happened to them. What about them? They're the majority for me in our community, they are the majority, they're those unreported crimes, and we need to be proactive. There's no way of proactively stopping assault that has happened. There's nothing I can do about that, but I can do something about supporting them in their healing so that they can live their lives and they can think about how they manage their trauma symptoms and engineer their healing journey. Suvivors have a very exact journey because it's unique to every person, but I think it starts with understanding the trauma and a lot of survivors that I speak to, they're absolutely confused and perplexed by their own bodies and their minds. They don't know why they are reacting to something like this. They don't know why they feel a certain way. Their body stops making sense to them. It starts doing feeling foreign in some way. And I think that's the most insidious part of trauma and gender-based violence. The patriarchy grinds you down every day until you absorb its toxicity. So I think the first step for me is for survivors to understand how the system of patriarchy and misogyny has placed that burden on them, which they have absorbed. How can we release them from that burden that it's not their fault? They're not to blame for what's happened. And for them to acknowledge that impact that's happened on them and then to begin to understand these systems and untangle them and start thinking about what are the small things that they care about, and what are the big things that they care about? For many people with small things, I just want to be able to say, “Yes, when my friend asks me to go and watch a movie, I just want to be able to, I want to be able to be spontaneous.” This may be something that we used to do before and they can't anymore. So that small thing can be a way for them, if they can get their healing to a point where they can say “yes” to those things that is an enjoyable thing for them. And for other people, it's like, “How can I have another romantic relationship if I've been hurt in those romantic relationships before? How can I allow myself to feel beautiful, to feel like I deserve to take up space in this world, to feel like I can have a career, or I can love my children, I can have children?” All of these things are about allowing themselves to be human. And it's so sad because that is exactly what trauma does to you. It makes you feel like you don't deserve good things and it's getting them to that stage where they can understand their trauma, the symptoms that come with it, cope with it and manage them. And then eventually not have their life defined by their trauma. The trauma will remain part of their lives, but not have it take over their lives so they can live with it.
We hope you enjoyed this conversation. If you're interested in learning more about the topics discussed in this episode or about our guests, visit our website at https://www.garbo.io Now available: Garbo's new kind of online background check makes it easy to see if someone in your life has a history of causing harm while balancing privacy and protection in the digital age. This episode was produced by Imani Nichols, with whisper and mutter. I'm Kathryn Kosmides and I look forward to having you join us for the next episode of Reckoning.