Interview with William Dyson, creator of the Douglass, a black community empowerment platform.
Growing up in abject poverty, William Dyson and his family struggled to make ends meet. After teaching himself meditation, which he says, helped him to become aware of the numerous people facing the same problems that he was dealing with, William set out to help to improve the conditions of people in struggle. He created Douglass, a community empowerment platform that seeks to provide a way through which Black community interactions can lead to improvements in the livelihood of people through mutual empowerment.
First of all, can you tell us about yourself, what you do, and also your background in technology?
Well, I grew up on the East Coast of the United States and as a young child, I grew up in very bad poverty. At an early age I started meditating, probably at 6 years old, and at that time, I didn’t know that we were going to be in very bad poverty. My mother had a PhD in Sociology and she always had these ‘Psychology Today’ books around and so I took one of them and started reading and practising. At the time, we were considered a middle-class African-American family. This was around 1968. When I was 11 years old, my family descended into poverty and it was not just missing meals, but missing days of food, the water and electricity turned off and things like that. So I continued my meditating practice and that allowed me to get through the hunger. Part of the experience of that is that you tend to be angry and to question why it is that this thing happened to you. But for me, through the meditation, I understood that this thing was not just happening to me. That at that moment, there were people around the world that were waking up to the same struggles that I was waking up to. I somehow came out of that poverty, ended up going to university, I studied philosophy and a friend told me that if I wanted to be a software engineer I would have to learn how to code. And so I wanted to investigate that, what will happen if at the core, the code that you made was about trying to make a change in the lives of people that were in struggle. So that was my beginning in technology. I didn’t see technology from an engineering perspective at first. My original intent was to build technology that makes a change and I focus on people that are in struggle.
Tell us more about the Douglass Project. What is it about? What inspired you to create it?
Douglass was intentionally done, and it was done to be unashamedly Black and unashamedly proud to be Black. I wanted to name it after the people that were part of the struggle. One time, I was in a public poetry class – and this was before the internet had actually really happened – and people were talking about digital technology, and I said that the digital technology economy will repeat the economy of colonialism and neoliberalism. At the time, no one believed me. Of course, this happened. You have millions of people around the world, doing labor for the technology companies and those technology companies take that labor and turn it into the value that they use as capital. But none of this value financially is returned to the local community. This struck me as I went looking for things to build to try to help people in the struggle. And then I understood that OK, people in struggle are actually adding to the value. Twitter is one of them. When Black people use the hashtag, #blacklivesmatter on Twitter, there’s an algorithm that reads that and increases the cost of ads. None of those funds is going to go back to Black people that actually added to the value of Twitter that day. It’s even crueler that a company’s capital increases as our sorrows and pains increase and we talk about it. The same thing happens on Facebook. So that helped me to build into Douglass ways that as a community contributes, the value that they add is returned.
How does one use the website, Douglass.io? Can you tell us about some of the features of the website?
When you go to Douglass, there’s a search engine. One of the things that are unique about that whole interface is I decided not to do a doodle on the front page. So there’s a random video about empowerment and history and philosophy and making a change. For me, that’s the thing that needs to be a daily activity and not a doodle that has some significance. Our search engine does not track you. It’s totally private. There’s a social content site called Tubman. Currently, you can add content there. You can think of it as the Facebook timeline. It also has a read/write newsreader side of it that’s probably got the largest selection of news feeds on the internet. So you can actually go in and create a newsfeed and share that back into your timeline so that people that follow you can see the news that you read and subscribe to that news if they want. You also can add content to the news stories. Another part of Tubman that is not out yet is that you can put classifieds on and sell products that can only be bought and sold locally. Part of the funds goes into something called a Community Bank and local communities can decide what to do with the funds that end up in there.
How long has the project been running and how are people receiving it?
The project has been gradually rolling out probably for the last 16 months or so, and so far we’ve received great feedback. One of the things that’s also interesting about Douglass is that it has some technology that’s really cutting edge. And so we had the opportunity not just to generate revenue with people’s struggles on the consumer side but also to go into big companies and generate revenue that way. There’s a browser with Douglass that allows people to create websites and web pages with no ISPs. That’s a big change. You can build it on your laptop. Once you build it, you can send the link to someone who has the Douglass browser and they can see the site. That’s a new way to build websites. One of the objectives is to do that in a way so as to help people that are in struggle. Inside of the Douglass browser is Sojourner which is a completely decentralised P2P social messaging system. So any message that I send to you privately is completely encrypted. The only person that can see the message would be the person that I sent it to, and the data is on your laptop so you have total control of it. It doesn’t belong to the ISP, it belongs to you. So you can download the browser and have access to Douglass.io and these other features.
What do you plan to achieve with this project in the coming years? How do you plan to develop?
One of the plans is that Douglass is going to IPO and it’s going to be the largest IPO to ever happen for a company that was founded by Black people, and the lion’s share of the IPO generates funds that go to a social impact foundation. So that’s the plan.
Have you personally faced any problems that inspired you to create this project?
When you grow up in struggle to get through the day, when you are hungry and you see the other people around you that are in struggle to get through the day, when you meditate on your path and you understand that you are not alone in your struggle to get through the day, this gives you the reason to do something like Douglass. When you walk onto the tender lawns of San Francisco and you see the people that are in struggle with wealth around them that doesn’t care about them, and you realize that you are them, that gives you a reason to build something like Douglass.
What are your parting words for our readers?
Build your dream. Push through the struggle and build your dreams and believe that you can do it. There were so many people along my path, and it’s really difficult when you are black. Culture tries to keep us in the dream, that we can only dream of the possibility. I have walked into so many meetings where the immediate understanding of me was that whatever I was saying was a dream and not reality. I understood that we have to build the dreams. I have walked into meetings and I had to build what I dreamed. So my message is, through the struggle, build what you dream and build what you dream for others. When you build what you dream for others you are also building up for yourself.