Voices of Change — Making Civic Participation Accessible

 |   Elsa Sze

Diversity and inclusion are critical underpinnings to our evolving culture at Microsoft and powerful bridges to the marketplace. We are inspired by the local leaders who make diversity a priority in their daily work. In the spirit of International Women’s Day, we’re honored to celebrate women in our community who are carrying out the mission of civic engagement, leadership and empowering other women.

— Microsoft New England Staff

Elsa-Sze

On Election Day of the Obama 2012 campaign, I was driving an elderly woman, Rochelle, to the polling station when her oxygen tank started to malfunction. She turned to me and said, “Take me to vote, then the hospital.” Her determination to have her voice heard served as an important inspiration to me–but it also made me wonder, should the ballot box be the only way a citizen can make her voice heard?

The answer is a resounding no. Democracy is more than Election Day, and citizens are much more than just voters every few years. Yet it seemed to me that there was a striking lack of opportunity for people to make their voices heard. While civic discussions happen on a regular basis, not every citizen has the opportunity to participate. When town hall meetings take place at 3PM on a Tuesday – who get to show up? Only the few who have the time, resources, and political connections. This inaccessibility cannot be the norm if we want to have a functioning democracy.

ElsaWhiteHouse

Through technology Agora is empowering individuals to break down these barriers to participation through live polls, discussions, and Video halls. On the one hand, Agora’s platform allows local officials to easily communicate with their constituents, enabling the solicitation of community feedback. But our technology also empowers citizens–through Agora, anyone can ask their representatives questions, start a conversation in their community, and actively participate in our democracy. Agora, in other words, makes civic engagement accessible to anyone––a drastic improvement over the occasional, in-person town hall.

But it is not enough for our civic technology to be accessible; inclusivity and diversity are also essential tenets of Agora’s mission. Some of this is naturally derivative of Agora’s online platform, but in a community like Boston’s, for example, where we are based, there are more than just the physical barriers to participation. Language, for example, can be a major obstacle for those community members whose first language is something other than English.

And this is where Bing has become a crucial tool––Bing translation has allowed Agora townhalls to be translated from English into multiple languages, enabling and encouraging diversity in every conversation that happens on our platform. It opens the door for the many community members whose voices haven’t been heard due to the extensive language barriers that exist in many of our community conversations, and helps Agora to achieve our goal of expanding participation beyond the ballot box.

At Agora, we believe that our voices matter every day, not just on Election Day. It’s time for us to re-imagine democracy in the 21st century – and we’re doing so by making participation accessible, one conversation at a time.

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