The FoRB Forum grew out of the desire to make something awesome even better.
Sponsored by the First Freedom Foundation to increase both the quality and the frequency of interactions between FoRB advocates worldwide, the FoRB Forum functions as an ongoing, secure, and searchable roundtable meeting, where each participant can control what content they consume and when they consume it.
For over a decade, the International Religious Freedom Roundtable has gathered FoRB advocates at its weekly meetings in Washington, DC. But when COVID-19 hit, the roundtable went online, and suddenly people were able to participate from around the world. This dramatic increase in participation created incredible opportunities for the religious freedom movement, but some challenges also arose:
Security: The Roundtable’s open invitation model is essential for diversity and inclusion. But it can be problematic for those who are sharing sensitive, and sometimes life-threatening, information with hundreds of people online, many of whom are effectively anonymous. This is even before we consider the trustworthiness of the platform used as well as its employees.
Volume and relevance of information: Nobody wants to sit through an eight-hour meeting, and yet a movement so broad could easily fill up that much time every day. Sometimes the information flows so fast that by the time a speaker finishes, there are dozens of chat messages to follow up on, and no way of saving or even organizing them by topic. At other times a speaker may not be relevant to one’s own work, but there is no way of fast-forwarding a live event.
Impermanence of connection and information: During zoom meetings, it is common for someone to request a resource that is not immediately available. Then by the time the resource is found, the person with the resource may not be able to find the person requesting it. Additionally, a trove of valuable information is often posted to the chat, but is lost at the end of the call, so if participants miss the message–or a meeting–the information is gone.
Timeliness: Meetings are weekly, but information is often time sensitive. Nowhere was this more in evidence than during the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan. Its timing, right before a fifth Tuesday, meant that members of the Afghanistan task force had to wait almost two full weeks to make an appeal to the full Roundtable—all while thousands of Christians and Hindus were receiving death threats from the Taliban.
An expert on trans-organization collaboration with decades of experience in the public policy arena, Patrice Pederson knows the importance of communication to a movement. Together with her husband, technology specialist Dean Householder, she set about developing a technical solution to these problems.
That solution is the FoRB Forum.
Built with open-source code from Mattermost, and hosted by the First Freedom Foundation, the FoRB Forum is incredibly secure. With end-to-end encryption and hosted on private servers, the Foundation has complete control over who has access, with the ability to remove and ban any violators. Administrative access is held by a single person (Householder), while the system benefits from hundreds of Mattermost employees working to develop new features and fix bugs.
Effectively functioning as an ongoing, asynchronous “meeting”, the FoRB Forum solves issues of timeliness and impermanence by being available 24/7. FoRB advocates can participate on their own time and in their own time zone, wherever they are.
With the ability to search for both people and documents, the chat becomes a self-organizing directory and repository for information, helping to manage the volume of information and reducing workload. Lobbyists can find research from academics and stories from survivors to use in their advocacy, lawyers can find expert witnesses for trials, victims of persecution can find experienced attorneys and lobbyists, and more.
Furthermore, individual user experiences are also customizable: Participants can create their own private channels to communicate with trusted contacts, or make new connections in public channels based on shared interests or geography. Advocates can also seek advice and mentorship—like a Facebook group, but secure—and can control notification settings for each individual channel.
In creating the FoRB Forum, the First Freedom Foundation aims not only to increase the impact of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, but to increase the effectiveness of the whole religious freedom movement.