Harm reduction as pedagogy

Last month, I started the Library Freedom Institute. This is a new initiative of the Library Freedom Project, training cohorts of library workers as privacy advocates who can then train colleagues and community members in their own regions. We have weekly lectures, discussions, and assignments, mostly all of which is publicly viewable here and here, if you're interested.

In my own library, we have talked for several years about the need for privacy and security education in our community, but really struggled to find the right audiences, at the right time, and even to break down content to the right amount and level. For me, LFI is a place to both really force myself to learn more of the specifics (technology, policies, and so on) but maybe more importantly to dig into how to actually teach this material to actual people. I myself experience a lot of resistance to changing my behavior around how I handle my digital data and devices, even though I absolutely know better. How do I move through my own resistance, and help others move through theirs?

One of our early required readings for LFI was the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Security Education Companion, a collection of lesson plans, visuals, and other materials for teaching digital security and privacy. Today, I found myself reading this page, which describes their Harm Reduction Approach to teaching this content. This isn't the first time I've thought about using harm reduction within my pedagogy, but it did strike me that you could probably adapt each of their four pillars to other areas of library teaching:

  • Everyone deserves information literacy.
  • Remove the stigma of bad research practices.
  • Increasing your information literacy is a process.
  • Information literacy is collective.

In our lecture from Eva Galperin of EFF, she talked about privacy vegans (folks who aim to abstain from anything that might compromise their security) and privacy nihilists (folks who say that privacy doesn't matter at all, they're an open book, the government already has all their data, etc).* The harm reduction approach aims to make the choices less stark: even if you just make a small change, that is still making you and your community more safe.

Similarly, who are the information vegans and nihilists? Maybe a stretch, but I'm thinking of folks who insist that, say, only information from peer-reviewed journal articles is good enough for any use. (Just yesterday, two separate people insisted that all students at our university need to come to the library to get print books at some point...which is, just, categorically not true!) And on the other side, perhaps the folks who shrug that everything is available online, all you have to do is Google it? Maybe the analogy is falling apart, but harm reduction as a model does remind me to open up the middle ground, and to always, always avoid shame as a motivator.

* No offense meant to either vegans or nihilists with this -- as a former vegan myself, I know that it can be alienating to be labeled as an extremist. But I also remember how isolating it felt to have to bring my own food to parties -- not unlike trying to get all your friends to use Signal for texting, eh?