MIT's motto, "mens et manus" — "mind and hand" — is more than a slogan to MIT Professor Jing Wang. It's the reason she came to the Institute 16 years ago. Already an accomplished scholar of Chinese cultural studies, Wang wanted to do more than think about problems — she wanted to help solve them.
Today, Wang is not only a professor with joint appointments in global studies and languages and comparative media studies, she is also the director of the MIT New Media Action Lab and the head of an influential nonprofit, NGO2.0, that's working to bridge the digital divide in China. Her goal is to give Chinese grassroots nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) access to the vast resources provided by digital technology and social media practices.
"Coming to MIT opened a new page in my intellectual life," Wang says. "I felt I'd reached a ceiling as an academic intellectual, and I really wanted to see how I could also make a contribution beyond academia."
Advancing knowlege-sharing in underserved populations
Launched in 2009, NGO2.0 helps grassroots NGOs throughout China employ digital and social media tools to collaborate with each other, create crowdfunding projects, and enhance the public’s awareness of the social causes they promote. "I was driven by the idea that social media could make an impact for underserved populations in China, and I wanted to start the process with grassroots NGOs," Wang says.
Long involved with Creative Commons, a public knowledge-sharing platform, Wang recognized early on that, while China had wired most of the country to the Internet by 2008, most NGOs — particularly those based in struggling rural areas — didn't know how to make constructive use of the new technology.
NGO2.0 was founded to bridge this gap. Funded by the Ford Foundation Beijing and supported by the SHASS-based Global Studies and Languages program, NGO2.0 began by providing social media literacy training. Today, the 15-person NGO2.0 team offers a wide range of information and communications technology training to grassroots NGOs throughout China.
Over the years, NGO2.0 has become a significant player in the nonprofit sector in China, where it is an officially registered organization. Through key partnerships with information technology corporations, universities, city-based makers, and software developers’ communities, NGO2.0 has trained people in more than 800 organizations in a wide range of skills from crisis management and communications strategy to project management and video production. NGO2.0 also gives NGOs access to an online toolbox of digital resources, including social media for social good case studies, software tools, and recommendations.
In addition, NGO2.0 maintains a crowdsourced map of philanthropic opportunities across China and will soon roll out an NGO Evaluation Databank — a matchmaking service that will make it easier for corporate social responsibility offices to identify worthwhile grassroots projects to support.
"Because China is getting wealthier, people are thinking of giving back," Wang says. "There are change agents coming from different sectors to work together to produce social good."
One challenge NGO2.0 is helping to overcome is that larger philanthropic organizations in China tend to monopolize available resources.
"We're seeing the emergence of elitism in the nonprofit sector. Our work of building the communication capacity of grassroots organizations will help China grow a more balanced ecology for the sector in the long run," she says.
Bringing discoveries home to MIT
Wang's work on NGO2.0 has also provided significant benefits back to MIT, where undergraduates use NGO2.0 case studies and data to examine the relationship between government and society in China. Over the years, two masters theses have emerged from the project, including one centered on the history of hacker and maker culture in China.
Wang herself has published academic papers and a book related to the project, "Social Media for Social Good: NGO2.0 Workshop Pedagogy" (Publishing House of Electronics Industry, 2015). And, last year, she and her partners posted a massive open online course (MOOC) on crowdfunding to XuetangX, a Chinese platform associated with EdX. Wang's current book project for Harvard University Press, "Activism 2.0: The Other Digital China," is also an outgrowth of her practical, hands-on experience with NGO2.0.
Overall, Wang's work with NGO2.0 reflects her view that her primary field, cultural studies, has moved far from its early substantive political, social, and material roots.
"NGO2.0 represents the return of my critical practice to the empirical and the experiential, and a radical response I made to the ongoing crisis of cultural studies as a discipline," she wrote in the Chinese Journal of Communication in 2015.
Her work today reflects her belief, outlined in that same paper, that "the missing link of academic practice is not to reflect society in discourses, but to change it in practice."
Wang credits her background in cultural studies with providing her with the skills she has needed to run NGO2.0.
"I'm not a techie, but designing a project requires the kind of critical thinking that cultural studies scholars are trained in, as well as the desire to help the underserved to have a voice," she says. "Cultural studies is deeply multidisciplinary."