Joe Torreggiani, a software engineer and social activist, has always been concerned about making the world a better place. With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, he observed the community around him more closely and moved toward action to mitigate the social unrest and tension rising in society.
Joe connected with professor Dr. Rhianna Rogers to support her research at State University of New York, focused on action-based diversity programs and building community in times of social unrest. Together, they founded SPEC (Sustainable Progress & Equality Collective) to empower people to learn skills, build careers, and make a positive impact in the world.
Today, SPEC runs research and development programs focused on environmental sustainability, social impact, and providing research assistantships and service-learning opportunities contributing to real-world projects for nonprofits, community development, and open source initiatives.
Watch the interview with Joe in the video below, or read on for the text version.
Can you tell us more about yourself and your background?
I’ve been working in the technology industry for over 10 years. My background was in history and philosophy, so I have an interesting pathway into technology.
When I was in college, I was studying history and philosophy, thinking about how far humanity has come, but also how far we need to go to make a world that works for everybody. I left my undergraduate with the deep sense that I need to be a part of the change.
I did pre-med for a while, and became an emergency medical technician. I walked away from a Masters in political science because it felt like I was going to spend two years writing a thesis no one was going to read. Even my professors were saying that these changes we had to make in the world would never happen because of corruption and political division.
Science and technology seemed to be a core part of the solution, and this eventually led me to software. It allowed me to seek out companies focused on making an impact, whether it was educational technology or agriculture. That is what I’ve been doing for the past 10 years, asking myself every day: am I doing the most I can do with my time?
What are “environmental sustainability” and “social justice” in relation to your project?
Environmental sustainability is a complex concept, and it intersects with social justice. When we are talking about social justice, we are talking about access to opportunities, being able to be included in the conversation, being able to have access to the same resources, and being treated equally. We study how we interact with the environment and how we interact with each other.
What spurred the idea of SPEC to come to life?
About 2.5 years ago, when COVID hit, as well as social unrest after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, I just wanted to do more, and I didn’t know how. I put a call out on social media, saying I wanted to help. I proposed to give loans to businesses or free mentorship to those who wanted to learn to code. That was how I met my co-founder of SPEC, Dr. Rogers. When I posted my call on social media, she reached out.
Dr. Rogers had a project with a couple of students, mainly women of color, researching building communities during the time of social unrest. This is so relevant to what is happening right now! She explained that they were about to lose their summer internships. I offered to pay for at least one intern, and then help find more funding for more people. And that snowballed.
I discovered the thing I was missing: while trying to understand humans, I had only thought about scientific problems. Then I realized that we still need to get everybody on board. We have technological solutions to provide everybody with high quality of life, health care, food, and the opportunity for productive work. Those things exist, but they are not getting to all the individual people.
The work Dr. Rogers was doing was based on the idea of participatory action research; how to fix things by teaching people not only to escape poverty but to find better opportunities. We help find financial sustainability, and then people pay back and help other people to move forward.
Where is the equilibrium between meaningful social initiatives and being economically functional?
We are not all volunteers. The co-founders of SPEC are volunteers—I don’t make any money from SPEC, I’ve actually donated money—but we pay our contributors. That’s a core concept for us, especially for folks trying to make a career change from underrepresented communities. There is already a burden to pay for education; we believe that people should get paid for their time even if they are learning. We provide paid internships for folks who are learning, and we try to create real-world opportunities for them.
We’re aligning that with working with other initiatives, including others from the Open Collective ecosystem. We think it’s an embodiment of the principle of mutual reciprocity, which is a balance of mutual respect and accountability. We want to pay respect to our contributors, empower them to make a change, and make sure they also are accountable to get the work done.
We are cooperating with other Collectives, like Data Umbrella, a community focused on building diversity, equity, and inclusion in the data science field. We’re also working with buildJUSTLY, an organization that focuses on understanding biases and making inclusive software. They can pay us for our services directly through the platform, as a Collective-to-Collective transfer, with no additional charges, in full transparency.
Can you elaborate on SPEC’s cooperation with Open Collective?
I think that Open Collective is one of the most important technologies and platforms out there. When we just started, I immediately wanted to give students money for participation, and right away we knew people who would be interested in contributing donations. But we needed some entity to be able to collect money and distribute it to other people.
As a software developer, I remembered that Open Collective is used for open source projects, so I went to the website, read more about it, and learned that I could get fiscal sponsorship through a non-profit, Open Collective Foundation, so we wouldn’t have to go through the whole process of applying to become a non-profit ourselves. I met my co-founder on a Thursday, and within a week’s time, we created a name, applied, got approval, and were up and running.
And this was all transparent, another part of our philosophy. One of the problems with charity and nonprofits is that people are still not sure if the money goes to the source of the problem. Open Collective flips it on its head and says “Let’s make it completely open, and be transparent!” That allowed us to start making the world better without going through the bureaucratic structure, using our Collective page.
What underrepresented and non-traditional backgrounds have you worked with already? How do you prioritize and define vectors for future cooperation?
Typically, we are working in the technology industry. When you are looking for underrepresented communities (especially in the US), the tech sector is heavily dominated by white men. It’s still a big issue when it comes to gender and racial gaps. There are many underserved communities, and they haven’t had the same access to career and financial opportunities. We are helping those people to get into the industry and grow.
When I started working in software, I was making more money than I’ve ever made, and more than my dad made throughout his entire career. By helping someone to get to this industry, you’re not only changing their lives, you’re also changing the entire community. We’re working with very diverse groups of folks, focusing not only on racial and gender diversity but also on neurodiversity. We want to grow organically, in a way that is going to be healthy for contributors.
One of SPEC’s missions is to shape the next generation of leaders. What does being a leader mean in the modern world?
Leadership comes down to a certain level of mindfulness and deep listening and compassion. Those things are traditionally missing from leadership. Especially in the US, we almost fetishize the idea of becoming a self-made millionaire. But the concept of the Open Collective and the solidarity economy is not about profit and growth, it’s about people and the planet. The leaders that we need have to prioritize that. Leaders need to understand why people are struggling and try to fix that.
SPEC takes inspiration from the work of the renowned 20th-century inventor and visionary Buckminster Fuller. What about his philosophy inspires you?
Buckminster Fuller is well-known for creating the geodesic dome; he was thinking of how to maximize space with minimizing materials. He was obsessed with optimizing.
He hated the idea of using our technological power to create war games and weapons. Instead, he wanted people to create peace games. He had an idea for what he called the World Game, to be accessible to all people.
The idea was to figure out a way to equitably distribute technologies, to deliver a better life for everybody, making the world work for 100% of people. This was in the 1960s, very ahead of his time. The technologies to be able to achieve this didn't yet exist.
We derive inspiration from these ideas, and we are using Open Collective to help people.