Ned Howey from the US, and Mariana Spada from Argentina, together founded Tectonica, a company that develops digital strategies for progressive political parties, NGOs, and LBGTI organizations. They just won the Reed award for their work on Sadiq Khan’s campaign for Mayor of London. Khan is the first Muslim candidate to reach this type of position in a European capital.
[Photo by Cesar Mansilla Sialer]
Originally appeared as an article by Verónica Engler in Argentina’s Pagina 12 newspaper.
When he arrived in Argentina in 2010, Ned Howey never would have thought that seven years later he would return to the United States, his country of origin, to receive the Reed Award for Best European Website, for the design and digital development of the Sadiq Khan campaign for Mayor of London. The Reed Awards, named after “Campaign & Elections” publication’s founder, Stanley Foster Reed, are known as the “Oscars of the political industry” for gathering the most important representatives of marketing and electoral communication, took place last February 17th in Las Vegas.
Howey is the founder, along with Mariana Spada, of Tectonica, the Argentine company that developed not only the website for Khan, but also for other clients of high international relevance in the (digital) field of politics, such as the Labour Party of England and the Scottish National Party.
Howey was born in New York, studied literature and philosophy in Montreal, Canada, and afterwards settled down in San Francisco, where he worked for a decade in various types of organizations helping the homeless, and the populations affected by addiction problems, HIV, and mental health issues. In 2010, and only a few weeks after having moved with his husband to Los Angeles in order to attend a Master’s in Public Policy program, Howey was suddenly widowed. After spending a time submerged in a profound sadness, he bought the most affordable ticket he could find which brought him to Argentina, and more specifically to Buenos Aires. He had no plans, didn’t speak any Spanish, and his only point of reference to the country was literature, through Borges and Cortázar, who he had read in University. Since his time as a student, he focussed his activism on leftist organizations and LGBT causes. He says it was there that he learned everything that he uses today in his career, and that he maintains those beliefs still.
In 2011, being completely in love with the city that he had randomly chosen, and without any money to continue living his life as a tourist, Howey started working in a web design company, where he worked with foreign English-speaking clients. There he met Mariana Spada, who he now considers his “heroine.” Does that mean a person with extraordinary powers, and the ability to change into someone different in order to act for the common good? Well, back in those days, Mariana was a young, 180 pounds, thick bearded man, working as the creative director of the company. The following year, they both began to work on their new entrepreneurial venture where they could put their creative skills towards projects that were more interesting and better aligned to their political convictions. That is how they struck out on their own, and in the start of 2013, created Tectonica with the idea of bringing digital work to progressive politics, social justice causes, and campaigns for electoral candidates in line with their ideology.
2013 was a very important year in every aspect for Spada. Not only because of her new professional direction but also because she decided (surprisingly for many), to initiate her own transition to become Mariana, a “trans-lesbian woman” - which is how she happily identifies herself as today, while trying to escape the usual cis-binary norms.
At that time, she did not know anyone who was trans and lesbian, and could not imagine how it was possible to be both. During that time, she says, “I had my political concerns but, since I still had not transitioned, it was a bit like living under a rock. I think that my transition was a great way of showing me, first hand, how who we are in a society can provide us with certain privileges, but also take away others. For example, my privileges as a white, straight, cis man in my past life, were greatly reduced because I am now a trans woman. However, I gained the great privilege of being a little more faithful to myself and to feel more comfortable because I am much more happy, healthy, calm, and content.”
Spada, like Howey, studied Literature. She went to college in Santa Fe, the city where she moved to after she left her native Concepción del Uruguay. She worked on online platform designs for more than a decade. For her, Tectonica was more than just a business venture that allowed her to pay her bills. “The most important thing was not that I had a job, but instead that I knew for sure that I would not face discrimination issues because I was the one in charge there” she says with satisfaction.
“However, on the other hand, I also never expected anyone in the team to have those type of attitudes, because I know them and they are all just great, and although they are not all LGBT, they are allies. So, that really comforted me.” The transition, which included hormone replacement therapy and SRS, took her almost two years of major body changes and a lot of emotional vulnerability. That is why she repeats over and over the word “allies” to refer to her business partner and her team, who provided love to her on a daily basis. She was also supported by her girlfriend during that time (who is currently her best friend), her therapist and her gynecologist-endocrinologist. “Now I am more comfortable, it is as if I can now be dedicated to live a normal, neurotic life,” she adds, smiling. Her relationship with her family is also great, (things just needed some time to settle up). That is why Mariana sometimes feels that for her everything was “unjustly easy, because I know I am surrounded by privileges.” She recognizes that she has gone through violent situations due to her gender identity, such as being spat upon and having stones thrown at her in the street, or rejections when trying to seduce a girl. “But they are small things next to the systematic violence that is starting up again over what we thought was won terrain”. She affirms this after reading about the news on the police raid in Buenos Aires against immigrant trans women: “the repressive State is going against the most vulnerable.”
Tectonica not only works for electoral campaigns - siding with progressive parties - but also for politics and their fair causes in a broader sense, developing online platforms for different topics of interest. For example, “No Way to Treat A Child” a site that creates awareness about the military's abuse of palestinian boys and girls in the Occupied Territories. There is also the Egale Centre of Toronto (Canada) website, a project that promises to provide accommodations and attention to young homeless LGBT people, or websites intended to promote marriage equality in various states of the United States, anti-gun policies, or the campaign for the “Sí a la Paz” during the Colombian referendum, among others.
In Argentina, they launched a program called “Accion Local”, an annual call to local-based organizations that don’t have the resources to develop their online platforms. Tectonica selects one of them and provides their services at no cost. So far, the beneficiaries have been the Asociación de Mujeres Unidas y Refugiadas en Argentina (AMUMRA), and Mujeres de Artes Tomar (MAT), Also, back in the day, they developed a website of their own where they explained the conflict between Argentina and the vulture funds, because they felt the topic was not being correctly communicated by the US and European Media.
“She is the talent; she is a genius,” assures Howey with admiration. “She has a vision for design that is not only about making nice things. There is a lot of strategy in the projects we create; it is always about how we do it, about explaining the cause and inviting users to take action and change things.”
Howey shares his partner's vision and relates it to the difficult political time but, like her, he is optimistic and content. “In the middle of the Trump era, where the world seems to be more and more divided and constantly looking for scapegoats, the fact that two business partners that are also members of the LGBT community played a role in the campaign that elected the first Muslim mayor of a European capital, says a lot about how by working together, with our diversity and our differences, we are stronger,” he concludes.