What online advocacy can learn from community organizing
Investigate how sustainable social change has transpired in the past, and you'll be closer to effecting change in the future.
A transcript from my portion of the “Big Idea” panel on “The Power of Technology in Advocacy and Organizing” from the 2014 Nonprofit Technology Conference, March 13-15 in Washington, DC.
Update, March 6, 2015: Today I gave a similar presentation as part of the 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference’s Ignite talks. You can view the Slideshare or download the PDF, but the slides are simply images.
In many ways this is a retelling of an article I wrote back in 2010 about online and offline organizing, with a more visual focus. If you prefer words to images, the original might serve you better.
Online advocacy and community organizing
My background is in community organizing and social movement theory, and that’s what I’d like to talk a little bit about today.
In popular culture, we have two stories we usually tell about social change – two lenses in which we view advocacy and activism.
The first is about a charismatic leader. Gandhi led India to freedom. Or Rosa Parks, who one day was too tired to get up and inspired a city to boycott a racist public policy.
The second story we tell is about a spontaneous event. Something shifted in the world around us, and people responded in positive ways. Egyptians took to the square to reclaim their democracy.
While both of these stories have kernels of truth – events happen, and people inspire – they are fundamentally not how social change occurs. Instead, it’s movement-building work that pushes change forward.
Rosa Parks wasn’t just tired – she was trained.
The Egyptian revolution didn’t just happen, it was preceded by years of student organizing.
The most successful social change movements didn’t just get lucky or figure out how to use the newest tools, they were built through concerted strategic planning. Our work for change can draw on that history and experience.
Catalyst moments might be unplanned, but the infrastructure can be built.
In our organizations, we tend to privilege one set of actions over the other. We focus on important task-based work like website development, fundraising, communications, and the campaign strategy I just mentioned.
But there’s more to an organization and more to a movement than that. There’s another group of endeavors sometimes called maintenance work, and it flies under the radar even though it’s crucial to keeping our campaigns afloat.
Maintenance work involves things like leadership development, facilitating communication, conflict resolution, anti-oppression work, and visioning, the things that fertilize our movements.
We often privilege task work over maintenance work. Community knowledge and strategic knowledge is devalued in favor of technical knowledge, because technical knowledge can be more easily measured.
Meanwhile, movement-building work is disproportionately done by women, leaving men in the “important” and visible roles.
At its worst, a specialization of knowledge leads to accumulation of informal, unacknowledged power through gatekeeping.
Or to put it another way, “We’ll launch that campaign when I’m ready to update the website for you.”
In our organizations, we should be striving toward social change, not startup culture. We should cultivate sustainable work. We should commit to anti-oppression work so we don’t replicate the unequal society we’re trying to improve. We should provide benefits rather than relying on a precarious workforce of independent contractors. We should pay our interns. We should allow staff to unionize, or become a worker-owned collective.
And in general, we should remember that social change is not a business. We should be ruthless in stealing ideas from the business community, but we should not expect them to work for us just because they made people some money.
In closing, my one piece of advice is in addition to all the Twitter guides and fundraising how-tos in your tool belt, explore some movement history. Whether it’s Poor People’s Movements about work against economic injustice, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom or Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights about the black-led freedom struggle
Or maybe my little article in this recent publication by Green Memes. Investigate how sustainable social change has transpired in the past, and you’ll be closer to effecting change in the future.