From Textathons to Black Joy: How Color of Change is Re-imagining Organizing
The idea, says Color of Change's chief of campaigns Arisha Hatch, is to center Black joy and to build face-to-face teams, which now number in the thousands, of people meeting and acting locally (and having fun together).
Arisha Hatch is the VP/Chief of Campaigns for Color of Change, and also executive director of Color of Change PAC. She started with Color of Change in 2012 and added her role with the PAC when it was relaunched in 2016. Color of Change was founded in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina with the goal of building a powerful online advocacy organization for the nation’s African-Americans, but in recent years it has begun developing a new approach aimed at galvanizing strong local community engagement off-line. In this interview with Civic Hall president and Civicist editor-in-chief Micah Sifry, Hatch explains the origins of and thinking behind this new approach to relational organizing, and why Color of Change is centering it on the concept of empowering Black joy.
Q: Color of Change has always been primarily a digital organization, right? Roughly how many people are on your list now?
A: We’re at about 1.7 million members right now, at least on our email list. And we definitely started as a digital-first organization. When I came to Color of Change, there was this mythology that our members only wanted to sign petitions or share things on social media and that it wasn’t a turnout list. Back in 2016, we got some funding to test one of the SMS texting tools, to specifically look at if and how texting could be used to engage voters.
The money came in late in the cycle and we had such a big goal with the funder–we said we were going to send millions of text messages and we’d never done that before. So, we went to an offline theory of change, where we decided to invite a bunch of people to what effectively became called the “textathon.” And hundreds of people would come out to these events. Since then we’ve been in this transition process of becoming an organization that does online and digital work, but that also has a real-world offline component.
Q: I remember hearing about this; I think Color of Change even rented out Civic Hall one Sunday before the election to host one of these “text out the vote” events. What we were hearing then was people were using peer-to-peer texting tools like Hustle or Relay [now called GetThru], and you might get a hundred to 200 people in the room and over the course of an afternoon, a couple of hours, several hundred thousand individuals would be texted. Is that fair to say?
A: Yeah, just kind of mind-boggling numbers. At the time when we started, a lot of people were using texting mainly as a volunteer turnout tool, which I think is probably where it’s most effective. We were one of the first groups to try it for cold voter contact, just texting people from the voter file and asking them about their plans to vote. It’s been an interesting experiment, to say the least, to see the ability to scale and reach so many people. Our members and our volunteers love coming to these textathons and we’ve been really excited about and remain excited about the potential this technology.
Q: I remember talking to Perry Rosenstein who was one of the founders of Hustle, who described it as a really useful tool for organizers who needed to be in relationship in an ongoing way with maybe several hundred volunteers. Picture a person in charge of a precinct in Iowa, in the primary, who is spending a couple of months really trying to build capacity. And what he argued was the really great thing about Hustle is that it simplified the process of not just reaching out to those people but then being in an ongoing relationship with them, because the text channel is a very intimate channel. Most people actually respond to text compared to emails. And then by giving an organizer a dashboard that would let them manage, say, 200 relationships, he argued this would be an improvement in the quality of organizing, in terms of being able to maintain that many one-on-ones. Would you say that how these kinds of texting platforms have been used for the most part? It sure seems to me like it became more like a tool we can just use to reach huge numbers of people who previously would ignore our emails.
A: Right. I think that we’ve definitely seen that as a way to engage our grassroots army or volunteer force, the use of peer-to-peer SMS has been incredibly useful and helpful. But I think people are using it still in different ways. What I think is dangerous but also attractive about SMS is that you can reach those big numbers that sounds really impressive and fancy to folks that are funding the work. Lots of folks have struggled to show that this actually has an impact on turnout. And I imagine that as more people use it, the effectiveness of it will go down. We’re already seeing phone companies tell you a message might be a fraud risk. So our tactics have to evolve. But the broader question is, in a world where no one is using land lines, even including my parents, how do we reach people on mobile phones?
Q: When you spoke at Netroots Nation this summer you were critical of a kind of obsession with big numbers as the measure of the kind of organizing that people do. I think you may have even called it “a capitalist obsession.” Can you unpack that a little bit? What do you mean by that?
A: I’m definitely a walking contradiction here. Being at a digital-first organization like Color of Change, I very much believe in the power of technology and the Internet to create change. I’ve seen petitions that lead to meetings with Sheryl Sandberg about the way that Facebook is showing up in the world for black people. There’s also a way in which the metric or the number becomes a flashy thing for people to sell. And the thing that we lose is the deep personal relationships that need to be built for really strong community organizing, especially local community organizing as well as the emphasis on and investment in grassroots infrastructures, and grassroots leadership development.
If a texting platform exists and an organization can go out and say that they’re going to send millions and millions of texts and then they go hire 10 paid texters to do that, while it may be helpful for this specific election, what is the long-term power that is actually built from that sort of activity? I don’t think it’s a binary conversation. Having large petition numbers can be helpful to getting into the room and starting a conversation–I see the power of scale in that way. I also see how in a community organizing context, sometimes the power of the one-to-one can get lost. We need to be moving beyond just asking people to vote as their main source of civic participation.
The Roots of Relational Organizing
Q: So walk me through how the 2016 textathons evolved into the Black Women’s Brunch program.
A: We were using Relay. The technology really wasn’t set up for in-person events, by the way. The Bernie Sanders campaign had a whole set of infrastructure built around training people to use it online. But we had, like, six to eight weeks and we just didn’t feel super confident that we could train our members on this new technology online and hit the metric that we had promised. So seeing consistently that 200 people are going to show up [to an in-person textathon] and that they want to do something gave us more confidence in our list’s ability and willingness to actually come out to events.
And as we started out, later in 2017 into the beginning of 2018, we began to experiment with another theory of change. If you’re a Color of Change member, you’re likely a high propensity voter according to the voter file. You vote in all elections, you’re a regular civic participant. You’ll probably be politically in the know in a lot of ways. We wanted to experiment with what would it look like to bring low propensity black voters into community with our members. Could that lead to a shift and mindset around political engagement?
So someone came up with this idea: let’s do a Black Women’s Brunch. An event that isn’t centered in politics–it’s not a forum or a town hall, but that is very much centered in sisterhood and creating a space for regular black folks that might not be Color of Change members. We sent out an email and text messages inviting our members in these specific places, and we also created Facebook ads targeting low propensity black voters on the voter file or on Facebook. We also tried creating “look-alike audiences” [a Facebook advertising tool] of potentially low propensity black voters and ads inviting them to the brunch. And what we very quickly saw was that half the room would be Color of Change members and half the room were people that had never really heard of Color of Change but were simply coming for a brunch.
Now we’re still in the process of experimenting and trying to prove the theory that if we can create a space for communities and for people to build commitment to one another beyond just the election that’s about to happen, then we might see a set of people that are more likely to engage in the election. We might also see a set of people that will join a neighborhood team or a neighborhood squad, as we call them, that will be doing year-round work centered around empowering Black joy. This might mean a community service event, or hosting a mixer or some sort of parties, or knocking on people’s doors, asking them to participate in the census, or to vote. It might mean delivering a petition to the mayor of Flint around pulling up the lead pipe.
This has really led us onto this path of thinking about relational organizing. And what we saw in the brunches, which start out with people sitting at tables being prompted to talk about their favorite girl group, is that all of the issues that we would want to prompt for folks in a training– like getting a higher minimum wage or workplace discrimination or holding elected officials more accountable regarding police violence–all those things that we would normally want to prompt people with come up very, very organically. At the same time, we’re also creating the space for people to make commitments to support one another in their each other’s lives. And so we’ve been doing that ever since and it’s spreading to more cities.
Q: I take it your team is seeding these events and then they sort of start to run on their own.
A: That’s exactly what’s happening. We have neighborhood teams across the country. We’re doing different iterations of the Black Women’s Brunch, like a Black Dads’ Cookout. More recently we started testing an event called Black Family Fun Day. We’ll never be a super top-down organization and in terms of having lots of paid folks living in communities or in the field, so what we do want to be is an organization that helps to create a political home for folks that wouldn’t ordinarily find one, that is very much centered in Black joy as the overall banner or goal that they’re trying to work in. We are also trying to do it in a distributed way where people are realizing their own power and taking ownership over the work that’s happening in their communities.
This will be the first election cycle coming up in 2020 where we actually have a grassroots infrastructure on the ground, leading the voter engagement work that Color of Change going to be doing with black voters. We’ve had close to 40,000 people attend events like the Black Women’s Brunch over the last few years. We will have a national convening in 2020 and there will be 3,000 or so people there, team leaders that are going back into their communities. This is probably one of the largest Black-led grassroots efforts in the country right now.
We want to meet people where they are. And people have different entry points into the work. Like there are a set of teams that just want to host a brunch every month and talk about issues and there’s a set of women down in Florida who have all gotten their passports to then go on a cruise together. I think they fundamentally understand this idea of “empower Black joy” as the broader purpose and goals.
Centering Black Joy
Q: Can you say a little bit more about that idea of centering Black joy? As I’m listening to you, I’m thinking about the NAACP, which you know still has a network of local chapters, though it may not be as vibrant as it used to be. At one time those were very much the center of local community and organizing for lots of people. So can you talk a little about what it means to center Black joy and why you chose that over any number of other possible centering points.
A: I think that evolves because of a number of reasons. One, I should say to fangirl about you a little bit, about an article that you wrote a couple of years ago that was a little bit inspirational for us as an organization: “Obama’s Lost Army.” It was a very strong diagnosis of what it means, or what it would have been, to transition from a campaign-like environment to a movement. Presidential campaigns are set up to be sprints, and to shift to have a more marathon-like movement is challenging. Because what we’re trying to do with Color of Change is how do we create a marathon.
And so in a lot of ways “empower Black joy,” the mantra or ethic, has become the banner that we created as an attempt to get to that marathon sort of approach. If we’re trying to build a consistent set of neighborhood teams that are working year around, we can’t just find ourselves recreating the wheel every single time. To empower Black joy in our communities can look like a lot of things. It could look like having a district attorney who is actually responsive, who goes to bed each night afraid of disappointing black people, that actually has values that are more aligned.
It could also mean delivering water to folks in Flint that don’t have it, or making sure that folks have school supplies. Or a black women’s brunch where we appreciate each other and build commitment to support one another.
I think the other reason that we settled on empower Black joy as a broader vision is that after Trayvon, after Ferguson, we were seeing the development of a lot of very important grassroots movements like the Black Lives Matter network which were doing a lot of direct action and responding to heavy traumatic crisis moments that were happening in the community. And that’s difficult. Organizing in it creates a lot of challenges as you’re trying to preserve the long-term community organizing that we wanted to see.
And as we saw Trump being elected, we really began to think about Black joy as part of the resistance as well as a means to set parameters around values. Things can become too dark or too toxic or only about trauma and crisis. We really want it to create a space where people that could sure show up in those moments, but that also had a broader sunnier positive vision of the world that they were trying to create.
Q: That makes a lot of sense. That’s a really, really interesting evolution and I’m very moved to hear that that article had that kind of impact for you. You just made my day.
A: One of the other reasons it resonates with us as an independent political organization–I would say probably most of our members and our staff are Democrats, but a big part of our role is holding Democrats accountable to black people.
Against “Resisting Alone”
Q: This will be my last question though I could talk to you about this for hours. Dana Fisher, an academic who studies movements, has a very interesting new book coming out called American Resistance. (Note to readers: Civic Hall is hosting a book event with Fisher and Nation writer Joan Walsh on November 15.) It’s based on a lot of data she has collected with her teams, sampling, talking to people who have come to all the major demonstrations that have happened in Washington since 2016. A lot of her findings confirm assumptions a lot of us already have about who these people are, but there was one thing that was really striking to me that’s very much in the tenor of the conversation we’ve been having.
She argues that while it is true that in the last two years, the “resistance” has galvanized and channeled millions of people into a variety of activities, from issues like guns and immigration to electoral activity, the bulk of it is people who are doing this isolated from each other. In other words, the impact of all this distributed organizing is, and I hate to use this, but the coinage that I’m thinking of is they’re “resisting alone”—to riff off of Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone. He was concerned with the degree to which Americans just don’t know each other anymore. We don’t know our neighbors. We don’t belong to local groups very much. And it had reached the point where bowling leagues had dissolved into people just going to bowl on their own.
The work that you’ve been doing at Color of Change and tapping into seems to suggest that there’s a lot of desire to do things together.
A: Right. Well, I do know a lot of people that are acting alone. There are a lot of folks going to large scale public demonstrations. And we’re in the era of Twitter where people are tweeting about their politics. But what we’ve seen, and I talked a bit about this at the Netroots panel, is that people are craving offline communities. And especially the set of black folks that we’re really trying to empower. They haven’t found that space yet.
I first entered organizing as a volunteer during the general election for Barack Obama out in California. And, you know, when I walked into that Obama office in 2008, I was one of only two black people there, in the Berkeley area where I was living. There are lots of people, even people in my family, that had they walked into that office they probably wouldn’t have felt welcome or like that they could survive or contribute in a meaningful way.
So I think there’s something that’s happening around our collective willingness or desire to talk about politics with the people that we know the best. Years ago, people were sending out these guides for conversation that you can have with your family over Thanksgiving dinner, or during Christmas. More and more, we’re veering away from those sorts of conversations, which is why I think this like relational organizing piece is super important. When I came in, the Obama campaign was talking about the power of five and that meant like finding five people that you know to get involved, and I think for a lot of different reasons we’ve gotten away from that.
There are a lot of people that come on their own to our black women’s brunch. Like some people will come in pairs, but a lot of people just come alone and are desperately seeking community. There is one woman, it was either in Dallas or Houston, who had just moved to Texas. Her mother had just passed away. She was a young woman in a very multi-generational setting, and in the course of the conversation, she brought up that one of the things that she really regretted was that she never learned how to cook from her mother. And so the women at that table sort formed a group and started to get together monthly to do cooking classes for this young girl. We think about that anecdote a lot.
It’s part of the reason that empower Black joy is our mantra. Fundamentally if we’re trying to build a grassroots movement that’s built for a longer term, people have to want to hang out with one another like that. To form a neighborhood team, it has to be people that want to spend time together and that you can’t just arbitrarily place people together. They’ll do that for a couple of months until XYZ person is elected, but they won’t necessarily stay together to do the work of getting healthcare reform through. So we’re thinking about having five or six events with neighborhood teams that don’t explicitly talk about politics at all. They’ll be building relationships and community with one another, precisely for that reason because we’re trying to build something more durable.