In a Whirlwind Moment, Glimmers of Big Organizing
It's time for the advocacy industry to stop pressing send, and go out and try listening and engaging instead.
“Look for me in the whirlwind or a storm, look for me all around you, for with God’s grace I shall come back with countless millions of Black men and women who have died in America, those who have died in the West Indies and those who have died in Africa to aid You in fight for liberty, freedom and life.”
“I think that we should toss out everything we are doing organizationally and work on the premise that this is the moment of the whirlwind, that we are no longer organizing but guiding a social movement.”
—Organizer Nicholas von Hoffman speaking to his boss Saul Alinsky, the night after an overflow crowd showed up at a Woodlawn, Chicago, community meeting to hear Freedom Riders speak about their experiences in Mississippi.
Election Day 2016 was an earthquake in the lives of millions of people who thought their candidate, Hillary Clinton, was going to win. They woke up on 11-9 to a changed world. For many veterans of political organizing, that day was a tough but familiar reminder of the need to be an active participant in the process between elections. But for many more, it was a wake-up call, an electric shock to the heart.
As a result, for the last month millions of people have been in motion, activated and searching for ways to effectively respond to the election results. MoveOn, the giant e-organizing group, sent an email to its members asking for their counsel; Jo Comerford, their campaign director, tells me it received more than 30,000 detailed responses. In such an environment, previously difficult tasks suddenly appear easy. For example, last week on GivingTuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union raised $1.72 million from more than 20,500 donors, a 965% percent increase over its total from last year. From word-of-mouth social sharing alone, the Women’s March on Washington slated for the day after the inauguration already has 132,000 people signed up on its Facebook page, and another 233,000 interested. Donating to the ACLU in a moment like this or marching in Washington is, for many people, a muscle memory. There’s almost no need to think about it; you just respond if the call feels right.
But with millions in motion, the longtime problem of what my late friend Jake Brewer called “the tragedy of political advocacy” is now in high relief. When Jake wrote about it back in 2010, he was focused on the massive number of email petitions being generated by thousands of advocacy groups all calling on Members of Congress to take action on hundreds of issues. For Jake, the tragedy was that the barrage of incoming messages being deposited in Congressional in-boxes was producing “paralyzing noise, making Congress far less able to hear what citizens have to say” (and paradoxically causing congressional staff to become reliant on specialists—also known as lobbyists—to separate the signal from the noise). On top of that, most email petitions weren’t even being delivered to Congressional offices!
Why do advocacy organizations make so much noise? Jake wrote:
Unbeknownst to most, advocacy organizations are in a constant and fierce battle for their most precious commodity: relevance. Relevance for an advocacy group leads to influence, and influence leads to funding so that it can conduct more advocacy. This constant struggle also means that it’s likely an advocacy group will ask you to sign meaningless petitions for the appearance of relevance. Your name, email address and zip code, after all, are the gold currency of the relevance …err… advocacy industry.
Now, look at your inbox. If you are a Gmail user, look at the dreaded “Promotions” folder. If it is anything like mine, it looks something like this.
This is the other half of the tragedy of political advocacy. Because new communications technology has made it so easy to create and share messages, we are all now drowning in them. I’ve lost track of the number of people, ranging from my octogenarian mother and in-laws to fellow members of my synagogue’s social action committee, who have stopped me to beg for advice in recent days. “Will it make a difference if I sign more petitions? Which ones?” they ask. People are being overwhelmed by calls for action flooding their inboxes, along with the daily deluge of confusing news about the Trump administration in formation. It’s the same paralyzing noise breaking congressional inboxes, only the targets are the very people who have been jolted into motion by the election. Unfortunately, the natural response of most people to all this over-stimulation is the same as a baby in crowded room: you withdraw, even fall asleep, because your brain simply can’t keep up.
We are in what the 1960s organizers Nicholas von Hoffman and Saul Alinsky referred to as a moment of the whirlwind, a concept that is getting greater attention now thanks in part to the work of Mark and Paul Engler, co-authors of the book This is An Uprising. Thanks to the trigger event of the election, many more people than usual are ready to move in dramatic, even radical ways, to change the political calculus.
Unfortunately, the digital organizing practices of the last decade have created an environment that makes mass local engagement harder, not easier. Collectively, groups like Change.org, Organizing for America, Care2, MoveOn, Planned Parenthood, Credo Mobile, SumofUs, Demand Progress, and Color of Change may have as many as 60 million email addresses on their lists. But the bulk of their work—along with that of all the myriad party committees and smaller organizations now also hitting their email lists—engages people as atomized individuals and verticalizes them into petition signers and check writers, not community members.
Think about it. If you signed a petition, say, condemning Trump’s decision to make Stephen Bannon, the white nationalist chairman of Breitbart.com, his chief White House strategist, what happened next? Did the group whose petition you signed connect you to other signers in your town or congressional district? Of course not, because nearly all these groups operate from the assumption that organizing people effectively is too expensive, while collecting their names (and donations) is easy. Maybe it’s time people stopped signing such petitions and demanded that the groups generating them instead enabled likeminded people to connect locally, to build real capacity for meaningful action.
Dave Karpf, associate professor of political science at George Washington University, and the author of the 2012 book The MoveOn Effect, as well a terrific new book called Analytic Activism, has long argued that the modern form of digital advocacy—nimble issue-based groups with giant lists emailing people with timely calls to action in response to current events—was beneficial because of how responsive it was to member opinion. Older advocacy organizations rarely make decisions based on membership votes, he points out, while the newer ones built by cultivating massive lists of emails practice a form of “passive democratic engagement.” That is, through a combination of A/B testing and regular membership surveys, digital organizers know what their members supposedly want, based on what subject lines and messages get the most opens and clicks.
In the current moment, he says it makes sense that so many groups are putting out appeals to sign petitions or donate money. Until Trump is in office, he argues, there are limited opportunities for meaningful action, though he also includes making phone calls to Senators to stiffen their spines, and attending community meetings as valuable practices as well. But he agrees that there’s a huge cost to all the daily appeals, one that adds up to a tragedy of the commons. Says Karpf, “We’re wasting/failing to capture and convert a lot of the energy of the moment we’re in.”
I’d go further. All the national groups currently blasting petitions and appeals for money at the millions of people on their lists are actually making things worse, unless they are also connecting would-be activists to each other in more localized settings. The biggest reason why the National Rifle Association has power beyond its numbers isn’t because it spends a lot of money on issue advertising; it’s because it has active chapters that meet regularly in hundreds of congressional districts. For all the collective power amassed in the roughly 60 million email addresses held in the hands of the digital center-left, very little of it resides in the hands of ordinary people or community groups.
Organizing in the Whirlwind
Just over a week ago, Larry Stafford Jr., the executive director of Progressive Maryland (PM), hosted an organizing call for people across the state to get engaged. He was literally halfway through reading Rules for Revolutionaries, Becky Bond and Zack Exley’s new book about “big organizing,” when he decided to to take a risk. Ever since election night, people have been finding PM online and signing up, and Stafford laughed as he recalled how many phone calls and emails he got to his personal account from new people saying “I want to do something.” With PM’s small staff already locked into current programs, he took it upon himself to “figure out a way to get them organized.” He emailed the group’s list, texted others, and called some longtime friends to make sure they knew about the meeting.
With just two days notice, more than one hundred attended. Stafford opened the conversation by inviting people to share their feelings about the election, and then he laid out a framework for what PM thinks needs to happen. “First, we have to protect the vulnerable communities who are now going to face terror; second, we need to resist the incoming policies of the new administration and plan for that, both by holding Ds accountable and also taking action in the streets thru nontraditional action, while still advancing our own narrative of the world we want to see; and third, to prepare for the mid-terms to make sure there’s a counterbalance.”
Equally important, Stafford made sure to offer meaningful roles to the people who were on the call. By the end, thirty people had committed to host organizing meetings in their own communities; many signed up to do outreach using the Hustle mobile texting app; 22 signed up to be organizing fellows who will be will be responsible for recruiting and developing volunteers as well as activists who will take action in the streets to disrupt Trump’s agenda. Several others volunteered to join his digital team.
Or take Cosecha, a new network of organizers building power among undocumented and migrant communities in the United States. The day after the election, Thais Marques, Cosecha’s national student coordinator, created a Facebook event for a community call that night to discuss building a movement for “Sanctuary Campuses.” She shared it with a few student organizer friends and over the course of the day 300 people signed up. Close to ninety got on that first call. Over the following week she ran several more calls, with 150-plus attendees each, all of them volunteering to help organize campus walkouts scheduled for November 18.
All of these volunteer campus organizers were paired with one of fifty volunteer coaches that Marques knew from the Momentum organizing community, and each were given action toolkits advising them how to plan a student walkout along with social media amplification kits. From all this focused activity, more than 100 campuses held walkouts, including 3000 students at Rutgers. Cosecha now has 189 campuses in its network.
“There haven’t been any actions like that since the 2006 mega-marches,” Marques declares, referring to the student walkouts against Prop 8 in California. “Our biggest challenge right now is absorption. We have so many people signing up for the migrant boycott and sanctuary everywhere, and we don’t want to lose all these people who are being engaged.”
Or take IfNotNow, a millennial-led movement focused on organizing the American Jewish community to end support for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. Right after the election, IfNotNow launched #JewishResistance as a hashtag container to help Jews “channel their fear, anger, despair, hope and energy into public, visible action in cities across the country,” says Dani Moscovitch, one of IfNotNow’s three national coordinators. Building on their existing base in five major cities (Washington, D.C.; New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Boston), they coordinated actions focused on protesting Bannon, including one where hundreds of activists occupied the lobby of Trump’s transition headquarters in Washington.
Livestreaming those actions on Facebook, IfNotNow then promoted an open conference call built around organizing a “National Day of Jewish Resistance” that more than 1200 people registered for and 500 attended. The vast majority committed to planning, participating and/or funding local actions; last Wednesday more than 30 took place from Florida to Cape Cod to Milwaukee and Portland.
Moscovitch adds that “Each of these actions had an action coach from IfNotNow and an action guide supporting them each step of the way, and they each published a photo and did Facebook Live coverage of each action.” IfNotNow is now moving the people who are signing up into attending one-day trainings across the country, which will be run by 80-plus volunteer trainers that have been training for the past year, with the goal of channeling everyone into more action.
“The key here is we know that this is just the beginning,” Moscovitch says. “In Trump’s Transition Office, we sang the Shehecheyanu, the Jewish prayer for new beginnings, loud and proud. We already had a massive decentralized volunteer infrastructure with hundreds of people holding roles around training, strategy, facilitating, and communications before this momentum of intense mobilization and energy. Now, our whole volunteer swarm is oriented not just around escalating and channeling momentum in this moment, but to always planning ahead of each escalation the following: 1) how we will absorb that momentum we build and those people who see it 2) how we will bring those people together, plug them in to real, meaningful action steps and escalate bigger, and then 3) absorb the new momentum and people all over again, so they can join IfNotNow and act with us too.”
Unlike just about every organization currently stuffing your inbox and Facebook feed with pleas to sign petitions and donate, Progressive Maryland, Cosecha, IfNotNow have been actually engaging real people into roles with responsibilities and the potential for growth. They are also building connections between them that can sustain their involvement over time.
It’s time for the advocacy industry to stop pressing send, and go out and try listening and engaging instead.