How Movements Organize Now: Notes on the Challenges of Rapid Growth
If you haven’t noticed already, we are living through a movement moment. Triggered by the election of Donald Trump and his combustive personality and policy moves, millions of Americans are in motion, forming and joining groups, rallying, signing and sharing petitions, and searching for ways to demonstrate their opposition. Thousands of new local community groups have formed, with at least 7,000 local groups inspired by the Indivisible Guide; 5,000 Huddles (small groups) spawned by the Women’s March; at least a thousand more conjured into existence by Meetup.com. Dozens and dozens of specialized groups have also been created—the ActionAlliance counts more than 80 just focused on collecting and sharing action alerts for concerned citizens. Here at Civic Hall, we’ve been building a catalogue of many of these efforts focused on simply tracking who is doing what, by function, and we’ve run out of letters of the alphabet to enumerate all the columns in our “Resist Projects” spreadsheet (a work in progress, aided by research from the good folks at Movement2017.org).
One of the challenges all of these groups face is how to deal with the rapid proliferation of active members. In normal times, this is rarely a problem. Groups grow slowly and they have time to generate regularized systems for communication and coordination. Also, in normal times, most people who “join” an organization devoted to addressing some issue aren’t demanding a big role or a big say in what that organization does or how it works. But these aren’t ordinary times. And even more than past movement moments, like the months in the fall of 2011 when Occupy Wall Street took over the streets of hundreds of cities worldwide, Americans are linked up digitally like never before. The result is the joyful noise made by people on the move, combined with the feeling that we are all in one room together with everyone talking at once.
How are groups dealing with this moment? Absorption is a problem that has vexed fast-growing movements for a long time—it’s one of the reasons that both the Students for a Democratic Society and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee lost their internal coherence when their memberships exploded in the early 1960s. Looking at the rise of the Trump resistance, it’s impossible to provide a complete answer in real-time, and hopefully academic researchers are busy collecting lots of raw data to sift later. But as a wise friend once said, fish need to be their own oceanographers. So, here, collected with the help of several friends of Civic Hall, are some notes towards understanding how groups are learning to coordinate and communicate in movement times. (Please share your own experience in the comments!)
We have reports on six new groups: Two are local Indivisible groups, one based in suburban Westchester and the northern Bronx, the other in rural northern California; one is a Facebook Women’s March group (for NYC); one is a federation of Women’s March groups that ties together people who helped pull more than 1.2 million people to more than 20 marches across the state of California; one is a virtual network of researchers and coders fighting to save vital government data; and one is a kind of clearinghouse/unconference for thousands of people in Brooklyn.
Some common themes emerge from these brief reports. One is that without exception, people who are organizing use the same consumer-grade tools that “ordinary” people use for their everyday communications: email and Facebook. Second, organizers and members alike are not happy with those tools, and it’s possible to shift people to others if your group is willing to differentiate communication needs. (If everyone wants to know everything that is going on, that is simply impossible.) Third, Slack isn’t just for the tech-savvy; people who aren’t early adopters and who often reject new tools are capable of quickly warming to it. Fourth, no one is satisfied with what they’re using. And fifth, there appears to be an ongoing unfulfilled need for more lateral communication between groups, for sharing of best practices and solutions to the ongoing challenges of local organizing.
NYCD16-Indivisible (Riverdale, Yonkers, lower Westchester and northern Bronx, represented by Eliot Engel)
This group got started in early January when co-founders Liz de Bethune and Eileen O’Connor called a meeting by emailing many of their friends and coworkers. On January 7, nearly 50 people showed up at their house in the middle of a snowstorm. (Full disclosure, my wife and I were among the attendees.) NYCD16 has since had three more general meetings, with 100, 150, and 130 people attending, respectively. A townhall meeting it held Sunday March 5 with Engel and community leaders was attended by about 800 people. Before that event NYCD16 had more than 650 people on its email list, which is being managed using Action Network.
Because this group was started by a couple who tapped their existing social networks, NYCD16 has a couple dozen people at its core who know each other, either as coworkers in the healthcare field (O’Connor is a nurse practitioner at nearby Montefiore Hospital), or members of a local canoeing club, or a biking group, or friends from church or synagogue. At each general meeting, roughly half the attendees have been new people, which is great, but also presents a constant challenge for absorbing and orienting new people while the group itself gets organized.
NYCD16 started internally communicating by using a Google listserv for the first 50 or so members, but within a few weeks many people were complaining about “getting too many emails.” So it switched to using a closed Facebook group with light moderation (any member can post) as the place for sharing random updates as well as ongoing group calls to action or alerts. That Facebook group has grown to about 340 members. At the same time, it has launched a Slack channel for people who are active on any of NYCD16’s working groups, which has 25 users.
The group now has the following structure for communications:
- a website built by a member with web hosting skills that has basic information about Indivisible, some curated information about its elected officials and a calendar of upcoming meetings;
- a big email list hosted on Action Network, used by the group’s founders to send out weekly updates, and also used to run three petitions aimed at its Member of Congress;
- a Facebook group for peer-to-peer sharing that has a moderate level of community engagement;
- a Slack channel that is beginning to be used for timely coordination by the most active volunteers.
Says de Bethune, the group’s co-founder:
Our communication needs are constantly evolving, and we are trying hard to scale as the demand grows. Nothing is perfect, but incorporating Slack into the portfolio of tools we use has been enormously helpful. Since we move between the Action Network list, the google listserv (still, for some), Facebook, email, the website and Slack, it can be a bit of a juggling act to figure out which conversation thread started where. We are integrating different levels of tech comfort, from those who are thoroughly digitally integrated to those for whom email is the limit. Slack has proved to be very helpful because it has been so readily adapted by those with all levels of tech ability.
Yuba Indivisible CA-1 (Northeastern corner of California, a huge district now represented by Rep. Doug LaMalfa)
This group was started four weeks ago by Kipchoge Spencer, a musician and founder of a bicycle company who is now working on his third career as a political technologist developing a tool for organizers called Take2. (Full disclosure: I’m an advisor.) He says his group has 350 members. “There’s another Indivisible in town that is women-only and has more than 2,000. Altogether, there are about 3,000 members spread among the seven groups in our local community (pop. ~25,000).”
We, Yuba Indivisible, CA-1, use Facebook and Action Network in predictable ways, trying to use FB less and less, mainly as a point of entry for new members. There are about 15 other Indivisibles in our district, as well as several more who are close to us in the district to the south. We’re beginning to coordinate with them via an instance of Discourse that we’re all sharing.
Discourse, for those who aren’t familiar with the tool, is an open-source tool designed to be a combination of mailing list, discussion forum and long-form chat room. Its makers say, “it’s an attempt to reimagine what a modern internet discussion platform should be today, in a world of ubiquitous smartphones, tablets, Facebook, and Twitter.” Unlike Facebook, Twitter and email, Discourse is designed to try to get its users to be more civilized with each other, in part by using a “trust system” that rewards the most engaged community members for good behavior and tries to disincentivize trolls, bad actors, and spammers.
Spencer is a big fan. He says, “We’re discouraging email for group coordination tasks and trying to get folks to use Discourse as much as possible. Here are some reasons, as explained in a group email:
- there are people on this thread who aren’t part of this planning process and likely don’t want to be on it; but as soon as there’s a big cc list, it becomes difficult to remove yourself
- there are people who are part of this planning or who would want to be, but aren’t included here; in that sense, this is a walled garden, which is by nature anti-democractic. Also, including more people later is messy (e.g., it requires a new message to everyone just to add folks)
- you can’t update what you originally wrote (if, for example, you made a mistake) without a new message to everyone
- threading quickly gets out of control with 20+ participants with multiple discussion points
- essentially no good way to make the discussion public
- it’s not central or searchable; if you want to get involved in the discussion, you have no easy way to know how to find it
- there’s no public record, or even private record within participating groups. New group members in the future will never see an email conversation from the past
- no good way to handle side conversations or breakout groups
We’re just getting started, but it’s looking promising. Seems we’ll be able to coordinate between groups on actions (just pulled one off with 500 folks and 7 collaborating groups, which is a good turnout on a Friday morning for a rural area), on projects (e.g. KnockEveryDoor), and on tasks. One group is handling all press, for instance. Another is tracking the congressman for the rest of the groups. Mine is focused on software and onboarding. Etc. Without a tool like Discourse, this would be a siloed mess to keep track of. Slack (et al) doesn’t cut it for collaborative, complex organizing, invites too much time-sucking chatter, is another walled garden, isn’t really intended for inter-group collaboration and seriously fails the affordability test for a big group that wants to keep track of discussions from further back than a week. Discourse enables us to have a lot of discussion and decisionmaking without or before we get to a meeting. We’re trying to get all the groups to use Action Network, too, to make co-event-hosting smoother and so we can make a master member list for the whole district.
Women’s March on Washington—NYC Chapter (Facebook group with about 20,000 members)
By Molly Sandley, one of the founders of the NYC Women’s March Facebook group
Our Facebook group was started a day after the original Women’s March Facebook post, and grew very quickly to thousands of members, and then tens of thousands. There were just a few of us organizing in the very beginning—we had a list of interested volunteers who’d signed up via a Google Form, but it took a while to sort through the entries and build a larger team. We started using Slack to communicate internally in mid-November, about two weeks after we started, and by that time had a core team of around 10.
Because there was a huge amount of press coverage in the first few weeks and there weren’t any actual details available for the March yet, the event page became an endless run of answering the same few questions over and over: Does the March have a permit? Will it be safe? What’s the route? Will there be buses?
We knew very quickly that in order to be most effective we’d need to get off Facebook. We wanted to build out our own website, but the National organizers were promising almost every day that they’d be putting up a National site with state-specific content within the next day or so, so we waited. And waited. We also had to wait on Women’s March branding, which really limited our ability to do outreach.
Eventually we gave up, developed our own branding, and put up a Squarespace page, which was a huge help; we could host multiple signup forms, maintain a static FAQ page, and post event info. We set up a Google Form to gauge interest in bus transportation and figure out where most of our riders would be coming from, and started using Mailchimp to send out periodic updates and communicate with our new neighborhood groups. Unfortunately, no matter how hard we pushed only a minority of people transferred over from the Facebook event page/group to the main email list.
Because we weren’t holding regular events or meetings, it was hard to gauge how active our group members were. We held our first sign-making party expecting a small turnout, and instead had hundreds of people show up. Our later events—more parties, a fundraising concert at City Winery, tabling and informational events—were all very well-attended, even when only promoted on Facebook.
Eventually we formed a fiscal sponsorship with a local non-profit, and we were able to fully expand and begin taking donations.
The best part of organizing on Facebook: especially in the beginning, there were only two of us posting multiple updates a day, and we had very different editorial voices. When we’d post there would be an immediate and vocal response, and we would spend huge chunks of every day just answering questions and talking to people. As a result they got to know us, we discovered neighborhood leaders who could take ownership of their areas, and we were able to build a community.
The drawbacks were significant, and some of them are baked into the Facebook design. When you’re trying to distribute information, some of it time-sensitive, to a busy event page, it’s like throwing rocks in the river — even if you pin the post a surprising number of people aren’t going to see it, and weirdly enough pinned posts aren’t easily visible on mobile. The FB algorithm also guaranteed that only a percentage of our followers saw any given post.
We also knew of at least one state that lost everything when an admin on their Facebook page decided to quit, and take the page with them. They were forced to rebuild everything, and it definitely kept us from widening the circle of page admins.
By far the biggest drawback, though, was how hard it was to do outreach to people who don’t use social media—we worked to forge local partnerships and reach out to churches, mosques, community groups etc. but were only somewhat successful.
The March is over, but the organizing group will continue on, with a new structure and a mission statement emphasizing empowering women’s political engagement. There will be much less of an emphasis on Facebook for online organizing, and a much stronger focus on face-to-face conversations and building coalitions.
Women’s March, CA (a network of some 20 sister march groups statewide)
By Carolyn Jasik, executive director of Women’s March, CA
On January 21, 2017, 1.2 million Californians marched in 20 cities statewide and in Washington, D.C., to show their support for women’s rights as human rights. This group represented 20 percent of the worldwide movement on that day. Since March Day, the California coalition has continued their work focusing on activating California voters through social media, letter writing, ongoing protests, and policy activities. The main focus of the organization in 2017 will be voter registration, education, and advocacy around progressive issues such as education, health care, civil rights, immigrant rights, equal pay, and reproductive rights.
The organizational structure and communication strategy pre-march and post-march are very different as the situation is dramatically different between the two. Pre-march we were on a strict deadline of only 10 weeks to organize, whereas now there is more time.
The Women’s March CA group was started by 2 people—Daniela Warman and Veronica Cox—who created a Facebook page in response to the National Call for a Women’s March that was happening on FB already. The goal of the FB page initially was to help CA women organize to get to DC. After the first week, it became clear that many women would not be able to make it to DC and were planning to organize events locally here in CA. At that point, Dany and Veronica brought on additional moderators for the site: me, Gabriella Khoresani, Jasmine Partida. I was assigned to help coordinate the “Sister Marches” here in CA. The first march organized was the Sacramento March, and then eventually there were 20 marches statewide (maybe more!) in addition to the group going to D.C.
The CA sister march coalition never met in person and did all their organizing via a Facebook group page and messenger. We had weekly conference calls using uberconference and set up a Google group email to communicate in addition to FB messenger. Every week there were new sister marches that were added to the group for the total of 20 that are now part of the network: Chico, Eureka, Fresno, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Palm Springs, Monterey, Pacific, Redding/Shasta County, Riverside, San Francisco, San Jose, San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz, Sonoma/Santa Rosa, Walnut Creek, and California Women in DC. Many people wanted to change to Slack during the planning, and used that in their cities, but the planning needed to happen so quickly that we pretty much just relied on the one FB messenger group. We also shared files via Google Drive. That was complicated as there were so many people in the drive that we had a lot of trouble managing permissions, etc.
After the march, our communication and organizational needs have changed. We have also welcomed 5-7 new marches into the group since March Day. We are now using Gmail Suite with groups, email, and drive for files. We are also transitioning to Slack for communication, but it has been hard to get people off the Facebook group page and messenger. We tried Basecamp for a few days but it never caught on. We are still using UberConference, but I really would like to find a service that allows for hand raising vs. a free for all.
Re: decision-making, we have always had a grassroots/democratic style on that. Every march gets a vote and we do polls on FB to ask key questions like where to hold a retreat, etc. We now have a Board of Directors and Steering Committee to run various areas within the organization. All ideas for actions come from the ground level and then are taken to the group. If a particular city wants to do an action, like letter writing, the rest of the group can decide whether to take it statewide or not.
EDGI: The Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (a distributed network plus local events)
By Dawn Walker, Community Coordinator for Environmental Data and Governance Initiative and a PhD Student, Faculty of Information, University of Toronto, and Liz Barry, Public Lab’s Director of Community Development, and contributor to the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative
Starting as a post-election email chain of 14 researchers, the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI) has grown in a little over three months to more than 65 members addressing potential threats to federal environmental and energy policy and scientific research infrastructure. We’ve evolved a steering committee that guides three working groups, with one of the working groups itself coordinating a sprawling distributed volunteer tech team with over 20 active volunteers building tools to proactively preserve agency environmental data to ensure its continued public availability. Given our emphasis on data preservation, EDGI has focused on building research networks and hosting public events. (For more on how EDGI grew out of an earlier “guerilla archiving” effort in Canada, read this.)
Despite this technical emphasis, the core group of EDGI is made of people who wouldn’t identify primarily as technologists. As a result, our approach to communications and coordination has been pretty basic—we started out with the tools we were already comfortable using: Slack and Google Docs for collaboration. With many members’ previous involvement in advocacy-oriented work, and given the sensitive nature of some of our organizing, a nomination process for joining the Slack was put in place with a steering committee to direct activities based on an organizational mission, a voting process, and a convention on how to credit shared work.
Connections to archival and preservation partners came out of personal relationships and tactical outreach. As those partnerships grow and formalize, we’ve taken EDGI to countless other network’s communication channels: countless mailing lists, informal email chains, slacks, etc.
One of those partnerships has been with the DataRefuge project, with whom we quickly began to facilitate local “DataRescue” events to investigate federal government websites in order to preserve data through a range of means. Our communications sprawl over two open Slack teams where on average 10-20 new members have been joining per day over the last eight weeks. More than 580 people are on an “Archivers” Slack and more than 930 on the DataRefuge Slack. Those who join are either at an event or are interested in ongoing volunteering and hear about DataRescue through media coverage.
Our communications have definitely had some growing pains—Slack(s) can overwhelm, especially with a mix of styles of use. However the central group has paused on making any quick decisions about making any changes in how we communicate so we can understand the most pain points that we can address with limited capacity.
We recently began to revisit our use of Slack and whether the tool is appropriate for future community growth. This conversation has been driven by both the ephemeral nature of event-based Slacks (people stop logging in) and questions about centralized tools, platform ownership, and support for local organizing.
With the high levels of technical literacy and technology-centric nature of what we are doing, we decided to continue for now with Slack only for multi-directional comms, letting local organizers improvise and work with their own ad hoc solutions rather than creating a central communications framework for email mailing lists. To balance this looseness, the central group is moving to formalize a more familiar email newsletter structure where announcements can be broadcast.
On the horizon are a bunch more communication decisions: How do we advertise and maintain the email newsletter (we’ve spoken about setting up a subscribe feature on the website and having a monthly email announcement)? How do we engage those not involved in Slack in ongoing conversations (some form of slack digest has been proposed)? And how do we see communications developing as we shift out of event-based preservation into other forms of monitoring and data preservation?
Get Organized Brooklyn (a clearinghouse for many working groups that functions like a monthly unconference)
By Ellen Mendlow, a cultural and organizational strategy consultant, Civic Hall ambassador, and Get Organized Brooklyn participant
#GetOrganizedBK started when two local Brooklyn leaders, New York City Councilman Brad Lander and Rabbi Rachel Timoner, head of Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, came together after the election and led a large “neighborhood assembly” style meeting in CBE’s sanctuary space. Lander convened the first gathering a mere week after the election and along with his staff and Timoner, several volunteers, including those from Lander’s participatory budgeting effort, helped with crowd management. At the very first meeting the crowd was so large that many were turned away and more people watched a livestream that was recorded and posted after. Word spread quickly by word of mouth, email lists, Facebook, and other social media and by the second assembly people were ready to organize into self-directed breakouts. By January, 1,200 people turned up for the live event on a busy Monday (half of these were attending for the first time). By the end of February the #GetOrganizedBK Facebook group had nearly 6,000 members.
The group convenes once a month at CBE for a two-part meeting—a large assembly with panels or other information organized for the whole group, followed by facilitated breakouts on issues suggested and led by organizers within the community. At last count 13 groups and subgroups—many with independent meetings of their own—have formed on subjects including preserving safety nets, civic activism, solidarity with immigrants, fighting Trump’s conflict of interests, contacting Members of Congress, and standing up for women’s rights, racial justice, and a free press, among others. Among the work that has emerged from all this activity are robust letter-writing and call-in campaigns (under the banner of IndivisibleNationBK), a recurring “Not in Our City” vigil against hate crimes in Grand Central terminal, bird-dogging and organizing targeting of both local and national elected officials, including rallies outside Park Slope resident Chuck Schumer’s house, planning for immigrant support, and the Silent March for A Free Press.
GetorganizedBK is definitely an evolving entity. “What is truly driving this powerful organizing is the leadership people are stepping up to take in the #GOBK working groups,” Lander wrote on Facebook. “It’s incredible what people are making happen together.” Bryony Romer, a group facilitator and a member of a steering committee that formed to manage some of the organizational issues, says the group is “more of a convening mechanism for self-directed activists working on a bunch of different projects than a platform that says we stand for x or y or has decision power over what should and should not be done.”
Romer says Lander calls the organization a “Do-ocracy” meaning
“those who get involved do more.” As the group evolves, infrastructure shifts to accommodate and answer the needs of the activists including the introduction of the steering committee made up of facilitators, Rabbi Timoner and CBE representatives, and staff from local politician’s offices (including Lander’s and Assemblyman Bobby Carroll’s offices).
Though the center of #GOBK activism is in-person, face-to-face action, communication between meetings takes place through email blasts and Facebook posts from the group conveners at large, and within groups and subgroups across an array of self-chosen tools from Google groups and Facebook, to email lists, to Signal and Slack. General communications among key organizers takes place in person and on Slack. There’s now a Twitter account (@GOBK) and a dedicated website—www.gobk.org.
“The success is due to the commitment and driving passion volunteers have poured into #GetOrganizedBK,” Lander told The Huffington Post. “GetorganizedBK has volunteer facilitators and working meetings with hundreds of volunteers. Because of their willingness to contribute time, resources and experience, #GetorganizedBK has been able to motivate thousands of people.”
Says Romer, “People are lit up to do stuff, we just create some infrastructure and get out of the way.”