Peoples Climate March Revives Platform for Distributed Organizing


Before the inauguration, before the election, the Peoples Climate March 2.0 was already in the works. Two years after the first People’s Climate March fulfilled its promise to be the largest climate change demonstration in history, the Peoples Climate Movement—the group has removed the apostrophe to “be more inclusive“—had begun outlining a plan to march in late April to pressure presidential-hopeful Hillary Clinton to be bigger and bolder on climate issues. Sometimes things simply don’t go as planned.

Unlike the Women’s March, the Tax March, the March for Science, and other demonstrations that have clogged streets and drawn headlines since the inauguration, the Peoples Climate March had the advantage of foresight; climate change and environmental issues were going to be relevant and pressing regardless of who won the election, it was only a matter of degree. They have had more time to organize and strategize than some of those other coalitions. However, the march this April will take place just a week after the March for Science, and after 100 days of political dumpster fires that have split progressives’ attention and energies. Although for some, protesting has become a lifestyle since the election, others might be experiencing march-fatigue by the end of April.

A poster for the 2017 march.

That is one reason organizers are emphasizing that the march later this month isn’t about numbers. Nor is it merely a climate march; it is a march “for climate, jobs and justice.” Organizers are prioritizing inclusiveness and intersectionality over march size.

As part of their strategy, the organizers of the march have re-launched the hubs, a platform-cum-strategy with roots in the Occupy movement that organizers deployed before the first march. The hubs supported independent, distributed organizing based on identities, geographic location, or shared interests. While technologically simple—little more than personalized websites with links to Google groups, Facebook events, contact information for the organizers, and the like—the theory of self-organizing behind the hubs model is radical compared to the top-down organizational model of traditional nonprofits and advocacy groups. Grassroots organizers said activists from traditional nonprofits didn’t quiet understand the hubs, or their value, and were hesitant to endorse their use. After the march, the hubs were mostly shelved because, as one 350.org employee told Civicist in 2015, they weren’t a “particularly meaningful investment to exist in perpetuity.”

How times have changed. According to Paul Getsos, a national coordinator for the Peoples Climate March, the steering committee of the march this year enthusiastically backed the relaunch of the hubs, which are now called organizing groups.

“There was not a debate about whether or not we should have hubs this time,” said Getsos, who also helped organize the 2014 march and the 2015 day of action. “Everyone was like ‘the hubs were great’ [in 2014].”

Moreover, organizers intend to keep the hubs up after the march. “There’s a commitment to keeping digital organizing in place, but light and lean,” Getsos explained. “We’re not interested in building an NGO, but we’re interested in figuring out a new model…a light, lean, and nimble mobilization infrastructure that builds out the field and collects people so you’re not having to recreate the wheel all the time, without creating a 100-person national organization.”

This is a drastically different scenario from 2014, when 100 percent of the organizers’ energies and resources were directed at the march, and almost nothing was set aside for post-march work.

Still, even with the hubs 1.0 as a guide, the launch of the organizing groups has not been as swift as some would have liked. The primary thing that the 2014 hubs coordinator, Tammy Shapiro, said in 2015 that she would have done differently is “started a lot earlier.”

The march organizers only recently began getting the organizing groups online, with little more than a month to go until the march. “I would have preferred organizing these hubs eight months ago, not six days ago,” Getsos said when we spoke by phone earlier this month. He blamed the lag on a lack of funding, and said that foundations and organizations often don’t want to give money to support a movement, they only want to give last minute support to one-off actions like the march.

Getting the hubs off the ground sooner might have been easier had the organizers of the 2014 march maintained the structure of hubs 1.0. Many of the individual hubs from 2014 still have active Facebook and Google groups, but the central page that held them all together was archived. The new page for organizing groups replicates the old hubs closely.

The 2014 hubs page on the left; 2017 organizing groups page on the right.

Digital coordinator Charlie Furman (who was also the digital coordinator in 2014) said relaunching the hubs was somewhat redundant, but it also allowed them the space to do things a bit differently, although the underlying theory of self-organization remains the same.

Furman said that while the 2014 march organizers emphasized creating hubs around shared interests, like veganism, yoga, or beekeeping, the emphasis this year is on creating “local intersectional tables…activists and organizations who come from a wide range of backgrounds, but work together towards common ends.”

This is in part because the groups that unite around shared interests often already belong to the same coalitions, and the march organizers want this event to seed new relationships and partnerships. March organizers also see local fights as the future of the movement.

“We are going to resist and fight the Trump agenda, and hopefully stop his attacks on our people and the planet,” said Getsos. “However, most proactive wins will most likley play out at the local and state level, setting the stage for federal wins in 2018 or 2020.”

“In 2014, we worked on encouraging people to find the people they wanted to organize with,” Furman explained. “In 2017, we’re looking for ways to support people who are organizing to do better work together.”

Another big difference on the backend is that the Peoples Climate Movement has begun using Action Network, a platform designed to smooth over the snags involved in large-scale coalition work, like how to divvy up email addresses between organizations post-march.

“The Peoples Climate March has more than 50 partners, all of them driving people on their lists to sign up,” ActionNetwork’s head of communications Jeffrey Dugas told Civicist. “It would be close to impossible for all of those partners to collaborate effectively without the Action Network.”

“Each activist signing up for an event through Jobs with Justice, for example, would be tagged with that organization’s referrer code, allowing organizers to know where the activists came from and simplifying the process of divvying up the contact list [after the march] and knowing which organizations get which activist contacts,” he explained.

“It’s really helpful for the local tables, because it’s a space where they can consistently follow up and will be able to continue doing so post-march,” Furman said.

Although Facebook, Google Groups, and Maestro are still part of the digital organizers’ suite of tools, Slack is making inroads. Furman said its actually helping to further decentralize the hubs structure. In 2014, hub leaders mostly waited to ask any questions they might have during the weekly conference call facilitated by Shapiro. Although that weekly call is still on the schedule, group leaders can now ask any questions they have in between those calls on Slack, reducing their dependence on the hubs coordinator.

Whether people will continue to organize within their organizing groups after the march remains to be seen. Of the two coordinators I spoke to—one with the Plant-Powered Planet Protectors group and the other with the Santa Barbara group—one was coordinating as part of her employment at the organization Compassion Over Killing, and the other was being paid a small stipend by a coalition of climate organizations in the Santa Barbara area. Neither participated in the 2014 mobilization. But that’s just two of many. Even after the 2014 march, when there was no official encouragement to maintain the hubs, some of the Facebook and Google groups remained active. People will continue organizing regardless of what happens to the infrastructure.