Editor’s Note: Shonali Burke recently let me know about some exciting public relations work she is doing for the nonprofit Center for Community Change and connected me with Zack Langway, its digital campaign director. Zack is also the digital campaign director for its nonprofit sister organization, the Campaign for Community Change. Both organizations are doing some innovative work using social media for grassroots organizing of low-income people and people of color. Zack agreed to answer some questions about how they do it, and his responses below are just fascinating. Read on…
A: Social media, as part of an online organizing strategy, is a natural marriage of community organizing and 21st-century technology. The world is getting bigger, but technology is bringing us closer and closer together. I don’t see online organizing as a change to grassroots organizing, but rather a complement. Where we might have spent hundreds of hours pounding the pavement and knocking on doors to let people know about an issue, today we can rally thousands of people in a few hours. For example, in late September we got involved in an effort to stop Towson University from allowing a “White Student Union” hate group. In a few hours we were able to rally 1,200 signatures to the University President, and as of today, some 4,000 people have signed on to this message. We’ve also been able to use social media to keep our community notified of our progress and how their action made an impact.
Q: How do you quickly and cost effectively determine which social network (i.e., Twitter, Facebook, Meetup, etc.) would connect and mobilize a specific grassroots community best?
As an organization, we’re pretty platform-agnostic when we’re figuring out the best way to mobilize a community. We meet communities where they are. It’s the same as organizing any community—if you knock on their door, you’re more likely to get a response than leaving a note and saying, “Hey, meet me at my office at noon.” We knock on digital doors—sometimes that means through mobile and SMS, sometimes that means through Facebook, and so on—but we try to build community around an issue where we know from experience the community exists. There’s not a science to it—it’s trial and error sometimes—but the more we try, the more we test new tactics and theories in our online organizing work, the more we are learning about our communities, where they are, and how we can better mobilize them in the future.
Q: Do you ever determine a specific audience would be best reached through traditional offline organizing?
A: Well, we know that not all of our communities are online. It’s something that as online organizers we hear a lot of—“our people aren’t there, so why should I be organizing there?” Truth is, a lot of our communities are online. People of color have high adoption rates of mobile technologies—smart phones and not-so-smart phones that can receive SMS updates, messages from Twitter, and ultimately connect them to power in their community through the phone in their pocket. But again, that’s not 100 percent of our community. So we use online tactics as a complement to offline work. We figure out ways to identify at community events who could be a digital activist. We leverage tactics that bridge online-offline gaps, like asking folks in an online faith community to print a petition and circulate it at their place of worship.
Q: How important is identifying and connecting network leaders in your online organizing strategies?
A: We do a lot of one-to-one outreach, and it is on two levels: we want to support and receive support from community leaders in their own online engagement, and we want to get to know the “face behind the Facebook,” so to speak, in reaching out to other online organizers in the progressive movement. Each partner in any coalition and each organization in any movement has a slightly separate set of goals, values, and desired outcomes, but aligning online organizing to reciprocally amplify each other’s message is a big part of what we strive to do.
Q: What is your best success story in mobilizing faith, low-income, and hard-to-reach communities with social media?
A: There are so many successes in mobilizing hard-to-reach communities. We are working with Sunflower Community Action in both urban and rural areas Kansas to mobilize immigrant communities and allies to turn around an anti-immigrant wave of sentiment. Our work with the Ohio Organizing Campaign continues to be paying off with an increased growth in supporters via email and social media channels as well as amplifying the work that the organizers on the ground are doing with rapid response campaigns and live coverage of Community Congress’ around the state. But I think the most inspiring work I’ve been a part of this year is in Minnesota, where we are working with a great faith-based group, ISAIAH. They are identifying, organizing, and empowering people of faith to vote NO on a voter restriction amendment that would require state-issued photo ID to vote. ISAIAH is creating a community that includes urban and rural Minnesotans, students and senior citizens, and people who may have never considered themselves “activists”—all people of faith that know voting is a right that cannot be denied because someone can’t afford a trek to get a photo ID, or because someone is serving in the military and can’t show a photo ID when submitting an absentee ballot, as the amendment requires. The notion that photo IDs prevent voter fraud is itself a fraud—we see in Minnesota , as in every other state, that this is a problem that is so small, it’s nearly nonexistent. So we are working with ISAIAH to talk with people of faith, people that believe that inclusion is a moral right and know that voting is an undeniable right in our democracy—and we are seeing unprecedented levels of activity and action in the online communities we’re establishing for people of faith to get involved with the fight to defeat the initiative.
Special thanks to Shonali for connecting me with Zack!