Minneapolis In the spring about this time annually the Organizers’ Forum (www.organizersforum.org) has one of its dialogues. This year we ventured into the rough edges that characterize the experience of many organizers and organizations with using (trying to use?) technology to build their organizations and communicate with their members and the public. A combination of almost 50 organizers from community organizations and unions along with techies of great skill and renown collided at the Normandy Inn in Minneapolis to try to learn a common language across the divide, get up to speed, and make progress. It’s actually a surprise at how well we’ve done, though it is equally daunting to see how far we have to go.
The first evening we convened one wondered if this was going to work. With help from Mark Sherman and Arif Mamdani from the Progressive Technology Project (www.progressivetech.org), we had a “hack-a-thon” which turned out to be everyone putting their questions (and skills) on cards and sharing them. There were huge chasms between various organizers and organizations and how much or how little they were able to do. By Thursday morning when we began and one saw the rows of laptops open in front of the participants it was easier to have some hope that we could get there by the end of the dialogue, and sure enough we started making progress.
Don’t just take my word for it though, thanks to our friend, Greg Nelson, formerly of CTSG and other outfits and now temporarily a consultant; you can see the notes from the conference as they evolve through a wiki at www.seedwiki.com/wiki/orgforum. Tell me that is not the coolest thing! I’ve read about them of course, and I’ve checked wikipedia to see how well the right wing is doing a slamming on the ACORN entry, but it had never quite registered on me that this could be useful in quite this way, as an assembled and collective note taking. Different folks adding, correcting, and rolling in their comments, as well as getting presenters materials and wham-bam you have 8 pages of notes after the first day. Check it out, techno peasant readers of mine!
And, that’s just the tease….
We started with the organizers in order not to overwhelm the crowd. Paul Blank from Wakeup Wal-Mart, the UFCW supported corporate accountability campaign (www.wakeupwalmart.org) detailed how their site had grown to more than 250,000 over a year. Justin Ruben, the organizing director, of MoveOn (www.moveon.org) was fascinating as he told the story of grafting a field organizing program with 15 people onto a base of 3,000,000 after the base was built. His chart (need it on the wiki!) on where field organizers added value and where they did not was both interesting and sobering. Steve Bradberry, my comrade at New Orleans ACORN, held the crowd with the tech challenges of finding and re-assembling the ACORN base after Katrina (www.acorn.org/katrina). Heather Holdridge then told the story of Care2 (www.care2.com) which has close to 6,000,000 “members” doing all manner of things from soup to nuts to campaigns, and I honestly had never heard of it! Quite impressive operation though I felt like I needed to look harder under the hood to understand this one later. Homework assignment for Wade — make a note!
You must be getting the picture…this was a mind blower. In the afternoon Katrin Verclas of Mobile Active (www.mobileactive.org) led a group that included Ben Rigby of Mobile Voter (www.mobilevoter.org), Henry Serrano, an organizer (thank god!) with Community Voices Heard (www.cvhaction.org), and Melissa Roy from The Organizing Group (www.organizinggroup.org). The upshot was mixed here. Use of text messaging in the United States seems to have already been hijacked by the mobile operators (Verizon, Sprint, etc) and their consolidators, so that they get to approve mass messaging campaigns months in advance. Unless there is some change there or a workaround this is not going to yield much I would fear for our progressive forces. Melissa Roy was a veteran of Americans Coming Together (ACT) and is now working with Steve Rosenthal on his newest venture as a political consultant. She was realistic in talking about using PDA’s (personal digital assistants — palm pilots, buddy!) for keeping up with lists and monitoring organizer and canvass performance in the field. The bottom line is that you have to be big to make the PDA system work and paper is still the bomb for small operations. This was good stuff!
Looking at tools, Leda Dederich from Scout Seven (www.scoutseven.org) was joined by Brian Sant, the internet campaign manager from Corporate Accountability International (www.stopcorporateabuse.org) and Jamie McClelland from May First/People Link (mayfirst.org), an internet service provider for social change in breaking down for people how to look at content management systems (believe me there are abbreviations for ALL of this and the techies use the short form ALL the time — I’m sparing you but you will have to learn this stuff on your own!), which means simple ways to post up on the web and management your websites. This was a free flowing discussion of the stops and starts that various folks were trying. Short summary would be that large organizations were paying to get their own stuff done, and smaller ones were either buying on brand or trying to bump and grind their way through the maze with various levels of smiles and tears.
Check this entire thing out on the wiki — more to come today. The sessions Friday are going to be about the future — including a presentation by the legendary Zephyr Teachout — and where it’s all going — strap us down, captain!
May 5, 2006