Easy Is Winning in Technical Organizing Tools

Bristol  We spent hours in Bristol talking about how to use technology and tech tools in organizing including a Skype call with experts in Washington and our folks from Canada, England, and France. The short summary is the one we already knew going in: nothing is perfect. Everything we tried had gaps, hidden costs, and aggravating features. There’s nothing appealing about making decisions where you know from the beginning that no one is going to be completely happy no matter what. Bad memories of endless discussions from different advocates and fans of different database systems when we were forced to decide on one for everybody came roaring back at me like nightmares.

I spent time before that call, talking to Kentaro Toyamo, professor at the University of Michigan, author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology,  who suffers through my techno-peasantry while trying to help me figure out a way to milk advantages from tech potential. The question I posed was whether there was a way to combine locational and relational algorithms, similar to those used by Google, Amazon, and others to allow people to find each other – and an organization – when they faced issues in their tenant block, neighborhood, or workplace and wanted to organize to deal with it. The answer was kind of a “yes, maybe,” but the caution he remarked in developing an independent application or something that triggered to a website was the mountain to climb to the find the crowd versus trying to navigate Facebook where the crowd already congregates. The continuing dominance of Facebook almost argued that it made sense to try to develop an app for that, rather than one that was independent, just because of the pure volume of users and the ease of use and adoption.

Though Facebook is made of “likes,” it’s just hard to love from the fake news to the constant advertising, data mining, and self-absorption from the top down.  Yet, it’s hard to argue with success and when you are trying to work with people, there’s no way around going where people are, and that’s Facebook today for many hours of people’s day it seems.

We spent a lot of time and started building some affection for ActionNetwork.org and its tools. We found the gaps obnoxious, but found the ease of use compelling, along with the fact that the nonprofit operation was created by people with organizing experience who seemed as least receptive to our particular needs.We’re likely soon to decide to go in that direction, all things being equal.

We were also taken with Slack.com as well, which is a free service used extensively by the Sanders campaigns to link volunteers and more recently by activists trying to connect and organize in the US period of chaos and resistance. ACORN in the UK has been using Slack to do daily communications with organizers and allow them to add channels for work projects. I’ve been trying it with slightly less success with my research interns at the University of Ottawa as well.Nonetheless, I found it very, very easy, and way better than something like Dropbox to move large documents effectively to the work team, so that’s something to love, but no matter the tool, it only has value if people use it. How an organizer would keep up with 1600 Slack groups is still beyond me, no matter how easy it is to use, but that’s something worth learning.

So we get back to Facebook groups, which we use, and our members love in dealing with tenant support issues in the UK, mental health rights in Alaska, and disability rights in Vancouver. Hard to beat.

No matter what works in theory, we have to go where people are.

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Is There a Resistance Movement or Resistance Moment?

Bristol   I definitely don’t want to be standing at the station when the whistle blows that the train is moving out. I have to admit that I have my ears perked up at every sound to try to hear whether it’s the thundering feet of a movement or just the sharp cry of a moment.

I’m too jaded in this work to see Congressional town halls as the birthplace of the next revolution, but I don’t want to be blind to history either, and a snippet of the news like the one that follows makes me sit up straight and stand at total attention:

In fact, some of the most formidable and well-established organizing groups on the left have found themselves scrambling to track all of the local groups sprouting up through social media channels like Facebook and Slack, or in local “huddles” that grew out of the women’s marches across the country the day after the inauguration.

When the people are moving and established organizations and institutions are having to work overtime to catch up with them, that’s a very, very interesting sign. In a time of movement, it may be difficult for this kind of activity and anger to be channeled in the way that these same organizations and institutions are hoping to move the stream. It’s good news though for the 30 million lower income families taking advantage of the Affordable Care Act that there are many of the flags being waved as elected representatives slink home from the Congressional chaos are focusing on saving health care.

There are other signs too. When seasoned organizers report that they expected 200 at a meeting, and 1000 showed up, as my generation said, “you don’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind is blowing.” The Times also reported on other barometers that people were in motion:

Anti-abortion demonstrations in some cities this month were met with much larger crowds of abortion rights supporters. At a widely viewed town-hall-style meeting held by Representative Gus Bilirakis in Florida, a local Republican Party chairman who declared that the health care act set up “death panels” was shouted down by supporters of the law.

And, perhaps more interestingly, an organizer for Planned Parenthood posed the question plainly as she tries to ride this wave of momentum:

“It doesn’t work for organizations to bigfoot strategy; it’s not the way organizing happens now,” said Kelley Robinson, the deputy national organizing director for Planned Parenthood, which is fighting the defunding of its health clinics. “There are bigger ideas coming out of the grass roots than the traditional organizations.”

If she’s right, that’s a call to arms for all of us to get ready to move, because grassroots activity needs formation, planning, resources, and direction in order to win. That’s not bigfoot, that’s soft touch, listening, and work on the ground that takes a moment and helps make a movement and births new organizations and great social change.

When that whistle blows, we have to all be on the train.

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Chaos in the White House Can’t Stop Progress in the Streets

Bristol ACORN

Bristol   Maybe President Trump needs to get out more? Perhaps there’s something in the air in the White House that is clogging up his so-called “fine-tuned machine” and bringing out the crazy? Maybe from the outside looking in, it would be easier for him to understand better why the rest of us are scared sillier every day?

Who knows, but for me it was relief to jump off the merry-go-round of the Trump-Watch and back onto a plane again. And, though sleepless and a walking-zombie imitation, sure enough it was possible to find signs of continuing progress away from the maddening vortex of chaos in Washington.

Visiting with the ACORN organizers in Bristol, the big problem of the day was one every organization likes to have. On the eve of ACORN’s first all-offices, national action scheduled only days away from Edinburgh to Sheffield, Newcastle, Bristol, and beyond against the giant multi-national bank, Santander, they threw in the towel and caved in. The issue was a requirement that Santander attaches on any loans in housing that tenant leases mandate rent increases. ACORN was demanding the provision be dropped from all leases, and Santander announced that it was doing so, and in a bit of dissembling claimed that they had never really enforced it anyway. Hmmm. I wonder if they had told any of their landlords, “hey, ignore that part, we don’t really want you to raise the rents, we’re just kidding, it’s only money.” Hard to believe isn’t it? And, we don’t, but a win is a win, and the action will now become a celebration and a demand that all other banks in the United Kingdom also scrub out any such language.

Back home, ACORN affiliate, A Community Voice, was front page news as they laid the gauntlet down once again around an expansion of the Industrial Canal that divides the upper and lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. The expansion would dislocate homes and further bisect this iconic and beleaguered community.

Meanwhile, as we get closer and closer to being able to target big real estate operations and private equity that are exploiting lower income home seekers in the Midwest and South through contract for deed land purchasers, there was progress in the courts. A federal judge ruled that Harbour Portfolio, a Dallas-based bottom-fishing private equity operation with a big 7000-home play in FNMA, would have to abide by a subpoena from the much embattled Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and disclose information on its use high-interest, predatory contract-for-deed instruments in its home flipping. As we get closer and closer to having our arms around not only terms and conditions of these exploitative contracts, but also lists of potential victims in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, this is good news, even though far from the relief and victory families will be seeking.

All of which proves that if we can keep our focus away from the chaos created in Washington and our feet on the streets, there are fights galore and victories aplenty to reward the work and struggle.

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Valentines for Washington Post and Sally Yates

New Orleans   I made sure on Valentine’s Day that I was covered with my companera, my daughter, and my mother, but turns out I should have figured out a way to send a card to the Washington Post and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, because if they had not done their jobs in such a stellar fashion none of us could celebrate the early Valentine’s present from the President of finally forcing the resignation of former General Michael Flynn as National Security Council adviser.

It turns out the President had known Flynn was off the rails for weeks and weeks, and did nothing, including letting some of his gang know he was sitting on solid evidence of Flynn’s dissembling over his contact with the Russian Ambassador. He was only provoked to action first by a column in the Post that revealed that there was a transcript of the conversations he had with the Russian Ambassador picked up in packets of intercepts by the NSA, and the transcript was at odds with his claim that he had not discussed the sanctions prior to Trump’s inauguration. That column wasn’t the final straw though even as the story unraveled. The final trigger was the White House’s knowledge that yet another story was coming out in the Post on Monday. And, then and only then did Trump demand and receive Flynn’s resignation.

As the story finally dribbles out, Trump had known about this mess since shortly after the Inauguration, when Acting Attorney General Sally Yates after discussion and a greenlight from the head of the FBI reached out to the White House counsel and shared with him the information they had had since late December. The FBI had asked Yates to wait until then in order to do more investigation and interviewed Flynn within days of Trump’s taking office. The White House lawyer immediately informed President Trump that there was a discrepancy in Flynn’s version of his contact with the Russians. This is the same Sally Yates, friends, neighbors and fellow countrymen and women, who was forced out after instructing the Justice Department not to enforce Trump’s travel ban because it was inherently flawed unconstitutional, as numerous federal judges and the 9th Circuit Appeals Court have now held. We lost a good one, when she left the building.

The Post wonders now how far out of the loop Vice-President Pence was as well since he was having to carry water for the White House and Flynn’s credibility throughout the period when Trump was sitting on a powder keg in the Oval Office with Flynn’s name stenciled all over it. Heck, Trump and another loose cannon, Stephen Bannon, were already interviewing candidates to replace Flynn during this period as well.

There’s disruption and then there’s just plain reckless, and that’s what we’re getting now. Trump spent more time thinking about assistants on the “Apprentice” than he seems to have thought about the impact of letting wild men near the steering wheel of the ship of state. There’s no way that Flynn as a former head of Defense Intelligence, before being fired by President Obama, didn’t know that the NSA routinely monitors the phones of the Russian Ambassador, so Flynn clearly was arrogant and foolhardy in assuming none of this would matter, or he was a good soldier doing what he was told to do by his Commander-in-Chief. Either way, this is bad. Very bad.

All of this goes way past any standard notion of dysfunctional, and this is involves national security, which the Trumpsters claim is their top priority, so I hate to think how badly they are dropping the ball on domestic policy. In fact, it seems they have not picked up the ball there at all, since there has been no legislation proposed by the White House on any measure yet, leaving us clueless of the chaos over there.

Any relief has to be short lived in a time of dread.

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Country Club Diplomacy

Nuclear crisis at the country club. photo from Facebook

New Orleans   Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize winning economist and op-ed writer for the New York Times, ended a column on the Trump presidency the other day saying, “be afraid.” That’s good advice.

At the same time be prepared to occasionally succumb to the hysterical hilarity of its very ridiculousness. Take for example the weekend display of country club diplomacy at its worst. Please! And, to paraphrase Republican Senator and former Presidential candidate, John McCain, “what will happen next?”

There’s the just plain tackiness and self-dealing of taking Prime Minister Abe from Japan and his wife down for a golfing weekend at your own Mar-a-Lago resort and country club in Florida, still owned and everlastingly promoted by the President, where Abe’s big treat was getting to golf at not one, but two, Trump owned golf courses. Wow!

Then there’s dinner. No special room though, oh, no, right in the middle of the main dining room with the rest of the swells. Living in New Orleans where fancy, big-name restaurants have dozens of separate and high profile rooms for private parties, someone like me would have figured that Trump and his party would have cordoned themselves off to put on the dog, but what do I know about country club diplomacy.

After all, if you jumped the membership price from a hundred grand to two hundred grand, you pretty much are required to put your face in the place, and you can’t do that from a private room, you need to peacock out there with the half-of-one-percenter folks you want to impress. That’s probably covered in the marketing manuals.

Oh, and if all hell breaks loose, you can put on a show. Take for example North Korea, knowing you are sporting the Japanese PM around, decides to do a ballistic missile test, and you have to make one of these big, headline type of presidential decisions about which we should all “be afraid.” You don’t want to go to a secure zone, common to all those other lame presidents from Bush to Obama and whomever, where there’s no danger of eavesdropping by, you know, foreign unfriendlies, but instead, hey, do your secret business right there in the middle of the dining room so everyone can see it. Have your main security advisor use the insecure cellphone he’s not supposed to have and go to the flashlight app so you can see the satellite intel better. Let the waiters deliver the entrées for everyone as they shuffle the papers out of the way. What the heck, let the wives watch the boys do their, oh, so secret and important, jobs, while they are drinking wine at the table.

Oh, and for the rest of the diners, they can not only see the whole deal in real time, but get out their cellphones and take pictures for their Facebook accounts, so that rich people can pretend to be just like teenagers. Or, hey, get selfies with the soldier carrying the nuclear codes – what a great idea.

Unbelievable! You can’t make this stuff up.

Be afraid, doesn’t seem to cover this well enough.

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Protest Inside the Corporate Castles and Behind the Government Walls

New Orleans   If you ever wondered whether mass protests bring social change or just more miles on your wrist FitBit, the evidence of the protests’ impact whether the Women’s March or the mass airport actions around the Trump travel ban are now everywhere including inside corporate castles and behind the walls of government throughout the country.

Perhaps there were no surprises that some of the hipper set of tech companies were quickly forced to get in formation with the protests. More than 127 of them joined the Amicus brief in arguments to the Appeals Court to freeze the ban. Many were caught in a double bind between their employees and the fact they depend on easy entry of foreigner labor for a portion of their best-and-brightest talent. But, other tech companies, less cutting edge and more mainstream, are feeling the heat as well. Almost 1000 “verified” IBM employees signed a petition to their CEO demanding that the company refuse any contract that would restrict American rights and liberties. Several young women who were part of a new acquisition by Cisco began a similar petition, and women seemed to be leading many of these inside challenges.

This is not an isolated phenomenon. More than 1000 State Department workers had earlier signed a “dissent” cable around concerns around the travel ban and the diminishment of core American values. Justice Department officials jumped on their swords on the same issue.

Five members of the Super Bowl winning New England Patriots have said they will not be traveling to the White House for the ceremonial photo op, because they do not feel welcome. Steph Curry, the NBA MVP for the last two years, and a spokesman for the Under Armour athletic wear company said he would walk away from a multi-million dollar contract with the company until the CEO backtracked from his overzealous comments seeming to give a blanket endorsement to Trump. Steve Kerr, his coach at the Golden State Warriors, said essentially that these are times of protest when players need to speak out.

Other companies from Wall Street to Main Street are hunkering down and caught between crazy at the White House and concerns expressed in employee meetings, emails, and local watering holes. Workers are scrubbing social media posts and going encrypted for conversations because of concern about increased surveillance in the new era.

This is what social change looks like. Long hair on the street and suddenly even CEOs have hair over their ears and collars. Pantsuits and low heels start showing up and ties are left at home. Those who were always quiet realize that threats to home, family, community, and country are real enough that silence is no longer acceptable.

When protest leaps over the walls and goes viral, popping up everywhere and anywhere, a tipping point may be reached where the forces of change can’t be stopped and there is a culture shift that legitimizes all protest. When all Americans believe they now have to protect American’s values and reputation, no government is secure.

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