Webinars and Teaching Organizing

Ideas and Issues

June 17, 2021

San Francisco     

Having missed my regular visits to the Bay Area of California during the pandemic year, I tried to fill my dance cards with organizing friends, comrades, and partners to catch up with what they were doing, how they were thinking about the work, and where it was going. Some of the changes are obvious and generational like the role of social media of course.  Others are perhaps more pandemic-pressurized. Some are still pet projects looking for proofs of concept. All of them make for robust conversations and deeply observed opinions, making them all the more interesting and fun to talk about.

One question I have been asking all of them in these days of Zoom and remote work is how they are adapting. Several of ACORN’s country directors have been speculating on whether we should acquire some expertise in doing webinars. None of us address this topic with enthusiasm, but more in the way of taking bitter medicine. We may not really want to do webinars, anymore than we have enjoyed or believe that Zoom calls advance organizing, but regardless, if it’s a tool in use, we need to learn whether or not it can be used to build organization.

I talked to Chris Benner for example in Los Gatos. He’s now a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz where he also directs the Everett Program which has been our partner for a number of years now in providing tech tools for organizing. I asked Chris what remote teaching had been like. He told me he was lucky after a fashion in that even before the pandemic he had gotten some support to create webinars out of his lectures with the tech department. On his rookie attempt, they recorded his regular lecture, and broke the news to him about how that didn’t really work in a webinar setting. He realized he needed to break everything into ten-minute segments and then use the Zoom breakout facility to allow groups of four and five students to hash it out and move forward, report, and then onto the next segment. That made sense.

Talking with Francis Colpatura, Gary Delgado, and Marcia Henry, comrades in Gary’s case, for over fifty years now, it turned out Fran was using webinars in organizer training now. I had done some work with Fran a couple of years ago when he was doing in-person work at In-Advance. His newest project is SpadeWork.school. Working with fifteen organizations around the country and a pile of people, he had created webinars that attempted to provide younger organizers and newer organizations with some context to the work, and why we have to do so much more than social media, i.e., the real spadework. Looking at his work, there were modules on SNCC and the Freedom Schools, the divestment campaign in South Africa, Justice for Janitors, and more, nine in all. The sessions are two-hours in length, and he was firm about the participation and rules of the work for the sessions, and said they were working well.

We’ll have to take a harder look at all of this and see if it’s another brick in the wall to building organization or a rock in the road we have to bypass.