Organizing 2.0 in the age of Obama

Organizing is enjoying a renaissance these days, as evidenced by a steady stream of articles and books about last year’s presidential election campaign and the impact it had on legions of young idealists. It’s worth noting then that the two forms of organizing – community and online – have actually been engaged in a ‘frenemy’ type struggle for years. Why has it been so hard for America’s bastions of community organizing to understand, embrace and work with the tools of online organizing?

On December 5th a mostly volunteer group will be putting on the first ever conference explicitly aimed at the intersection between community organizing and online organizing. This is important: two of the most important actors in the progressive movement (labor and community organizing groups) have lagged far behind in the race to adapt their methods to the current moment. It’s a troubling situation that won’t change on it’s own.

We live today in the age of Obama, the nation’s first ‘community-organizer-in-chief.’ Because he is also the first president to master online-offline integration, we might also call him the first ‘online-organizer-in-chief.’ But if you tried to find out where all the community organizers are hanging out online, you’d be searching a long time.

What is community organizing?
The tradition of “community organizing” is a bit more specific than the simple juxtaposition of “community” + “organizing”. Saul Alinsky, author of “Rules for Radicals” did the most to define the field. Community organizing marries professional organizers with populations suffering from oppression rooted in powerlessness or poverty. The organizer helps develop leadership from the affected community who then work with existing networks (such as churches) to fight for change at the local level.

Online organizing only emerged in the last decade. Largely white, educated, and somewhat privileged citizens combined a very low threshold of activity (petitions, small donations) in large numbers to have a major impact primarily on national and international issues.

It’s against this background that community organizing guru Marshall Ganz told The Nation in 2008 that what MoveOn does is marketing, not organizing. Many of us toiling in the internet trenches heard our work being being trashed by organizers who had no problem with mediation by phone, paper, and transportation- but resented the emergence of online space taking up so much mindshare.

This was a generational divide driven by technological change, not a real conversation about means and ends. Ganz was faithfully representing a real disdain felt by ‘real’ organizers across the traditional community organizing and political world. Of course he wasn’t alone; I’ve met dozens of leaders and activists who referred contemptuously to ‘point and click activism’ as some kind of problem to be solved along the path to genuine organizing.

Adding to the division is the false and misleading use of the phrase ‘online organizing’ by opportunistic groups that engaged in one way P.R. and mass email broadcasting. The past few years have seen a simultaneous deepening of online organizing practice along with the widespread use of simplistic email advocacy masquerading as online engagement. There aren’t enough of us pointing out the difference.

Today, one year after the historic Obama victory that melded some of the best in community organizing with the best in online organizing, one notices two very important sectors still lagging behind: labor and community organizing groups, the two main inheritors of the Alinsky tradition. Meanwhile, MoveOn now employs numerous community organizers and is happily deepening the relationship of its online, more visible elements with local chapters and trained leaders.

Don’t complain, organize
Over the past two years I’ve talked with a lot of really smart people in the community organizing world and in labor about the obstacles facing some groups as they look at using online tools. It’s an important discussion that folks outside and inside those movements should have more vigorously. That said, why not just jump in and work with anyone who wants to advance?

That’s what Organizing 2.0 is all about: bringing online organizers, the netroots, community organizers and the labor movement together. Finally. Not at the national level, where high powered political directors issue instructions to well staffed new media teams, but at the local level, where online strategies require generalists, lay leaders, volunteers and member engagement to succeed.

Organizing 2.0 reflects the passion of its (mostly volunteer) organizers. A passion to build capacity, drive the progressive agenda forward, empower more citizens, mobilize more communities, democratize more institutions, elect more populists, secure more rights, and share more of the wealth. Not all of us are digital natives. But we can all, to borrow a phrase, learn to organize smarter, not just harder.

Registration is still open for Organizing 2.0 in New York City. $10-$20, but it’s filling up fast.

Organizing 2.0 is sponsored by The Murphy Institute for Worker Education, Working Families, Change to Win, Netroots Nation, Network for Good, Union Jobs Review, Manhattan Young Democrats, and the New Organizing Institute.

Charles Lenchner is Online Organizing Director for the Working Families Party in New York.

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