Organizing 2.0 at the US Social Forum – The Young and the Bleak

Libera Della Piana

At the recent US Social Forum in Detroit, three experienced organizers and communications pros collaborated on a workshop dealing with on and offline organizing. Carlos Jimenez spent four years with Jobs with Justice, Libero Della Piana is former editor at RaceWire (now Color Lines)  and currently the communications director for the People’s World. (I was the third.)

The heart of the training was brainstorming around a previously prepared scenario, which appears below. Before describing the ideas we came up with, a word or two about what felt special in this workshop.

All too often, the folks in charge of communications or new media are brought in at the tail end of the campaign planning process. While it’s not true we just apply lipstick to pigs, many times a random new media element (Survey! Contest! Video! Web app! Facebook ads!) is thrown up as a side dish. The very act of adding something at the tail end, instead of baking it in, robs a big chunk of meaning out of the whole effort.

Carlos Jimenez. Photo by Carlos Fernandez, YES! Magazine.

For that to happen, the right people need to be in the room at the early stages when ideas are welcome. Not only that, but the metaphorical room should be safe space where ideas can bounce around for a while. If the boss still thinks that new media is an add on at the end, she might reject the thought of testing messages with Facebook ads before the official launch. If the organizing director thinks managing volunteers with cell phones is far to complex, he might push back on easy to use texting efforts. Good ideas wither on the vine not only because of poor presentation, but also because of weak reception.

Our little group brainstormed away without any special flashes of brilliance. But unlike so many times in the past, there was no one around pretending to be the adult who explains why certain things can’t be done. This happens all to often – and it’s a shame.

Organizing the Unorganized – Online and Off

Our scenario involved a demographic that has no name, no organized voice and no recognized group championing its priorities. You might know one of them. They are:

  • Between the ages of 22-35
  • College graduates with student loan debt
  • Unemployed, anxiously employed, under-employed, and/or work in jobs not relevant to their desired career (like Starbucks).
  • Wondering if and when they will have to move back in with their parents (‘boomerang kids’).

Where I live in Brooklyn (Bed-Stuy) these are all routine concerns. Worse because of the recession, but not newly widespread as it might be for many departing from the middle-classes.  Unemployment for young black men is as high as 40%. What’s happening is that the economy is trapping millions who never expected the rug to be so rudely yanked from under their feet. Welcome to the club, folks.

Only… who is welcoming them to the club? Is this a club of youthful social justice activists, or a club of daytime television watching depressives? Does this club recognize that the impacts of the current situation are not temporary? Wake up, people – polishing your resume will not solve this problem!

It’s tempting to think that the problem is simply the lack of jobs and the current recession. No such luck. Studies show that being unemployed after college creates an impact that lingers for a lifetime. With high official unemployment likely to last for years to come, the absence of well paying jobs in industry and the public sector, and an overall shift in the economy towards freelancers, independent consultants and career switching – we are looking at life/work patterns radically different than those of today’s retirees. Simply put, millions of us aren’t just workers without jobs for a few months here and there; we are workers without jobs for an increasing fraction of our overall working life, perhaps 24 months over the next five years.

Depending on how you slice the data, there are probably 3 million Americans for whom the story of youth, lack of career opportunities, debt and housing insecurity resonates. The question before our group was: how best to organize this group? More specifically – how could we get a list of 100 folks from a cluster of zip codes in Brooklyn interested in this issue enough to meet us for a 1-on-1 meeting?

Participants had great ideas involving online ads, Facebook, video storytelling, distributing flyers at strategic locations, using Catalist/VAN data to identify geographic clusters of this target demographic, asking existing groups/allies to spread the word on lists, and holding a town hall. But the best idea of all was not trying to divide organizing, artificially, into online or offline departments.

What are your ideas for organizing the young and bleak?


  1. With the left so deeply divided on labor, the unions- under attack- turned inwards, and the majority of the working class only partially on the internet (young ones much more than old wise ones):

    How do we revive the values of labor in the larger culture of the US?

    Will it be “trashier” than many of our wisened elders in academia think? Yes, for certain.

    [I agree with the authors, by the way, that the move towards texting is key. More workers text by far than "use the internet" ie social media. This is still a slow-growth phenomenon. Twitter's appeal is that it combines the two in a dynamic fashion.]

    We are a long way off if we think the moment of lift-off is now. We are still preparing the ground, harvest is a long way off.