Event: Organizers and Change-Makers, Not Martyrs (5/9/13)

You are an Organizer. You are a Change-Maker. You do this work because you have witnessed the power of you and your friends, working side by side for long hours, to alter the course of history.

In the culture of organizers at unions, campaigns or non-profits, we push ourselves because the suffering and obstacles we are up against are intense. And when it comes down to it, there can never be too many votes, too many donations, or too many activists marching for justice.

As organizers, we often fight harder for other’s health than our own. We know that health plans must include preventative care and our energy sources must be sustainable. We fight for wages that match the work being completed. But we often fail to apply these values to our own work.’

We can do better for ourselves and our organizations. Stress, overwork, and unhealthy work practices are accepted as the norm even though they cause lower productivity and burnout.

Join The Action Mill‘s Nick Jehlen , Dara Silverman and Organizing 2.0 for an evening about how we can move towards sustainability in our work as organizers.

RSVP Here for Organizers and Change-Makers, Not Martyrs on May 9.

The answers are in development from places like the Action Mill, which researches and designs tools that create better workplaces for people. They look at work habits, organizational structure, communication tools and more that have practical implications towards healthier and more resilient workplaces.

Nick Jehlen will discuss practical steps to reshape our unsustainable work, as is the the focus of The Action Mill. He will be joined by Dara Silverman, a consultant with experience developing and planning campaigns, supporting new and experienced organizers, fundraising, strategic planning, and board development

It is not just about taking better care of ourselves as individuals, but creating work environments that help everyone to be more productive over the long-term so we are ready to grow our movements and sustain them for the road to come.

Thursday, May 9


at the North Star Fund at 520 8th Ave, Suite 2230, Manhattan

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Special Guests: Kenzo Shibata and Erin Hofteig

Kenzo Shibata, new media coordinator for chicagot public teachers unionKenzo Shibata is the New Media Coordinator at the Chicago Public Teachers Union. In that role he had a massive and prominent impact on the successful strike last year. He’ll be speaking bright and early: 9 am, Saturday, March 23rd.

Erin Hofteig, former digital director of the AFTInterviewing him will be Erin Hofteig, outgoing digital director of the American Federation of Teachers. I’ve known her since she was helping to transition the AFL-CIO to Salsa (the database/CRM tool that most unions use). She’s an incredible teacher who wants to map out next steps for labor and new media tools.

We’re interested in questions like: what digital preparations were made before the strike? How was digital included in strategy discussions? What were the working relationships between communications (PR) and social media space? How did members’ roles evolve as users of social media supporting their union during a difficult time?

In other words, they’re going to have an open conversation about the nuts and builds of building power online during a strike, and the relationships inside a union local that is doing it right.

Got questions? Post them here in the comments and we’ll pass them to Kenzo and Erin. They will also be part of other sessions addressing labor unions use of new media at the local level.

Full bios:

Kenzo Shibata taught high school English in the Chicago Public Schools for nearly a decade and was a founding member of CORE: The Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators.

Shibata was a labor and public education activist who reported and blogged on education policy before taking a position with the Chicago Teachers Union. From 2010-2012 he was the chief publications editor before taking on the newly created position of social media coordinator in July of 2012. He manages social media, blogs, and edits video for CTU. His work can be seen in Gapers Block, Beachwood Reporter, AREA-Chicago, Alter-Net, In These Times, Substance News, Jacobin Magazine, Huffington Post, Labor Notes and Truth-Out. His social media work has been highlighted in NPR, The Daily Dot, and DNA-Info.

He’s been a guest on Take Action News and the Matthew Filipowicz Show.

Shibata recently completed his Masters in Public Policy at Northwestern University. Follow him on Twitter: @kenzoshibata @ctulocal1

Erin Hofteig is a new media strategist and manager with over a decade of experience during which time she has raised millions of dollars, launched strategic initiatives to win campaigns – both electoral and political – built large, multifaceted websites, run online advertising campaigns, trained hundreds of people to use these tools to strategically reach online and offline goals, and built strong connections to leaders of the progressive online community as well as with leaders of a variety of traditional progressive organizations.

Erin specializes in strategic planning, online marketing and communications, website design and outreach. A graduate of the California State University, Chico with a double major in Political Science and International Relations, Erin has worked with everyone from national Presidential campaigns, Democratic state parties, national party infrastructure, non profits, media organizations, private companies, individual campaigns and the labor movement. She loves to play poker.

Getting Your Skills On @ Organizing New York

ONY is comingWho needs skills training? Well… everyone. Which explains in part why progressives, nonprofit staff and activists are inundated with capacity-building efforts of every stripe. Webinars, Meetups, trainings, workshops, conferences near and far, free e-books, and courses you can take at your own pace.

It’s understandable really. New tools are coming out all the time, new research pours out with ever-changing best practices, and new people come up through the ranks with the unique lessons they want to share.

Organizing New York fits in this landscape by working with grassroots organizations and making sure our offerings match what they want, rather than serving as a vehicle to sell you products or services. Our larger purpose – beyond some session you find useful – is to create communities of practice that cross the silos that litter the progressive landscape.

Doing better at organizing is a shared interest for many. But it’s often a struggle to find someone in your own organization who has the answer to a small but nagging software question, a good canvassing checklist, or a vendor recommendation. Good communities of practice exist, and should spread, beyond our narrow issue areas, geographic focus, and constituency boundaries.

We hope you’ll come to one or more days of Organizing New York not only to learn, teach, share and network, but also to see yourself as part of more communities of practice than you knew existed. Even if you only wanted to learn how to organize your sock drawer!

Three Tracks, Three Days

Our sessions are formally divided into three tracks: online organizing, civic engagement, and grassroots fundraising. Practically, many of them cross those boundaries – and that’s on purpose. It’s hard to pretend anymore that online tools and traditional organizing methodologies aren’t so completely interwoven that you can’t do one without the other.


Software and Tech Training: Many of our organizations use NationBuilder, Salsa, CiviCRM, and the VAN. Our priority is to offer basic training sessions AND opportunities for more advanced folks to get help. Staff from NationBuilder and SalsaLabs are coming to the conference, and we’ll have many experts around who can try and solve some of those harder questions.

Strategy and Tactics: What is digital strategy? How to campaign in low turnout elections? Can your organization run a successful crowdfunding campaign?

Fundraising: Most fundraising trainings in New York are geared towards foundation fundraising.  We know that only about 12% of foundation funding goes to social justice groups.  We need to create a funding base in our own communities.  This track will offer some of the best experts in the region training on everything from building a volunteer fundraising group,  running amazing events, building your online fundraising capacity to creating asking (and receiving) big gifts.

Racial Justice: Sometimes, tech-oriented conferences skew towards white dudes. But our mission is to advance all our causes, and to prioritize issues that impact low-income communities, communities of color, women and queer people. This means highlighting and foregrounding experts from grassroots communities and making sure the conference is accessible to everyone.  This also means addressing racial justice explicitly in a session about grassroots fundraising for people of color and sessions on working with the Dominican, Puerto Rican and African American online communities. We’re also happy to announce that some sessions will be offered in Spanish, with others having simultaneous interpretation, that we will have child-care throughout the entire conference. We are working in partnership with base-building communities from across New York City and the region to move this from an idea into reality.

Workshops from the Community: Our third day is also called Rootscamp. That means it is part of a New Organizing Institute tradition of putting on ‘unconferences’ that feature workshops proposed by attendees that become participatory skill shares. We are using this page to solicit workshop proposals and to learn what the community values the most. Submit your proposal today, and on Sunday morning volunteers will assemble the day’s agenda based on feedback from the participants.

Camp Wellstone: Politics, how does it work? That’s a question often asked by activists trying to master the detailed specifics of running an election campaign or winning victories on issues during and after election campaigns. Camp Wellstone participants will spend most of their time together, learning from professional trainers. This is a highly sought after training and registration will close soon. Camp Wellstone uses the same registration page, but you can learn more about them here as well.

Faith: We are also running a special session on Friday for organizers from the faith community. If this is of interest to you because your nonprofit has a religious or interfaith affiliation, or you work from a strong faith perspective – please contact us at ony@organizing20.org for more details. This session will only be open to those who have pre-registered for it.

Organizing New York takes place March 22-24 at the United Federation of Teachers, 52 Broadway. Register here. A full schedule for Friday and Saturday is here. A listing of approved sessions appears below, though it is subject to change.

Please note we do have childcare – please let us know what your needs are. The venue is completely wheelchair accessible.

  • 501c3 and 501c4: How They Work and What Is the Difference
  • Campaigning in Low Turnout Elections (Both Online and Offline)
  • How to Scare Companies and Influence People Online.
  • Developing Effective Communications Strategy
  • Getting National Activists to Focus and Engage in Local Campaigns
  • How the NY State Legislature Works
  • How to Use Policy To Build Progressive Power
  • NYC Government Power and How It Works: Public Advocate, Council, Speaker, Mayor, etc.
  • Online Ads: When You Have No Money
  • Personal Stories That Drive Online Campaigns
  • Running Against the Machine
  • Special Events Planning 101 and 102
  • Winning Statewide Fights
  • A-thons
  • Best Practices in Data Management- Analyst Reportback
  • Building a Culture of Fundraising
  • Building a Fundraising Team: Volunteers, Boards and More….
  • Building Authentic Donor Relationships
  • Developing a Fundraising Plan
  • Fundraising From Your Membership Base
  • Grassroots Fundraising 101
  • How To Ask For A Gift
  • Online Fundraising 101 (with Spanish)
  • Parties for Fun and Profit
  • People of Color and Fundraising
  • Planning Your CrowdFunding Campaign
  • White People and Fundraising
  • Advanced Social Media Strategy
  • Building Engagement on Facebook for Your Organization
  • Easy Design Changes to Make Your Website More Engaging
  • Evangelizing Online Organizing Within Your Organization
  • Facebook 101
  • Google Analytics
  • How to Ensure That Your Web Project is a Complete Failure
  • How to Manage or Be a Social Media Volunteer Captain
  • Introduction To Digital Strategy
  • Making Video that Doesn’t Suck
  • Mobile Phone Organizing Strategies
  • Nationbuilder Training
  • NYC Online Local Politics

Sunday is Rootscamp!  The process to determine the rootscamp program has begun on the Google Moderator site and the final schedule will be determined on Sunday morning when we fill in “The Wall.”

You can vote on proposals such as these:

  • Place-based digital campaigns: It’s Not About Tools, It’s About People.
  • Integrating blogging, Facebook and Twitter to Mobilize and Get the Word Out
  • Advanced Excel for Analytics Strategy
  • Local online organizing: how unions, community organizations, and political campaigns can effectively use online organizing, even without a large budget.
  • Email Deliverability: How to make sure your supporters are actually seeing your awesome content. (for folks with mass email lists),
  • What to do when your city is drowning? Integrating climate justice into progressive struggles of all kinds in New York City – basically a discussion about how stopping climate change can connect all kinds of campaigns/struggles in NYC.
  • 0 to 200k in 6 months: how to get a Facebook page of the ground and make it viral. We’ll go over best practices for social media posts: type of content, time of day, whether to promote it, and tricks to get your posts noticed (+ a bit of analytics).
  • How do you stay independent from special interests while doing online activism ? Create and sustain an online campaign around social, economic, and legal issues that identifies special interests and steers clear of pitfalls of being co-opted.
  • What is NVDA (non-violent direct action)? How do you organize Civil Disobedience? amongst diverse communities and issues?
  • Panel on recent efforts to organize low income service workers – fast food, supermarket, car wash and others. Emphasize what has been learned about the utility of new tools, explain the organizing model.
  • Do you need a website where folks can build expertise, organize (start or join working groups), and take action (using lots of tools, resources and support along the way)? We can discuss pooling $$ 2 create an open source site 4 use by many groups.
  • Managing Difficult People, every organization has a problematic stakeholder. Participants are given scenarios where they take roles with the idea of keeping the stakeholder within the organization without alienating them.
  • Drupal 101: A completely easy workshop aimed at new Drupal users (not at developers). For folks learning to post and edit content in Drupal.
  • Healing: how do we incorporate more healing and dealing with trauma spaces within organizing. burn out is not just about workload but also the trauma folks are holding.
  • Social Media Metrics- or why it doesn’t matter how many followers you have- we’ll explore how we measure what matters- engagement and conversion to action
  • Pinterest: How best to use it in advocacy and electoral campaigns (case studies and brainstorming)
  • 0 to 200k in 6 months: how to get a Facebook page of the ground and make it viral. We’ll go over best practices for social media posts: type of content, time of day, whether to promote it, and tricks to get your posts noticed (+ a bit of analytics).
  • Former Congressman Major R. Owens headed NYC’s Poverty Program in the 60′s and 70′s. it was a landmark example of bringing the community to the decision table as a full partner. He would offer an important perspective as a conference speaker.
  • Targeted voter registration. How to target and use voter registration trends to your advantage. When is voter registration not necessary.
  • Student Organizing in New York State: How students in NY are getting engaged at a local and national level and how they are building power
  • Building solidarity: how do we do it? are the voices of those queer, trans, poc, youth, people with disabilities and immigrants represented? are these folks speaking for themselves? how do we build that organizing space?
  • What small actions can organizers take online to boost offline campaign / mobilization success?
  • In the heat of the moment: Coordinating Twitter in street guerilla protests. What happens if DHS jams the internet? Limitations and advantages of Twitter for direct action and disaster relief. Will the revolt be tweeted?
  • Developing Your Brand, this would be a workshop of organizers interested in presenting their cause/candidate to the outside world. It would be hands on where participants are given resource materials and asked to develop a brand.
  • Too many campaigns, news and information sources, and even contests require the public to participate on Facebook, which many smart or private activists refuse to ‘LIKE’.How to create an effective and/or viral on-line presence WITHOUT using Facebook.
  • 9/11-Katrina-Sandy: How Govt recovery funding/agency oversight is demographically/politically/geographically biased. How delay & improperly regulated response endangers health of recovery workers & the public.
  • “How Facebook Helped Win Gay Marriage” Digital and social media played a crucial role in changing marriage from a losing issue to a winning one. Come learn what worked, what didn’t and what’s next.
  • Organizing Faith Based Committees, faith leaders have huge reach, organizing them into a political group can help progressive candidates win elections. Led by proven faith based organizers this could help conference goers move into new areas.

Workshops and Presentations at Organizing New York

Here’s a partial listing of what you might learn if you come to Organizing New York (March 22-24):

Y U No Register for Organizing New YorkOnline campaigning and digital strategy

  • Classes in NationBuilder, Salsa, and CiviCRM (popular databases)
  • Mobile phone organizing strategies
  • Building engagement on Facebook for organizations
  • Using humor and comedy in your communications
  • Personal stories and story-telling that drive campaigns
  • Advanced social media strategy
  • Introduction to digital strategy
  • Online political tactics for local campaigns in New York City
  • How to ensure that your web project is a complete failure (!)
  • Seven easy things you can do to make your website more engaging
  • Online Idol: Experts evaluate existing campaign and organizing websites and social media usage
  • Using online video in your organizing without wasting vast resources that have no impact
  • Running an online advertising campaign when you are broke
  • Safe space and no judgment! Facebook and Twitter 101
  • How to choose a CRM and CMS (database, donation tools, website design software)
  • Google analytics for beginners: what every online campaigner should know
  • Taking on corporations online and winning
  • Working with bloggers and the blogosphere to advance your issue
  • Managing your volunteer social media communicators to deepen engagement
  • Working with Puerto Rican and Dominican American communities online
  • Working with African American communities online
  • Evangelizing online organizing within your organization

Civic Engagement

  • Recruiting ‘national issues’ activists for local political impact
  • Leveraging New York’s progressive power for national impact
  • Understanding the most important elections tool – the VAN
  • How to advance statewide issues (like marriage equality, fair elections and higher taxes on the 1%)
  • C3 and C4 legal workshop: advancing progressive issues without getting into trouble with the IRS
  • How to advance city wide and local issues in New York City
  • Introduction to this economic mess we are in – understanding the progressive narrative on inequality
  • Performing the narrative: how to speak and message on economic issues for maximum impact
  • Running against the political machine (any machine!)
  • Have you ever thought about running for office? Find out what it takes
  • What we know: recent lessons from organizing citizens and workers in low income communities using online and offline strategies in perfect harmony
  • Using policy initiatives to build progressive political power
  • Campaigning in low turnout elections, online and offline

Grassroots Fundraising

  • Online Fundraising 101
  • Grassroots Fundraising 101
  • Collaborative and creative fundraising strategies: thinking outside the box
  • Developing a fundraising plan
  • Building a culture of fundraising in your organization
  • Getting your board on board with fundraising
  • Major donors: building a team, running a campaign
  • Thon-a-thons: thoning the %&*! out of anything
  • Fundraising from your membership base
  • People of color and fundraising
  • White people and fundraising
  • Planning your best fundraising event EVER
  • How to ask for a gift
  • Kickstart this: planning your crowdfunding campaign
  • Building authentic donor relationships
  • Building a fundraising team: volunteers, board and more

Whew! Still think we’re missing something? Submit YOUR workshop idea for Rootscamp, the unconference day (Sunday, March 24).

Candidate College on Social Media in Local Politics

In 2011, I participated in a candidate training organized by Morgan Pehme of Civic NY, a good government group. While I was a panelist on the last session (which addressed social media in particular) the highlight for me was asking four high powered campaign consultants about using new media in local campaigns. Specifically – are any of them claiming expertise in using new media? And if not – who do they recognize in the field as having expertise they respect?

The answers were revealing. There was a recognition that politics is changing, and that this is an important field. Just not important enough that any of these folks needed to develop actual expertise it, in contrast to other campaign management skills involving field, fundraising or phone calls. For one of them, it was enough to hire bright young things and be done with it. None of them could name an actual ‘expert’. The most fascinating response was that ‘social media is only worth 100-200 votes, so you can give it to a volunteer if that’s what they are most passionate about. Don’t waste too much time on it.’ (I couldn’t stop thinking about former Congressman Weiner while hearing this.)

And then the New York Times Magazine article about the Republican’s use of online strategies in the 2012 election came out two weeks ago. In it, you can hear the frustration of Republican operatives who tried mightily to help their team do better at social media and online tools generally – but failed mightily in multiple dimensions.

“There are always elders at the top who say, ‘That’s not important,’ And that’s where the left has beaten us, by giving smart people the space and trusting them to have success. It’s a fundamentally anti-entrepreneurial model we’ve embraced.”

Here in New York, the division isn’t between R’s and D’s. It’s between smart, entrepreneurial people who don’t have status power, and the insular, top down cohort of political consultants and campaign managers who essentially run every race. My impression is that some of them are now working on the question of how to project expertise in social media, online advertising, and other new media tools, notwithstanding that just about all of them adopted counter-factual opinions and practices in the last few years. And that’s actually progress; even their most misguided and trusting clients are demanding that the folks who yesterday said that social media wasn’t that important now offer guidance on using Twitter. Obviously, folks like me are in the same category as ‘premature anti-fascists’ were in the 40s; clearly suspicious for not having soberly waited to become a late adopter.

I suspect that almost none of them are asking the most important question in 21st Century, open source and open ended politics: how do we remove that insular filter that puts us two steps behind instead of being the ones that are two steps ahead? That my friends, is the real question. Social media just gives us a better way to ask it.

If you want to help answer that question while learning hard social media skills, don’t forget to register for Organizing New York, March 22-24.


Introducing: Organizing New York – March 22-24

We’re very excited about the next big training conference. Here’s a very rapid summary of what you want to know.

Important pages and links:

Current partners and sponsors include Working Families, Civic Engagement Table, Wellstone Action, Rootscamp, & Democracy for America. Stay tuned for more!

Location is United Federation of Teachers, 52 Broadway, New York City. (Right by Wall St.)

This is a skill sharing conference. We have three main subject areas: online organizing, advocacy and campaigning & grassroots fundraising.

Wellstone Action will be putting a special Camp Wellstone as part of this event. Registration for Camp Wellstone will be done separately.

Finding Your Place With Occupy Wall Street: A Guide for Digital Strategists & Online Organizers

The Occupy Wall Street movement, now in its second month, is a protest force of nature. Unions, progressive organizations, community organizers, even big ‘D’ Democrats are coming out in support. If your nonprofit or political organization hasn’t come out with a public position on the #occupy movement, maybe you should check for a pulse.

But never mind our organizational homes. As individuals we can jump right in without further ado. And what better way than with our skill sets as digital strategists, online organizers, social media gurus, and branding experts? Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Joining the movement can be a challenge. Existing systems are designed with full time occupiers in mind, not volunteers with an hour, a day, or a specific task in mind.

So here’s a guide, by a digital strategist, for digital strategists. If I’ve missed some useful tips, add them below.

The Organization of the Occupation
This description is based on the Wall St. crowd, but my understanding is that others are following similar models. While all major decisions are made by General Assemblies, most of the activists, including full- and part-timers, are part of Working Groups. Working Groups might be meeting more than once a week. Those meetings might not be efficient or accessible to newcomers. Still you’ll want to join one or more that make sense for your interests, and start digging in to any documents they’ve posted online and listening to the conversation on their listserv. Finding WG’s is easy for the Wall Street folks, might be harder for other cities. There is an effort to standardize names of WG’s across occupation.

The Internet and Open Source Working Groups
Here in New York, we have an Internet Working Group (IWG) and a Free/Libre/Open Source Working Group (FLO). The former has mostly worked on developing the main website for internal coordination, www.nycga.net. This site will continue to evolve in ways that serve specific working groups, and developer help is much appreciated. The FLO folks are promoting ‘open sourcism’ as an embodiment of the true principles of the #occupy movement. They also work on the tech infrastructure: hosting, servers, LDAP, a future CRM, wiki and more. The vision is not just to assist #OWS with tech solutions, but to create replicable, robust and secure systems available for all occupations, in the U.S. and around the world. They also welcome your help. A number of core team members are part of both WG’s.

On-Boarding for Newbies
Unfortunately, it’s been hard for the IWG and the FLO peeps to incorporate new people and new ideas. New ideas, even good ones, represent a challenge because of the pressure of uncompleted, previously agreed upon tasks. Some of the best work done by techies in support of the movement is being carried out by free agents (www.occupytogether.org) and outside/inside coalitions (www.occupytheboardroom.org) that don’t even try to interface with formal working groups. That said, a corner has been turned, and there are now systems in place to make it easier to onboard new volunteers – and even new ideas.

Start Here
If you want to help, fill out the volunteer form for the Internet WG. If you want to propose something you’ve come up with, read this post first or you might come across as an egotistic time-waster. Finally, learn more about developments already underway at the wiki. (It’s not as complete as it should be.) Be aware, that the project management tool Redmine is being used to track projects. Github is being used to manage development. There are listservs for all the WG’s, and for even smaller things like the Digital Strategy Team within the Internet WG that I joined.  (Follow the links above, and you’ll reach the proper signup pages.)

That said, as an online organizer I’ve noticed that the IWG and FLO teams are full of web developers, sysadmins and coders. Not small dollar fundraisers, CRM experts, digital marketers and solutions consultants. That crowd is likely to wonder where the official public facing website is, or why no one seems to be taking advantage of SalsaLabs generous offer of free services.  (Or the offer of a certain text messaging vendor….) As of this writing, no one seems to have the ability to send mass emails outside of a Googlegroup or Riseup listserv.

There are tech savvy organizers around (I’m refraining from mentioning names, but you’ve heard of them or their firms/organizations!) They seem to be attracted to the top level strategy questions involving press, media, and tactics for nonviolent direct action planning. I’ve also heard an argument firmly against the use of email list based organizing by #OccupyWallStreet. Who would write those emails? What messages could ‘the movement’ agree on, given the anti-hierarchical bias and refusal to issue specific demands?

While not all the organizers are young, or inexperienced, the vast majority associate CRM enabled organizing with groups like MoveOn or the Obama campaign. Liberals tainted by their focus on electoral or mainstream politics. Many associate the tools with top-down organizing, the antithesis of the General Assembly process.Personally, I think that position is incorrect. The ‘movement’ is using CRM all the time, as then they raised money on Kickstarter or chose Googlegroups as the primary listserv tool. They just aren’t using their own CRM, or taking advantage of all the possibilities.

An emerging area where expertise is needed is in technical strategy more generally. For example: the accounting team was overwhelmed by the needs for trasparency and basic bookkeeping. An expert in nonprofit administration have been able to help with software suggestions. The Outreach Working Group is engaged in marketing, to be sure, but they aren’t far along in developing their marketing strategy. Given limited resources, which communications should be directed at which groups for the most immediate benefit? Great questions.

The bottom line is, you don’t need to be physically present to contribute important online organizing skills to the movement. And you don’t have to start something on your own. If you’d like to understand more of what’s going on, feel free to reach out to me – I’m easy to find.

America, Your Billionaires Need Your Help – Now More Than Ever!

Costas Panayotakis

This guest post comes from Costas Panayotakis, a New York City labor activist with the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the faculty union at the City University of New York.

Costas has sparked an innovative public education effort, detailed below. I’m sharing it with you as a great example of creativity at work in unions today, and as something that others might adapt and repeat as part of their own political efforts.

In unusual times one has to do unusual things.  That’s how my stolid existence as a sociology professor at the City University of New York came to be enriched, by my second life as Austerity Nut.

Austerity Nut rides the New York City subways preaching the virtues of budget cuts, and the need for working-class sacrifice for the sake of our suffering brothers and sisters on Wall Street. He reminds riders, “Ask not what the billionaires in your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country’s billionaires.”

This week Austerity Nut took a break from his subway sermons, and brought his message to Tuesday’s March on the Billionaires of Park Avenue. With more than 1,000 people gathered across from the Plaza Hotel, Austerity Nut stood up and spoke out:

We are in a terrible crisis, my friends, because people who work for a living in this country have just gotten too greedy. The rich, on the other hand, are falling further and further behind – and they need our help!

The crowd loved it. Austerity Nut is a way to engage people’s attention with a little humor – and it seems to work.  After speaking at the Billionaires’ March, I got laughter, congratulations, and was interviewed by WNYC radio and a Chinese news agency.

Austerity Nut gets a positive response in the subways, too– thumbs-up signs, smiles and laughs, and sometimes a subway car full of applause. Cutting education, health care and social services is inevitable, Austerity Nut reminds strap-hangers and anyone else who will listen. ”We surely wouldn’t want to tax our brothers and sisters on Wall Street,” he explains. “After all, our rich people are the reason our economy is in such great shape!”

These impromptu performances have sparked appreciative notes to Austerity Nut’s email address (austeritynut@gmail.com), and invitations to perform at union events and demonstrations.  It’s turned out to be an effective way to expose the absurdity of the “shared sacrifice” propaganda favored by the economic and political powers-that-be, by pretending to embrace it.

And now Austerity Nut: The Movie has been unleashed on the world, along with a companion website (austeritynut.com).  The video features not just me, but several other members of the growing Austerity Nut movement, which daily preaches the virtues of budget cuts.  The website includes the basic script for Austerity Nut, and encourages people to adapt it for their own style and needs, and upload video of their own performance.

You too can join the Austerity Nut army – because it will take two, three, many Austerity Nuts, to shine a light on the terrible crisis we find ourselves in.

Costas Panayotakis is associate professor of sociology at NYC College of Technology, one of the 18 colleges that make up the City University of New York. His double life as “Austerity Nut,” and the thinking behind it, are detailed in his new book Remaking Scarcity, available in November from Pluto Press.

Organizing 2.0 at Occupy Wall Street

It’s 5pm and I just finished setting up my table at Zuccotti Park. I’ve got flyers covering different kinds of communication skills, a collection of reference books, my laptop, mobile broadband, and I’m ready to go.

My goal is to offer training and consulting help to whoever can use it to advance the Occupy Wall Street movement. I’ll update my list of reference books when I get a chance – there’s people asking my questions here.

But don’t think I ‘m just arrogantly giving out my version of ‘what is to be done.’ Folks are sharing things with me as well. Terry Holmes for example, suggested that someone create a list of Fox News advertisers for boycott purposes. Hrm. Why not? Someone else just came by and asked for a manual for starting an occupation in a new city. Does one exist already?

What else, people?


Finally: The Organizers Join the Occupationistas

Want to understand the difference between ‘organizing’ and the Occupy Wall Street protesters? Go watch the new film Moneyball, based on the 2003 book of the same name. For the last seven or so years, I’ve been immersed in the world of ‘new organizing’ which lies somewhere between ‘new media’ and ‘online organizing.’ Where Moneyball pits baseball traditionalists against soulless number-crunchers, new organizing pits the integrated use of new communication and database technologies against those overly committed to meatspace technology: talking to people in person.

The Meaters & The Onliners
For years now, the ‘meaters’ (as I like to call them) have been whining about the digital divide, defending their organizational and cultural turf within decaying/aging organizations, and grumbling about kids being on their lawn. You hear them less nowadays, as they are too embarrassed and fearful to attach their names to such opinions, but occasionally thinkers like Malcolm Gladwell or fanciful terms like ‘slacktivism’ gain brief currency. (Then Egypt has a revolution or something proving them wrong – again.)

Folks like myself, whether freelance or staff, function at times almost like secret agent consultants. We know we have something valuable to offer, but with a few exceptions much of our work is devoted to proving already established facts to slow moving organizations and overly confident staff.  How interesting then to observe that our skill sets as digital strategists or communication specialists are so undervalued by the Wall St. occupationistas as to make it impossible for many of us to connect within a movement ecosystem. We want to work them; they aren’t sure they want to work with us. Given the super loose/ultra democratic structure, it’s really hard to work with them.

And It Begins
Part of my experience with this movement began six weeks or so beforehand, when I came to what was announced as a planning meeting by the bull statue in lower Broadway. The first two hours was dominated by the Workers World Party, an obnoxious tribe of newspaper sellers. The second two hours were a dry run for the general assembly process of sitting in a large circle and slowly building consensus. I joined a working group, wrote out my name/email address on some lists, gave out some business cards to folks I know were early movers and shakers, and basically said: I like this and I’m interested in helping.

No one ever sent me an email. While folks in my line of work are very interested in things like list building, CRM databases that handle email lists. I kept wanting to ask ‘who is in charge?’ or even ‘who is in charge of communications strategy’ or perhaps ‘is there a designated accountable person for anything at all?’ Later, when a friend who is involved asked for my help, my response was hard to say out loud. While I wanted to help ‘Occupy Wall Street’ it felt extremely alienating to see such a lack of organization. Organizing skills are like a secret bat signal to wider circles of committed activists; if they seem to exist, folks show up; when they don’t, folks stay home.

Moneyball Organizing
And that’s the Moneyball connection. The occupationistas are protest traditionalists. For them, and this is in keeping with the principles of the Temporary Autonomous Zone and other pro-Situ ideas, the moment at which someone transitions from everyday life to Wall Street Occupation life is pregnant with possibility. Focus on creating that moment for yourself and as many of those around you as possible and magic ensues. This process can’t be counted, tallied up or ‘organized.’ It must be experienced. Just like baseball for the traditionalists.

Did that sound like criticism? It’s not meant that way. The creation of moments that demand a high personal investment but grant participants a meaningful conversion experience is the specialty of this tradition. They did it in Seattle in 1999 – remember Teamsters and Turtles? The direct action enviros do it all the time. This is the strength and contribution of the Zuccatti Park occupation. They’ve created a moment of truth in the heart of the capitalist spectacle. As Matt Stoler wrote, a church not a protest.

By organizing folks in my circles mean a process of recruitment, leadership development, and exercise of power that is accountable to a defined community. This is the working definition used by unions, community organizing groups like the former ACORN, and even a certain 2008 presidential election campaign. A close cousin might be called ‘coalition organizing’ that begins and often ends with groups standing together on a certain issue to maximize their impact on the political class. A great example is the New Bottom Line campaign.

Organizing places a great deal of stress of planning and accountability. How many doors knocked? How many petition signatures? Which organizations have signed on? Who are the community leaders involved? Much of it involves organizing people in structures that already exist and enjoy community support, such as churches and civic groups. This kind of organizing assumes that large numbers of people linked by authentic networks of deep relationship can overcome the advantages of money in political struggles. Winning isn’t the result of magical experiences leading to a crescendo, it’s the result of master organizers using enhanced voter files, membership databases, conversion rate metrics and the scanning of walk lists.

Organizers will often ask ‘who is on board?’ while planning the start of a campaign. This question covers issues of racial and gender diversity among the leaders and supporters, but also seeks to maximize the chances for victory. If some group out there could be helpful, and they haven’t been properly courted, their absence down the road could result in a preventable loss. So you have to do your homework.

The Wall St. Alternative to Organizing
The Occupy Wall St. crowd does it differently. Their answer to ‘who is on board’ is ‘we are!’ referring to whoever shows up that day. So if the early stages were overwhelmingly white, young and disaffected, representing a constituency so truly powerless that no community organizing group would think to recruit them, well so what? In the United States, young disaffected whites have often shown a great willingness to combine passion and self-sacrifice where others might have counseled deep organizing and networking first, and militant action second. (or never!)*

This rejection of what we might call ‘organizer’s bias’ meant that many potential allies were turned off during the planning stages and the first two weeks of the occupation. Make no mistake: folks who are connected to old school and new school organizing groups have been paying close attention, attending meetings, coming for drop-ins at Zuccotti Park, and trying to figure out who is in charge and what they want. And since no one is in charge and they want so many different things, those folks reported up the chain that it’s great, but very unclear how to connect. The complaint: ‘what are you demands’ was actually a plea: ‘we want to join but you’re making it hard!’

A colleague from a major NYC union called me to discuss how best to support them. But his initial take was quite mixed– the absence of a coherent strategy made it hard to negotiate specific forms of aid, which is often how unions conceive of their ability to help. Later, this union decided to jump in with both feet; but they still don’t have a handle on ‘the plan.’ There is no plan. That’s why we can’t call it organizing. The folks with plans have now jumped into the fray with both feet, as will be seen on October 5th.

You Might Not Like What Will Happen Next
But whatever it is, the impact is beyond question. With some meager hundreds of occupationistas, helped along by NYPD stupidity, the occupation of Wall Street is now a front page national issue. To a certain extent, the issues they raise are trailing behind. Issues like the culpability of Wall Street in our current mess, a millionaire’s tax, taxing financial transactions, reregulating Wall St., creating jobs, and addressing the foreclosure crisis.

Right now, some very different actors are coming together with public expressions of love and support. The street theater anarchists look at labor and think, ‘yes, we’ve prodded the behemoth to stir!’ The grizzled organizer types look at live video of the general assemblies and think ‘we can use this to generate concrete political victories like extending a millionaire’s tax in New York State!’ Truly, a May-December romance if there ever was one. Now we observe the groups from column A build their lists off the energy produced by the doe eyed campers from column B. Thanks Wall Street occupiers!

At some point – next week, next month or next year – this romance will come under strain. Street theater won’t spark a revolution. Instead, transactional politics will rear its compromising head, following the lead of groups that are accountable to members who would rather have real victories sooner (2012) rather than socialism later. See you at the ballot box folks – don’t forget to pick up your trash.

When the pivot happens, it won’t look like a struggle full of lighting and thunder. It will be more like an elephant shrugging off a monkey. In the end, whether you are feel more comfortable with old school or new school organizing will be irrelevant. It’s whether or  not you do organizing that matters, and all the websites, livestreams and video in the world won’t make up for not doing it. It’s Moneyball baby, not baseball. Pity the self-sacrificing occupationistas who don’t know this yet. I love you and wish you actually wanted to organize.


*Please don’t interpret anything above as a knee jerk rejection of white left activism. God forbid. And yes, there is some diversity. Funny how so many whites are actually fearful of simply recognizing their leadership and impact, as if the absence of people of color in multiple + visible leadership roles render their efforts pointless. That just ain’t so. It’s more complicated than that.