Changes at the New Organizing Institute

Last month saw some big news come out of the New Organizing Institute, a major piece of movement infrastructure:

Eight senior staffers at the New Organizing Institute resigned after calling for the firing of President Obama’s 2012 data director. They took much of the rest of the staff with them.

As many of our supporters and past attendees know, Organizing 2.0 has had a close relationship with NOI from the beginning. Our founders attended early trainings for digital organizers at NOI. I was a trainer at a number of trainings. And our annual training conference in New York came about because NOI had never organized a training in New York and had stopped offering any trainings outside of Washington DC. In 2010 we held the local Rootscamp for our state as part of Organizing 2.0, and many of our trainers have also been trained at taught at NOI events.

So this matters. But first, what happened?

The entire senior staff of NOI wrote a letter demanding that the Board of Directors fire Executive Director Ethan Roeder. In the end however, they chose to resign when that demand was not accepted. A number of staffers protested and were fired, or left of their own accord in response. An additional number were laid off because of planned reductions in staff due to budget problems. By the end of the day, only 4 staff were left out of 21.

Since then, the community of progressive digital organizer community has been having two concurrent conversations. The first, to show love and support to the fired staffers by raising money to help them get by financially and help everyone get another job. The second, to help ensure the survival of NOI by raising $76,000 as fast as possible.

When NOI was founded, Netroots Nation was still called YearlyKos. Being a ‘digital director’ was barely a thing. Jobs, skills and talent were very concentrated in the Beltway. Today in contrast, the infrastructure for training is quite fast. Many cities have ongoing classes and trainings in coding, data, graphic design, social media and more, sometimes aimed explicitly at the nonprofit or progressive community. Digital trainings take place every year run by the PCCC, Netroots Nation, Organizing 2.0 and others. Consulting firms, issue verticals, trainings for specific constituencies, trainings offered by unions, capacity building entities and so on run unabated. Beyond that there’s a lot of crossover, where events organizing for one group (nonprofits, fundraisers) include the same kind of training sessions that would fit in an event designed specifically for progressive online organizing.

NOI is going to continue to offer trainings and being an important part of the our progressive infrastructure. And they will continue to operate in a crowded environment where many organizations and vendors have offerings that compete. We propose that going forward, the movement pause and consider a couple questions designed to help us evolve even further:

Who isn’t getting the training they need, at a price they can afford? Local campaign staff and candidates, staff at union locals labor organizations not based in DC, community organizing groups that aren’t part of national networks, grassroots groups that aren’t getting funding from the main backers of community organizing and progressive causes, staff working in local government, and the list goes on and on. In particular, we need training that isn’t restricted – that allows nontraditional attendees to show up and learn digital organizing skills.

Following the dictum that the medium is the message, how can we push harder to change our institutions in line with the logic of the internet? Networking organizing, distributed organizations, flat management, horizontal decision making, rapidly scaling movements and peer based knowledge networks ALL have implications that haven’t quite worked their way through our political and organizational landscape. And in some ways, the traditional training entities haven’t tried very hard to pose that challenge.

What are your questions?

Let’s Make A Digital Organizing Guide!

Open source software is a source of many innovations. One of is a response to a fairly basic problem: who creates the user manual for programs not owned and developed by a company?

In 2008 Tomas Krag came up with the idea of a book sprint. Get the right people to commit to 4-5 days of steady work, and end up with a top to bottom software manual for open source software. The book sprint has caught on, and dozens of books in multiple languages are available for free download or purchase.

In recent years, software methodologies like SCRUM and Agile have migrated to other parts of the business world – and beyond. Shouldn’t that be true for the book sprint? It got us thinking…

At workshops in digital strategy for labor organizers, we usually offer copies of various resources and guides to pass around. Folks are more likely to scan a physical copy than to look up a URL a few days later. But the information isn’t well organized – it’s always just a list of resources, with no taxonomy or easy to use locator for the right resource.

Instead, we should use the book sprint methodology to produce a guide for digital organizers in the labor movement in New York City. It would be available as a free download, though anyone could buy a printed copy. The bulk of it would be (authorized) reprints or links to existing resources from the usual suspects, such as the New Organizing Institute.

In addition, we would add more specialized resources that our target audience will find helpful:

  • List of organizations offering political, communications, or digital training in NYC
  • Calendar of events of importance to the organizing community
  • Lists of Twitter handles and Facebook pages for labor organizations and local elected officials.
  • A directory of labor communications staff in New York.
  • Articles about topics designed explicitly for a junior communications staffer to give to someone more senior in the labor movement to advance a particular point. (Ex.: digital should be part of early strategy discussions, not added as an afterthought.)
  • References to recent noteworthy efforts using digital tools, from New York based organizations.
  • A directory of trustworthy vendors and freelancers who offer relevant services.

After asking a number of our friends and advisory board members, we’ve decided to create such a guide during the upcoming Organizing 2.0 conference (April 10-11). It might even spark the creation of more such guides for other regions. If you have suggestions or want to participate, get in touch with us. At the moment we have a facilitator, we’re looking for 3-4 volunteers to take a lead role in producing this guide.

A Rebel Alliance for New York

A couple weeks ago, Justine of STORG tweeted about a “Nonviolent Militia” and sent the dispersed remnants of #Occupy atwitter. Part of the problem is surely the word ‘militia’ connoting as it does racially pure compounds in Idaho.

NVDA – Infrastructure and History

Nonviolent Direct Action (NVDA) has a long history. But over the last generation of activists, it has become intertwined with anarchist politics. This isn’t a surprise:

  • The famous Battle of Seattle fight against globalization and the WTO spawned a generation of tourist mobilizers for whom large gatherings, spokescouncils and twinkle fingers merged into an unbroken whole of glorified resistance.
  • Those who focused on or sought professional training in NVDA tended to be more marginal political types in the first place, bleeding not only into anarchist political thought but alterna-whatevers: punk rock, veganism, giant puppets, and single-syllable names like “Tree” or “Free”. When ‘regular people’ train in NVDA before an action, the person training them is often some kind of anarchist.
  • One of the legacies of the anti-globalization movement was the formation (and break up) of the Direct Action Network. Many of the veterans of DAN continue as trouble-makers active in various niches, including David Graeber and Lisa Fithian, who were very active in OWS. There is an unbroken chain linking the development, theory and practice of NVDA in the United States to avowed supporters of anarchist politics.

And there’s actually an existing infrastructure devoted to NVDA in the broad sense of the term. This includes State Dept. advisers like Gene Sharp, The Ruckus Society, The Backbone Campaign, Training for Change, The Other 98%, and many more. These folks engage in trainings, but seem to show up more visibly before and during large mobilizations OR when a group with funding wants to purchase some spectacle for an upcoming action.  Here’s a list of what they don’t do:

  • Focus on one city for the long term
  • Build permanent infrastructure in a single community
  • Serve as embedded leaders – they prefer to be trainers, advisers, consultants.

The “Nonviolent Militia” Broken Down

The core of Justine’s idea can be isolated and simplified as follows:

  • An organized entity devoted to the intelligent, long term practice of NVDA within a specific city and by specific people (“members”).
  • A refusal to adhere to the norms of anarchist political practice and theory while using whatever works.

In discussions with smart people inside and outside of Occupy I heard a lot of support for the combination of these two ideas. It seems that no one can remember a time and place that simply had a kind of ‘reserve’ community of trained NVDA practitioners who were on call within a structure capable of issuing that call. And for good reason – it’s hard. Lots of problems to solve…

How can we get a group of 24 people who are not only trained in NVDA, but trained with each other, to be on call for specific local actions on a regular basis, with the intention of putting together complicated scenarios at the drop of a hat?

Start a training program that has participants commit to a full day once a month for five months and an additional commitment to participate in 12 NVDA actions over the course of a year. In exchange for this, offer a stipend of $2500. This assumes that acceptance is competitive, with due attention to diversity, organizational backgrounds, experience, and one year commitment. The filter would exclude many who currently overpopulate front lines of rowdy protests: students, young white males, the undisciplined and the unkempt. But it would incentivize others to consider making a commitment in line with their values.

By working with cohorts of 12 every three months, you’d grow a stable group of current ‘members’ and alumns who speak the same language of direct action and have developed an esprit de corp, the special something that bonds people together and creates a willingness to sacrifice. Because a stable organization is managing the administration, the people doing the NVDA don’t also have to focus on other details that would otherwise sap their focus and reduce motivation.

Over time, leaders would emerge who can take formal roles (scenario planner) while enjoying legitimacy from their fellows. Leadership won’t be something we count upon to emerge spontaneously, it will be planned for and taken into account.

How can we agree on which actions this group should support? Who would be in a position to call on them?

A city like New York has countless struggles and battles going on at any one time. And most of them are likely to be led by a community more invested in that particular struggle than in the use of a particular tactic. At the same time, a great many existing groups are familiar with NVDA and welcome it, depending on circumstances, and they welcome respectful allies who can be trusted.

My dream ‘executive council’ would be made up of leaders I know and trust. These are people who serve different communities and issues, but they share a broad left politics, an emphasis on grassroots activism, and a desire to have real world impact based on existing electoral or legislative time frames. These are the folks who know what is bubbling up elsewhere, and they are in a position to make suggestions: how about having this great group of NVDA folks take part? What role might they play? What parameters would need to be worked out?

With explicitly political leadership playing that role, community groups accountable to their own base could more safely invite NVDA folks. They would know in advance that this won’t result in crazy messaging, temper tantrums, efforts by un-designated activists to grant press interviews, or any adventurism. But they would have folks who know each other, who can withstand aggressive policing, provocations from opponents, who have privileges (education, legal support, life circumstances) that allow them to protect and serve.

Keep in mind, this happens, sort of, all the time. In that sense this proposal seeks to ratchet up a kind of existing cross-community cooperation to a higher and more accountable level.

Another point which deserves to be made explicit: this group shouldn’t operate using general assemblies. Not everyone gets an invite to the planning sessions. You might not be allowed to join. And joining, as a paid or volunteer member doesn’t mean your voice is equal to everyone else’s. This makes the project ‘hierarchical’! For me, that’s one of the strengths. At the same time, affinity groups can be quite useful. Building consent is important – no one should ever be ‘ordered’ into a risky situation! No one is building an army where leaders must be followed. There will always be a tension in our small ‘d’ democratic activism between inclusiveness and efficiency. Let’s live with it while getting bigger and better projects done, like this one.

Wouldn’t this kind of effort attract the attention of law-enforcement? Aren’t some parts of NVDA inherently illegal and risky?

Of course! I’d assume constant infiltration and surveillance. But a few points are in order. The practice of NVDA assumes that participants are willing to put themselves, their bodies, arrest records and employment prospects on the line. That isn’t new.

Good NVDA also tends to follow certain best practices. These include very serious discussions of the legal ramifications of any given action, planning for legal consequences and the provision of ongoing support, and serious attention to things like political goals and professional communications. Doing these things with a higher level of organization that draws in more serious practitioners over longer periods of time but with serious political and financial support – that makes all of it less risky than a lot of what passes for militant activism today.

Creative NVDA with well trained, trustworthy and physically present volunteers opens up whole vistas of possibilities in a wide range of situations. Let’s list a few:

  • Fighting a school closure with high school students and parents.
  • Rapid response to police violence and lack of accountability.
  • Support for workers who might lack English, documentation, or a union contract against private employers used to acting with impunity.
  • Supporting a large mobilization with trainings and planning far in advance.
  • Occupying a bank lobby, politician’s office, or fancy fundraiser.
  • Homeowner’s militant defense against foreclosure.

Why a Rebel Alliance?

Calling something a militia suggests that we are acting in service to established authority. A Rebel Alliance on the other hand borrows a heroic posture from pop culture. Specifically, a piece of pop culture based on expert story telling and myth making strategies from the master – Joseph Campbell.

This age of discontent has already produced an inspiring wave of revolt, from the Arab Spring to the Spanish Indignados to Occupy Wall Street. But in all of these cases, part of what was lacking was serious, long term, deep organizing. Base building member organizations competing for scraps from the state are mostly unable to contain the millions of educated, middle class, youthful activists eager for a ‘plan b’ alternative to what this society offers. And this cohort doesn’t have a name or political expression. Yet they are at the front lines of whatever struggle emerges, looking for a way to make a difference with their bodies. Why aren’t we building strong containers for this energy, to harness it better in service to winnable campaigns?

Some theorists have hypothisized that the proportion of the population that needs to be active in pursuing real change is 1-5 per cent for there to be any chance of success. We aren’t there – not by a long shot. But obviously a large number of those people are going to be from the demographic mentioned previously. They’ll show up no matter what. Wouldn’t it be better to have stronger institutions made up of this constituency?

It’s a small-big plan. A pilot. Let’s be sane, humble and self-sacrificing practitioners of nonviolent direct action in close knit coordination with other movements and communities. Let’s be a Rebel Alliance of sorts. Wouldn’t you want to be part of the Rebel Alliance, if it existed?

I know I would.

Boots Online: Digital At #AFLCIO13

The advance of online tools and digital strategy is very much in evidence at the AFL-CIO Convention. Some data points:

  • The listening sessions conducted for many months included robust online conversations.
  • There is now a Digital Department that has had thousands of participants in online webinars and offline training events.
  • A number of well-regarded netroots pros have been hired over the last two years.
  • Quite a few advanced software projects have been rolled out, or will be soon, including the Labor Web’s replacement and the RePurpose election tool.

So it was a pleasant surprise, though not a complete shock, to see that the most prominent booth display at the convention was for the Digital Dept., complete with an amazing “Boots Online!” sign.

Jessica Morales of the AFL-CIO Digital Dept.

Jessica Morales of the AFL-CIO Digital Dept.

It’s also been great witnessing a robust conversation on the official hashtag #aflcio13. One journalist present even suggested that part of the program – dozens of 90 minute action sessions – were “designed to give the proceedings the trendy buzz of a Netroots Nation conference.” Sounds good, right?

We’ve been advocating since 2009 that unions take digital strategy more seriously. This requires a number of things all done at the same time, including:

  • Strong, public support from the top for this direction.
  • Changes in job titles, duties, and the mix of staffer specialties in communications and organizing departments.
  • Actually organizing the digital aspects of unions with metrics and evaluations.
  • Finding ways for the digitally savvy to exert what we might call ‘expertise based influence’ that does not derive from how long they’ve been employed, who they know, or their spot on the pecking order.
  • Pushing change to the edge of the labor movement – the locals – and assigning appropriate resources to make that happen. (As opposed to merely having a decent team at the International working on strategic campaigns.)
  • Working with a wider array of capacity building partners and encouraging more local connections between unions and capacity building opportunities outside the union- or labor-movements. (Like NTEN, local alternative media conferences, and of course Organizing 2.0.)
  • Setting a goal of training 1000 digital strategists inside the labor movement – and making it easy to find out where they are.
  • Helping locals evaluate the cost and quality of digital communications services that they purchase.
  • Launching a Circuit Rider program that creates jobs for social media and digital strategy freelancers to work with multiple locals at the same time, as part of a coordinated, managed and sustainable effort to help every local – not just the strong ones.
  • Collecting case studies across a wide array of situations and make them available for inspiration, with an appropriate taxonomy. Include both successes AND failures.

The union movement is clearly on the right track when it comes to integrating online and offline organizing, and this convention sets some very positive precedents for that work. But in the rush to celebrate accomplishments, it’s easy to skip over the need for an accurate map of the terrain. The labor movement is weak and it needs as much help and as many allies as it can get. AFL-CIO President Trumka has made it clear that he wants to open-source the labor movement, creating programs, tools and campaigns that everyone can join, modify, and share. Those of us excited about how new communication tools can make a difference for the labor movement have a duty to accept that challenge.

[Got ideas and feedback of your own? Offer them here or on Twitter!]