Grassroots Organizing for a New Century
General Assembly 2008 Event 5021
Presenter: Alex Winnett, Program Associate for Peacemaking in the Washington Office for Advocacy and Witness of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA)
New Internet tools like social networking websites, photo sharing sites, and software that allows users to make telephone calls via Internet connections are proving to be useful to grassroots organizers, according to Alex Winnett, Program Associate for Peacemaking in the UUA's Washington Office for Advocacy and Witness. "How can we incorporate these new tools into our grassroots organizing?" Winnett asked.
Winnett said much of the effort of grassroots organizing goes into making connections between people. He said that Internet applications that encourage information-sharing and collaboration, often grouped under the rubric "Web 2.0," have the potential for making such connections between people.
Winnett cautioned the audience that doing grassroots organizing via the Internet still takes significant time and effort. However, Internet organizing offers the advantage of reaching people over a wide geographic area.
"The Internet is not a goal," Winnett added. "It is a tool to accomplish our goals." He reminded his listeners that there is a difference between a goal and a tactic. "Just building a website is not an adequate goal."
"Take the time to tap into ready-made networks," Winnett said. During the civil rights movement, grassroots organizers for the Southern Christian Leadership Council tapped into existing social networks such as schools, social clubs, and churches in the African American community throughout the South. Today, grassroots organizers can tap into those traditional networks as well as existing Internet social networks.
Winnett told how he used the social networking site Facebook to do some grassroots organizing for the Interfaith Fast Day for Peace (IFDP). Starting with his own personal page on Facebook, Winnett began promoting IFDP among his Facebook "friends." He said that "friend" is a term used by Facebook users to include anyone networked to a user's Facebook page.
In addition to spreading the word about the IFDP using his own personal Facebook page, he also set up a Facebook page specifically for the IFDP. Over the course of two months, over 350 other Facebook users became "friends" of IFDP's Facebook page. The IFDP page included tips for first-time fasters. After the fast was over, Winnett asked those 350 people to write about their experience of going for a day without food in support of world peace. In the end, Winnett had introduced many new people to the IFDP, and in the process he had expanded his own social network by adding "friends" to his own personal Facebook page.
Winnett pointed out that the American Revolution was planned in the coffee shops, bars, and city squares of 18th century America. "Our new city squares," Winnett said, now exist on the Internet "and now can include the whole world."
Turning to some more specific examples of how to use Internet technology for grassroots organizing, Winnett first mentioned Skype, a company that allows users to make telephone calls via an Internet connection. Skype and similar services offer inexpensive teleconferencing, allowing a nationwide teleconference to be held for very little money. Google Documents and other similar services offer online document creation, so that documents can be created, modified, and edited by a far-flung group of people. Wiki software will also allow many users to create and modify the same document. Photography can be a good way to help organize people, and photo-sharing Web sites such as Flickr can facilitate sharing photos with a wide audience.
"The tools we have on the Internet are not a panacea," Winnett said. "It's not the best way to organize poor people," he said, because computers and Internet access represent a significant expense.
"You run the risk of over-reliance," he said, saying that grassroots organizers cannot ignore more traditional forms of organizing. For example, the most effective way to influence legislators is through face-to-face lobbying, while the least effective way is by sending an email message to a legislator.
Internet networking requires "a certain amount of technical savvy," he added, which can make it hard to reach persons without technical know-how. "Know your audience," said Winnett. "If your audience is not tech-savvy, don't use the Internet." In a similar vein, local organizing is probably best accomplished with traditional face-to-face organizing techniques.
In conclusion, Winnett said the key to using the Internet for grassroots organizing is to "know your audience," and use the right tools to reach your organizing goals.
Reported by Dan Harper; edited by Dana Dwinell-Yardley.