Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Marching Virtually With the Poor People’s Campaign

There is something timeless about a virtual march/assembly designed to foster social change—something obvious to anyone watching/participating in the Mass Poor People’s Assembly and March on Washington today. The timelessness was felt in numerous moments, during the first livestream broadcast of that 3.5-hour event that drew more than 1.2 million of us to it through the Campaign’s event website and MSNBC’s live broadcast, that we came face to face with people—our fellow citizens—who are living in poverty. People struggling to survive. People who have been ignored for far too long. People whose faces we need to see. People whose voices we need to hear. And the timelessness is equally obvious when we return to a recording available online to live or relive part or all of that unifying call to positive action centered on a set of interrelated fundamental principles and demands.

It’s another powerful example of how much our world is changing around us as we continue adapting to shelter-in-place guidelines implemented in response to the current coronavirus pandemic. Many of us are learning, for the first time, how to work effectively from home. Or to learn online. Or to meet or celebrate significant moments (e.g., birthdays) or even engage in conversations over meals “face-to-face” via Zoom and other online platforms.

It was only a matter of time, therefore, that the need to continue pushing for social change through large-scale gatherings—even, if not especially—during times of incredible upheaval and tragedy at a personal, regional, national, and global level would force us all to become a bit more creative in our approaches. And its obvious that the organizers of the Poor People Assembly and March not only figured out how to do it online (after their original plans for an onsite assembly and March on Washington were derailed by the onset of social distancing), but how to do it effectively and engagingly online.

The stunningly beautiful result is that it worked. The ability to participate online undoubtedly made the event accessible to far more people than would have been able to join it if they had to be onsite. The adaptations required by the move from onsite to online interactions created unique opportunities for the faces to be seen and the voices to be heard through first-rate editing of recordings from well-known religious, political, social, and arts-and-entertainment leaders as well as those more important: those directly affected by poverty and numerous interrelated challenges. And even though it was, in essence, a “live” recorded production, there was a very real level of interaction made possible through the use of #PoorPeoplesCampaign on Twitter to capture and react to moments that struck many of us at a personal level. (When the event was at its peak, the hashtag was near the top of a list of terms drawing the highest levels of engagement on Twitter.)

Furthermore, the fact that the live/recorded event was scheduled for three livestreams over this particular weekend provided an interesting opportunity to participate in an extended synchronous/asynchronous way. Having to leave the initial broadcast and the dynamic, almost overwhelmingly flow of tweets during the initial event this morning, I was sorry I would not be able to stay for the final hour of the event. Doing a bit of post-event catch-up later in the day with a friend who was involved as an event volunteer, I realized I was free at the moment where the rebroadcast would be recreating the moment when I had originally had to leave. So, I rejoined it (several hours after the initial broadcast ended) right at the moment of my departure. And discovered, to my surprise, that it felt as if those intervening hours had not at all existed. Because a new group of participants was equally engaged. Equally active on Twitter. And helping to create the sense of continuity and engagement that accompanies participation in any well-designed event designed to draw us in; help us understand that we are part of a vital, vibrant action-oriented community; and inspire us to take the positive actions we know we need to take if we want to create a new and better normal to replace the far-from-perfect normal we had before COVID-19 and additional tragic deaths of our fellow Americans drove us to this moment of need for decisive action.

Because of my own tenuous connection to the Campaign (through the friend who has been actively volunteering for it for a considerable period of time) before today’s march and assembly, I had been watching for signs of traction during the weeks and days before the event. I was disappointed—but not at all surprised—to see that mainstream media coverage in anticipation of the event was, to be charitable, minimal; doing an online search for pre-event coverage via Google showed far more attention being given to the latest (onsite) rally (in a time of social distancing) scheduled by our president than was given to the Poor People’s Campaign event. Mainstream media representatives clearly remain woefully and pathetically unprepared for and unable to detect the significance and draw of events that are taking place online rather than onsite. But that doesn’t tell the full story, for the event was gaining plenty of attention in online environments and platforms, including on Facebook and on the event website, where people were being invited to and committing to attending not only by completing online RSVPs, but also putting a very real face to their participation by posting selfies and adding brief descriptions as to why they were committed to participating in the event and supporting the Poor People’s Campaign.

And now that the march/assembly has actually “taken place,” the relative lack of mainstream media attention seems to be dissipating a bit. A story posted earlier today by The New York Times is drawing more attention to the gathering and what it was designed to promote, and more coverage by others is bound to follow soon.

What all of this suggests for those of us tracking and writing about how social media and other online platforms are changing the face of social change is that our landscape is continuing to evolve quickly. There are possibilities that are tremendously under-explored. And we are still in the fairly early days of experimenting with and understanding the massive changes that our technology is capable of producing.   

The march/assembly, as I write this, appears to be over. But it really isn’t. It continues anytime any of us takes the time to watch part of all of the event in any archived version. Opens his/her/their heart to what is being proposed/requested/demanded. And then takes whatever steps are possible to address and resolve any of the numerous challenges we are facing. Because we are all in this together.

–N.B.: This is the twelfth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences and our continuing interactions online, and the twenty-third in a series of excerpts from and interviews for Paul’s book Change the World Using Social Media, scheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in 2020.

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