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

June 20, 2020

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.


Using Your Organizational Skills to Change the World Using Social Media

February 6, 2020

There is much more to social media than simply posting and waiting for results. The best efforts—including many of those highlighted in this series of excerpts from and interviews for Change the World Using Social Media (to be published by Rowman & Littlefield later this year—often combine first-rate communication skills online as well as onsite with tremendous organizational skills and organizational development. #BlackLivesMatter without the Black Lives Matter organization would be a far less influential movement than it is. #ClimateStrike, with the Global Climate Strike organization, combined online meeting place and onsite local chapters throughout the world to continue its work to foster positive responses to the global climate crisis, which is also promoted online through #FridaysForFuture and its online map of onsite events. #DACA takes on a real-world physical presence, through the support of more than 1,400 organizations and individuals, in its efforts to support undocumented immigrants who want to continue living in the United States. #MarchForOurLives benefitted and continues to benefit from the deft combination of a broad-based organization designed to reduce gun violence and online posts from organizers and supporters. #MeToo would be much the poorer if it didn’t have the organizational prowess the local and national organizations providing services to survivors of sexual violence and of Tarana Burke’s Just Be Inc., created to support young women of color “with the range of issues teen and pre-teen girls are faced with daily” more than a decade before her #MeToo hashtag went viral. #WomensMarch, with its broad-based network of trainings, programs and events, drives the movement to “harness the political power of diverse women and their communities to create transformative social change,” its website suggests.

The connections between the stories of March for Our Lives and Fridays for Future provide particularly noteworthy examples of how quick, consistent attention to the complementary nature of online and onsite (blended) interactions, and onsite-online organizational skills, led to successes for both groups. The process of creating a strong, sustainable March for Our Lives movement and organization, well documented in Dave Cullen’s book Parkland: Birth of a Movement and Lauren and David Hogg’s book #NeverAgain: A New Generation Draws the Line, rose out of the activists’ almost immediate recognition that building a strong organization would be essential to success; they drew upon experienced, knowledgeable supporters to help them after quickly recognizing that they needed to establish a nonprofit foundation to manage the large donations made in support of their efforts. Inspired by March for Our Lives and an earlier protest, in which students stayed away from school to stage a “climate strike” timed to coincide with the opening day of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change conference in Paris, Greta Thunberg began her school strike—an initially solitary effort calling attention to climate change—by standing alone (with a handmade sign in hand) in front of the parliament building in her own country in August 2018. Recognizing that she would need a well-run organization to support her efforts, she established Fridays for Future that month. She continued to combine her onsite efforts with online posts (through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram) to call attention to her climate strike—an effort that steadily attracted a growing, yet relatively small group of supporters. The moment of transformation in terms of the amount of attention she was drawing to her cause came when that combined onsite-online effort led her to the opportunity to address members of the United Nations late that year, when she was 15 years old: attention through mainstream media outlets as well as through tremendously larger numbers of responses via Twitter (going from a few thousand responses on Twitter before the UN speech to more than 483,000 mentions by August 2019) allowed her make “an unquestionable impact,” and “nowhere is that more apparent than on social media,” Paul Herrera notes in an article for Maven Road.

But it’s not just about attention and reach; it’s also about the concrete results produced through those well-organized, blended efforts. When you look at what March for Our Lives has helped produce, you see changes in legislation at the state and national levels, growing support nationally for positive actions to reduce violence involving the use of guns, and efforts to register and engage new voters in the electoral process. When you look at Climate Strike, you see that the first sixteen months of activities put Thunberg in conversation with world leaders willing to support positive responses to the effects of climate change and “inspired 4 million people to join the global climate strike on September 20, 2019, in what was the largest climate demonstration in human history.” Those marches, executed with a scope and efficiency reminiscent of the Women’s March and March for Our Lives efforts, spurred action by students “in 2,233 cities and towns in 128 countries, with demonstrations held from Australia to India, the UK and the US.”

At the heart of all this is community—onsite, online, and at the level of the blended efforts so frequently apparent to you as engage in your own world-changing efforts and as you follow the work of those you admire for their world-changing actions.

Tips designed to create, nurture, and sustain these blended communities include establishing organizational plans—with strong mission, vision, and value statements—that help keep community efforts focused and measurable in terms of achievements vs. goals that remain unreached. They include a commitment to building relationships that allow your colleagues and supporters to see themselves as your partners in creating the change you are proposing to make. They are centered around a commitment and ability to tell your story briefly and engagingly through all means available to you onsite and online—in ways that are personal and invitational rather than coldly factual and distant. They are built upon an understanding that change—small-scale as well as large-scale—is a step-by-step process that requires building upon the successes you achieve and that are not derailed by the inevitable setbacks, opposition, and even harassment you and your colleagues will face. They include a commitment to learning from others—those who support you as well as those who oppose what you are attempting to accomplish—with a well-maintained commitment to empathy so you can understand why others might not be as enamored of what you are attempting to do as you are, and they require a strong commitment to frequently thanking those who support you and doing everything you can to keep those supporters informed, involved, and energized—actions that take you far beyond any mistaken belief that social media is a magic bullet that, once fired, resolves everything you and members of your community are attempting to resolve.   

N.B. — Paul has completed his manuscript for Change the World Using Social Mediascheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in 2020. This is the 22nd in a series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress.


Facing Online Harassment While Changing the World

January 29, 2020

When you think about the stories you have heard or read regarding online harassment—including trolling—through social media, you can easily make the mistake of thinking it won’t affect you. You might even unconsciously—as I have occasionally and unexpectedly found myself doing—mistakenly assume that those who are on the receiving end of trolling and other forms of online harassment are only the highly-visible world-changers taking controversial stands (as if that somehow fully explains why they are being harassed).

If you follow social media at all, you know that many people—those affiliated with Black Lives Matter, March for Our Lives, and Me Too, for example—have been subjected to trolling and other forms of harassment that are vicious, tenacious, threatening, and, at times, emotionally overwhelming. It interferes with their ability to continue or complete their work. It leaves them emotionally drained and feeling isolated. And it takes a toll on those around them, including family, friends, co-workers, and employers.

What you might have missed is the fact that plenty of others who are attempting to foster positive change in their communities through what they see as routine, uncontroversial actions have been equally traumatized by those who oppose them or simply take pleasure in provoking strong emotional responses among those they perceive to be weak, appropriate targets to torment. A study released by ADL (the Anti-Defamation League) in October 2019 suggests that more than a third of all Americans have “experienced severe online harassment”—which means that you don’t have to look very far to find someone who has had this experience (if it hasn’t already happened to you). And if you are at all confused by what a troll is and what behavior helps you identify a troll, you’ll find Todd Clarke’s list of “5 Signs You’re Dealing With a Troll” helpful in making that identification: “1) They’ll try to make you angry. 2) They act entitled. 3) They exaggerate. 4) They make it persona. 5) They often can’t spell.”

One of the most surprising set of targets I have encountered included several librarians who were simply doing what librarians do: fostering positive change within their communities by responding to the needs of library users and library colleagues through the creation and posting of resources to help them find information they need. (I first heard their stories while attending the panel discussion “Bullying, Trolling, and Doxxing, Oh My! Protecting Our Advocacy and Public Discourse Around Diversity and Social Justice” at the 2018 American Library Association annual conference, in New Orleans.) Two of the librarians had received an American Library Association 2017 Diversity Research Grant for a project to be called “Minority Student Experiences with Racial Microaggressions in the Academic Library”; the study was designed to use “surveys and focus groups to garner further insight into the specific experiences surrounding racial microaggressions directed at racial and ethnic minority students in the context of accessing library spaces and services on campus,” but was abandoned “[b]ecause of the level of harassment” directed at one of the librarians. Another of the librarians had tried to explain to colleagues, through a relatively brief (nine-paragraph) blog posting, what she called “race fatigue”—the “physical, mental, and emotional condition that people of color experience after spending a considerable amount of time dealing with the micro-and macro-aggressions that inevitably occur when in the presence of white people”—in an effort to make her colleagues aware of the situation and in the hope that something positive would come from recognition and discussion of that situation. A fourth librarian—working in a college library—had published an online document designed to “provide general information about anti-oppression, diversity, and inclusion as well as information and resources for the social justice issues key to current dialogues” within the college community.

When the reaction of those who wanted to torment each of the librarians began to hit, several of the recipients of trolling and other forms of online harassment were stunned and transformed by what they experienced, they said. They were “doxxed”—their contact and other personal information (e.g., email addresses, home addresses, and home phone numbers) were widely disseminated online—as part of a campaign to not only discredit them but also to interfere with the work they were doing. And, in some ways, it worked. At least one of them asked her employers to remove her contact information from her university’s website—a process that took far longer than expected because no one seemed to be prepared for the trauma that the librarian was experiencing as a result of a weeks-long barrage of threats and hate mail, nor seemed quite sure of how to respond expeditiously to the request. A few of the librarians sought help from a variety of sources, including members of police departments, but found that support was lacking because no actual crimes had been committed by those threatening (rather than actually committing) acts of violence against the librarians and their families.

A fifth librarian (who was originally scheduled to be part of a panel discussion I attended, but ended up telling her story online after she was unable to attend the conference) offered a bit of positive news: her employer was behind her all the way from the time the harassment began.

“Thankfully, and much to my honest surprise, my employer had my back,” she wrote in a piece posted on Medium.

What all of this suggests is that in preparing for that awful moment when—not if—you are on the receiving end of trolling or other forms of online harassment, you need not be or feel as if you are alone; there are steps you can take to lessen the trauma and frustration harassment is designed to provoke; and you can draw upon your community of support to help you through the experience in ways that allow you to continue engaging in positive actions to help change your world.   

N.B. — Paul has completed his manuscript for Change the World Using Social Mediascheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in 2020. This is the 21st in a continuing series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress.


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