On the Fall Community Technology Conference Trail from Boston to New York City
The recent short trail starts with "Technology for Social Change" — The Grassroots Use of Technology Conference X, October 16 and 17 at Northeastern University in Boston. It ends seven weeks later, on Saturday, December 5 with "Organizing 2.0 — Online Organizing in the Era of Hope" at the Murphy Institute for Worker Education in midtown Manhattan.
The Boston conference site has the schedule, the conference program book, a listing of the 19 cosponsors that the Organizers' Collaborative has pulled in — two primary ones, the host John O'Bryant African American Institute at NU and the National Writers Union whose Digital Media conference was co-located and integrated with this year's tenth offering; nine labor and activist groups, and eight other community technology organizing and support projects — and the promise of a fuller archive to be posted. Yet even without all the notes and resources, what's available is informative about the gathering, the technology support projects assisting the movement and something of its make-up and contours, and the area's progressive community organizations that represent and help make up that movement.
The rotating montage of some 103 conference scenes with lots of good shots, especially of keynoter, technology activist and scholar, and conference host Richard O'Bryant, Executive Director of the African-American Institute named for his father, is from the camera of Taina Vargas, who works with young people and GIMP open source image software at the South End Technology Center, with its as-always impressive gathering of people, including founder Mel King, programs, courses, and open access times, and there's a photo of Tania and three presenters, Jason Pramas, activist, editor, and publisher of OpenMediaBoston, TV producer Topper Carew, and media and technology activist and former Organizers' Collaborative director Felicia Sullivan. There's a thanks to 200 participants, a number that probably includes those attending the NWU's Digital Media Conference whose theme and explicit preoccupation, "Shall We Write for Free or Shall We Write for Pay? Writers Face the Digital Age," unfortunately did little to help build common cause with those at the digital grassroots.
The lunch keynoters reflected a good diversity of community media and technology experience: Doyle Canning, of smartMeme, founder of their STORY-based program of strategies for social change, hosting a panel featuring Michelle Moon Lee (from MIT's Comparative Media Studies program to Quilted, "stitching together technology and social change"), Steve Backman (long-time area nonprofit technology support activist with Database Designs), and Sunanda Nair (fighting family and sexual violence and migrant labor exploitation with MataHari/Eye of the Day), joined by journalist and organizer Roberto Lovato, co-founder of Presente.org and the Basta Dobbs! campaign opposing the virulent anti-Latino, anti-immigrant propagandizing by now-former CNN anchor Lou Dobbs.
Along with the Organizers' Collaborative, the media and technology support cosponsors give a good sense of the local community technology landscape and its ties to the broader national one. The OC was formed the year before it began hosting the conferences ten years ago, especially to assist smaller community organizations with their technology needs and opportunities, by Rich Cowan, developer of the Organizers Database, easy-to-use, free open source software to manage contacts and contributions used by over 700 orgs; Boston Neighborhood Network TV, the city's community cable access organization with two channels and two studios, a multimedia lab and a mobile production truck, and a full schedule of media training classes; Open Media Boston, the metro-area's alternative, community news resource; the Community Software Lab, originally put together to support the Lowell Community Technology Consortium, developer of the Merrimac Valley HUB and North Shore portal, community gateway and TecsChange, long-established progressive provider of computer equipment, training and technical support to grassroots groups locally and internationally and forum organizer on technology and social change topics;Third Sector New England, the area's capacity building and technical assistance to nonprofit center that has a major resource component of technology support; and the Media Justice Working Group, part of the Media Justice Fund of the Funding Exchange, a national collaboration of regionally based community foundations that includes the Haymarket People's Fund in Boston; smartMEME andMayFirst /People Link are among the growing number of national media and technology projects established to help build movements and support grassroots organizing.
Especially in Boston, with the black community participation, if not leadership, once you've recognized the politically progressive scope of the nonprofit technology assistance / NTAP projects — and certainly the Organizers Collaborative, Open Media Boston, TecsChange, and the South End Technology Center represent that — it's certainly fair to characterize the whole cosponsorship collection as comprising exactly the kind of broad coalition network needed for building broad-based, grassroots social change, one combining labor, green, anti-war, health care, feminist, racially diverse activist groups, to wit, the Boston Workers Alliance, Prometheus Labor Communications, Jobs with Justice, Massachusetts Global Action, United for Justice with Peace, Boston May Day Committee,Mass-Care, Massachusetts Campaign for Single Payer Health Care, the Women's Institute for Leadership Development, and the Asian American Resource Workshop .
The main conference site provides a link to the Organizers' Collaborative Facebook Fans group witha streaming recording of the Friday opening and Saturday lunch Digital Media conference sessions, the latter by Fred Johnson, with the Media Working Group and most recently the Community Media and Technology program in the College of Public and Community Service at UMass/Boston; three conference reports, one by Jason Pramas (actually also on the National Writers Union gathering), one by Claire Murray that's particularly lucid in what she learned and the usefulness of conference networking time,href="http://doctormo.wordpress.com/2009/10/18/grassroots-use-of-technology/">another from Ubuntu and Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) enthusiast Martin Owens' DoctorMO's
DrMO characterized the writers union's dissonant presence at the conference well, albeit somewhat cryptically: "…the Writers Guild, they’re having a hard time of it at the moment and they were talking a great deal about how they can continue to earn money for the work that they do and that right now everyone expects them to do for free on the internet. Remind you of any other group of people? …The problems I saw was that this did lead to an anti-internet sentiment or more interestingly an anti-ammeter writers sentiment." Fred Johnson's Saturday keynote, actually for the NWU's Digital Media conference attendees more than the grassroots users of technology, with presentation notes on his blog as well as video, dealt with the matter head-on, the only way to do so with any hope of bridging the gap. He transformed the question of "Shall We Write for Free or Shall We Write for Pay? Writers Face the Digital Age" to the topic of "Public Funded Media in an Era of Digital Labor" and a new question: "How do we build a democratic media culture that takes advantage of the democratic potential of a network society’s participatory, interactive communications capability?" No bemoaning the new era. "I celebrate the passing of the old media forms, good riddance, don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out." Lest the audience for this be missed: "Casualized free labor can be and often is destructive — but have a little class and don’t whine about it like it has not been happening for many of our friends and neighbors since the 1960s."
Johnson is not unsympathetic with the writers' plight in lots of respects and thinks it even provides an opportunity for organizing around what is really needed. "We are passing through a significant shift in the relationships between capital, labor and culture. This is a moment filled with potential and opportunity, as well as no small amount of peril and pain: high unemployment, fee-based service culture, and free market fundamentalism." US and overdeveloped economies’ cultural industries have always required a free labor, but the Internet is making that more obvious. "This labor is now being romanticized as citizen journalism and citizen media, things that until now have pretty much been scorned — how weird is that for those of us that have been scorned for years?" In such a culture groups like the National Union of Writers and the problems they have been grappling with become much more interesting and strategic. The solution and opportunity is the movement towards a transformation of public cultural institutions. Public funds for public media institutions are nothing new — everybody is doing it and has been for years: with libraries, community media and technology centers, public radio and television. And it's more of that that's needed now: "New forms of direct support for cultural creation at the national, state and local level via tax incentives: think about what we do for corn in agricultural policy... Direct public funding of culture creation through WPA-style projects… Massive increased funding for community media and public media institutions … based on a percentage of the money that comes from the sale of commercial media licenses, spectrum …" and more. Were the organizing sharper and writers and media and technology activists able to consider this perspective more together, who knows what the co-location of the conferences could have nourished in the way of collaborative possibilities.
The Facebook Fans of the Organizers Collaborative includes posts to a couple of interesting follow-up events, and, in response to a November query about conference presentation material a promising reply: "We're still trying to collect/organize the materials. We also have some videos as well. Keep your fingers crossed that we'll have the sessions you are interested in :-)." Note, in September, BNN-TV, the Organizers' Collaborative, and the O'Bryant African-American Institute sponsored a day long "Technology 2.0: 'Yes We Can!'" series of workshops and cablecasts to bring people up to speed about the latest in social networking tools, including cable access, blogging, video/image sharing, mobile phones, virtual worlds, mapping and wikis. There were plans for this to be available online, too, but, with the exception of Danielle Martin's presentation on photo and video-sharing — and links to her career with the Charlestown Boys and Girls Club Computer Clubhouse, the CTC VISTA Project, MassIMPACT, and her master's work on participatory media at MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning — the BNN-TV archive is not as yet available as of this writing. Admission: I've been on the advisory board for the Organizers' Collaborative for a long time, but it's been almost as long since they've asked me to do anything. It was good to see people and pick up a number of helpful pointers.
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The New York Organizing 2.0 conference — Online Organizing in the Era of Hope with its list of 54 cosponsors and participating organizations evidenced a substantial reach and range. It had few, if any, of the New York-focused technology assistance to nonprofit groups and no Manhattan Neighborhood Network or any of the other borough cable access org; none of the 140 or so New York member organizations of the Nonprofit Technology Network was listed as a cosponsor, or as far as I could tell, was even in attendance, including Grassroots.org, MOUSE.org, WebServesUs,Non-Profit Computing, Inc., NPower New York, the NY Media Alliance, the New York Grassroots Media Coalition, and Democracy Now!Netroots Nation, Network for Good, the New Organizing Institute, and Personal Democracy Forum — and a clearly impressive broad political/labor/community org constituency, reflecting the confluence of those particular NY big and little "d" democratic strands including those well beyond traditional political parties. They're listed on every page, complete with links for them all, ready to be mined for a fuller mapping of the city, state and, with OpenLeft and the Progressive States Network as well as the media and technology orgs and dot-coms, the national network and — who knows how organizable a force they may represent and be developed into.
The coalition represented was hardly monolithic; in fact, there was a clear rift running throughout though barely addressed directly. Organizing for America, located right on my.barackobama.com, was only the most conspicuous of the official Obama partisans — and, just at the point of a deteriorating health care campaign and the announced military build-up in Afghanistan, if there was not active opposition being organized and or explicit critique being developed and expressed, there was certainly grumbling and disenchantment, though the campaign's technology and model were still guiding achievements and this is what, in fact, beginning with the title, the conference was building upon.
That was the lesson in the opening plenary, with the full PowerPoint presentation on "Organizing and New Media in the Obama Era by The Nation's Ari Melber now on the conference home page and promise of a video on its way; it gives the flavor of the conference emphasis, though the slides themselves suggest a glitz that doesn't quite do justice either to the presentation or to Ari Melber's down-to-earth persona. Getting past the lights and crowd of "What People Want": "Hot" (Paris Hilton), "Good" (FDR, especially photogenic), and "Fast" (colorful car streaking), sound bite TV and soundbite politics to the heart of the lesson in the last ten slides: how Obama routed around the soundbite press to develop his own network to recruit, mobilize, and organize. In place of soundbites, he made the only YouTube response to Bush's State of the Union and uploaded five times as many videos as other campaigns. Opponents scoffed (Hillary: "Our supporters look like caucus goers… Their supporters look like Facebook."), experts didn't get it, but people listened. "Over 7.5 million people watched Obama's 37-minute race speech [on YouTube] — more than the entire TV audience combined." Lots more comparative stats to make the point: Obama's new media network integrated e-mail, donors, mybarackobama.com, social networks, and YouTube into a thriving electronic communication system especially in sync with liberal democratic ways of life.
The schedule/agenda and workshop sessions are available in a variety of formats along with a list of 30+ speakers/presenters, but, except for Ari Melber's opening keynote the only other resource currently available seems to be from Matthew Willse of thecoup.org who's sent a blog note that he's posted href="http://bit.ly/writing-digital">slides and resources for the workshop on writing for email and the web, a useful here's-now-to-do-it complement to Ari Melber's presentation. There was an informative ten page handout of speaker biographies, unfortunately not as yet on the conference site.
Charles Lenchner, conference coordinator and Online Organizing Director for the Working Families Party in New York, set the context with his November 20th overview on Firedoglake online news, that that the two forms of organizing — community and online — have been engaged in a "frenemy" type struggle for years, citing community organizing guru Marshall Ganz telling The Nation in 2008 that "what MoveOn does is marketing, not organizing," a criticism Ganz responded to later in the day, explaining that community organizing goes back further than Saul Alinsky to Alexis de Tocqueville, and citing a misrepresentation of his critique of MoveOn and his work last summer helping them build an off-line base to go with their online component, an achievement soon to be proven significant at the conference.
If Obama himself didn't suffer much grief or criticism, the fall off in enthusiasm for Organizing for America was palpable, as were the sneers reserved for MoveOn.org, but the unassuming modest presence of Danielle Feris, MoveOn's lead on-the-ground organizer, who began her session asking people what they knew about the organization (most knew about "moving on" from censoring the President over the Monica Lewinsky affair but not moving on from 9.11) and then suffering the abuse from each sarcastic dismissal or minimalization in good humor. Her account of the usefulness of local on the ground organizing, bringing out people at critical moments, especially in Midwestern states where MoveOn members were referred to as outside agitators, and the role of local councils in developing local approaches, if not complete strategies, were most suggestive about lessons learned and the usefulness of combining traditional with online organizing.
There was lots more to be had from being there in person, moving up and down between the 18th and 19th floors of the West 43rd Street building, although since the conference was organized on the model of a day-long speed dating gathering with three plenaries and five 45 minute sessions, any pauses could result in whole sessions being missed. I missed Colin Delaney from epolitics.com at the deli lunch that included baggies with great pickles, talking to a neighbor. The Free and Low Cost online organizing methods and tools session was informative both for content and style, the quintessential speed session — all the sites that provide free and/or cheap hosting, domain name-registration, and other services, Jason Lefkowitz, online organizer for changetowin.org, Ben Kallos,Open Government Foundation, and Shireen Mitchell, Digital Sistas and last known Board President ofCTCNet.org, on dreamhost.com and bluehost.com, godaddy.com, fantastico, paypal, riseup.net, flickr, lots of free and open source alternatives to just about everything, WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, and Plone, critically compared there and in the Idealware Open Source content Management System report, along with its Guide to Low-Cost Donor Management Systems, a slip of paper in the small resource pile with a free online collaborative writing and editing tool from mixedink.com, and progressiveexchange.org with its discussion list for all these sorts of things.
Alfredo Lopez, Mark Libkuman, and Jamie McClelland, all with MayFirst.org/PeopleLink, demo'ed the open source multi-lingual software they've developed for running a collaborative democracy workshop, an organizing tool to sharpen skills in participatory democracy and build consensus on issues that are critical for our movements (at www.meetings.mayfirst.org), giving some vivid evidence of their philosophy and goals if not achievement in building the technology infrastructure for the US Social Forum in Detroit in June (http://ussf2010.org/) that's anticipating an attendance of some 20,000.
Donated NetrootsNation.org conference tickets for the gathering this coming July in Las Vegas were given out by lottery throughout the day and the final drawing prize, with an accompanying airplane ticket, gave some promising visibility and anticipation to this summer's other highly anticipated gathering, though there will undoubtedly be lots of other get-togethers for those interested in the intersection of democracy and technology well before then.
Peter Miller edited The Community Technology Review (www.comtechreviw.org) from 1993-2005.