Review: Premier Issue of the Journal of New Organizing
The Journal of New Organizing, "an online publication devoted to reporting and analyzing organizing practices, leadership development, and campaign innovation in the progressive community," has recently announced publication of its first issue. Found at www.neworganizing.com/jno, it's a product of the New Organizing Institute (NOI). Both the journal and the institute reflect the distance that community organizing has come in integrating new technology and media tools into a field that for so long remained bound to its traditional forms and approaches.
Both show, too, how the Obama campaign legacy, despite the growing disillusionment with the President and his policies, continues to provide the influence, benchmarks, and leadership for the field. In the four major pieces that make up the journal's inaugural issue, the first covers a campaign to advance immigrant rights, reporting on "how some students are applying lessons from the 2008 presidential election to organizing and coalition-building at the local level" in the campus community at Northwestern University. The second, on "Socially Networking Your Data: An Obama Campaign Case Study," by a former Obama campaign organizer and staff member of the New Organizing Institute, proposes a paradigm for the role of data sharing. In "Keeping Hope Alive," a former state campaign coordinator tells "The Story of Obama’s Neighborhood Teams Following Election Day." Only in "Lessons Organizers Can Learn From the Military" does a former MoveOn organizer and fellow at the New Organizing Institute not tap into the campaign (directly), though it features an official White House photo of Cadets applauding the President's speech on Afghanistan at West Point last December 1st.
A slideshow of photos and graphics from the journal and institute provides a montage of images to drive home the impression conveyed in these achievements. While awaiting permission to use them, click on the following to gather some of them up:
- The West Point cadets applauding the President;
- Legendary organizer Marshall Ganz at the Kennedy School, cited innumerable times in the journal and on the NOI site;
- The My.BarackObama home page of author and campaign organizer Ann Marie Ashburn, about two-thirds down in her article on data sharing;
- Liberty Township, Ohio Neighborhood Team Leader Julie Robinson and President Obama; Julie's story is one of three told and the photo is about a third of the way into the article;
- The YouTube fotos Antwuan Wallace, Alan Rosenblatt and other attendees of from NOI's RootsCamp 2007.
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In Organizer Sam Drzymala's article on "Coalition Organizing on Campus: A Student Perspective," the Obama campaign lesson that students built upon at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, 20 miles north of Chicago along the coast, was a conception of coalitions that stressed organizer Marshall Ganz's model of “shared relationships and commitments.” It's a traditional model, to be sure, but one taught in 2008 to a new generation of activists and organizers, including thousands of students. In contrast to traditional campaigns, where staff do not generally delegate significant responsibility to volunteers, Obama staff identified and empowered possible leaders who in turn developed their own disciples who, in turn, trained the next group, creating and leaving a large politically-experience network lying in wait. Dryzmala's article focuses on Northwestern student Adam Yalowitz, who had been trained at the Obama organizing camp in July 2008, went on to serve as a field organizer in Georgia and Ohio, and in April of last year, led a training session for progressive campus groups in the “shared relationships and commitments” principles that drew 67 students.
A survey and "listening tour" to engage the student body at-large and build a larger progressive coalition followed, using traditional outreach, supplemented by social networking tools like Facebook, YouTube, and electronic discussion lists reaching out to additional potential allies. With the framework established, the network awaited only the occasion, supplied by the police before the end of the month. On April 30th the campus police arrested an undocumented immigrant.
The circumstances and the story, beginning with how the arrest broke with the traditional treatment of undocumented immigrants — not ordinarily reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation processing unless there is an accompanying felony charge — provide a well written dramatic sequence that demonstrates the key role that new technology tools can play in the event itself as well as in the account of it. This goes from the Daily Northwestern front-page article, Yalowitz's draft response criticizing the actions of campus police, his outreach for cosigners including the president of the N.U. College Democrats, "(using Google's instant message chat program)," to the final letter to the editor, hours later, signed by 15 campus leaders. The link to the letter gives the story an immediacy, texture, and tangibility, as does the link to, the conclusion to the six day protest, the Chief of Police's pledge to enact a new policy, the conclusion to the six day protest. The lessons for the students are pointedly summarized:
They learned not to act hastily or in anger, to strategize thoughtfully before acting, and to take the time to set clear goals. They learned the value of an interactive, broad community coalition… They learned that decisions should be made democratically, but carried out with a clear leadership structure and accountability for performance. Develop a clear message for your campaign, and use all available organizing tools — especially new media — to augment face-to-face organizing. And most importantly, always develop new leadership.
Drzymala's final conclusions show the special circumstances making this a successful campaign, warn not to over-generalize, and point out implications for broad-based efforts in other arenas, including healthcare, with the progressive umbrella coalition Healthcare for America Now and the larger collection of pro-reform interest groups Americans for Stable Quality Care. As he concludes: "Ultimately, success for progressives at both the macro and micro scale depends on the strength of the relationships between coalition partners, and commitments to their shared goals. In the next year or so, we will see how strong they are."
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"One of the most important but little-discussed reasons for Obama’s 2008 success was a relentless focus on measuring outcomes at all levels of the campaign’s infrastructure." So begins Anne Marie Ashburn's technical piece, "Socially Networking Your Data: An Obama Campaign Case Study," by far the longest of the four articles. Metrics tracking is not a new campaign concept — it's been used by senior staffers for strategic decision-making and staff accountability assessment for a long time. What's new is the degree of precision now possible and the broad range of stakeholders it can be extended to.
The premise of "shared measurable outcomes" was developed by Marshall Ganz for organizers everywhere: require specific results, measure them, and constantly adjust goals based on real results. Beyond this, "when data is shared from volunteer to volunteer, volunteer to staff, and staff to senior management, institutional culture shifts." And here was the campaign innovation, extending information and democratizing the campaign, providing key outcome information to a broad field beyond senior campaign staff, by leveraging online social networking.
Ashburn's article tells a detailed, intricate story of how the online system evolved, rooted in the primary and fundamental need for full and accurate information, beginning the Obama Organizing Program, the intensive Camp Obama trainings and programs like the Obama Organizing Fellows that taught "two bedrock principles of organizing": (1) If something is not reported, it did not happen. (2) Never lie about numbers.
Organizers were taught that the campaign would adjust precious resources based on results; that therefore reporting accurate information was crucial; that "any information from the field that was less than accurate could jeopardize national strategy"; that accurate reporting was "essential"; that "tracking the organizing outcomes of every minute of every hour of an organizer's time was critical for accountability, enabling staff at every level to calculate where resources should be targeted; that "data — and smart reaction to it — would determine the outcome of the election"
Data transparency — having it be full, useful, and easily accessible — for both "soft" reporting on qualitative assessments and "hard" data keyed directly to the voter file or volunteer database — was needed for information to be shared widely among the regional staff, maintaining a constant level of accountability to one’s boss, one’s peers, and the whole range of team structures that made up the campaign. And online tools were the key vehicles for bringing clear, measurable and specific outcomes to light in a visually engaging, social networked way. The Obama campaign developed several of these tools to supplement existing ones, to refine data reporting, volunteer tracking, and online volunteering.
The campaign didn't have a uniform national reporting system. Conference call reporting, qualitative assessment and stories, hard numbers pulled from the voter file with emailed tallies, Google spreadsheets and Edit Grid were all used. "The reporting systems were a diverse rainbow or logistical nightmare, depending on whom you asked." For Ashburn and the campaign directors, the direction was inexorably clear, especially when one added in the need for different types of data at different stages in the campaign, and the changes in personnel: "This brings us to a key lesson for 2012: Reporting for field staff’s qualitative and quantitative data should be uniform and online whenever possible."
For the penultimate section, Ashburn provides a summary analysis of existing reporting tools and the new ones the campaign developed to cull best practices and lessons in preparation for the 2012 election cycle. It features:
- "PA Teams," developed by Obama staff and used during the Pennsylvania primary, designed around the classic Obama Neighborhood Teams model, matching volunteers to other volunteers in their neighborhoods, tasking them with leadership roles, and bringing together the collective data of all the self-determining teams as if they were all working side-by-side in a field office.
- These systems of data sharing helped spur on the national online call and canvass tool for volunteers, “Neighbor to Neighbor,” developed by the Democratic National Committee and known internally as n2n, allowing volunteers to pull lists for their own neighborhoods, from their sister state (for volunteers in non-targeted states), or related by a demographic connection like women calling women, health care professionals to other health care workers.
- The Obama campaign created the Activity Tracker on its internal social network website, My.BarackObama.com, known as MyBO, shaped by Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook, and director of the Online Organizing team on the campaign, to follow the best practices of online engagement — Ashburn provides a sample page (her own) and details what it shows: the volunteer's blog, friends, and activity tracker, ranking on a scale of 1-10 (based on activities such as canvassing, phone banking, holding events, fundraising, joining MyBO groups, and adding friends on MyBO), and links to all this information for other group members.
- While Neighbor to Neighbor was connected to this activity tracker, it did not have its own stand-alone team data component. National Field, now one of many emerging national online volunteer and outcomes tracking systems, was launched by campaign staffers, once they apprehended a need to streamline the haphazard nightly reporting system. "In Georgia, National Field was directly responsible for the huge upswing in registrations… a culture of accountability… a culture of competitiveness which drove our organizers and volunteers to be more productive than ever before..." With pull-quotes from the National Field web site, Ashburn's piece is a paean to its virtues and accomplishments; it "matched the mantra of the campaign, empowering everyone, at all levels, to have access to goals and results."
For Ashburn, the dual achievement of increased efficiency and the potential to change the power and communication dynamics within the normally top-down world of electoral campaigns is "crucial for an empowered, networked volunteer community — and citizenry."
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After the election, "Obama for America" began its transformation into "Organizing for America" (OFA), the wing of the Democratic National Committee that is advocating for the President’s policies at the grassroots level. "Keeping Hope Alive: The Story of Obama’s Neighborhood Teams Following Election Day," written by Tyler Rodger, the Obama Campaign's Ohio Field Organizer, provides a complementary picture of other directions the campaign took through the post-election stories of three neighborhood teams and raises good questions about where it may go in the future.
In Mason in southwest Ohio, neighborhood team leader (NTL for short) Libby Rupp had been volunteering 10-20 hours a week along with mothering three and working as a full-time member of the administrative team at the independent Waldorf School in Cincinnati, not anticipating that she would become the co-leader of a volunteer organization running three-four service projects per month. In the final days before the election, Libby’s neighborhood team was joined with the one just south, in Deerfield Township, led by retired teacher Georgette Marlow, and team members began looking for longer-term direction the day after the election. Georgette explained, "People from Mason and Deerfield were calling and saying 'I can't believe this is over, isn't there something else we can do?'"
Even before OFA sent out its first post-election request to its neighborhood volunteer teams to hold a "Change is Coming" house meeting to build support for the agenda he would be fighting for, Libby and Georgette had decided to get their group together for a holiday party and to discuss ways to move forward. When the President-Elect called on Americans to serve in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service on January 19th, the group, having settled on some broad service goals and at this time tentatively named Yes We Can Do More, held another house meeting and agreed to Georgette's proposed partnership with the Interfaith Hospitality Network, "a nationwide network that doesn't just house and feed homeless people, but it also gives them skills to re-enter the workforce." As Libby, Georgette, and over 75 volunteers showed up at IHN to clean, paint and organize a new day center and fix up an existing facility on the day of national service, they knew they would need to decide how to move forward in the long run. Choosing to remain non-partisan (Obama had won just 31% of the vote in their county), they renamed themselves Hope In Action, a name that would tie the concrete actions of the service group with the loftier, more abstract "hope" spoken of during President Obama's candidacy and laid the foundation for additional projects and membership growth.
Well before November 4th, 25 miles north of Cincinnati, Liberty Township’s NTL, Julie Robinson, knew she wanted to be involved advancing Barack Obama's agenda if he was elected. Much like in Mason and Deerfield, Julie began receiving all sorts of correspondence from her volunteers after the election. Initially, Julie and the rest of the team got together more as a social network than a political or service organization. But when President-Elect Obama sent out the e-mail asking Julie to hold a Change is Coming house meeting, she was more than happy to oblige. "There were 53 people in my living room on a Monday night two weeks before Christmas," she reports. "Very passionate."
Julie and Miami University professor Don Daiker contemplated how to move forward in Butler County's liberal enclave surrounding the university; the group planned a party for the evening of Barack Obama's inauguration day and a follow-up gathering taking a very different approach. "We can do all these great things, all these service projects," Julie said. "But if we can't get involved in Democratic politics within Butler County, we're never going to make a difference." This is not to say that their group, which decided on the name Change Butler PAC, would not be partaking in service activities. In addition to their political wing, the Change Butler PAC also has a legislative wing, a fund-raising wing, and a service wing.
Don Daiker's group of volunteers was thinking along the same lines. Following the President's swearing-in ceremony, Obama volunteers from Oxford City and Oxford Township gathered at the Miami Inn Tavern to celebrate their new president; their interests lay mainly in electoral politics, and they subsequently registered the Butler County Progressive PAC with the state of Ohio. The group's main goal is to "find, recruit, locate, and help a very limited number of candidates," and they will be deciding in the future which major issues to advocate for — and whether to focus on statewide candidates or those who could make a difference much more locally.
With these developments, Rodger raises a number of questions and issues: How will Hope in Action, Change Butler, and Butler County Progressive respond when an OFA organizer gets in touch, asking them to advocate for the President's agenda?
The control that these indigenous groups have largely had since November and will likely want to maintain — one of the biggest strengths of Barack Obama's campaign — the training and empowerment of local volunteers — may now "present a complication" as OFA seeks to move forward. There is a wide range of possibilities across the spectrum and Rodger is optimistic. "It is a testament to the energy of these groups and the organizational success of the Obama field campaign that these teams have stayed involved at all. And for that, our country is an undeniably better place."
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In "Lessons Organizers Can Learn From the Military," Matt Ewing, NOI Senior Fellow and former MoveOn Field Director, offers some pointers and general observations from the military that he finds applicable to life in the political organizing trenches. "After all, these are people who spend every waking hour trying to figure out how to coordinate and lead huge numbers of folks through life-and-death situations."
A lot of what Ewing finds promising is the military's action-oriented decisiveness. "Share new information quickly." Waiting until we figure out all the implications of new information can be problematic. "Often this delay results in inefficiency and disgruntled teammates who feel out of the loop."
Ewing's especially impressed with how the military teaches effective communication strategy. In contrast to what's often seen as a culture that teaches the blind following of orders, he notes the importance of understanding a broader intent. "Understand intent — two levels up," as the manual puts it. "One of the first steps troop leaders must take is understanding their commander's intent — and their commander's commander's intent. This ensures that they understand why the order was issued, and are able to keep the bigger picture in mind as they adapt to changing circumstances."
He values, too, the obsessive compulsiveness of "uniformly well-structured orders," all of them "issued in a 5-paragraph format, covering situation, mission, execution, support, communication protocols. This means that every order gives the bigger picture on the mission, by explaining the situation, while also methodically walking through the finer level details. From the recipient’s perspective, this uniform structure provides a consistent, actionable context for absorbing the order."
And there's good humor in the explanation behind the Ben Franklin-like aphorisms, like "Know Your First Plan is a Rough Draft — as the old military saying goes: No plan survives first contact with the enemy."
The Army has a study guide with a three-page boil down of an eight step best practice for creating and implementing tactical plans that Ewing finds applicable for a more general organizing and supervising perspectives. He links to it here and provides an example of how the troop leadership procedure could work in a progressive organizing space, using a health care campaign example:
- Receive the order: Take a minute to make sure you ask yourself a few questions: What does your boss want to happen? What does your boss's boss want to happen? What are the explicit and implicit tasks they are asking you to do?
- Issue a warning order: Tell your team (volunteer leaders, coalition partners, etc.) that there is a new vote coming up and you'll all need to swing into action asap.
- Create a tentative plan: Think through the different ways you could put pressure on your Senator. Weigh them and then decide on what seems like the best option.
- Initiate necessary movement: Start moving on the things that will need to be done regardless of the plan: reserve a conference room for your meeting, get a slot in the email schedule, etc.
- Conduct reconnaissance: Make sure you understand the lay of land by reaching out to the key coalition partners and your volunteer leaders. How do they feel about the legislation? Check to see how early local media coverage is shaping up.
- Complete the plan: Update your plan of action based on any new information and then finalize it.
- Issue the order: Call together a meeting of your folks where you walk them through the plan. Use "brief backs" to ensure everyone's on the same page.
- Supervise: Have team leaders walk through their individual plans (phone bank captain: How many callers are you going to get? Where are they going to sit? What do they need?). Check in with each to make sure their plans are tight and they've thought through the details.
It's a good example for assessing the value of the essay. "To many progressive organizers, taking pointers from the military may feel a little odd. But, the issues we're working on are too important to overlook any source of wisdom." Techies hardly need convincing, if only in recognition of the Internet's origin in the military and the fulfillment of its requirement for a decentralized system with no pivotal command node whose destruction could disable or otherwise irreparably harm the full interconnected system.
Are there other unusual places you've found great organizing insights? Ewing invites us to share them in the comment section.
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By itself alone, publication of the Journal of New Organizing would be a significant event — the visibility it gives to all the work and resources of the New Organizing Institute underlines the degree to which technology resources and perspectives are transforming the field.
NOI, "the only progressive advocacy and campaign training program focused on cutting-edge online organizing techniques (e.g. writing effective emails, engaging bloggers, leveraging social networks, utilizing video), political technology (e.g. using data effectively, progressive technology infrastructure), and the intersection with field and management of these areas of new organizing," is itself the creature, not of the Obama campaign but of the previous ones four years earlier, beginning with Howard Dean's. Judith Freeman and Zack Exley, Executive Director and President respectively, co-founders of the Institute, actually both worked on the Kerry campaigns in '04. Freeman was previously senior political strategist at the AFL-CIO, where she also co-founded the Analyst Institute and worked for five years in technology at the University of Chicago where she also did organizing work with social justice organizations. Exley, a strategic consultant with ThoughtWorks, Inc., was Organizing Director at MoveOn.org and an adviser to the early Dean campaign before becoming Director of Online Organizing and Communications for Kerry.
The NOI story begins in 2005, not with two, but with 17 senior staff whose '04 campaigns broke grassroots mobilization and fundraising records who came together to ask: “Where do we go from here?”
The NOI Advisory board, more than two dozen people, includes organizational affiliations with key groups that have come to be influential in the technology and organizing arena — in addition to MoveOn.org, Aspiration ("better tools for a better world"), Radical Designs/Activist Mobilization Platform ("full service web resources focused exclusively on the needs of non-profit and grassroots social change organizations"), ColorOfChange.org ("strengthening Black America's political voice"),Green Media Toolshed ("tools & training to improve the effectiveness of your organization's communication with the public"), and EMILY's List ("building a progressive America by electing pro-choice Democratic women to office"). It's got unions and organizations that have been leaders in the adoption of technology tools, SEIU and the National Partnership for Women and Families, and organizations specializing in the journalism and media area of the movement — ProPublica("journalism in the public interest") and Media Matters ("progressive research and information dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media"). There's a number of the dotcom's that specialize in the field, too, like Rad Campaign ("helping organizations that want to change the world"), Fission Strategy ("inspiring social good through social media"), Convio, Inc. ("online software and services to inspire and mobilize people to support your nonprofit"), Echoditto ("dedicated to building vibrant communities online and empowering people through the creative use of emerging technologies"), and NGP("market-leading software products and award-winning services to Democrats and their allies"). And there's a collection of press pieces that goes back years.
Since its first "Roots Camp" in March 2006, NOI has trained over 700 organizers across the country, including trainings in the battleground states, and proudly notes its trainees have gone on to take leadership roles in dozens of prominent advocacy organizations and campaigns at all levels. There's a bunch of YouTube testimonies, a wiki with all sorts of info and resources, all especially timely in preparation for and then a resource about the February 20-21 Roots Camp and then the five dayData BootCamp 2010 a week later.
Training is NOI's forte. In addition to the camps, there's a menu of topics, a trainers' bureau with 20+ bios, specialties, and a map noting their locations, and a series of modestly-priced webinars, beginning and advanced ($10-$25), that provide training-on-your-computer-at-your-convenience.
There are 14 staff and five fellows listed on the staffing page, and each week they take a little time to read and discuss an important essay, speech or report on organizing and new media. The first time I looked, Santiago Stocker, NOI's Operations Manager, was sharing his essay "Solidarity — A Short Introduction," on Jurgen Habermas's view of the Polish Workers' Movement shaped by the Revolution of 1981 and how its radical democracy could be institutionalized. NOI "Readings from the Progressive Devotional" and staff reading list include 22 classic and current pieces providing a well-considered perspective on the field, from George Orwell to Saul Alinsky and the Midwest Academy to Marshall Ganz, usefully supplemented by their own one-pagers and links to partner research, reports, articles, and blogs.
There's lots more, a technology infrastructure set of programs, and Media Talent 2.0. NOI is everywhere, and the legend notes it at the bottom of its home page: Facebook, MySpace, Twitter,YouTube, Flickr, LinkedIn.
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The use of social media is now a regular part of electoral politics and campaigns, as Massachusetts residents know especially well. On January 18th, in the Huffington Post, David Meerman Scott, headlining "Coakley v Brown: The Social Media Divide May Decide Election," reported: "As I compare the morning before election day, @MarthaCoakley has 3,520 Twitter followers compared to @ScottBrownMA with 10,214 followers. Coakley counts 14,487 Facebook fans to Brown's 76,700 fans. Advantage Brown by more than three to one." On Friday, January 21, Matt Viser, writing on "Coakley aides paint portrait of missteps on campaign trail" in the Boston Globe reported the same thing: "Coakley and her advisers also lost the new media war, allowing Brown to generate far more attention online through Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube." Two days later, Lydia DePillis gave it a closer look in the New Republic, "What Organizing for America did right and wrong in its first election." And these are but a small sample.
No one would ever argue it's a strict cause and effect. But it's clearly key and correlative. And we can look to the Journal of New Organizing and the New Organizing Institute for useful guidance on developments in the field.
Peter Miller edited the Community Technology Review from 1993-2005.