A cover story I wrote for this month’s issue of Colorlines Magazine highlights what the Obama campaign can teach us the urgent necessity of combining offline (actual streets, communities) with online organizing. While we may or may not want to support Obama’s policies, we should study closely the epoch-making deployment of technology to advance political ends. Hope you like it. R
Issue #47, Nov/Dec 2008
Upload Real Change
By Roberto Lovato
WHILE CRISSCROSSING CRACKED STREETS to knock on the rickety doors of rundown row houses in Philadelphia’s 14th Ward, Liza Sabater also found herself crossing the overlapping lines of political and technological history late last spring as she canvassed for Barack Obama’s campaign.
“I got to spend some time with these Puerto Rican mechanics—guys most people wouldn’t expect to have Internet access,” said Sabater, an Afro-Puerto Rican technologist who blogs at culturekitchen and The Daily Gotham. “But there—among the wrenches and jacks—were their cell phones and handheld devices they use to surf the Web.”
Sabater, who helps nonprofits use technology to further their missions, canvassed in Philadelphia with her two sons and coordinated work in the 14th Ward with three Latino volunteers from the Obama campaign. She saw in the mechanics’ mobile devices proof of her belief that “the ‘digital divide’ is a crock when we realize that laptops and desktops aren’t the only ways to access the Web.” But was the Obama campaign reaching these mechanics on their cells?
As they write future narratives of Obama’s astounding rise, historians will likely foreground how skillfully the “change” candidate maneuvered around the racial, geopolitical and economic terrain of our crises-ridden time. Lost in the background of most of these narratives will be how Obama, the former community organizer, took what he learned about mobilizing working- and middle-class residents on Chicago’s South Side and combined it with the stuff that actually wins elections: money, organizing and technology.
Obama’s campaign for the White House deployed in unparalleled ways Web. 2.0 tools—the set of technological developments that turned the World Wide Web into the ubiquitous, mobile, wireless and interactive Web we use today. As this issue of ColorLines went to production in late August, Obama’s Web site, Mybarackobama.com, was as interactive as any online social networking site. More than 10 million people had signed up at the site, and the campaign had raised millions of dollars. The Web site was the centerpiece of an online and offline political strategy that defeated the Clintons—one of the most powerful Democratic political dynasties—and, in the process, Obama took community organizing to new territory as he redefined the practice of electoral politics in the United States. Whatever the election results, Obama’s campaign demonstrated that it’s possible—and necessary—to go online and move people to action offline.
Sabater, who was born in New York’s El Barrio
neighborhood and raised in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, was one of the many who responded to the campaign’s appeal. She is still fascinated by how Obama’s team fused state-of-the-art media and technology with the community organizing that the candidate learned in poor communities. Yet while she thinks community-based organizations can learn from the online organizing methods innovated by the Obama campaign, she also sees reason for concern in the cracked streets of Philadelphia.
Sabater noted, for example, that although her fellow Obama campaign volunteers were by definition “Latinos,” it was a poor decision on the part of the campaign to send three middle-class Chicanos from the west coast to a predominantly working-class, Spanish-speaking, Puerto Rican neighborhood.
“When my colleagues told me ‘we don’t speak Spanish’ and couldn’t interact with the people, I saw the interface problem,” said Sabater, adding, “I saw the disconnect between the online and offline strategies, both of which are focused on middle-class people. Nobody’s reaching out and targeting these working-class communities of color with technology. They don’t think that the mechanics and maids use technology or vote.” The Obama campaign fell through the cultural cracks in the street, while members in the community fell through the technological cracks of the campaign’s Web strategy.
“The (Obama) campaign created a fantastic interface for people to join the campaign,” Sabater said. “But it didn’t do as well in reaching people who don’t have laptops and whose technology is primarily their cell phones. There’s an age and class and race gap.”
Sabater saw these gaps while trolling the same streets canvassed in a previous era by W.E.B. Du Bois, who went door-to-door documenting how railroad tracks in Jim Crow Philadelphia served as a wood-and-steel color line dividing poor, politically disenfranchised Black neighborhoods from wealthier white neighborhoods where electoral participation was encouraged and expected.
Today, Sabater and others concerned with poor communities must prepare for similar but perhaps more nuanced racial, political and economic divisions in the city of brotherly love and other urban areas. If left to the folks who ran the Obama campaign, equity and freedom may well depend on which side of the silicon and fiber optic tracks a person lives on. If activists take to heart the lessons of this last presidential campaign, though, we might just see what political changes can happen among poor people when we combine media and technology with street-level political organizing beyond elections.
Anyone dealing with what are traditionally defined as “racial” or “social justice” issues (housing, labor, criminal justice, immigration, LGBT, women’s issues, etc.) will have to figure out the “interface” problems identified by Sabater and others like U.C. Berkeley’s danah boyd. A digital anthropologist, boyd caused considerable controversy when she wrote a paper in 2007 positing that MySpace was more working-class than Facebook, which she says tends to cater to older, more elite social networkers.
Whether we deploy MySpace or Facebook, those
of us committed to pursuing the possibility of bottom-up democracy in the digital age will also have to confront
the same kinds of issues Benjamin Franklin identified in Philadelphia. Back when newspapers began their long reign as the defining medium of politics, Franklin wrote: “Those who govern, having much business on their hands, do not generally like to take the trouble of considering and carrying into execution new projects. The best public measures are therefore seldom adopted from previous wisdom, but forced by the occasion.” But one definitive difference between Franklin’s age and ours is the degree to which our economy, our government and politics, and even our culture are for better and for worse being fundamentally reconfigured by media and digital technology.
The need to deploy media and technology as a force on those who govern is a daily concern for Chris Rabb, a Philadelphia resident, entrepreneur and founder of the popular political blog Afro-Netizen. Of particular concern to Rabb is the urgent need for Black, Latino and other communities to use media to flatten the deeply entrenched political pyramids built by the large national Black and Latino nonprofits born in the waning decades of the industrial age in the United States. Many of these nonprofits, he says, center power in Washington, D.C., at the expense of the majority of Blacks and Latinos who are far from the Beltway.
“Hierarchies in Black and brown communities are as bad as in any other community,” said Rabb, who also consults with nonprofit organizations about how to make media and technology a component of their core strategy. “There’s so little power that people hold on to power as long as they can. Blacks are the most urban, overwhelmingly Democrat-leaning community in the country, but we have the least democracy. Black politicians last forever, and lots of our [nonprofit] organizations tend to be run by people who stay there for life.”
Rabb thinks the stunning accomplishments of the Obama campaign mirror the ways in which technology gives communities the capacity to self-organize on a scale never before seen.
“We need to study the Obama movement,” he asserted. “They weren’t the first to use the media in this way, but he came along at that precise moment when the technology had matured, when the audience of media users had reached critical mass.”
To illustrate his point, Rabb mentions the Jena 6 movement, which, he said, used media and technology to alter the game of “ethnic” politics. Initially ignored by the mainstream media and major civil rights organizations, as well as by traditional leaders, bloggers concerned about the Jena 6 case, like Color of Change’s James Rucker and Rabb, took their case directly to the community by using the Web.
By combining Web 2.0 tools—blogs, MySpace, and other social networking sites and interactive websites— with traditional media like radio and newspapers, the more youthful organizers of the Jena 6 movement made it politically impossible for mainstream Black leaders like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and NAACP leaders to ignore the cause. The tech-savvy organizers gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars on the Web, and in the process, they informed, engaged and activated constituents. Similar media and generational dynamics can be found in the immigrant rights movement.
Policy people at the National Council of La Raza, the National Immigration Forum and the majority of large Latino and immigrant rights organizations were in the throes of defensiveness before the onslaught of the Sensenbrenner immigration bill, which sought to criminalize the undocumented. One jaded policy analyst told me at that time that the Republicans “are going to push Sensenbrenner through—and there’s nothing we can do.” Apparently, someone forgot to communicate the analyst’s resignation to the local and regional grassroots groups who used media and technology to organize the largest simultaneous mass mobilizations in U.S. history in 2006.
Like those organizing the movement in support of the Jena 6, the local and regional networks at the core of the immigrant rights movement also deployed a number of media tools to bypass the lethargic hierarchies of the larger Washington-based groups. Many in the media focused their coverage on better-funded and (mainstream) media-savvy groups in the Beltway who rallied behind different versions of the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill, which, in its “bipartisan tradeoff” combined legalization with some of the most punitive immigration proposals in U.S. history. Left out of this coverage was the galaxy of organizations opposed to McCain-Kennedy.
In the face of such a limiting of the political debate around immigration, local and regional activists combined old-school media with a big “M” (television, radio, bullhorns and butcher paper) with new-school media with a small “m” (MySpace, text messaging, cell phones, radio, video and YouTube). Suddenly, mainstream media outlets were forced to cover the political messages that Latino teens were sending with their cell phones in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and in rural Oregon.
While the mainstream media’s immigration coverage remains in its default position of focusing on the larger, better-funded national immigrant groups in Washington, activists like Sabater are combining online and offline organizing to influence the political process around and coverage of immigration and other issues that strongly impact Latinos. Sabater joined other bloggers to form the Sanctuary, a bloggers’ hub that combines information-sharing with offline activism. Members of the Sanctuary developed a survey of the presidential candidates and received coverage by CNN and other media outlets who usually interview only the National Council of La Raza and other large Latino organizations when it comes to “Latino issues.” At a time when political theorists like Manuel Castells tell us that “media is the space of politics,” the old rules just don’t apply, and that can be good news for poor communities of all colors.
Regardless of the election outcome, Rabb, Sabater and others see valuable lessons in how the Obama campaign positioned itself to benefit from the epic self-organizing movement enabled by Web 2.0. It’s especially critical for activists (and everyone else, for that matter) to learn how the Obama campaign used its Web site,
Mybarackobama.com. More than 10 million people signed up at the site, and 1.5 million of those donated money. At the site, the campaign provided volunteers and organizers with campaign literature, virtual meeting spaces and other resources. Even viewers who might have been skeptical of Obama as a candidate or those not interested in electoral politics couldn’t help but be a bit curious. At every turn, the site insisted on interactivity. In August, a huge banner on the site stated: “Who will be Barack’s VP? Be the First to Know. Sign Up Now.” Below it was the “make a difference” banner with ways to volunteer and find local events, and then, of course, there was the “Obama Map”—where a few clicks and the inputting of zip codes got Americans tuned in to groups supporting Obama in their neighborhoods. Indeed, by the time Obama’s party gave him the official nomination in August, journalists and historians were already pointing out how the multimedia-genic Obama fit well with the media of his time as did Kennedy at the dawn of the age of television.
“The next step of activism is for grassroots groups to connect online and offline organizing like Obama did, but targeting working-class people,” said Sabater. “And the first step is for us to learn how our communities use their media and to engage them on their own terms.”
Rabb agreed. “The big question is whether activists for social justice can make the leap from what an organizer candidate did in the presidential cycle to the kind of organizing needed at a time when media and technology are so central to the work of government and power,” he said.
Rabb believes that groups who are organizing communities need to prioritize breaking down the barriers that separate media from their programmatic work. “It’s the very nature of organizing to want to reach audiences on race, class, immigration and other issues” he said, adding, “People have to get with the fact that media’s not replacing but complementing and enhancing their ability to do more with less, to achieve better and greater outcomes.”
Roberto Lovato is a writer with New America Media based in New York City.