Broadcast Organizing to End-User Leadership: 6 Principles to Begin

Alissa Hauser and Marianne Manilov are Co-Directors and Founders of The Engage Network, a nonprofit social venture that creates, designs and implements distributive offline networks of social change leaders.

We are in the midst of a shift in citizen power from a broadcast (one to many) paradigm to a network (many to many) paradigm, and this shift opens profound new possibilities for organizing and leadership development. Digital activism has created many breakthroughs in our ability to fundraise, communicate and to come together offline. Once people come face to face, however, we need to understand which tools and skills support their continued development to build a movement that is far more inclusive than digital activism has been to date.

While digital activism has opened new avenues for citizen participation, its lack of emphasis on offline action has cost us. As Clay Shirky pointed out in his recent PDF 2010 presentation, our love affair with click activism has changed what counts as a letter to most Congressional represenatatives. In the past a hand-written letter from a constituent to a member of Congress would equal about 1,000 votes in that members district. Today, because of the gaming of email systems, Shirky reports, Congressional reps and their staff count email at having no significance to tell how people in the Representative’s district will vote.

We believe that one of the greatest needs from the WOC community is to create a community of practice around engagement organizing: to use the best of online and offline tools together to deepen citizen engagement and leadership. 

As Van Jones says: “Everybody gets excited about technology, the technology of social change... But the technology we most need is ancient, it is sitting in a circle. It is the technology of being able to listen.  We need the human capital to push through some of the political barriers we’ve been experiencing.”

The Engage Network was founded by a group of organizers investigating the best practices to support lasting networks of people committed to social change for the long term, using digital tools to enhance and grow those networks.  We offer just some of what has been brewing in the past three years in the field of organizations doing this work, as well as in our own programs, partnerships and research.  

  1. To have a number of people who are deeply committed on the ground, you must have leaders with alliance and movement building skills. These skills include both external organizing and internal transformation skills. Groups like the Miami Worker’s Center demonstrate a strong commitment to building political power and simultaneously using transformational practices--including being in the present, deep community building and visioning--to shift from being an organization to being a movement. (For more on this story see Movement Strategy Center report in the resources)
  2. People experience key developmental stages along a pathway of engagement. Identifying and mapping out this pathway is crucial to ensuring your network builds depth of leadership over time, both online and offline.  For example: a mom in Oakland, California wants to buy organic food for her children and becomes aware of the local food movement, eventually joining a community garden. Listening to reports on the egg recall, she decides that local food is a priority issue for her and joins People’s Grocery.  She learns about the links between food justice, food sovereignty and food safety, developing connections and relationships around these issues. With time and support, this local mom may become a leader who is willing to lobby in Washington. 
  3. At each stage of her pathway to engagement this mom has different needs. Approaching her for lobbying when she is in the “buy organic” phase is inauthentic and transactional, leaving her feeling unseen and unheard. 
  4. To go big, think small. As networks grow, there is a risk of losing people in the shuffle. To build a large network that can sustain itself, think about micro-audiences and small groups where people can make a home within the network. If you are looking to build a million member network on the ground, it will be done by building strong leaders with whom people have authentic relationships, using frameworks for both small groups (8-12 people) and regional connection. 
  5. To build small groups, understand why people join and stay in them. People stay in small groups based on social connection, not political issues. Most groups that stay together over the long-term--book clubs, AA groups, church groups - use changing curriculum and have a leadership pathway.
  6. Narratives are indispensable tools for alliance and movement building. An exploration and articulation of individual narrative (what Marshall Ganz terms “The Story of Self”) and articulation of purpose, undertaken in a group environment, is a deeply transformational practice. There is a great deal of research on how we understand ourselves through narrative, and few tools can match the magical effect on group unity and bonding. Group members are inspired by how their story makes a difference in the larger story of change that is emerging, and are encouraged by the diversity of experience even a single small group can represent.
  7. Reinforce shared narrative by keeping the power of the network visible. Aggregation of small actions communicates the power of the larger group while reinforcing local action, and is imperative to maintaining network unity and identity. Lack of a larger shared narrative causes network loss. 350.org’s International Day of Climate Action and The Obama campaign are just two examples of this principle in action. 

The Engage Network and other groups (including Movement Strategy Center, The New Organizing Institute, The DC Project, Marshall Ganz, Organizing For America, Groundwire and many others) have built trainings, toolboxes and created values and some best practices. Now is the time for us as a community to play bigger. Let’s look at all the gifts of digital activism (like the ability to elect people based on small donations) and envision what’s next.  Let’s look at the links between the emerging text message efforts and their ability to connect directly with people who speak different languages around the world and word-of-mouth campaigns that rely on trust and deep social ties. We can continue to bring the best of online and offline together to help people on the ground lead together. What is possible over the next 2, 5, and 10-year frames? 

Resources: