How Technology has Changed Community Organizing Since the MLK Jr. Era
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How Technology has Changed Community Organizing Since the MLK Jr. Era

A lot has changed since MLK and technology is making things better for advocacy, worldwide. Advocacy software has revolutionized how we can manage supporters

On August 28th, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. gave one of the most historic speeches in American history at the National Mall during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It is estimated that a half a million people marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln memorial.

Over a half century later on January 21st, 2017, more than one million women will rally in D.C. for the Women’s March on Washington; it is the first women’s march in D.C. since 1913. While there will probably be similar sentiments of protest and celebration, the media and technology presence will definitely be considerably heavier than the 1963 march (that march was televised. And even that was a pretty big deal). The role of technology in organizing and marketing the Women’s March on Washington event will also be very different. To say that technology has completely changed in the past 54 years would be an understatement. How we interact with the institutions and causes we believe in and how we share and grow that network of supporters has mirrored developments in technology. Nowadays, we use technological innovation to share our desired social and governmental innovations.

Advocacy software has revolutionized how nonprofits and grassroots organizations can manage their supporters. It’s CRM for a cause. Companies like CQ Roll Call, Salsa Labs, and Muster (and MANY more!) have a suite of products and services to help membership organizations raise funds, segment users, market and grow, track campaigns, and allow members to interact with the political process. Additionally, calls to action created by advocacy software helps connect individuals who would not traditionally participate in a social movement, and lets them feel involved. Advocacy software has changed, streamlined, and improved how social movement participation occurs.

Genuinely curious what some of the tweets during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom would’ve been. At the very least we would’ve known who actually attended the march via Instagram (an estimated 400,000 people attended Woodstock in 1969 but many more people claim to have attended. I doubt Lollapalooza has this issue). Today, social media and social missions are inextricably linked. Social media breeds brand awareness, and social missions require brand awareness in order to grow and stay relevant. Television was essential to progress of the Civil Rights movement just as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter have been integral in broadcasting today’s injustices. Camera-phones turn everyone into a reporter, and our ability to share content and our opinions turns everyone into a broadcaster. Each individual has the opportunity to follow, identify with and advocate for a particular movement. On the management side of grassroots organizing, social media allows leaders to emerge, connect, create a network and organize, regardless of location. Social media has completely altered community organizing. It’s possible to join a movement without joining an organization.

A recent example of social media’s hand in budding movements is the Indivisible Guide. Former Congressional staffers wrote a practical guide for grassroots groups for “resisting the Trump agenda”, taking notes from the Tea Party movement’s local level successes. It all started with a Google Doc, and with the help of social media now there are hundreds of registered groups. Whatever your political leanings, it’s undeniable that Indivisble’s connection with a far audiences and rapid growth would be impossible without social media and modern technology.

The ultimate goal of many social movements is reform. Nonprofits and grassroots organizations run campaigns encouraging individuals to email or call his or her representative before a big bill voting to assure them that the people of his state are watching (and will be voting during the next election)! Even if the email or voicemail never really reaches the representative’s eyes, it is noted, often tracked through the advocating lobby group or grassroots organization (aka indirect lobbying). Modern email and messaging technology allows me to get far closer to e-whispering-in-Tom-Harkin’s-ear than someone in pretty much any other time period, with the notable exception of the future (yes I did just Google “weirdest congressmember” and apparently I am not the first, as Tom Harkin was the result. My apologies, constituents of Iowa). There’s even an app, Democracy.io, that simplifies the process of contacting congress. Bet Susan B Anthony would’ve loved that one.

There are literally hundreds of outlets for community members to become educated, connected and involved. However, none of these smaller-scale technologies have completely changed the game of community organizing quite yet, because activism still takes time and initiative (check out an interesting article about levers of civic engagement and technology here). But as a whole technology has greatly impacted how we follow and share the causes we believe in, and opened up lanes of connection and communication that were not there before.

At the core of questioning existing products and technology and innovating is the belief that we can improve what we’ve been given. An entrepreneur doesn’t look at an existing product or gap in the market and say “hey, it’s good enough for me”. Innovation requires efficacy. It’s only fitting that the leaders of nonprofits and social movements are employing advocacy software, social media, email and other frontier technology to empower their followers and deliver the newest, most unprecedented ideas. At the core of both technological advancement and getting involved in social reform is the belief that we, the individual, can make an impact… With the help of the collective, connected through technology. MLK Jr. could definitely get behind that.