This might seem shocking, but one of the hardest political moments in my 10 years of organizing for social justice was winning. Wait a second, let’s rewind. Did I mis-type? Winning? How can that be?
Join me in time traveling back to that moment. It was 2015 and the Earth Quaker Action Team was nearing the end of our campaign that successfully persuaded PNC Bank to stop lending money to coal companies that participated in mountaintop removal coal mining. Bank Like Appalachia Matters (BLAM!) was a defining chapter of my life so far, a sort of political “coming of age” experience for me and my closest cohort of pals. After YEARS of strategizing, mobilizing, escalating, risking arrest, and countless hours on the road to Pittsburgh PA, Morgantown WV, and beyond, we finally received signals that the campaign was going to win. Hooray!
We put together a coordinated strategy to “Win Strong” with volunteer support from media experts, community partners, board leadership, and more. We wanted to “own the narrative” about the victory, speak with one voice and make sure the story made a “splash.” We also wanted the campaign victory to fuel momentum with our ‘sister’ campaigns (targeting other banks), and give credit to activists and community leaders in Appalachia who fought for generations before us, and still do. This type of PR strategy was a complicated process, and something most of us had never orchestrated before! As underdogs, we don’t have a lot of practice with winning. We were in uncharted territory.
“breaking up is hard to do”
Winning didn’t only bring up organizational strategic questions but also personal reflections and a bit of existential crisis! How do you just move on to a new issue after years of dedicating yourself to one fight, and aligning with other people who are also dedicated to that fight? This was one of the hardest parts for me. Our campaign ended, but the fight for dignity and justice in Appalachia goes on.
The truth is, I was afraid of winning because I wanted to hold onto my activist “street cred” as a rebel, an underdog, a fighter in the trenches. I felt like I had something to prove, and this is how I could prove it.
Now, it’s clear how wrong I was. We picked an ambitious, but winnable goal and we campaigned HARD until we got there. Along the way, we built an organization and had to do un-sexy things like apply for 501c3 status, hire staff, and raise our budget every year from individual donors. These sound decisions contributed to our growth and enabled our victory (along with smart strategy and amazing people power!).
If we’re all being honest here, some of the fears I had about winning relate to fears I have about smart data strategy. Are we selling out if we dedicate a portion of our budget to infrastructure upgrades every year? Are organizations without strong contact management systems somehow more authentic, or more “down” with the cause? My brain says “absolutely not!” but my heart fears that many changemakers think otherwise.
I’ve seen how changemakers have a tendency to prioritize scrappiness above effectiveness, purity above progress, stubbornness above success. I think this mentality can do a lot of damage, and curb our ability to win. Our strong critique of the managerial and owning classes, of “non-profit overhead” and administrative expenses, of investing time and resources in anything besides “boots on the ground” is well-deserved. We ought to hold our movement organizations accountable from becoming a mirror image of the status quo. And – this is important! – we can do all of that while embracing smart tools, systems, and infrastructure that will enable us to grow. Small is beautiful, but we can’t stay small forever.
In Praise of systems
Usually we want to demolish systems (systems of oppression, that is!), but today, I want to celebrate systems! Systems that help our organizations run smoothly and effectively!
As I’ve blogged before, well-maintained databases enable us to respect the preferences of our constituents and figure out who our volunteers even are. Not to mention saving tons of time, no longer re-typing the same lists every month or year! I’m not a strong proponent of “clicktivism” but I do believe in the Ella Baker approach of “many points of entry” to movement work. Digital campaigning, or at the very least, a sound email strategy can go a long way. While I’m suspicious of using the “master’s tools” to demolish the master’s house, I’m even more critical of letting stubbornness/political purity/”Impostor Syndrome” get in the way of using good data to fuel our movements. This post isn’t meant to be a referendum on using databases like Salesforce, CiviCRM or Nationbuilder to hold our data. I’m also talking about simpler tools like Excel or Google Sheets. The point I want to make is that we can no longer let our allegiance to so-called “scrappiness” get in the way of building broad-based campaigns with good infrastructure to back them up.
With minimal time investment, activists, artists, teachers, and changemakers of all stripes can manage contact lists, identify fundraising trends, and on-board new volunteers with the help of a few trusty spreadsheets. These skills will come in handy whether you’re doing deep 1-1 volunteer work or mobilizing your base to turn out for a big action or election. Best of all, they’re transparently learn-able. No one is born knowing how to do this, but everyone can learn!
why i’m optimistic
Changemakers have reinvented movement culture before, and we can do it again. We are the architects of our organizations and our social movements. We can reject underdogism (unless the messaging works to our advantage in campaigning!). We can decide to start taking data skills and infrastructure seriously, and then act on it.
Changemakers are excellent at learning new skills. We know that we need to rise to the occasion to fight power structures in our David-and-Goliath campaigns. Instead of being intimidated by spreadsheets, we can learn to embrace them, just like we have for many different tactics. Remember the first time the Sierra Club used civil disobedience after a 120 year ban?
We aren’t starting from scratch. Many of our organizations, collectives, or campaigns already have sign-in sheets, donation history, and other bits and pieces of data. We can use handy-dandy spreadsheet shortcuts to make sense of these data right away, and normalize how you collect data for the future.
We believe in empowerment. We believe in empowerment in our movements and political rhetoric, so let’s put that into action in our internal systems, too! The alternatives to learning spreadsheet skills are wasted time, misleading information, or outsourcing to an expert. That’s an expensive, short term, and disempowering solution.
I’m here for you! That’s what this blog project is all about and I have some big plans in the works for 2019 to expand TDAA to reach more folks, offer in-person training or coaching, and keep writing witty, irreverent, punny, tip-filled banter about spreadsheets and social change. It’s a weird corner of the internet over here, but you’ve shown me that it’s a good and necessary one, so I’m going to keep it up. Don’t forget to write to me with tips, suggestions, questions, or existential dread!
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