This blog post is inspired in part by Eileen Flanagan’s teaching on Jo Ann Robinson and the tradition of feminist civil rights leaders in the 1950s and 60s. Note: In an earlier version, Jo Ann’s name was misspelled as Joanne.
In a tone that is hard to describe but easy to imagine, two kiddos chimed in unison, “Which side are you on? We’re on the side of LIFE! What about you?” Their voices were clear, high pitched, and in accidental harmony. Sitting in the pews of a Quaker meeting room, my heart skipped a beat. Their aching sincerity and sweetness resonated to my core. And on top of that, the scene they were re-enacting was from an action where we disrupted a PNC Bank shareholder meeting back in 2013, a defining moment during my college activism. (Photo by Chris Baker Evens)
On Monday, the Earth Quaker Action Team, Friends Select School, and Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting joined forces to host an intergenerational day of action and learning (as distinct from service!) to honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and lift up his legacy as a rebel and a revolutionary. To see the idea grow from pilot (last year) to grant proposal (last summer) to fully realized, totally participatory, AWESOME workshop?? I’m, well, I can’t say I’m speechless (lol) but … I am delighted!
Connecting the data points
I knew that I needed some more time to reflect on the civil rights movement (then and now), so I scheduled one of my semi-annual self-check-ins, looking at whether my work is aligning with my values and my highest aspirations for justice. And when I sat down to do that, this quote (which has been making the rounds lately on social media) couldn’t get out of my head.
THANK YOU, Alicia Garza, for saying what *needed* to be said, even if its hard or unpopular. I’m so glad to be in the movement tapestry with leaders like her!
And what I want to say, by way of reflection, is that this post raises two really important questions. I’m going to focus on #2, but I think #1 is a super valuable conversation to have, too! Of course I’m going to write about the data side, but there’s cultural work to be done, too – which I’ve been working on lately at my synagogue. Learn more here! Ok, back to the 2 questions:
- How do we welcome new people?
- What makes new people show up in the first place? Let’s do more of THAT!
My life experiences as an organizer and my work experiences as a database manager have taught me some of best practices about “calls to action,” event RSVPs and, in general, recruiting people.
People usually commit to an events (or, one step further, join social justice groups!) in one of three ways:
- They are invited by a friend (this is by FAR the most common for grassroots groups) and decide to take action
- They see a flyer/email blast/facebook ad/etc and decide to take action
- They do research on an issue and find your website and decide to take action
And guess what? All of these means are *trackable*!!! (I’ll elaborate more below, and link to some good resources)
- Many databases allow you to keep track of “who invited and when” or “who knows whom?” This info can really come in handy – especially when a personal invite makes all the difference. But even if you don’t use a fancy shmancy database to keep track of folks, you can still have a column in your Google Spreadsheet to give you a clue at this info. The trick is remembering that it’s there and keeping it up to date! If you have questions about what data to collect, you might be interested in this post. Another use for this type of information is identifying which fundraising tactic is most responsible for bringing in donations.
- In the business world, some people would call Tactic #2 “marketing” (which sounds kind of evil to many activists!). But marketing strategies can be really interesting and worth exploring, especially when they help changemakers learn which outreach and recruitment methods are most effective. For example, which email blast got the most views? Which facebook link got the most clicks? How much time do visitors spend on your website? Which flyer yielded the most signups? You can figure this out by using different sign-up URLs (or just asking your guests to fill out a “how did you find out about this?” question) on your RSVP form. Another tactic that falls in this category is something called “A/B testing” with different messages to see what appeals to different cohorts of people.
- To be perfectly honest, this outreach tactic falls outside of my area of expertise, but I understand that many small businesses and changemaker groups use something called SEO (Search Engine Optimization) to help your organization rise to the top of relevant google searches.
Let’s return to the Montgomery Bus Boycott as an example. This is one of the stories that EQAT used in our training on Monday, especially lifting up the history of Jo Ann Robinson who could even be considered the “matriarch” of the Bus Boycott. You see, back in 1950, Jo Ann became the president of the Montgomery Women’s Political Council, an organization that focused on civic leadership in general, and particularly emphasized supporting survivors of rape and sexual violence. Jo Ann added discrimination and harassment on city buses to the WPC’s already full docket. Jo Ann had laid all of this groundwork – Dr. King was new in town and strategically became the public face of the initiative. As some sources say “he was too new to be controversial!”
It was Jo Ann who reportedly stayed up to the wee hours of the night making 35,000 copies of a flyer to distribute before the one-day strike. At this point, the mayor had refused her demands and so the activists decided to escalate. They formed the Montgomery Improvement Association and named Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr as its first president. Then, they expanded the Boycott from a one-day strike to a year long campaign. I think the MBB benefited from all 3 outreach tactics, at different stages of campaign maturity. I’m not sure how they kept track of information and lists of people, but I’ll bet it got complicated pretty quickly! If I had to guess, I’d probably guess that they had a phone tree. Do you know?
In I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, Charles Payne does a great job showing how the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), and NAACP recruited volunteers and activists from different communities and each played different roles in civil rights movement campaigns. Despite natural tensions between groups in the loose coalition, many civil rights leaders had stints at two or more groups in their organizing tenure.
But back to the Montgomery Bus Boycotts.
52,000 people joined the boycott for more. than. a. year.
It is hard for me to fathom that discipline, that sacrifice, and heck, even that degree of organization, clarity and coordination!
Fast forward to today, where I believe we need to be organizing with a similar sense of scale and urgency. There’s a real looming challenge of building and building and maintaining systems that can accommodate tracking that many volunteers (even if we only tracked 10%! and the rest of the people just showed up!). The building blocks are there, and the bigger digital advocacy and mobilizing organizations (like MoveOn.org and its pals) have this stuff down. But the rest of us are struggling to keep up.
Behind the scenes
So. I’m dedicating my today’s post to Jo Ann Robinson who did so much of the behind the scenes, administrative strategizing so that visionary and charismatic public speakers like Dr. King could stir the souls of so many people. I’m dedicating to Ella Baker, lesser known but critically important behind-the-scenes organizer and recruitment champion. I’m dedicating to Dorothy Cotton, who started out as an administrative assistant to the ED of the SCLC, and later took responsibility for directing citizen education and voter registration initiatives (HELLO data!!) and eventually typed out the famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. I’m dedicating to the women who, while working to end gender-based violence and race-based harassment, planted the seeds for what would become one of the most significant civil rights campaigns in US history – and ultimately received very little credit. May all of their memories be a blessing; may we honor their memories through action!
On Monday, I came home from the workshop honoring Dr. King’s legacy and turned my attention to supporting what I consider to be the next generation of fierce, fabulous, admin-strategic leaders. I’m the coordinator for a national (soon to be international!) program that supports people from underrepresented communities to join peer study circles and earn Salesforce certifications. Our program has grown by nearly 5x already this year (150 signed up to join study cohorts!) and we’re just getting started. Learn more here!
Who’s going to answer these questions about recruiting and tracking movement volunteers? My hope: a combination of astute database administrators and boots-on-the-ground organizers (note: not mutually exclusive categories!).
I believe that movement building and smart infrastructure go hand in hand. It’s a travesty that in our efforts to re-tell stories about the civil rights movement, we don’t share or even necessarily understand how the work actually got done. Phone banks. Tremendous personal risk. Huge logistical obstacles. Training, training, training. Hoards of people that needed information, consistency, structure. Tons of back end administrative efforts. Erased from the history books. Let’s learn a lesson and start to value this behind-the-scenes labor ASAP!