*Waves* Welcome Civil Writes vol xii, where I profile behind-the-scenes operations/admin badasses of the Freedom Movement and document their data cultures and practices. If you’re primarily here for spreadsheet tips, stick around – there is more to come. As always, if you have a spreadsheet/database dilemma, write to my Dear Spreadsheet Whisperer column and I’ll write back, usually with puns. Onward!

There is so much bubbling up in me to come out in words!! I want to tell you about…

One day, I’ll write that post / record that video / document that feature. But today, what was most gnawing at me was writing about WHY I push through the frustration of learning these tools because I believe that this kind of thinking makes for a more powerful coalition of progressive movements. On a good day, I feel like I’m not alone in this persuasion.

Through my research project on the data champions of the Freedom Movement, I’ve been introduced to a pantheon of underappreciated changemakers who answered phones, addressed envelopes, determined fundraising strategy, crunched numbers, and otherwise fulfilled the obligations of data integrity for the sake of movement organizations like NAACP, SCLC, SNCC, and more.

One such figure, a personal hero of mine, is Jack O’Dell (I wrote some about his legacy here). This week, I started reading some of his essays, mostly from the 60’s in a journal called Freedomways. I am learning SO much from his writing, particularly linking the Black freedom struggle in the USA to themes of colonialism. Most of the essays are ideological in nature, which is no complaint coming from me. However, of course I was delighted to see his quantitative/analytical side come out, which is where I want to go in this post.

Check out this excerpt from a report-back that O’Dell penned for the 6th annual conference of the SCLC (all emphasis his own):

To implement the first year of our program, we hired five full time field secretaries who’s major concentration is voter registration work, in areas assigned, and we also employed a full time office secretary to handle the administrative aspects. The results have been encouraging. In the first 8 months of this program year, we aided 59 communities in the South with financial assistance, staff personnel and literature, and these communities added some 42,000 Negro voters to the voter registration rolls.

(…) [skipping some great writing, ugh]

[Thanking staff by name…] The patient, day-to-day monotonous clerical work performed by Miss Emma Jean Turner has been indispensable in keeping things going smoothly.


It means that our fundamental objective is to move local and state government in the South away from its historic position of having been the defender and custodian of the tyrannical system of segregation and to move these governments over to the side of upholding Constitutional rights, for all citizens. The basic lever for effecting this revolutionary transformation of Southern government is the BALLOT.

Climbin’ Jacob’s Ladder: The Black Freedom Movement writings of Jack O’Dell (ed. Nikhil Pal Singh) pg. 73-79.

When I fantasize about what we will be able to accomplish when we leverage the power of spreadsheets; a broad base of community activists; and smart, proven, strategy; what I come up with looks something like the passage above. This IRL example basically makes my heart leap out of my body!!!

So much of the time I feel like I am inundated with meaningless statistics. “This many people turned out at an action!” “This many doors knocked!” “This many meals served.” They are all positive under the moniker of “more is more” but they don’t help me understand how we are moving the needle toward liberatory outcomes. This is something that I think Jack O’Dell did expertly well.

Let’s look at the data and rhetorical devices that make this piece so effective:

  1. Transparency: clear role definition and description of scale/scope of the operation (there is also budget transparency that I cut for brevity)
  2. Administration in foreground: recognition that “office” work is indispensable and reciprocal with “field” work
  3. Metrics: selective, meaningful, pragmatic statistics that convey impact
  4. Mechanism: drawing a line between the metric and the goal
  5. Ultimatum: showing how the-thing-we-are-measuring influences a good-versus-evil choice; that as our metric changes, we are more likely to get the good (not evil) outcome
  6. How: supporting evidence that the intervention we are measuring is the most effective available method to reach the long term goal

I’m jumping out of my skin with joy, resonance, optimism, and gratitude. If our movement ancestors can track and write up impact statements without such sophisticated tools as online databases, then I know we can, too!

So begins my thought experiment. If I was designing a system to support these metrics, how would I do it? I think it would start with a clear and enduring definition of Community. O’Dell references 59 communities. Did he mean towns? Zip codes? (Zip Codes weren’t really a thing yet in the early 60’s). Counties? Geo-political designations like the Mississippi Delta? It’s not a criticism that this isn’t quite spelled out in the text (he does mention some geographic indicators like cardinal direction parts of various states). However, figuring out how we want to “bucket” our work into areas of impact is a worthwhile exercise, and one that is difficult to do well. I mean, take jerrymandering as an example! Let’s say for the purpose of argument that we geocode each person who’s involved in our campaign to a County. Counties are nice and reliable (their boundaries don’t change much) and in some locales, people have strong loyalty/affiliation to their county identity. This will give us a basis of comparison to know how many counties we are active in and which counties have the greatest change over time.

O’Dell mentions three different kinds of support: literature, financial aid, and staff time. We could use some simple tracking mechanisms to measure how much of each we did. Some common examples in nonprofits include: (a) tracking email engagement with UTM codes; (b) tracking mail or tracking print orders of printed materials; (c) using a staff time log; (d) using a spreadsheet or database to track outbound checks of financial support. For (d), I imagine it would be useful to track both the amount and the number of transactions, perhaps divided by county! If we had addresses associated with each check, we could do that relatively easy with some spreadsheet logic or geocoding.

Last but not least, O’Dell measures voter registrants (oh, what a beautiful figure!). Nowadays, I think most organizations use a combination of public and private voter files to measure registration drives and voter turnout. Pew reports that most of these data are maintained at the state level and vary quite a bit from state to state. Being an election pollster is very far from my area of strength. I’m curious to understand if civil rights organization relied on self reported data (ie from field secretaries keeping a tally) or from official voter files in municipal, county, or state records. It seems like both methods could introduce some error! As the Pew report commented, voter registration is notoriously difficult to track:

The fact that voter registration is a status rather than an activity means it is something that can be difficult to remember accurately. For one, the typical person registers to vote much less often than they turn out to vote. For people who vote rarely or never, their registration is largely an abstraction – an administrative status maintained by their state’s election authority without input from the individual. If someone registered to vote nine years ago but hasn’t voted in five, are they still registered to vote?

I had to include this pull quote because it is Just. So. Thought provoking. However, it doesn’t directly address the question at hand, which is measuring newly registered voters and perhaps as an analogous metric, the participation rates of newly registered voters in the next election. With a bite of humble pie, I’m going to say that while I don’t know exactly how to measure this, the data for it certainly exist today, and likely existed in various formats in the 60’s.

We could bring these disparate data points together in a system that could represent the network of people engaged and activated in organizing efforts. I think it would look something like this:

  • Contacts (name, address, degree of interest, etc)
  • Contact Groups (such as Freedom Riders or committees, etc)
  • Community institutions
  • Communities (these would be counties (?) and they could be connected to almost everything else. Then we could count how many of each type of action occur in each community)
  • Events (like citizenship schools, trainings, actions, nights spent in jail)
  • Literature distribution (might be connected to events or to individual people)
  • Financial aid (might be connected to community institutions, not individual people)
  • Voter status (registered?)
  • Election activities (this would be connected to the contacts and come from the voter file and be imported or be connected through an API)
  • Organizer meetup (like a 1:1)

I like the way it tickles my brain to think about how to collect and steward data like this, but what I want even more is to talk with people who were alive and active during the Freedom Movement and learn what they remember about data systems. I know that there were robust marketing and mailing list practices in place, and at least two offices that functioned as hives of inbound and outbound mail. At one time, there were dozens of office workers who were tracking all manner of calendars, receipts, newsletters, sign up forms, bail requests, grant awards, and so much more!

Nowadays, I feel that we are drowning in so MUCH data that it becomes difficult to determine what to measure and how to sync everything in a common system. Don’t even get me started on the nonprofit industrial complex or measuring specific datapoints only to placate a specific funder. While the technologies available to us have drastically changed, I think we face similar challenges as movement leadership did in the 60’s and their ingenuity may be instructive for our contemporary efforts.

When we only report on speeches, newspaper headlines, and charismatic figures, we miss out on the enormous contributions of everyday people, not to mention the intricate implementation of complex social movement strategies, like recruiting Northern college students to participate in Freedom Summer, or registering 42,000 people to vote with a team of 6 staff members.

When we only report on numbers without context, strategy, and a narrative framework, we miss out on being able to connect with what’s at stake. I’m left wondering.. is that a lot? a little? why that intervention?

I see both these pitfalls all the time, and I see them in my own work, too. That’s why I am so determined to understand how activists from the Freedom Movement tackled these questions – and share them here with you.

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