*Waves* Welcome Civil Writes vol xiii, 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!

In my last essay, I wrote about Jack O’Dell’s visionary example of how to use metrics to tell a story of social impact. Today I want to return to O’Dell for one more piece about how he shaped the conversation on data and strategy, and what his ideas could mean for social movement data practitioners today.

In the late 70’s, O’Dell wrote a series of essays “On the Transition from Civil Rights to Civil Equality.” He was gravely concerned that the struggle for freedom, rights, and racial integration was being replaced by litigation, media coverage, and social service agencies, leaving behind the rich tradition of protest, accountability, and vernacular leadership in the new era.

He elaborates on the theme of vernacular leadership and take it one layer deeper: “There was on one hand the established authority: the citadels of institutionalized racism, the masters of war, the apparatus of government — state, local, and federal; and those chose to do the dirty work of suppression of our movement in defense of the status quo. This established authority acted out a way of life that was rooted in custom, tradition, and dictated by class interests. The other center of authority was the Civil Rights – Anti-War Movement which represented a continuum of protest activity during this period. This authority, the Movement, represented the people’s alternative to the power of institutionalized racism and colonialist war.” (Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, 237-238).

(Sidenote – it’s a politically consequential choice to hyphenate the Civil Rights and Anti-War Movement(s), a rhetorical move that he used regularly to unite seemingly disparate movements in his birds’ eye view approach to justice (labor, Native rights, Latinx rights, democracy, etc))

He writes with great concern that with the denouement of the mass action phase of the Civil Rights Movement (which he characterizes as 1955-1969), came with the professionalization of movement roles. That’s not exactly the phrasing that he uses, but the way he describes it maps on to the contemporary discussion. He compares the “old days” of the movement – all hands on deck, everyone contributing what they had, to the contemporary phase, where grassroots fundraising seems to be replaced by grants and mass meetings seem to be replaced by press conferences. He feels the Movement has lost its way. Take this stirring quote, for example:

Search the pages of history if we will — no people ever got free writing grant proposals. And we may often forget how new this particular technical activity is. We need those who have this technical competence to give their talents because that is one source of getting some of the resources which are needed. But to make the strategic error of substituting this technical activity for what is indeed a more sophisticated requirement of the period — building a mass movement that assigns and supports the technician-intelligentsia in the work to be done— is to embrace a more sophisticated form of stagnation and invites regression.

Jack O’Dell, Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, 240 (emphasis added)

There is so much brilliance to unpack in this quote, all the more so when you know some of O’Dell’s personal history. I agree that we need to scrutinize the relationship between specific and specialized movement roles (grant writing, childcare, design, technology, etc) and the overarching goals of the movement. And who better to lead the way than someone who has done tenant organizing, worker organizing, grassroots fundraising, movement strategy, and journalism?

Let’s be honest, I’ve seen the results of a technology-first social movement strategy that puts WAY too much time and energy behind unproven digital tactics and leave me hungry for boots-on-the-ground leadership. The inverse is just as worrisome, when distrust for technology or lack of capacity render a social justice group burdened with data entry, system chaos, duplication of efforts, and unanswerable questions.

Jack O’Dell, Audre Lorde, Staughton Lynd, and Grace Lee Boggs are my panel of experts when it comes to the questions of reform versus revolution, working within the system, and skill building toward powerful movements for justice. Gone are the days of all-or-nothing thinking when it comes to the role of “technologies” in movements. I think these movement ancestors can point to a time when this dichotomy was less acute, which is comforting to me since I feel both constrained by and rebellious toward the question of “master’s tools” and the “master’s house.”

Perhaps you can relate to my sensation of relief when I returned to Audre Lorde’s groundbreaking text and encountered the larger context of her admonishment:

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us
temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”


I hesitate to rephrase or reframe this quote because in so many ways, it speaks for itself. However, I will share that one takeaway for me is the idea that the master’s tools ALONE will never do the job. OF COURSE NOT! All of the tools we have available, especially those born from lived experiences of marginalization, will be required in the realization of social justice. But I don’t think Audre Lorde is outright rejecting tools entirely. Why does this seem like such a taboo realization?

One question that these texts share is, what are we building? Truly, we can only determine the appropriate tools if they are in service of a shared goal.

In my work to build tech-positive culture with nonprofits and movement organizations (which usually means tweaking both the tech AND the way we interact with it), I can see first hand how tying incremental tech changes to the mission of the organization or campaign can make all the difference in the world. For example, I was recently working with a group to download a connector app between their email inboxes and their database. I described it like this:

The big idea:  [the database] is a shared system to store information about people who love [your org].  The time you spend logging data in [database] amplifies their love and impact.  The [email brand] Connector is a tool that makes it quicker and easier for you to access and update data in [database] without leaving your inbox.

In this explanation, I was aiming to share how this change will make things easier in each person’s daily work AND in the relationships and mission that are central to their social justice values. We weren’t using technology for its own sake, or to keep up with the Joneses, or to collect data “because we might need it one day,” or because someone had a pet project/pet peeve. We were doing it to solve a real problem, plan for the future, and move swiftly toward organization’s vision of interdependent healing and stewardship for people and the land. As Jack O’Dell would say, if I am doing my work well, I am fulfilling the role of the “technician-intelligentsia” at the will of the “work to be done.”

For data practitioners, I think there is a lesson here about resisting the inclination to set the agenda, even with the best of intentions! The best tools are only best if they align with the culture and politics that we are striving to create.

I think it’s really brave for Jack O’Dell to acknowledge the risk of grant funding, press conferences, or other professionalized social movement roles, without rejecting the premise entirely. Can we strive for that kind of balanced thinking in contemporary circumstances?

Automation is neither intrinsically good or bad, it’s all a question of context.

Using SMS technology to text our base of supporters is neither intrinsically good or bad. What impact would it have?

Moving from a spreadsheet to a database platform has pros and cons. We can only make the decision given a web of relationships, plans, and a theory of change.

The same kind of thinking can be applied to myriad daily tech and data decisions.

One of my favorite tech phrases is, “It depends!”

Instead of asking what is the best practice, I think we should be asking, what is the best practice for our goals? That will require some serious work and perspective shift, but I think the process and outcomes will be worth it.

6 thoughts on “what about the master’s tools?

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