If you’re new here, check out Did ella baker have a rolodex? pt 1!
I’ve been working with a Black liberation org on the intricacies of contact management. This work can be tedious and never ending. It’s so hard to see progress when the “real” progress is culture change, maintenance work, and anticipating crunch times so that the “crunch” never happens. You hear the saying a lot in the “IT” world – no news is good news! But, I think as practitioners of social justice AND as ambitious colleagues who take pride in developing efficient tools, it’s so important to see incremental growth. I try to make a point to celebrate when small things go well, when disasters *don’t* happen, when roll-outs are smooth, when documentation is readily available, and when we actually follow our own aspirational processes. I find a lot of meaning in these micro-victories. However, I noticed last week that we might be missing the forest for the trees.
All of these little things are going well – but what does it all add up to? Why is it so important to follow our practices and claim our wins? Basically, I want to draw out a connection between our “internal” systems and our “external” impact. I want to affirm that this massive behind-the-scenes effort is worth it. The truth is, it’s hard for me to see how we win without it.
So, I turned to the Civil Rights Movement, as I so often do when I am seeking strategic advice or a larger answer to questions like ,”why?” or “how?” As I’ve outlined on the blog for the last several years, I think there is as much inspiration to be found in the administration of the civil rights campaigns as there are in the campaigns themselves. It just takes more snooping to find the good stuff.
Let’s take, for example, the founding of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), the youth “branch” of the constellation of civil rights orgs that were incubated within SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Committee).
I wrote about Ella Baker’s recruitment efforts in the blogpost linked above, but had not searched this far back in the history of SNCC. I was delighted to see this digitized file of “The Call” to attend the summit at which SNCC was formally established.
And I noticed that a slightly re-framed version of this flyer was re-released for the 50th anniversary of SNCC, which included the fateful header:
Ella Baker scanned newspaper accounts of sit-ins for names of people to invite.https://www.crmvet.org/docs/sncc50_call.pdf
I think this speaks to the beauty and chaos of a rapidly growing/evolving, mostly decentralized movement. But I think you and I can also agree… that looking to newspapers all over the South for the names of activists is a tedious task that is best done only once! Or, with more sophisticated (again, centralized) ways of registering for events… perhaps never.
That’s what I’m so excited to see with this Black liberation org who’s work I am supporting. Everyone who attends events with the org registers through a specific online form that stores their contact info and key attributes in a carefully configured database where we can run reports, send follow up emails, and invite people to specific follow up activities based on their areas of interest. We also have a form where current members of the org can recommend other people to join the listserve, so the base of the organization can grow organically.
The modern equivalent of Ella Baker looking in the newspaper (not saying that that does not happen today!) may be searching old google forms for people who donated or attended events in the past. Sound familiar? These forms might have overlapping individuals… VIPs slipping through the cracks… or they might even have private security permissions so other colleagues don’t know about them or can’t access them! This imposes arbitrary limits on how much an org can accomplish, because there is no way to wrap our arms around all of the contacts in our database… and give them a big, giant, hug.
I’m not here to cast judgement on your google sheets, but just to point out, there might be a better way! A way that, I think, Ella Baker was striving for and we should be striving for, too!
I found records that show the final round-up of who attended this legendary conference (not by name, but by affiliation). And I noticed (see bottom of image 1, below) that the organizers used certain “category groupings” to show how the attendee representation was distributed. This reminds me of how the org that inspired this blog post uses dashboards to track event registration and attendance so that all colleagues can see how recruitment is going AND they can pay close attention to diversity and representation.
Looking at these archival docs, I’m struck…
There’s NO doubt about the utility of keeping track of this kind of information. It’s all right there and self evident.
The record keeping of civil rights movement efforts were SO SO SO good, and archivists have preserved so much of that goodness for us to revel in today.
Let’s review the WHY and the HOW that are relevant in these docs:
- WHY: It was important to SCLC and eventually, SNCC, for the founding convention to be representative of youth in the civil rights movement. Also, it was important to have the “right” (so to speak) people in the room to establish credibility and longevity of the fledgling org.
- HOW: Detailed recruitment, attendance, and agenda docs are preserved from the conference. There were caps for how many people from different affiliations/categories could be in attendance.
This is so much more than “dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s.” Somehow, it’s easier to see the impact when I am more removed from the nitty gritty. We can produce reports like this with the click of a button for every event that we host. For Ella Baker (and for us today), I believe this is a labor of love.
I’m not saying that it was easy “back then” or that we should look at history with “rose-colored glasses,” but rather, when we dedicate time to meticulous tracking of contact data, we do a service to social movements. This has always been part of what we – activists – do and need to do, and those of us doing it today are following in a grand tradition. Thank YOU for being here and for being YOU!