CauseWired: Legions of Community Organizers

I’ve been thinking about this since the Republican convention a month ago: isn’t the CauseWired movement the virtual empowerment of thousands – and potentially millions – of community organizers, that class of do-gooders so derided by the GOP nominees in Minneapolis? Sure, I know their derision was about knocking down a portion of Barack Obama’s biography, but I think the focus also revealed a stunning disconnect between a major political party and a major movement in American democracy that is unfolding in public.

I’m going to be putting up some excerpts from CauseWired over the next month as we get closer to publication, and in the spirit of community organizing, I thought I’d share a bit about Joe Green, one of the co-founders of Causes on Facebook:

Joe Green recalls working on the Kerry campaign in New Hampshire during the summer of 2003 and thinking social networks and organizing activists. “That’s when I first saw Friendster and I thought, here is this map of how everyone knows each other.” Friendster is a social networking service founded in 2002 that eventually grew to 50 million users, but peaked in the United States well before sites like MySpace and Facebook became household names. The service had much of what drives online social networks – profiles, photos, and lists of friends and contacts. Green was intrigued at its application on political and social activism campaigns: “That fall I thinking about it a a lot. I asked my roommate about creating social network for politics, but he was more interested in a social network for college students.” [Note: his roommate was Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook.]

Green went off to work for the Kerry-Edwards campaign in the general election, canvassing neighborhoods in rural Arizona for the unsuccessful Democratic ticket, but he continued to think about combing old-school organizing and new media social tools. set out to build one on his own. After the election, he founded essembly.com, a non-partisan political social networking website that would let connect with one another based on political opinions. The site was deliberately small in scale and by invitation of other members, and it was designed to try and force intelligent discourse while discouraging flame wars and personal attacks. Its design around small groups of dedicated voices – using political statements called “resolves” to start discussions – hearkened back to Green’s personal experience as an organizer – which began in high school in Santa Monica, California. Green described the formative experience on the progressive political blog MyDD: “I first got active as a senior in high school. Santa Monica had a living wage campaign – one of the first that covered not just city employees, but everyone in our tourist zone. The campaign barely lost but we got a lot of students at our high school involved, many of whom had parents who cleaned hotel rooms in beach hotels for like seven bucks an hour.”

At Harvard, he studied under Marshall Ganz, a professor of public policy and a well-known organizer who spent 16 years working with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. The lesson was an important one: “Here was Cesar Chavez trying to take pretty much the most powerless people in the country, the people who are closer to serfs than we’ve had for a long time, with almost no legal rights, and organizing them. But first you had to convince them that it was even possible for them to have any impact on all-powerful forces. And once you did, there were no shortcuts. You start with a small number of people, just speaking one on one in a meeting, and you share your personal story, then you convince them to have a meeting, and it’s through these existing social connections of family and friends and church that you grow these movements. Basically you’re organizing yourself out of a job.”

In thinking about modern media technology and old school activists, Green was struck by the potential of online social networking in organizing support for causes. “One hardest parts of organizing is sitting down with the address book and figuring out who everybody knows – the transparency of connections struck me – if we had one of these networks where you knew how everyone was connected, it would be very powerful.”

To Order CauseWired CauseWired is now available at Amazon.com and other online outlets. Order your copy today!

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