National v Local: Where you can have the most impact

Many of us spent last Saturday glued to our Facebook or Twitter feeds as white supremacist violence upended the town of Charlottesville, Virginia. But before the day ended, many across the country had turned to their neighbors: organizing rallies, vigils, and other gatherings. (More are happening this week: find an event near you.)

These actions bring life to the phrase “think globally, act locally”: responding to events elsewhere by collectively affirming your own community’s values.

However, we can’t stop there. Once we express our opposition to what’s happening elsewhere, we have to turn our attention to our own community.

Where we have the most power

Local action keeps us focused where we have the most concrete influence. Some of that is math: you’re one person out of over 320,000,000 in the whole country, but one out of 700,000 in your congressional district. You have 435 times more leverage.

Still don’t sound like great odds? Try breaking down the numbers. Picture 10 citizen groups in your district, each with 50 members. Suppose each of those members can reach 50 neighbors, coworkers, friends, and family outside their group. 10 × 50 × 50 = 25,000 people. Right there, that’s enough to swing some congressional races, especially in low-turnout primaries. Your influence is even higher for your state house, city council, or school board.

Put simply: your leverage as a group of citizens is greater over elected officials at the lower levels. You’re better positioned to get the right people elected and persuade them once in office. And since local elections are the pipeline for higher office, your influence will bubble up to the federal government over time.

Concentrated local membership also means you can get into the weeds. National and statewide organizations can’t focus on every re-zoning or school curriculum change or public budget proposal across all the cities and towns they cover. But their local chapters and independent local groups can track all those, working with and pressuring elected officials as needed.

Effective local action

Start by assembling a few people to lead the work. Look for those who know the issues and have contacts with local government, or are eager to build knowledge and contacts. They’re probably the ones who are already raising related concerns at general meetings.

Empower that team to lead the charge. They can start by brainstorming issues for the whole group to address, researching as needed. Then they pitch the full membership on a local agenda. It may be easier to focus on two or three priority areas, rather than trying to cover the full range of possible issues. If you’re new to local action, consider partnering with others. (Find more on working in partnership here.)

How to make the most of national issues? When something springs into the news nationally, find the entry point for addressing the same issue locally. Rather than letting national news drown out local action, you can leverage it to focus attention. The Sanctuary Cities movement has done this: pushing for policies that protect vulnerable communities from federal anti-immigrant action.

In the wake of Charlottesville, activists across the South are re-iterating calls to take down their own Confederate monuments. Some are getting support from elected officials, like the mayor of Lexington, Kentucky. And some rallies across the country are expanding their calls, attacking all forms of white supremacy and racism. Attention on a wide range of national issues—from the Republican health care repeal efforts, to the Trump administration’s ethics violations, to its disastrous education policies—can provide other entry points for local action.

Lastly, you can flip this the other way: If your local issue needs an extra boost, maybe national attention will do the trick. Local officials love being seen as national leaders, and they certainly want to avoid being shamed for their failures. You may even find other cities and towns facing the same issues, further amplifying your voice.

Focus on what matters

Respond to tragedy with empathy and humanity. But never stop with just “thoughts and prayers”—as the common refrain from cynical politicians goes. Think strategically about how a national story can help bring new allies on board, reframe an ongoing issue, or put opponents under pressure. That’s what makes local change possible.

Photo: Fibonacci Blue. Vigil for Charlottesville in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on 8/13/17, via Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

Local action roundup (plus: get tactical!)

Growing crowds—More protesters in June

The Crowd Counting Consortium tallied over 800 protests, demonstrations, rallies, and other actions during June. An estimated 950,000 to 1,170,000 people participated. Nearly two-thirds of events (65%) were opposed to Trump and his policies; 7 percent were in support; and the final 27 percent were on unrelated issues. More detail in the article.

Many of these protests are happening in the districts of powerful Representatives and Senators. California’s Darrell Issa has faced such consistent crowds of 200-300 protestors that his district office has taken to calling city officials to complain about their permitting. And House Speaker Paul Ryan can’t even go to another district without facing protests, like he visited a New Balance factory north of Boston.

Of course, some Representatives lead the way: John Lewis was at San Diego’s Comic Con for a panel on March, his graphic novel about the civil rights movement, which turned into an actual march through the convention center.

From civics to resistance—Radical PTA moms

The Intercept profiled a few women—in Boulder, in Wichita, and in Atlanta’s suburbs—who are using their civic ties for political activism in the Trump era. Networks and relationships built around schools or charities are important channels for engaging our neighbors. And when we engage them, we deepen those ties further.

The kids are alright—Quinceañera protest in Austin

Fifteen teenage girls held a quinceañera protest, adapting the typical coming-of-age celebration to protest against Texas’ sanctuary cities ban. In colorful gowns and sashes, they first danced in front of the capitol, and then went inside to lobby lawmakers.

City hall—Fighting back at the local level

From El Paso to L.A., cities are filing their own resolutions calling for impeachment, protecting their sanctuary status, implementing progressive taxes, and taking down Confederate monuments. When the federal level is gridlocked and retrograde, the local level steps up.

Urban climate—Cities and the Paris commitments

When Trump announced the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, nearly 250 mayors signed onto a pledge to uphold it. This article describes what they can (and can’t) do to make that a reality.

Tactical tips—From canvassing to noncooperation

The national Indivisible team released an August Recess Toolkit—complete with a canvass training agenda and guides for public events. Plus: The new site Political How is creating video tutorials for canvassing, town halls, phone calls, and more.

Want to expand your toolkit even more? Here’s a famous list of 198 methods of nonviolent action, written by Gene Sharp in 1973. It has 13 kinds of symbolic public acts, 22 kinds of strikes, 5 kinds of processions, and a lot more. Never run out of ways to resist.

Photo: Make the Road NY, protest greeting Trump in Long Island on 7/28/17, via Twitter.

You should run for office. These groups will help you do it.

You should run for office.

Yes, I’m talking to you. At some point in the last few months, you’ve thought: “Hey, I’d make a better president than Trump!” And you’re probably right. But rather than plotting your national run in 2020, let’s start a little closer to home.

You know that important policy decisions are made by state and local elected officials around the country, but just how many of those races are there? One estimate puts it at over 500,000: state legislatures, state attorneys general, city and county governments, state and local judges, district attorneys, various boards and special districts, and on and on. There are nearly 100,000 school board seats alone.

Put another way: the United States has about 1 elected office for every 500 voters. Count your high school class, your extended family, everyone around town—chances are you know at least 500 people. One of them should be an elected official. It could be you.

But which office? And how to get started? Local government varies a lot around the country, so you have to start by looking locally at which offices are available and when they have elections. Contact your local election administration for more details.

There are also a few different groups that can help you navigate the process and win.

Look to the party

In theory, recruiting and supporting candidates is a core function of a political party. Unfortunately, local party structures have atrophied in many parts of the country, leaving candidates to fend for themselves. In other places, the local parties stifle dissent through machine politics.

That said, if you’re new to electoral politics, it’s worth figuring out what’s going on in your county. There’s no central place to look up contacts for the local party though, so you literally have to just google: “[your county] local Democratic party” (or other party of your preference). Try to get in touch with someone or attend the next meeting.

If you find the local party isn’t very helpful, you could take on the task of reforming and rebuilding it—a worthy goal in its own right. But for the purposes of running for office, you might also turn to affiliated groups for help.

Look locally

In many parts of the country, local political clubs or other groups fulfill party functions like candidate recruitment and support. There are also many nonpartisan groups, like university-run institutes and leadership development nonprofits, doing the same work.

The best national guide to these parallel local structures seems to be this state-by-state map of resources and organizations. (This list focuses on groups that support women running for office, but many of them support all kinds of candidates.)

Don’t hesitate to reach out to current elected officials or past candidates in your area. They may be able to point you in the right direction or make local introductions.

Look nationally

The number of national groups supporting candidates has grown in the last few years. Their support ranges: online resources, in-person trainings, volunteer recruitment, fundraising, policy advice, and more.

Here are a few that seem to be offering the most active support. Don’t hesitate to follow several, as there’s no one path toward running for office and they all offer slightly different resources.

Emerge America: Training Democratic women with a six-month, in-depth program. Currently working in 21 states with 6 more in development. 

Emily’s List: Providing tools and advice for pro-choice Democratic women at the state and local levels, and greater support at the federal and gubernatorial levels.

Higher Heights: Elevating Black women’s voices in progressive politics through candidate training and more.  

National Democratic Training Committee: Offering free online training for Democratic candidates everywhere, especially for local races. 

New American Leaders: Preparing first- and second-generation Americans to run for office with trainings and fellowships.

Progressive Change Campaign Committee: Offering training, financial support, a volunteer base, a team of experts, and more.

Run for Something: Targeting millennials (under-35) committed to a progressive agenda and connected in their communities. 

She Should Run Incubator: Not immediate campaign support, but thoughtful guidance through a set of online courses for women and girls considering a future run for office.  

Veterans Campaign: Running nonpartisan campaign training workshops for military veterans.

Victory Institute: Training and supporting LGBTQ elected officials and building a pipeline of future leaders

Wellstone: Providing in-person candidate and campaign management training across the country, as well as online resources and training materials.  

Photo: Runner, Braden Collum, via Skuawk (CC0)

Growth: How big can (or should) we get?

Growth. It’s a blessing and a curse. More people means more political heft and greater reach. But a larger group risks becoming less cohesive and requires more attention to internal processes.

While public companies are structured to pursue growth, local political groups have a choice to make. Should we encourage growth, welcome it when it happens organically—or even actively discourage it? Should we have a growth strategy? How do we even approach these questions?

Start by setting your sights high: How big could you get?

Be ambitious. Scope out the max size you might reach, and put some numbers behind it.

Think about the area you cover: your town, your congressional district, your neighborhood, your school, etc.—whatever your scope. Take the number of people who live there, make a plausible estimate on the percent you think might get involved, and multiply it out.

That’s your stretch goal, if you want to go for broke.

But allow for people to be involved at different levels.

Pop quiz. What’s the best way to judge your size? The number of people who:

  • Subscribe to your email list or follow social media feeds
  • Show up at your biggest events
  • Come regularly to meetings
  • Provide active leadership

The answer, of course: all of the above!

And that means you can have different goals for each. Your list of subscribers/followers might come close to the stretch goal. Attendance at your biggest events will be be a fraction of that. Same with regular meeting attendance and those providing active leadership.

Do a gut check on the ratios in light of what you want to accomplish. Maybe you need to recruit more people into leadership to keep up with the new members coming in. Or maybe leadership has gotten so big that you can turn some of that energy toward membership growth.

Growth isn’t steady. Capture it when you can.

Many local groups saw a surge of interest after the election. Some tried to capture it, but some saw it dissipate as well.

Expect that sort of cycle around major events like primaries or in the wake of scandals that focus people’s attention on political action. If you want to leverage that interest into growth, find more on getting new members hooked here. (Tl;dr – Help them connect. Agree on why you’re there. Tell them what’s next. Follow up, follow up, follow up. And remember that not everyone can come every time.)

Nest groups within the group.

A large group can get unwieldy, leaving members feeling small or unimportant. By nesting groups within the group—whether those are standing committees, pop-up teams, neighborhood chapters, or something else entirely—you can make engagement more manageable.

Getting people on small teams within the larger group helps them be more effective. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos coined the “two-pizza rule”: keep teams small enough to be fed by two pizzas. That’s maybe 6-10 people. It’s big enough to get something real done, with some diversity of skills and perspectives on the team; but it’s small enough that members will get to know one another and feel accountable for the work.

(Alternatively, think of it as the “living-room rule”: the number who can comfortably fit in a neighbor’s living room.)

Work can also happen across teams, or aggregate up to the broader efforts. The two-pizza/living-room rule shouldn’t limit your overall group size; it’s a way to let the group get bigger without getting unwieldy.

Be strategic. Not all growth is the same.

If you decide that growth is a goal, think about what kind of growth you want. Do you want to broaden the base—geographically, racially, politically, in other ways? Or go deeper with the base you already have? As usual, there’s no single answer.

Either way: think about your messaging and your outreach channels.

Messaging should build on the assumptions and worldview of the potential members you want to reach. If you’re deepening the base, that should be easy, because you’ll be recruiting more people like your current members. If you’re broadening, then you have to listen hard to understand viewpoints other than your own. Someone who doesn’t care about the environment might still care about the health impacts of environmental protection. Someone who doesn’t mind Trump’s style might still care about corruption. Find the points of common ground and build from there.

Outreach channels need to match the potential members as well. Flyers in bars will reach a different crowd than flyers in churches. Where do your target members currently spend time—both offline and online? Meet them there.

Partner and align to be bigger than you are.

Expanding your membership isn’t the only way to expand your reach. You can also do a lot through partnerships (find tips on building partnerships here) for by aligning with national efforts (like Indivisible, Beyond the Moment, Organizing for Action, or ACLU People Power).

This sort of expansion lets you maintain the cohesion and trust of a small group, while ensuring that your efforts add up to something greater. One more tool in your toolkit for making change happen.

Photo: Eric Garcetti, Women’s March Los Angeles, via Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Building partnerships in your community (and beyond)

The basic building block of civic change is a group of citizens working together. A small, committed team can do wonders. But you can’t do it all on your own. To go beyond your immediate circles, you need to build partnerships with other groups.

Partnerships unlock resources and opportunities in a number of ways. Most immediately for a citizen group, partners can help to turn out more people for your efforts—and, of course, you can help turn out your members for theirs. Partnerships can get deeper than that though, by bringing expertise, credibility, relationships, and even diverse perspectives that might ultimately transform how you do your work. Working in solidarity starts with partnerships.

Despite these advantages, partnerships can be tough. Different groups have different priorities, perspectives, and even personalities. Here are a few steps to making them work.

1. Map out the possibilities

There are more potential partners out there than you may realize. You can map out the landscape of possibilities in two different ways. The first is to start with where you’re at, and build out from there, through asset mapping. The second is to start with your goals, and work backwards from there, through power mapping. Let’s look at both.

Starting where you’re at: asset mapping

What relationships do your members currently have? Everyone has multiple affiliations—such as alumni groups, sports clubs, or professional associations—that are fertile grounds for new partnerships. Asset mapping can help to identify these relationships, along with the resources that your group might offer to potential partners.

Exercise: With your group, brainstorm a list of relationships and assets. Think through the following categories:

  • Organizational relationships: Think about political groups, professional networks, unions, religious institutions, sports clubs, neighborhood associations, personal networks, and more.
  • Significant individuals: Identify any existing relationships with elected officials, celebrities, journalists, academics, artists, entrepreneurs, or other notable individuals.
  • Skills and issue expertise: List out the issues that your group or its members know well, and the skills (e.g. in technology, design, construction, etc.) that your group has.
  • Membership base and social media reach: Take stock of who your members are, how involved they are, and what sort of reach you have through your email list and social media.
  • Physical assets and resources: Identify physical assets like meeting spaces, computers, or vehicles, as well financial assets (e.g. if your members have wealth), that your group can put to use.

Give everyone a few minutes to write these down for themselves, then share on a flip-chart or whiteboard. The ensuing discussion often sparks new ideas.

Starting with your goals: power mapping

If asset mapping is about the relationships that exist and the resources you have, then power mapping is about the relationships you need in order to win.

For example: If you’re trying to get a state senator to vote for an education bill, then you need to know where groups like teachers’ unions and chambers of commerce stand, as well as how much influence they have over the senator. This means that your power map will look quite different depending on what you’re trying to achieve and who your target is.

Exercise: Draw up a big grid with two axes. From left to right is “opposes us” to “supports us” on this particular issue; from bottom to top is “less influence” to “more influence” over this particular decision-maker. (See below.)

Put your target decision-maker at the top, but placed along the left-right axes based on whether they’re leaning your way or not. Now start mapping other groups on the grid.

Power Map Template

Want to learn more? Organizing for Action’s manual on Building Strategic Issue Campaigns has a section on power mapping.

Bringing them together

Both of these exercises offer half the picture: where you’re at, and where you’re going. You open up more possibilities by looking at the question from both sides separately.

Look for connections across the two maps. Where do you have access on the asset map that you might use to influence the target on the power map? You should also look at the relationships of the asset map alone: what relationships or assets are we not using at all? Could we be doing more with those?

You can conclude your mapping by identifying specific partnerships you want to build.

Pro tip: Don’t limit yourself to familiar partners. By broadening your network, you make it harder for elected officials to ignore your concerns. Look through recent articles or spend an hour googling for potential partners, then add them to your maps. Also, make sure you’re attending events where you might meet members of other groups.

2. Assign a relationship owner

Partnerships always start with individual relationships. Organizations come together when people come together. So once you have a sense of the partnerships you want to build, decide who will make the outreach.

It can be tempting to have group leaders manage partnerships directly. After all, they’re probably the group’s best representatives. However, partnerships take time, which many group leaders don’t have. Instead, consider putting one member in charge of each relationship. With enough partnerships, they can work together on a team/committee and even “hand off” relationships between members, as needed.

3. Build the relationship

Partnerships take work, whether you’re starting from scratch or have an existing relationship. Either way, build the partnership by building mutual understanding and trust.

Do whatever research you can before the outreach. Your goal of this research, and any initial meeting, is to answer a few questions about a potential partner:

  • What are their goals? How do they overlap (or, at times, conflict) with yours?
  • What are their capacities and constraints? In other words: what do they bring to the table, and what do they need? How does that compare to your own group’s capacities and constraints?
  • Who do they represent? Understanding the group’s base (i.e. who they’re accountable to) and its history is key to understanding where they’re coming from.

The potential partner may want to know similar things about your group, too! Be ready to share in the initial meeting. A good rule of thumb is to balance the conversation 50-50: if you’re talking too much, then you’re not learning enough about them; but if you’re talking too little, then you’re not sharing enough.

Look for easy ways to work together at the beginning. This helps the groups get to know one another and build trust. For example, you could start by agreeing to share one another’s action alerts and event invitations. Consider having a member from another group address your members at the next meeting. You could also sign on to a joint letter to an elected official.

Build toward deeper partnership and greater solidarity. A partnership is underdeveloped if it gets stuck at the transactional level—i.e. the “I’ll invite my people to your event, and you invite yours to mine” level. Partnerships can be transformational if you let them.

A few options for going deeper: co-organized or co-sponsored events, which can draw larger audiences and higher-profile figures; joint political actions; public coalitions that take on a joint brand in advocating for something; coalition meetings with elected officials; or even mergers of two groups (probably the most involved partnership you could have). In building those new partnerships, be ready for a different set of expectations about how you’ll work together.

Partnerships will whither on the vine if they aren’t nurtured. But give them the right care, and you will see them truly blossom.

Want to go deeper? Find more resources on partnerships at Kansas University’s Community Tool Box.

Photo: Dave Algoso. #NoBanNoWall protest, New York City. (CC BY 4.0)

Local action everywhere

America is witnessing a renaissance of local political action—and not just in response to the Trump administration. In fact, the headlines from D.C. can crowd out news of the incredible work being done around the country.

Here are a few snapshots from recent weeks.

Lancaster—Future of Democratic Engagement?

An emergency mass meeting after the November election brought out 250 people, in a Republican-dominated part of Pennsylvania where Democrats rarely put up a fight. That meeting grew into Lancaster Stands Up, a grassroots group ready to challenge both parties’ establishments.

As Jimmy Tobias describes in The Nation:

A crew of young lifelong Lancastrians, some of whom have been organizing together since high school, launched the group on their own, independent of any national organization, last November. Through huge rallies and intimate conversations and more, they are reminding neighbors like Judy that democracy is a practice that must be pursued constantly and in community. There are no off days. There are no off years. When civil society is at stake, it’s campaign time all the time.

New Orleans—Young Black Activists Targeting Confederate Monuments

The videos of Confederate monuments coming down went viral. So did the mayor’s speech. But if saw either of those, then you need to know the story of the group that made it happen: Take ‘Em Down NOLA.

Clint Smith profiled their work in New Republic:

After Ferguson, in 2014, the group began holding events at Robert E. Lee’s monument, initially as a means of giving people the space to vent, grieve, and heal. Soon, however, the group saw an opportunity for political education. Activists learned about the 1811 slave revolt, the struggle for civil rights in the city, and the previous work that had been done throughout the 1980s and 90s to change the names of 23 schools so they were no longer homages to Confederates. These forums were often led by local historians like Suber and Waters, and they urged the young activists to think of their work as being both in conversation with and an extension of the work that had been done by their predecessors.

Bonus: An interview with one of the activists behind the effort in City Lab: How Robert E. Lee Got Knocked Off His Pedestal.

Fairbanks—Unlikely Uprising in Alaska

On January 21st, about 2,000 people braved temperatures 20-degrees below zero for the March On Fairbanks. That marked the start of a resurgence in organizing. However, as in most areas, local issues are as important as national ones.

Stephen Miller describes more, from the scene of an education rally, in YES! Magazine:

While the country has been enduring the Trump political drama, Alaska has been navigating its own crisis. The state’s economy has been dependent on oil revenue since it eliminated its income and sales taxes amid obscene industry profits in 1980. But now the oil market has collapsed, and the state budget is hurting. In response, state legislators have made deep cuts throughout the budget, and especially to education.

Today’s protesters are out in force against a new legislative proposal to gouge another $22 million from the University of Alaska system.

Charlottesville—Vigil Against Hate Outdraws White Supremacist Rally

Continuing on the theme of Confederate-statue removal, Robert Mackey at The Intercept describes the scene in Virginia a few weekends ago:

Hundreds of protesters gathered for a candlelit “vigil against hate” on Sunday night in Charlottesville, Virginia, one day after a smaller number of white supremacists carrying torches had rallied at the same spot — around a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, which the city council recently voted to remove.

Nationwide—Sharp Increase in Protest Activity in April

Political scientists from the Crowd Counting Consortium are tracking large political events. From their April report:

For April 2017, we tallied 950 protests, demonstrations, marches, sit-ins and rallies in the United States, with at least one in every state and the District. Our conservative guess is that between 637,198 and 1,181,887 people showed up at these political gatherings, although it is likely that there were far more participants.

Worldwide—Protest Signs Greeted Trump Overseas

Some great shows of solidarity, including this post’s header photo from a Greenpeace protest in Brussels (photo by Salim Hellalet, used with permission).

Internal group communications: Facebook Groups, Google Groups, Slack?

Getting your neighbors together in real life is incredibly powerful, but it’s impossible to do everything through meetings. In fact, the more you do outside of those meetings, the better you can use that precious time when you come together. That’s why internal group communications are so critical.

Most groups quickly discover that whatever tool helped them get together might not be the best way to keep communication going. For example, Facebook groups can get unwieldy with too many people posting. And email chains definitely get out of hand if everyone hits “reply-all” by default.

At some point, you may need to make a deliberate decision about how the group communicates internally—and you may need to revisit that decision over time, as your group grows and you learn what works.

Deciding what you need

To figure out what you need, start with where you’re at. Key questions to ask:

  • How are we currently communicating as a group? In particular, what systems are we currently using, and what works well or poorly in those? What are the friction points?
  • What’s this look like from the members’ perspectives? Are they primarily on their phones, or do many spend their days sitting at desks with email open? Are they all regular Facebook users? Do some use Slack or similar tools for work? Does everyone have a smartphone with data, or do some primarily use text messages?
  • What are we missing? Do we have a way for new members to engage? Do we need to separate out different streams of communications for committees? Should leadership conversations stay separate from general announcements?

Agreeing on your current status and your needs is the first step to designing a better way to communicate. Once you’ve done that, you can look for the tool (or set of tools) that meets those needs.

Looking at the big three

There are dozens of online communication tools available. Anything used in the corporate or nonprofit world is a candidate. However, the learning curve needed to get comfortable with a new system (and the cost of some) mean that they aren’t always practical for a group of volunteers.

As a result, many groups stick with some combination of the “big three”: Facebook Groups, Google Groups, and Slack. Here are the key differences.

Facebook logoFacebook Groups

Integrated into Facebook—with all the benefits and drawbacks that brings.

Ways that members can access

✔      Web browser
✔      Phone app
✘       Desktop app
✔      Email (you can set up alerts)

How new members join

  • You can set the group to:
    • public (anyone can find the group and join immediately);
    • closed (anyone can find the group and see the membership list, but must be approved for membership before they can post or read other posts); or
    • secret (group is effectively invisible until someone is added by a current member).
  • By default, any current member can add or invite new members. You can change that setting so that it requires moderator approval to add new members.

How moderators manage it

You can require that all posts get approval, or allow direct posting. Moderation responsibilities can be shared with others.

Find more details on Facebook Groups privacy settings here.

Great for…

  • Expanding your reach beyond current members: fitting into the Facebook feed helps members share big announcements and event invites with their personal networks.
  • Lowering the barrier to engagement: members can easily make a quick comment on a news item or other post, without needing to track all conversations.

But with downsides…

  • Posts can get lost in the Facebook newsfeed: members will miss items unless they’re in the habit of going straight to the group page.
  • And, of course: not everyone is on Facebook. Those members will be left out entirely.

Google Groups logoGoogle Groups

Classic, easy-to-use listserv. If you can use email, you can use Google Groups.

Ways that members can access

✔      Web browser
✘       Phone app
✘       Desktop app
✔      Email (you can choose to get every message, or a periodic digest)

How new members join

  • You can set the group to:
    • public (anyone can find the group and join immediately);
    • anyone can ask (anyone can find the group, but must then request membership); or
    • invite-only (requires the admin to add them).
  • Members must have a Google Account to join, but they can receive messages at any email address (not just addresses) by adding it to their account.

How moderators manage it

You can require that all posts get approval, or allow direct posting. Moderation responsibilities can be shared with others.

Find more details on the other options for group settings here.

Great for…

  • Large numbers of members with infrequent engagement: you can easily blast to the full group for upcoming meetings or actions.
  • Or: Small numbers of highly engaged members: committees or leadership teams that are likely to have a lot of back-and-forth conversation.

But with downsides…

  • Many people have trouble managing their inbox, so messages can get lost.
  • Email tends to encourage long messages and long replies, especially from members who sit at desks all day or might be extra verbose. That can be off-putting for other members, making it hard for them to be part of the conversation.

Slack iconSlack

Open and adaptable chat system. Easy to start, harder to keep up.

Ways that members can access

✔      Web browser
✔      Phone app
✔      Desktop app
✔      Email

How new members join

  • Slack teams are effectively secret. All joining is by invite-only. Slack offers no way for people to find and join your Slack team.
  • However, there’s an easy workaround: advertise the Slack team through other channels and let people email you to request access.
  • You can also allow current members to invite new members.
  • Find more details here.

How moderators manage it

There is no moderation of posts. The ability to create and manage “channels” (separate conversation threads) can be limited to admins, or open to all members. You can also create secret channels that only certain team members are able to see.

Great for…

  • Frequent activity with lots of people intensively involved. The informality of chat also makes it easier to engage.
  • Managing multiple conversations in parallel. Slack’s “channels” are ideal for committees or targeted planning, allowing members to join and leave as needed.

But with downsides…

  • Any members who aren’t already using Slack (say, for work) may have trouble remembering to check it for updates. When they do open the app, they’re hit with a flurry of messages from more active members. Re-joining ongoing conversations and navigating multiple channels can be difficult for these sporadic users.

(Note: The free version of Slack has enough features for many groups, including everything described above. See here for the features available in paid versions.)


You might want more than one tool, depending on your needs. For example: Use Facebook to recruit new members and update the general membership, but Google Groups for coordinating among leadership. Alternatively: Use Slack for your committee coordination (one channel for each), and then use Google Groups for announcements to the broader membership.

If you do mix-and-match, set clear guidelines for each tool’s purpose in order to avoid confusion.

Tools don’t set norms—people do

Each of the tools encourages certain types of interactions while discouraging others, but ultimately the norms of a group are set by how members use the tools. Problems like exclusionary or dismissive comments can arise on any platform. If you’re facing issues, consider explicitly setting community norms, as well as having a dedicated moderator (or several) who can orient new members to the community and keep an eye out for bad behavior.

Beyond the big three

There are countless other communication tools available in the world. Here are a few reasons you may want to go beyond the big three:

  • Security: None of the above are secure messaging systems. If that’s important to you, then you should be looking at tools like Signal for text messages and Proton Mail for email. And keep everything sensitive off Facebook and other social media. We’ll likely return to security in future posts.
  • More features:  Action Network and NationBuilder both offer tools for email list management, petitions, events, and fundraising.
  • Email blasts: If your interest is mainly in email blasts, then you may want something like Mail Chimp or Constant Contact.
  • Chat alternatives: Ryver is similar to Slack, but with more features included for free.
  • Project management: There are many corporate-oriented tools for this, like BasecampAsana, Trello, and Wrike.

We may cover the value of these in a future post, but wanted to start with the tools that seem to be the most commonly used.

Disagree with what we’ve written above? Have another free tool that we should discuss? Let us know!

Voting rights: What can we do in our state?

America’s progress has always depended expanding voting rights. When more people have a say, government is more representative, responsive, and accountable.

Opponents of progress know that they can’t turn back time on voting rights, so instead they make it harder to vote. These efforts intensified after a 2013 Supreme Court ruling (Shelby County v. Holder) that undercut the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It opened the door to new voter ID requirements and other restrictions in over a dozen states.

Most of these restrictions were passed under the specter of “voter fraud”—a nonexistent problem that Republican state legislatures use for political cover. At the national level, Donald Trump promoted the same lie for months before establishing a “Commission on Election Integrity”. Many fear that this commission (led by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has a history of voter suppression schemes)  will simply serve as an precursor to passing restrictive measures through Congress.

How much does this matter? One study found that voter ID laws may have reduced turnout by 200,000 voters in Wisconsin—where Trump won by just 20,000 votes. State and local elections often hinge on even smaller margins. Protecting voting rights and access are critical to any other political change.

So the question is: What can your group do about it?

Assess voting rights in your state

Start with the Brennan Center’s page on proposed voting laws around the country. OurStates also has a map linking to the legislative status of each bill. These pages will give you a snapshot of what’s happening already.

But don’t let currently pending legislation set your agenda. To see how things may have gotten worse in recent years, check out the ACLU’s map of suppression laws enacted from 2012-2016; the Brennan Center has a similar map (they have different data for some states, so it’s worth checking both). The ACLU also tracks criminal disenfranchisement: states like Florida and Iowa have permanently stripped voting rights from people convicted of felonies, even after they serve their sentences, which disproportionately impacts communities of color.

Finally, the ability to vote depends on effective election administration. After all, what good is the “right” to vote, if the nearest polling site is three hours away and you have to spend another three hours waiting in line? Pew Charitable Trusts ranks states on an “Election Performance Index” based on voter turnout, wait times, online registration, and other factors. See how your state stacks up. You can also look directly at election turnout across states. Is your state doing better or worse than others?

Find the other groups working on this

There’s a good chance that other organizations are already addressing voting in your state. Maybe they could use your grassroots muscle.

Check for state or regional affiliates of national groups like ACLU, MALDEF, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, NAACP, and Common Cause. You might also find that national organizations are involved in legislation or lawsuits, even if they don’t have locally based staff. And look for community groups that aren’t focused voting rights, but are active on the topic anyway because they work with people who are impacted by voter suppression.

By searching the news for mentions of pending legislation or problems with voting access, you can often spot active groups that are holding press conferences or rallies, or have quotes in the news. Reach out to learn more about their work.

Decide what to pursue and how

From this point, voting rights is not so different from many other issues you work on. Decide what your group supports, what you can accomplish, and how to get it done. If there’s pending legislation, pressure your state representative and senator to join as co-sponsors. If there’s no legislation pending, the Fair Elections Legal Network has sample bills that you can use.

This issue will become more critical as elections approach. Keep an eye on potential changes if you have special elections this year, and in advance of the 2018 mid-terms. Protecting voting rights and access is foundational to democracy.

Further resources

Image by Mrs. Gemstone via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Keep ’em coming back: 5 ways to get new members hooked

New activists are coming out of the woodwork across the country right now. In the weeks after the presidential election, existing groups scrambled to find larger meeting spaces that could handle the deluge. New groups started in living rooms and grew from there.

If you’re leading one of those groups, then you know it’s not hard to keep the anger going: the Trump administration provides daily outrages. But it’s a bit harder to turn that anger into the sustained engagement that you need to create change.

How can we keep new members coming back?

1. Help people connect.

The strongest commitments to change come from groups of people who know each other well. Whether you’re in a community where everyone already knows your name, or a big, anonymous city, people are more likely to come back and take action in the future if they feel connected to others in the group.

You can start this through a simple round of introductions: say your name, where you’re coming from, and how you’re feeling that day. You can also get more involved, with small groups breaking out to have deeper conversations about what motivates them.

People connect even more if they’re having fun. Lead everyone in a game, a song, or—if you’re feeling daring—a dance. Creativity fosters connection.

2. Agree on why you’re there.

This is how we go beyond the connection and solidarity of showing up once, into the action that brings people back. Don’t assume that new people know what the group does or why it exists.

Running a separate orientation session can help new members understand your history and mission. If that’s not feasible, doing a two-minute overview at the start of the meeting can be good for both new and old members.

If it’s a completely new group and you’re not even sure why you’re there, that’s okay! You can all figure it out together.

3. Tell them what’s next.

No one should leave a meeting thinking: “okay, so what now?” New members should get an immediate assignment, signaling that you need them involved and engaged.

Fortunately, that assignment doesn’t need to be hard. It could be participating in an upcoming action or joining a committee meeting. You could even assign some reading that helps newer activists get up to speed.

4. Follow up, follow up, follow up.

At a minimum, you should send a quick note thanking everyone for coming. Even without more detail, people will naturally think back to the meeting and reflect on what they learned or what they’re supposed to do next.

Sending a full recap with action steps is even better, of course. Then follow up again as the deadlines or next meeting approaches.

5. Remember: not everyone can come every time.

And that’s okay. Don’t think that someone is gone forever if they disappear for a while. They might be involved in other groups, or have family commitments that take priority.

If they’ve been to one meeting, then it should be easy for them to join up again for town halls, marches, and election day—the critical moments when you need everyone you can get.

Photo: Trevor Bixon, Women’s March on Reno, via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)