Direct Action organizing Protests



Just over a year after the People’s Climate March, the largest climate-related demonstration in history, the People’s Climate Movement is finally finding its legs.

This morning a group of climate activists and canoe enthusiasts will float from Columbia, Missouri, to Jefferson City, Missouri, to
deliver petitions supporting carbon reductions to the Governor. This afternoon, protesters will demonstrate outside of a Volkswagen dealership in
Tucson, Arizona. And this evening, New York activists and intellectuals will ponder the
city’s relationship to trash. These are just three events, of roughly 175, planned as part of the
National Day of Action for the people’s climate. Just over a year after the People’s Climate March—the largest climate-related demonstration in history,
even if the oft-touted estimate of 400,000 marchers is too generous
—the People’s Climate Movement is finally finding its legs.

After the wildly successful demonstration last year, the fate of the coalition responsible for the People’s Climate March was uncertain. As I wrote in May, support for the hubs platform, the
digital infrastructure that made the march
inclusive and easy to join, was discontinued after the march was over, in part because of a lack of resources as well as skepticism about the platform’s
usefulness moving forward.

The hubs platform wasn’t the only piece to be neglected in the months following the march. “There was lots of organizing and
infrastructure that we created for the march that wasn’t maintained,” Tammy Shapiro, the hubs coordinator, told Civicist earlier this year.

“Once you move a lot of people into action and build structures it’s really important to keep those structures supported,” says Paul Getsos, a national
coordinator both this year and last, as well as an author of the book Tools for Radical Democracy. “Nobody realized
how big and how important and how successful the march was going to be at getting people engaged.” As organizers from told Civicist earlier this
year, the original intention was not to create a permanent “People’s Climate” organization.

It wasn’t until a retreat this February, attended by representatives of around 50 organizations, that they decided to turn the “March” into a “Movement”
and began planning the October day of action.

Although Getsos says partner organizations have been great at financially supporting a core staff, he characterized the operation this year as “barebones,”
a stark contrast to the march last year, which was so well-financed that it attracted criticism for being a corporate PR campaign.

If the march last year was about demonstrating unity and sheer numbers—to the detriment, some argued, of a “meaningful agenda”—the coordinated
action this year is about individual communities. “The fourteenth is a day to really lift up local organizing work,” Getsos explains to Civicist.


To support the National Day of Action, the People’s Climate Movement (PCM) created a downloadable toolkit, a resource for organizers that
includes a suggested to-do list (“Prioritize building an inclusive team”; “Reach out to local organizations that may be supportive, especially
underrepresented groups”); suggested targets (elected representatives; local corporations) and actions (office takeover; banner drop; flash mob); and how
to spread the word and boost attendance. They also provided tip sheets, press release templates, and talking points of various lengths in both English and
Spanish. In collaboration with Climate Prints, PCM released downloadable posters designed by artists like Marcus Blake, Chip Thomas, and Melanie Cervantes,
that people could use to spread the word about the National Day of Action.

Getsos says that the open source aspect of the organizing allows anyone to pick it up, although the capacity to support them isn’t what it was last year:

In the march planning last year we had a very strong digital operation. We had a very strong social media operation. I think we had a very strong open
source hubs model situation. 

I think trying to transfer those skills and that work into 100 places around the country is a little bit challenging…we really don’t have the resources
and the capacity now to do that in a way that we were able to do it when everything was focused in on one spot.

Through partner organizations like the Sierra Club and, campaign director Nick Espinosa says more than two million emails have been sent directing
people to the online map of national actions to join. PCM also emailed the 65,000 people who signed up
during the march last year, and the 40,000 who have liked their Facebook page. On behalf of PCM, Tammy Shapiro reached back out to the listserv of hub

I emailed the coordinators I was in touch with for my earlier story. Of the six, only Christopher Wahmhoff, a coordinator in Kalamazoo, got back in touch
with me to say that he was organizing an action today, targeting Congressman Fred Upton

Although the hubs are all but defunct, at least officially (they’ve been essentially archived here), the quirkiness, individualism, passion, and creativity they were made to support is still evident in the National Day of Action (see: the canoe enthusiasts in Missouri). Months ago, the social media coordinator for the march last year tweeted that many hubs were still active on Facebook.

“We were surprised to see such a strong response to the call for action around the country, with over 175 events registered as of today,” Nick Espinosa
wrote in an email to Civicist. “To me that is a strong sign that there is a lot of movement energy out there to be harnessed, especially on the road to
the climate negotiations in Paris.”

“Our hope,” he added, “is that the tools we’ve given people will help them continue organizing in their local communities, and that we can continue to
offer some support over time.”

If the PCM suffered through neglect last year, it seems as though that mistake will not be repeated. Paul Getsos tells Civicist that they are already “thinking
strategically” about what to do after October 14.

Civic Engagement Direct Action movements



“We’re creating tech-savvy, conscious leaders, who so happen to be radical black and brown youth.” —Abby Bobé

  • Twitter. Facebook. SEO. The so-called digital divide. Everything covered during the six-week, 100-hour Roy Clay Sr. Workshop is an opportunity for political discussion. Run by the St. Louis-area activist collective Hands Up United, the workshop teaches area residents between the ages 16 and 30 how to code, and they put their new skills to use by building websites for black-owned area businesses and nonprofits.

    There are plenty of programs that have set their sights on diversifying the technology industry—Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, Telegraph Academy—but the Tech Impact initiative is arguably even more ambitious. Alongside instruction on HTML and JavaScript, participants in the Roy Clay Sr. workshop—named for a Ferguson-area man who became a prominent black entrepreneur and engineer in Silicon Valley—receive a political education.

    “We’re creating tech-savvy, conscious leaders, who so happen to be radical black and brown youth,” Idalin “Abby” Bobé, a volunteer with the initiative, tells Civicist.

    Tara Thompson, a director at Hands Up United and point person on the Tech Impact initiative, concurs. “Changing the ratio is obviously important,” she tells Civicist, referring to programs that focus on diversifying the tech industry, “but if you’re changing the ratio solely to change the numbers and not to to have a greater impact, I wonder how effective that is.”

    The workshop meets three times a week: from 5pm – 9pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and on Saturdays from 10am – 6pm. But Bobé says that sometimes participants will hang around for a couple extra hours on Saturdays. Instruction is provided by mentors, mostly from the technology sector in St. Louis, who donate their time and energy to the program.

    Hands Up United was inspired to start this program last year during Ferguson October, when local activists called for a boycott of major corporations in the area. Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that many St. Louis area residents were unaware of locally-owned alternatives in their community because they had no web presence. A problem with a relatively simple solution had presented itself, and Hands Up United created a program to tackle it.

    The workshop empowers students with new knowledge and skills, and it helps support local businesses.

    “Lastly and perhaps most importantly, it’s about building community,” says Thompson. “I impress on them every day that there is no honor in being the best coder in this class if there is someone who is struggling.”

    Participants are expected to stay connected after graduation. They need to keep in touch with the businesses they helped, in case the owners have problems with the website. And, according to Thompson, at least three students from the first cohort have come back to help mentor the second.

    At graduation, participants receive a $500 stipend and a laptop valued at $700. (Thompson says that of the 12 participants preparing to graduate on Sunday, only two have access to a personal computer outside of class.) The program also feeds the students every day they hold workshop, a not-insignificant expense.

    Thompson says the biggest hurdle is always money. The first workshop, held in February, was crowdfunded last November. Hands Up United launched another crowdfunding campaign last week to raise enough money to cover stipends and laptops this Sunday. ThoughtWorks, the consulting firm (and Abby Bobé’s employer), will match the funds up to $15,000.

    “We have a lot of work to do,” Thompson says towards the end of the interview. “I mean society as a whole…if you care at all about these issues and really just as a human I encourage you to get engaged.”

    She points out that protest is not all standing in the street, facing off with the police. “There’s a way for everyone to plug in if you care about other humans.”

    Read next: How Black Girls Code plans to teach one million black girls to code by 2040.

Direct Action movements organizing



After more than a decade of life in the Networked Age, the long-standing imbalance in American public life around race and gender is being reset.

In just three weeks, the call to take the Confederate flag down from the grounds of South Carolina’s capital went from a hashtag and an e-petition to conclusive legislative action. Last week’s vote by the state legislature was the result of many converging forces and trends: the rise of a new generation of Southern elected officials more attuned to the needs of global commerce than local tradition; the increasing sensitivity of many American corporate leaders to social issues; the frequently demonstrated capacity of modern social justice movements to attack and damage corporate brands using digitally-powered campaigns; and the emergence of a much more robust, youth-driven and leaderful civil rights movement powered by networked media.

Beneath the surface, a big shift is underway. Voices long ignored and issues long marginalized are forcing their way into the larger mainstream, changing the very meaning of what is mainstream in the process. And this isn’t because the number of police killings of blacks has suddenly increased, or the number of state-sanctioned Confederate memorials suddenly jumped, producing more protest. The wounds of white supremacy in America remain as hurtful and unhealed as before today. But after more than a decade of life in the Networked Age, where open and connected media is almost ubiquitous, the long-standing imbalance in American public life around race and gender is inexorably being reset.

An almost hydraulic force is at work. In the same way that the underground water table punches through the earth’s surface wherever the ground gets more permeable, the undercurrents of America’s less powerful classes are finding their release through the new open media system fostered by the internet, even as they remain less visible on legacy media and in corporate suites. As Dante Barry, the co-founder and executive director of Million Hoodies for Justice said at Personal Democracy Forum a month ago, “The open internet puts the pop in popular uprising. Popular uprisings require a platform that allow the many to speak to the many, all at once…the potential of the internet is in decentralizing who can drive governance in this country.”

Online, we can see the surge. In 2012, the membership of Color of Change, the leading online organizing group focused on racial justice, grew by 4.8 percent; in 2013 it grew by 3.8 percent. In 2014, it grew a whopping 38 percent. Now, says its executive director Rashad Robinson, Color of Change has 1.3 million members, and not only are they more actively engaged than in the past, they are also giving more., which has a much bigger and whiter membership base of around 8 million, reports that the two fastest growing petitions in its history, in terms of how quickly they hit half a million signatures, were their recent one responding to the Charleston massacre with a call to take down the Confederate flag across the state, and an earlier one from the NAACP that it elevated after the George Zimmerman verdict in the Trayvon Martin killing. Close to one-third of the people who signed the post-Charleston petition were new to MoveOn.

Says Anna Galland, MoveOn’s executive director, “It feels like the last two years is really one long civil rights moment—with Trayvon as the launch point. If I look at the combination of the Zimmerman petition and this (ongoing) moment around the confederate flag, we’ve added something like hundreds of thousands of new members around our work on civil rights.”

She adds, “Clearly our petition was building on years of organizing and advocacy and groundwork that was laid by groups including the NAACP and others. I see this as one of those moments where an online petition served as an important accelerator—there was an opening, and the widespread outrage online absolutely helped encourage public officials like Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush and the Republican state legislators who promised to introduce legislation to take down the flag.”

Behind the big vehicles of national online campaigns are a penumbra of smaller actions expanding all over the country. A scan of both group’s platforms show literally hundreds of petitions on racial justice issues ranging from ending the veneration of Confederate symbols to demanding police accountability and economic opportunity. And Black Twitter is becoming a major force in nurturing these actions. As scholar Kimberly Ellis puts it, “#BlackTwitter is here to stay and is only growing increasingly more powerful since its emergence in 2009, when the Pew Research Study chose to highlight this phenomenon of overrepresentation of Black usage of Twitter far beyond its representative population in the United States.”

Broadening the Mainstream

To get a sense of how big a shift we are seeing, I spoke to two early African-American online activists, Chris Rabb, who ran the Afro-Netizen email list and blog from 1999 to 2009, and Cheryl Contee, the co-founder (with Baratunde Thurston) of Jack & Jill Politics, a political blog started in 2006 that joined forces with Elon James White’s This Week in Blackness in 2013. At its height, Afro-Netizen had about 10,000 people on its list-serve; Jack & Jill Politics hit about 600,000-700,000 monthly unique visitors at its height. While relatively small compared to the kinds of numbers we see today, both were vital early networking hubs for people of color hungry for meaningful political content online.

Years ago, Rabb told me that he didn’t think African-Americans would take to social networking in the same way that white bloggers were, because they needed to feel safe in sharing their concerns online. And indeed, when Contee and Thurston started Jack & Jill Politics, they both chose pseudonyms (Jack Turner and Jill Tubman, referencing early abolitionists) because it really wasn’t safe at all to be an outspoken black blogger. For Rabb that was somewhat less of a concern because he had a plethora of political connections on Capitol Hill, which in his words “led to a virtuous circle of validation.”

But those days are ending, Rabb and Contee both told me. “More people of color with more perspectives are adding their voices to the fray in an individual manner, not requiring brands, like Afro-Netizen and Jack and Jill Politics,” Rabb says. “What mattered more [back then] was our individual networks. Sharing AfroNetizen content was far more labor intensive,” he adds. Indeed, running Afro-Netizen was so time-consuming that when he started writing his book Invisible Capitalin part inspired by his own experience parlaying his connections into digital capital—he set it aside.

“What enabled me at least to stop using a pseudonym,” Contee says, “was the external validation we began to receive and seeing how large the community became. It became more difficult to represent and organize that community behind a pseudonym and I think others found that true as well.” She adds, “And while I and others like me have experienced some negativity and hacking online, no one has actually been killed or had their careers destroyed yet from speaking up online.”

Rabb points out that the over-representation of African-Americans in terms of mobile phone use, texting and Twitter usage has contributed greatly to the shift. “Now there’s a critical mass of black folk where there’s more of a sense of support, where your voice is not going to be the only voice. There’s some sense of protection and community that didn’t exist ten years ago.” Rashad Robinson of Color of Change agrees, but he puts it slightly differently: “You can be engaged in debate and conversation [online] with people having your back. But it’s not so much about safety as it is about having power.”

Contee and Rabb also both see a bigger culture change underway. Says Contee, “The overall sophistication of users…during the six years in which we ran Jack and Jill Politics has increased dramatically. It’s easy to see the impact of JJP and blogs like it in terms of the way that people talk online and present their opinions—with transparency, boldness, directness, irreverence with few sacred cows.” Rabb concurs, noting, “Now I see so many strong voices from people of color who aren’t necessarily mainstream which is great, and so the mainstream is broadening.”  

Up to a point. Rabb, for one, said that he still thinks about when to share something publicly versus only sharing within his Facebook friends circle. “When people express views that press against institutional racism or imperial capitalism,” he notes, “then there’s a real chance of reprisals that can be symbolic, personal, political, and professional.” He adds, “I’m still a black guy who travels and can be found on Google and I don’t want to be killed.”

It would also be a mistake to interpret the success of recent racial justice petitions on MoveOn’s platform as a sign that the larger white liberal community that it enfolds is ready for more systemic change. As Robinson admits, “We test other issues, more systemic issues, with MoveOn members and they just don’t perform well. They can’t go deep on stop-and-frisk or systemic racism,” he says of his MoveOn allies. He adds, speaking of the white liberal-left, “#TakeItDown is a victory but are we any closer to those people talking about the funding model for public education? Or really pushing for voting rights legislation? Or addressing the funding models in our cities around criminal justice?”

The question of what comes next as the symbolic power of Confederate culture melts down remains hanging in the air. On the one hand, it’s really a change when a Republican governor like Robert Bentley of Alabama preemptively orders his state to stop hoisting the Confederate flag and declares, “A flag is not worth a job.” (Recall the late George Bush adviser Lee Atwater, who memorably described the GOP’s southern strategy as going from shouting “n—-r, n—-r” to more abstract stuff like “state’s rights” and cutting taxes, but with the same racist intention.) On the other hand, as Robinson points out, “We win on the Confederate flag but then we have a bunch of really bad jobs for black people in the South. So we’re working on campaigns on Walmart and the auto plants in the South.” 

To be sure, fights on economic issues are much harder than flag wars. But I can’t help but think that, like the giant snow farm still sitting in Boston’s Seaport District, the residue of last winter’s massive snowfalls, white America is melting slowly into the ground. There’s a hard core of ice up there in Boston that is still frozen solid, and it’s even got its own micro-climate that keeps refreezing some of the water coming off the top of the heap. But the mass is breaking down, and so are some of the hardest ingrained symbols of white supremacy in America.

To be honest, I never thought I’d live to see Southern states like South Carolina and Alabama move to officially discard their Confederate flags. And yet, the day is here.

Civic Hacking Civic Tech Direct Action

Volunteer Coders Force the Dept Of Education to Actually Help Debtors

Volunteer Coders Force the Dept Of Education to Actually Help Debtors

When it comes to making conned students aware of their right to seek debt discharges, and providing the means for them to apply for that discharge, the Department of Education’s technology is essentially nonexistent.

  • This March saw the launch of a web application that makes it easy for victims of predatory colleges to request student debt forgiveness from the Department of Education. For the first time ever, debtors were able to exercise their right to apply for student debt cancellation on their mobile phones. More than 300 applications flowed in that first week. But this website wasn’t built by the government; it was built by volunteers with the Debt Collective, including myself, in less than a month. The Secretary of Education Arne Duncan frequently touts the virtues of tech, but in so far as modernizing how the agency actually helps current and former college students, the heavy-lifting has been forced onto the backs of students, debtors, and volunteers.


    As the total college student debt burden reaches $1.3 trillion, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street called Strike Debt found that tuition-free education at all public two- and four-year colleges could be achieved with just $15 billion in new spending. Meanwhile, the government is expected to profit from student debt repayments to the tune of $127 billion over the next ten years. To make matters worse, student loans are unique from other kinds of household debt in that they cannot be discharged by bankruptcy. They are nearly impossible to get out from under, even in the most dire of circumstances. With these revelations, it seems true that some or all of this debt is morally illegitimate, and action is needed to give relief to these debtors.

    One of the only existing safety nets for millions of student debtors is the Higher Education Act, which gives the Department of Education authority to cancel debt when a school violates state law. But for many years the Department’s website had little to no information on how to dispute debt, let alone an online application to do so. The process was an uphill, seemingly impossible battle for debtors. That is, it was until this year, when a small group of volunteers at the Debt Collective decided to do something radical: the government’s job.

    For years, hundreds of thousands of students have found themselves scammed by predatory for-profit colleges. Corinthian Colleges, Inc., was one of the largest and most notorious of these chains. It was clear from multiple government actions and investigations, dating as early as 2007, that Corinthian was rife with deceptive and unfair business practices—from false job placement statisticssecurities fraud, to the unlawful use of military seals in advertisements. Despite this, the Department of Education continued to collect on the debt of scammed students, students Secretary Duncan admitted left Corinthian Colleges “in a worse position than when they started.”

    After months of watching the Department of Education do nothing, while hearing story after story of lives ruined by unpayable debt, our team at the Debt Collective decided to make a move. With help from some amazing lawyers, we began to craft a process to dispute students’ debt. Law student Luke Herrine spent hours coordinating our strategy with a team of legal experts, creating a multi-page application form that affected and eligible debtors would need to fill out by hand. In the form, each debtor needed to cite the specific legalese appropriate for their state. It wasn’t even clear that the Department would recognize the forms as legitimate—no one had ever done this sort of thing at scale before, and the Department had little-to-no information on their website. With an entirely paper-based and manual method, our first, ambitious goal was to submit 50 applications—one for each state.


    As the Facebook groups for former Corinthian students grew larger, it became clear that the goal of 50 Defense to Repayment applications was not enough. We wanted to dispute the debt for as many debtors as possible.


    Karissa McKelvey (left) and Ange Tran (Ann Larson)

    Karissa McKelvey (left) and
    Ange Tran (Photo courtesy Karissa McKelvey)

    Designer Ange Tran suggested we make a “wizard”—an application that walks debtors through each section of the long legal form. Tran had previously created a similar solution to automate sending letters for pro-solar policy advocacy in New York State. But years later, with a solid tech team and a large group of debtors in solidarity, our new application could take the concept further with mobile-first validated design, data-driven progress dashboards, and secure data storage. It needed to be built fast, too—as every day without a submission system meant another day of financial hardship and debt collector harassment for hundreds of thousands of debtors.

    Our online form had to enable a debtor to submit a variety of information about themselves: sensitive data, such as their social security number, birthdate, and address; state law(s) broken by the school that would fall under the Defense to Repayment provision (that changed based upon the state the student had lived in); and supporting materials, such as their story or evidence of abuses. Making people fill out a PDF directly using Acrobat would lead to a substantially lower conversion rate. Many don’t have access to a desktop or laptop computer, become overwhelmed by long forms, or have limited time with their busy schedules.

    The website had to be easy to read—checkboxes needed to hide away complicated legalese, replaced automatically using a spreadsheet of related paragraphs. Data had to be transferred over a secure, encrypted channel (https) with the completed forms accessible through only one secure administrator account to protect the privacy of debtors. With a conveniently-timed lull in funding for my day job, I began developing the back end system and overseeing the technical architecture, working with Tran, Herrine, and our front end developer and designer Zach Greene.

    We released the prototype to the public on March 25 after four weeks of research, design, and development. Within a week, the Debt Collective received over 300 applications (over 2000 to date). Herrine printed out hundreds of applications by hand and delivered them to the Department of Education with representatives from the Corinthian strikers. (When we asked the Department if we could send claims by email, they said no, they would have to be printed and submitted on paper.) Although the Debt Collective continued to submit applications on the behalf of debtors over the next few weeks, the Department of Education remained silent. We wondered if they were overwhelmed by the volume of forms.


    Finally, after two weeks, the Department of Education announced that they would consider the discharge of some students’ debt. This was a major victory for those affected, but also led to a tremendous revelation about the limits of the Department. They maintain that most debtors must still submit forms individually to prove their injury. A select group of 40,000 Heald students can submit to a “fast track” process, and need only complete an attestation form. But, laughably, the form only works in Adobe Acrobat—not on smartphones or other PDF programs. No wonder only 180 of the 40,000 eligible students have completed the form so far!

    The Department of Education loves certain applications of technology. In April, Secretary Duncan published a piece on on the importance of expanding the role of technology in the classroom. And they have an entire Office of Innovation and Improvement that provides grants for education innovation. But when it comes to making conned students aware of their rights to even seek debt discharges, and providing means for them to apply for that discharge, the Department’s technology is essentially nonexistent. If we could fashion a superior solution with a rag-tag, mostly-volunteer crew in two weeks and get the word out to thousands of students, why can’t a government agency with billions in funding do the same?

    Despite the vast amount of money, human resources, and technical knowledge the Department possesses, it still does not have an automated process to discharge the debts of all Corinthians—or any students—at once. The government’s failure to build technology may be one of intentional neglect, to erect barriers to legal processes to which we are entitled. There are resources the Department could use inside and outside of the government, such as 18F and Code for America, to build superior technology that better connect the data warehouses that track past, current, and future students and their family’s finances. But so far this hasn’t happened. Unfortunately, this is not a technical problem but a political problem. The onus of bad debt is placed onto the individuals who took the debt, not on the corporations that profit. And right now the Department’s technological priorities reflect that attitude.

    We’ve proved that something as simple as a PDF generator and mobile-first web front end can radically affect the landscape of education policy, but there’s still a lot of work left to do. We plan on extending the current application to work for all student debtors from multiple colleges, not just the Corinthian chain.

    As a Bay Area “techie,” I’ve heard more times than I can count that we are somehow “changing the world”—and usually I find it offensive. The tech community is rich with stories of startup-driven “disruption” that upends the status quo in a particular sector, without attention immediate needs within the political-economic climate. The fetishization of “disruption that changes the world” overlooks relatively simple efforts, aggrandizing those that affect more “fundamental” functions of the economy or the technology that runs it. But as government technology waxes and wanes, startups fail, and bubbles pop, we must dare to ask—what if the best things we can do in civic tech aren’t the most complex, cutting-edge, or “innovative” technological feats, but rather ones that are attuned to real needs on the ground and made in dialogue with grassroots communities and activists? Technology alone can’t “change the world,” but when technological is employed strategically by social movements, it can certainly help us do so.

    Karissa McKelvey is a programmer and former academic experienced in building interactive data visualization and collaboration tools.