organizing petitions



After the San Bernardino shooting earlier this month, California-based neurologist and social activist Faisal Qazi started a fundraiser for the victims’ families on LaunchGood, a crowdfunding site run by and for the Muslim community. Qazi launched the campaign before it was even known that the perpetrators of the shooting were also Muslim, but when the fact emerged, the fundraiser gave the Muslim-American community an outlet to demonstrate solidarity with the victims and their families, and to distance themselves from the violence perpetrated—an outlet increasingly necessary if American Muslims are to counter the Islamophobia proliferating in public and private discourse right now. More than 2,000 supporters raised a total of $215,515.

“This united American Muslim campaign aims to reclaim our faith from extremists by responding to evil with good,” said co-organizer Tarek El-Messidi in a campaign press release.

LaunchGood, which celebrated its two-year anniversary in October, and MPower Change, a digital organizing platform that quietly launched this fall, together are carving out space for American Muslims to communicate, collaborate, and agitate online. While other ethnic and religious groups have long had dedicated online platforms for political organizing—African Americans have Color of Change; Latinos have Presente; Asian Americans have 18 Million Rising; Christians have Faithful America—MPower Change and LaunchGood are among the first digital organizing platforms for American Muslims.

In a recent interview with Colorlines, MPower Change co-founder Linda Sarsour bemoaned the lack of platforms for civically-minded American Muslims:

We’ll have a social media campaign that will get buzz for a day or two but we lose people immediately after the frenzy. The Muslim community has been able to have a few campaigns that have trended and shift the conversation, but once they’re over we have to start from scratch…We want to create our own online base that we can consistently engage on multiple issues.

The appeal of a crowdfunding site by and for Muslims was two-fold, LaunchGood co-founder and COO Amany Killawi tells Civicist. During the five years she worked as a community organizer, primarily with inner-city youth, Killawi had crowdfunded several programs and had become aware of the “transformative” power of crowdfunding. She liked that it was decentralized and transparent, that it activated the community, and that it generated publicity for community projects and activism.

As for her co-founder Chris Blauvelt, Killawi said that he was one of the first Muslims to enter the crowdfunding space. In 2010, just over a year after Kickstarter launched, Blauvelt started a crowdfunding campaign there for Bilal’s Stand, a film about a Muslim teen he helped produce, and which was eventually screened at the Sundance Film Festival. Killawi said Blauvelt saw how crowdfunding campaigns were impacting the mainstream, pointing out that a not-insignificant number of Sundance films start out as Kickstarter projects—10 percent in 2012, the year before they started LaunchGood—and he wanted to see the global Muslim community benefit from the same groundswell of support.

“The mission of LaunchGood is to inspire everyday Muslims to just do amazing work,” Killawi explains, adding that the work does not have to be restricted to the Muslim community. She cites a LaunchGood campaign to help rebuild the primarily-black churches in Tennessee, Georgia, and the Carolinas that were targeted by arsonists earlier this year.

According to LaunchGood’s online statistics, 491 projects have been funded, with 30,745 users raising over 5 million dollars. They also boast higher success rates than other top platforms like Kickstarter and GoFundMe.

Even so, the fundraiser for San Bernardino families broke site records, Blauvelt told the Los Angeles Times, with pledges at one point topping out at $1,000 an hour. Qazi and co. raised more than $215,000 in total for the victims and their families. Qazi told the Los Angeles Times that the money would be distributed through San Bernardino County and the United Way.

“These campaigns start to counter the narrative of who Muslims really are,” Killawi said. “You’ll see on Yahoo news Trump saying ‘Ban All Muslims!’ and right next to it ‘Muslims Raise $100,000 For San Bernardino.’ There’s nothing like putting money where your mouth is.”

Killawi reports that growth is strong, especially after the slow start for the first six months after launching, and that they are looking to expand to Canada and the U.K. in the near future.

If LaunchGood has become a place for the Muslim community to respond to collective tragedy (among other causes), MPower Change is the place for harnessing collective outrage. Although co-founder Mark Crain tells Civicist that a platform like this has been a subject of conversations between Muslim activists since 2011, it wasn’t until late this September that, in partnership with MoveOn, they put out their first online campaign—a petition to ban Ben Carson from GOP debates unless he recanted several outrageous statements about Islam.

Other MPower Change petitions released since September include one asking that the AP use Daesh instead of “Islamic State”, and one asking that the New York Post stop inflammatory reporting on terrorist attacks like the one in San Bernardino. This rapid-response, roll-with-the-media-cycle activism follows in the tradition of MoveOn, where Crain works as a campaign director, and the suite of progressive online organizing platforms that MoveOn inspired and supported in the years after launching.

“This sort of model works best in moments of collective outrage,” Crain said. And, he suggests, that’s good enough for MPower, especially in these early days.

He elaborated:

Once we’ve established ourselves, and our membership has really grown, and we’ve spent some time cultivating relationships with those members, and we’ve identified the emergent leaders out of the bunch, there’s going to be an opportunity for us to invest in some long-term campaigns. But this model is probably best suited to work in rapid response moments, moments where egregious statements are made or egregious actions are taken by someone and it’s sort of in the zeitgeist, it’s being popularly covered by the media or it’s taken over social media…and people are looking for an opportunity to respond. We’re here to give them that vehicle to respond.

In order to do so, Crain said that as an organization they need to demonstrate a theory of change for why the requested action—signing a petition or similar—is actually going to make a difference.

Take the petition responding to the New York Post’s flawed reporting on San Bernardino. “Maybe they’re not going to issue a retraction,” Crain said, “but over time, our presence as an organization that’s mobilizing people to push back and say ‘this is unacceptable,’ is going to change the way in which [journalists]…cover this issue.”

When asked how MPower Change will resolve conflicting views in their membership base, Crain said, “We’re not required by any means to take on every issue that has ever plagued the Muslim community.”

“Our job,” he added, “is to identify those moments in which our membership is united around taking an action and then to give them an opportunity to express themselves.”

MPower Change is preparing to hire its first campaign manager. Although they are a new addition to the online progressive sphere, with support from organizations like MoveOn—not to mention the grassroots organizations many of MPower’s leadership come from—they are surely a player to watch, especially in the current political climate.

Civic Engagement Election 2016 organizing



A campaign by Civic Hall fellow Andrew Slack to unite Star Wars fans against the Empire of Darth Money.

As we speak, the dream life of Star Wars and waking life of politics are merging. One of history’s most popular authors, JK Rowling tweeted she believes Trump is so evil, that even in her deepest imagination she could not come up with someone as terrifying. Darth Trump is spreading on YouTube at Ludicrous Speed. This is not to mention that Ted Cruz’s campaign is offering a chance to see the film with Cruz (and they have him with a light saber). Bernie Sanders fans are saying, “You’re my only hope,” libertarians are comparing Obama to the Emperor, and the internet is chock full of Star Wars Hillary Clinton memes that truly cross into the surreal.yodahil

The force of psychological energy for effective cultural acupuncture runs strong when Star Wars meets American politics. And here’s how we think Star Wars can help us build a real U.S. Rebel Alliance, spoken in the vernacular of the movie but written against the backdrop of our political reality:

We need to defeat the Empire of Big Money so that we may live in a Republic that is of, by, and for the Force—the Force of interconnectivity that is We The People, when all of our voices are heard.

Right now, the Empire of Big Money has struck back against We the People, silencing our voices with the force choke of Darth Vader. It is up to us, to step up as Jedi-in-training and join the U.S. Rebel Alliance, the way Luke starts his journey in A New Hope. Remember, when Obi Wan invites him to get off of the outer rim planet of Tattoine, he is resistant:

“Look, I can’t get involved. I’ve got work to do. It’s not that I like the Empire; I hate it, but there’s nothing I can do about it right now… It’s all such a long way from here.”

Similarly, 84 percent of Americans polled believe that the Empire of Big Money is a problem but probably less than 1 percent feels agency to do something about it. It is time to awaken the Force of We The People and that is what we intend to do with the U.S. Rebel Alliance.

In the United States, we are 330 million people, all of us heroes waiting in the wings, wishing to go an epic journey but nervous to take on the Empire. And while activists work on issues around gun laws, taxes, climate, religion, racial justice, and economic equality, it’s pretty clear that regardless of where we stand on these issues, should any of us want to be effective on them, we need to recognize that the Empire standing in our way is Big Money.

To paraphrase both Joseph Campbell (whose concepts profoundly influenced the writing of Star Wars) and Ben Cohen from Ben and Jerry’s: if you want to understand what empire you are living in, look to the tallest building in the city. In the 1400s in Western Europe, the tallest building was the Church. By the time of the American Revolution, the tallest building became the political palace, the nation state. By the end of the 20th century, the tallest building in the city became the multinational corporation in the financial district.

We now have an empire that is of, by, and for the corporations. The Empire of Big Money. In the words of one presidential candidate, “Congress does not govern Wall Street. Wall Street governs Congress.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. As the saying goes, it is far, far better to light even the smallest candle than to curse the darkness. This past November, both Maine and Seattle won ballot initiatives setting up small-donor public financing systems. We the People spoke up against the Empire; candles were lit. Regardless of the Empire’s Dark Side, we can spread the light of those candles across our Republic. And that is what we are doing with the U.S. Rebel Alliance.

We are asking people to sign the Jedi Pledge to end the Empire of Big Money, to share this video starring Mark Ruffalo, Heather McGhee (head of Demos), Darren Criss (star of Glee), Baratunde Thurston (The Daily Show), and more. This Sunday from 7pm ET to 10pm ET, we’re holding a live webcast to geek out about the new film, and we’ll be holding a meme contest on fighting Darth Money.

By signing the Pledge, that’s all just the warm up. As we roll out on Twitter as @usrebelalliance, as well as on Facebook, Tumblr, and YouTube, you’ll hear about actions to get President Obama and the candidates to sign the Jedi pledge and use that to create accountability. We want to help make the very needed issue of Big Money center stage in the U.S. primary. Imagine getting the debate moderators to ask the candidates, “A lot of Americans are comparing Star Wars to the Empire of Big Money. If the Death Star is as they suggest, made by Darth Money and Super Pacs, how do you respond?”

In defiance of the notion that “serious topics” must only be addressed “seriously,” we are aiming to turn this winter into a Star Wars U.S. Rebel Alliance party to create change. We plan to use storytelling through social media, guerilla theater actions, and even U.S. Rebel Alliance hotlines in a where we are the heroes in a real world choose your own adventure.

But You are Our Only Hope! We want your ideas on strategy regarding the larger campaign, social media, guerilla theater, pragmatic asks, and more. We want to work with you on how to get people who have never been engaged in civic life to be working alongside veteran activists.

It is time for the franchise that brought us Obi Wan Kenobi to invite 330 million American heroes waiting in the wings to go on an adventure that balances the Force of We the People. It is an adventure to bring down the Empire of Money in politics while lifting up the heroic agency that flows deep in each of us. It is time to make good on our childhood dreams of becoming the heroes’ in films like Star Wars.

May we use the common thread of Star Wars to Awaken the Force that is We the People. May our light emerge from the Dark Side and the Empire. And #MayTheForceBeWithUS.

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.




They were the new guard in politics, disrupting the establishment players not with computers and data, although they had those, too, but with a renewed interest in and patience for populism, meritocracy, and participatory politics.

Last Friday, the New Organizing Institute’s Board announced that the organization would be folded into another political training organization, Wellstone Action. The announcement followed major internal conflict in February of this year. Here Matt Stempeck reflects on the community NOI built in the often tumultuous industry of political organizing.


The New Organizing Institute was always a community as much as it was an organization. After the 2004’s presidential campaign loss, some of the top digital agents from the Howard Dean and John Kerry campaigns got together with colleagues to rebuild. Their network was looser and more diverse than the formality suggested by the word “institute.” They were the new guard in politics, disrupting the establishment players not with computers and data, although they had those, too, but with a renewed interest in and patience for populism, meritocracy, and participatory politics. There weren’t always congressional candidates worthy of their talents, but they set to work changing how candidates campaign anyway, buoyed by the Democrats retaking Congress in 2006 and the election of Barack Obama to the Senate, among other victories.


The Howard Dean campaign was a short-lived but illuminating moment in the nation’s political imagination. It opened the doors of the professional campaign industry to a new generation that was eager to employ technology more effectively. Yet by the time I graduated college in 2006, DC’s political operatives and consultancies—including the Democrats—had hardly budged in their top-down worldviews. It wasn’t clear if the new generation’s tech-driven, empathy-centric way of doing things was going to disrupt the Beltway, or just get us all jobs on social media teams. Since then, I’ve seen my peers assume influential roles in important institutions where they’re involved in strategic decision making. The United States Digital Services (a common example recently, but hardly the only one) has worked to administration-proof itself and insulate its hundreds of forthcoming staff across the federal government, where they are better situated to outlast individual administrations while continuing their vital capacity building. The full impact of our disruption is still to be determined, but at least we’re doing more than tweeting.


I found the NOI community because on my graduation day, my undergraduate thesis advisor handed me the semi-translucent business card of one Michael Silberman. My advisor had connected the dots between my sprawling thesis on the disruptive influence of participatory media on the traditional political establishment, and the online politics panel where he’d seen Michael. Michael was the wünderkind coordinating the Dean campaign’s supporter engine of Meetup groups and rallies. Following the campaign, the core tech team started EchoDitto (now Echo & Co.), an open-source Drupal development shop, aspiring to build not just open websites, but open movements. EchoDitto was small by design; its founders never wanted to scale like their peers at Blue State Digital.


I managed to parlay Silberman’s business card into an awkward K Street Starbucks interview, and then an internship with a monthly stipend that covered the exact amount of my rent. After spending the fall learning to manage clients, I was hired full-time to the strategy team. My job at EchoDitto was never easy, but it was exhilarating. I believed in our clients’ work and benefitted from my coworkers’ talents. It took a long time for it to sink in that people were paying me money to use the coolest new tech to do good in the world. EchoDitto was a small company and very much a part of the broader D.C. political tech community that NOI inhabited. That community provided many of the opportunities, much of the meaning, and most of the camaraderie I ever found working in the trying industry of idealist politics.


As an NOI Advisory Board member, Michael introduced me to NOI founder and executive director Judith Freeman, and my awe and shyness disappeared when she dropped her first casual curse minutes into our conversation over beers in Cleveland Park. People like Judith, Michael, and Nicco Mele (also EchoDitto) ruined me for life by establishing very early in my career the formidable precedent of politically important and talented managers and mentors who were also humble, genuine, and nice.


I joined NOI on the first business day of 2010. In the year-and-a-half that I worked as one of the core staff members, I assumed the de facto role of communications and new media, mainly because I was simultaneously incredibly proud of the work my colleagues were doing and shocked that no one was sharing it on our website, much less with the rest of the world. Nearly every single staff person outside of a core admin team was running a program—many of them junior-level employees. They were individually leading national programs with a leanness that made DC’s other resource-strapped nonprofits look bloated, somehow extending themselves into ever-larger cascading networks of organizers, instructors, master trainers, volunteers, and trainees. I made it my job to take on any and all tasks that would employ tech and communications to scale such a tiny cadre into more capacity than we had any right achieving. I also learned pretty much everything I now know about campaign strategy, theory of change, and engagement organizing, lessons I’ve taken with me everywhere I’ve gone since.


NOI as we knew it is gone now. I’ll let those who were closer to the action write, or not write, about the particulars of the past year. The relationships the organization cultivated live on (see the #NOIgaveme hashtag Evan Sutton started for a small sample, and note how often other people are mentioned). Maybe this is the real benefit of a network-modeled organization that invested in forging ever more dense connections within its ever-expanding community: even if the organization shuts down, the network remains. I hope that Wellstone Action can integrate the best of NOI into their trainings.

One of the more unique things NOI achieved was establishing a home base in the transient and often lonely, always challenging profession of campaign work. Beyond the professional opportunities NOI opened to so many, and the peer network that helped keep you at the top of your game, the NOI community provided comfort when you needed it, as recently as Jake Brewer’s memorial service just two weeks ago. Whether or not it comes with 501(c)3 status and programmatic work, we still need a home for organizers.

Democracy Design organizing



Translating ballots is just the first of many steps to create an inclusive culture of civic participation.

When it comes to languages, our country is a patchwork. Our civic infrastructure hasn’t kept up with more than one or two. There might be hundreds of languages spoken in our country, but they aren’t spoken by our government. Like the polyglot individual, who is fluent in many languages, government bodies and agencies need to become fluent in many languages in order to serve the people. To become a polyglot democracy, we need to design infrastructure that ensures certain patches aren’t left behind.

A crucial first step is to work toward including all eligible voters in the electoral process.

Translation is often framed as a technical problem that can be solved through effective bureaucracy. The assumption is that if the board of elections in a certain county is able to provide translated materials for every language spoken by eligible voters in their county, then we have perfect language access. In principle, I don’t disagree. However, the mere existence of a ballot in Lao, Hindi, or Mongolian is not a sufficient standard for measuring language access.

Language access is a technical problem, but not one that is solved simply by hiring translators and interpreters. Language access is about designing systems that include people in every step of the process. Language is often one of many barriers that voters face. That’s precisely why expert insight and the wisdom of communities are both crucial foundations for the polyglot democracy.

Tanzila Ahmed, whose organizing acumen is a constant inspiration, has applied a decade and a half of experience in Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) electoral organizing to develop a theory of change model where low voter turnout isn’t caused by “voter apathy,” but rather that AAPI voters experience severe barriers when it comes to casting a ballot. She identifies five such barriers:

  1. a barrier to voting information;
  2. a barrier to the mechanics of voting;
  3. a barrier to engagement;
  4. a barrier to in-language resources; and
  5. a barrier to voting rights.

These five barriers also translate to five critical needs that can’t be ignored when we talk about designing for a sufficient standard of language access.

An expanded standard of access means doing more than providing a written translation of any given ballot available. We also need to:

  1. provide voter guides to help voters understand issues;
  2. streamline the process of voting, so they can navigate its often complex mechanics; and
  3. match them with an actual human from their community who can help make sense of a large volume of brand new information and help troubleshoot problems as they arise.

That’s precisely what we’re trying to do with VoterVOX, the newest tool from the Asian American & Pacific Islander new media organizers The app, currently in development, will connect Limited English Proficient (LEP) voters with multilingual volunteers to help them understand their ballots.

Communities that include LEP voters already have the expertise needed to include those voters in the democratic process. Creating access isn’t a matter of delivering information from a central source to LEP voters, but a matter of helping communities organize themselves. VoterVOX is as much about community organizing as it is about voting, and one-to-one connections are a vital component. I don’t want to build software that languishes in app stores or online. I want to build a tool that uses the beating heart of our communities to circulate fresh blood to its furthest-flung limbs.

We’re designing VoterVOX to include input from stakeholders—from LEP elders to multilingual high school kids to organizers working at the grassroots level—in order to understand their needs and expectations when it comes to community technology. Regardless of what the outcomes of working with these folks might be, we have some core assumptions about design—and language access more broadly—that guide our efforts to engage them in the first place.

Committing ourselves to language access means committing to providing more than just translated ballots. Translated ballots are just the first of many steps toward trying to change a culture around civic participation. Through a well-designed workflow for ballot translation, we can simultaneously create conditions that foster engagement where discrimination, lack of information, and structural exclusion have previously made participation difficult, if not impossible. When we’re designing to expand access to the ballot box in a landscape of problems, we’re working to right structural wrongs.

Designing for inclusion isn’t easy. In fact, it’s very difficult—otherwise this effort wouldn’t be needed.

Good design won’t restore key provisions in the Voting Rights Act, the key law that has expanded access to the vote for millions of voters, which was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013. We still need to fight to protect the voting rights of all citizens of this country, in the streets and in the courts. We still need to pressure county boards of elections to do the right thing and obey the law by providing translated voting materials when they’re required to.

That work starts at home, in our communities. By building opportunities for connection between people with expertise and people with need, we’re changing the language around democratic participation. In the one-to-one link between a volunteer translator and a voter, an opportunity for organizing grows. That organizing is the real meat of civic engagement—it’s fuel for the long game of language access in a polyglot democracy. True language access requires a commitment to organizing by design.

Follow the quest to design better tools for a polyglot democracy on Twitter @votervox.

Cayden Mak (@cayden) is Chief Technology Officer at, an organization founded in 2012 to organize Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders online. For the past three years, they have designed, hacked, and deployed tech to better organize people and promote popular education in the AAPI community for civic engagement, racial justice, and transformative structural change.

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.

movements organizing



After all of the hype, where is the People’s Climate Movement?

The People’s Climate March last fall in New York City was a monumental feat of organizing prowess. Seasoned environmentalists from big-budget nonprofits worked with grassroots activists from scrappy community-based groups to pull together the largest environmental demonstration in history. The motto “To change everything, we need everyone” was prominently displayed on the homepage of To encourage inclusivity, the international environmental group hired a contractor to implement an online platform that supported decentralized network organizing. The platform was an important tool for getting people, especially those outside New York City, to the march. It made it easy for anyone to participate, even if they were not a member of a big environmental group, through a system of “hubs” that invited people to join based on geographic-, religious-, community-, or issue-based identities. However, after the march was over—after the headlines had been made—financial, technical, and administrative support for the hubs ended, in spite of declarations that the march would be “about more than just a single day.”


(South Bend Voice/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

(South Bend Voice/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

When I first wrote about the People’s Climate March last fall, Tammy Shapiro, the person contracted by to oversee organizing on the hubs platform, said she hoped that it would stay online after the march as a resource for future climate change activism. Shapiro had worked on an earlier iteration of the hubs platform called InterOccupy, and saw the critical part it had played in Occupy Sandy, even after Occupy Wall Street had allegedly “died.” Shapiro hoped that the hubs platform could be a similar springboard for climate actions post-march.

Technically, the hubs platform is still online. The hubs are still listed; at least a few are still active. However, the link to start a new hub is broken, and if hub coordinators run into a problem, technical or otherwise, there is nobody responsible for assisting them.


Clicking on the link to start a new hub takes you here.

Clicking on the link to start a new hub takes you here.

Phil Aroneanu, a co-founder of, and Matt Leonard,’s director of special projects, point out that march organizers, including, never intended to create a new “People’s Climate” organization; it was a temporary coalition brought together by the powerful idea of putting on the largest climate demonstration in history. The hubs were, by their account, meant to be similarly short-lived. But even if it was not’s responsibility to support the hubs indefinitely (although they are covering the costs of keeping online), opting out of them was a missed opportunity. If the march was really about “action, not words,” dismantling infrastructure that could support that work—by neglect at least, if not intentional disassembly—is the last thing an environmental organization trying to support a movement would want to do.



To be clear, we are not talking about a particularly high-tech platform. The default hub homepage prompted coordinators to describe each hub’s mission (for example, the Skaters wanted to “roll forward with real progress on climate action”). Each hub had buttons for people to join its listserv, to RSVP to the march, to join a Facebook group, and a space for a blog. Funding for the hubs also covered MaestroConference calls. But however simple, the hubs were also highly customizable. Hub coordinators took advantage of this to varying degrees. Compare, for example, the People’s Climate Art and the Nuclear-Free Carbon-Free hubs with the more bare-bones hubs for Canadians and Workers.


A basic hub page for Climate Literacy.

A basic hub page for Climate Literacy.

What made the hubs unique was that they were set up to facilitate organizing free of organizational ties. In the run-up to the march, an anti-fracking group asked Shapiro to create a hub for them, but she refused and suggested they start a generic anti-fracking hub instead. There is no hub for Greenpeace or the Sierra Club, but there are hubs for Pagans, Beekeepers, Anti-Capitalists, Grad Students for Climate Justice, and the Deep South.

Christopher Wahmhoff, a hub coordinator from Kalamazoo, Michigan, believes the platform “forced large NGOs to play a hand with the small guys.” After the 2010 oil spill in the Kalamazoo River, Wahmhoff recalls that all of the big environmental organizations used the disaster to ask for donations, without coordinating with local groups. “We never really got to have a voice in our own oil spill,” he tells Civicist.

But in the run-up to the march Wahmhoff says, “We got to sit at the same table.”

In a nearly 10,000-word post-mortem on the hubs, provided to Civicist, Tammy Shapiro notes that some of the hub coordinators were members of national nonprofits that found the hub system “more inclusive, diverse, and connected than their individual organizations.”

The Maryland hub coordinator, and a Sierra Club organizer, Seth Bush, reported that, “The hubs were an opportunity to work past the traditional Sierra Club folks, and bring in more people from more diverse areas. We want a forum that is connecting all of these [regional] groups in a sustainable way that isn’t just ‘Sierra Club’s organizational motives’ but more creative and from the bottom up.”

“Hubs provided a really great front door for unaffiliated people to come into the movement and find their people, people they didn’t know previously,” says Gan Golan, an artist and activist who studies decentralized network organizing with Shapiro at the Movement Net Lab. Golan was involved in the arts mobilization for the march.

“When you start to create self-organizing on the basis of people’s self-affinity,” Golan adds, “that is a solid bedrock…people want to maintain those connections.”


The Faith contingent at the People’s Climate March. (Peter Bowden)



“Traditionally a lot of big products from the environmental movement come from very defined coalitions,” Matt Leonard,’s product manager for the march, tells Civicist. “We very intentionally wanted to make the People’s Climate March bigger than that.” Implementing the hubs system was one of the ways and other march organizers tried to make the march more inclusive.

Leonard says that the idea of the hubs was “met with a lot of skepticism” within “[But] the ones of us who did have a background in grassroots organizing did push for this,” he adds.

(Back during the planning period for the march, Shapiro and her colleagues at Movement Net Lab pitched the hubs to march leadership as part of a larger suite of organizing strategies and tools. Although their ideas were not incorporated in their entirety, Shapiro and her colleagues, including Golan, were hired as individuals by different parts of the march organizing body.)

As for what happened to the hubs after the march, Leonard says, “Understandably, some of them dissolved,” citing a lack of motivation to continue organizing.

However, Leonard confirmed to Civicist that it was a deliberate decision to not give centralized support to the hubs post-march.

Phil Aroneanu, a co-founder of, tells Civicist that the hubs worked because people had a common goal: “Everybody knew what their job was which was to get their people out [to the march].”

Although Aroneanu did not exactly disparage the value of the hubs, he did not lavish the platform with praise, saying, “The hubs are one of many ways that people got engaged in the climate march.”

He  adds:

One of the issues that we run into a lot, especially in digital organizing, [is]: ‘let’s just put a platform out there and see if people come to it and organize themselves.’ As a traditional organizer, I find that to be a crazy idea. People don’t join a network just to join a network.

Aroneanu says that the hubs worked well in places with little pre-existing organizing, like Syracuse, New York, but were less effective in cities like Washington, D.C., where activists had already worked together.

“Hubs are one of the ways that…certain kinds of people can get involved and feel like they have agency in the work,” Aroneanu says. At another point in our conversation he makes clear that he means “entrepreneurial” types.

But Aroneanu returns to the idea that the platform worked because everyone had something to work for, explaining that the “self-organizing space is most useful when there is a common goal across the network.”

It is “not a particularly meaningful investment to exist in perpetuity,” he tells Civicist.

However, Shapiro’s review of the hubs platform, which incorporated feedback from 42 individual hubs through a group call, a post-march survey, and one-on-one interviews, found that coordinators did want to continue using the hubs, for various reasons.


Frank Regan was the hub coordinator for Western New York, in addition to being the former chair of the Rochester Sierra Club. In the process of organizing people to attend the climate march, he helped form the Rochester People’s Climate Coalition (RPCC), which was made up of more than 30 groups.

RPCC“If you know anything about Rochester,” he tells Civicist, “[that’s] really unusual.”

In the run-up to the march, Regan invited local media outlets to come to a press conference the coalition held about the importance of the People’s Climate March, but only one media outlet showed. So Regan videotaped it himself and used the hubs to post the clip and a write-up.

“I think it’s a fantastic idea to become the media because the media is doing a terrible job,” he tells Civicist. He wanted the hubs platform to be a place “to become the media” and expressed his disappointment that the hubs are “kind of petering out.”

Still, the Western New York hub is one of those that has not petered out entirely; last month Regan used it to promote the first major event held by the RPCC, Earth Week.

Of the 23 coordinators who responded to a survey Tammy Shapiro sent out after the march, Regan was one of 11 coordinators who told her that they planned on using the hub after the march; eight others said they might use it.

The anti-nuclear hub told Shapiro that they would like to continue using the hub so “when big climate or nuclear moments come up they can mobilize at a hat drop.”

This response alone makes a strong argument for maintaining the hubs. Hub coordinators put time, effort, and energy into forging connections between groups and individuals who share a community, identity, or passion. It’s not clear why a movement organization, like, would want to let those groups go fallow, only to do all that work again the next time consensus and strength in numbers is needed.

Attempting to answer this question, Gan Golan tells Civicist:

Generally speaking, political parties and campaign organizations can feel threatened by autonomous organizing and can sometimes be hesitant to encourage the base to start organizing on their own terms…part of that is a fear of crazies but also a lack of faith that there is as much intelligence in the base as in the organizations.


The hubs system was not flawless; far from it. Shapiro herself catalogues a long list of problems and places the platform fell short. Hub coordinators, once self-selected, were all-but-impossible to oust (although you could add coordinators if someone fell off the map entirely), and there was no accountability system to ensure they were doing their job well. The platform was not set up to easily share information between hubs, so it was hard for coordinators to organize solidarity efforts with other hubs; it was also hard for hub coordinators to find and contact specific individuals. Because the various tools incorporated into the hubs platform were not integrated well, coordinators had to post updates and information separately in each forum (Facebook, Google Group, blog, etc.).



A partial list of hubs.

But the main problem, Shapiro tells Civicist, was a lack of organizing capacity. And hub coordinators felt it. Christopher Wahmhoff, the coordinator from Kalamazoo, told Civicist that although the hubs platform was like a “candyland of organizing,” that he felt like he “didn’t have enough energy to take advantage…[of] so many moving pieces.”

With more time (the hubs got off the ground just two months before the march) and support staff (“it was really just me,” Shapiro says), Shapiro could have worked more with coordinators to ensure that they knew how to best leverage the tools at their disposal. As it was, Shapiro could barely keep up with the requests to form hubs. They launched the platform with a backlog of requests and struggled to keep up as more flowed in.

When asked what she would have done differently with more time and resources, Shapiro says:

So many things. I would have started a lot earlier. I would have built a different system that had a front page that could pull in information from…the whole network. I would have been more intentional about finding coordinators and working more with existing coordinators. I would have integrated the hubs more with the rest of organizing.

When asked to elaborate, she says that the hubs were viewed as a someth

ing apart from other mobilizing strategies, instead of something meant to be integrated into the entire effort.

Finally, she says she would have a larger staff, saying at bare minimum you need a tech person, an administrator, and an organizer, “and we only had me and it was not good.”


Shapiro says that failing to invest more in the hubs was not the only post-march failure: “There was lots of organizing and infrastructure that we created for the march that wasn’t maintained.”

Shapiro says that the point of a big event like the march is to rally supporters and like-minded people and then channel that energy into another event, another action; into a movement.


Screenshot of's homepage, featuring the global climate movement.

Screenshot of’s homepage, featuring the global climate movement.

She continues:

While the organizations that helped plan the march were able to build off that momentum in their own organizing, there were a lot of people who participated in the march who weren’t a part of one of those organizations and they didn’t necessarily have a way to participate after. The hubs could have been one of the answers but there were other answers as well that weren’t necessarily used.

In a follow-up email to Civicist, Phil Aroneanu explained that after the march “there was literally no more money to spend—all of the resources raised by various organizations had been used to mobilize towards the march.” The question is, if the march was about powering a movement, why didn’t the organizing parties set aside resources for sustaining that movement post-march?

What happened to the hubs platform makes clear that there is a need for tools and platforms to support and build movements that exist outside of traditional organizations, free from funding whims and windfalls or lack thereof. But it also underscores the fact that these tools will need administrators and facilitators. If there is one thing everyone I spoke to for this story could agree on, it is that you can’t just build it and expect them to come.

In a follow-up piece, Civicist will report on the work Shapiro, Golan and others are doing at Movement Net Lab studying and designing organizing strategies and other tools to support decentralized network movements, and on the Lab’s partnership with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Civic Tech organizing



Civic tech requires believing that the technology of today can usher in a better tomorrow.

To kick off our coverage here at Civicist, we asked our contributing editors to share their thoughts on “What is civic tech?” We’ll publish their answers as they trickle in, and look forward to continuing the conversation in the weeks and months to come.

When Aristotle concluded “man is a political animal,” he identified a core tenet of human nature. People want to be seen and heard. People want to feel connected to one another. I became interested in the opportunities for technology to enhance democracy when I witnessed the 2007 Iowa caucus. Much of the civic learning at the time came from face-to-face participation, in-person dialogue, and deliberation with new people. I realized digital tools could potentially reduce the barriers to entry in this arena, but realized that in the noisy ruckus of people coming together, some speaking and listening would inevitably be lost. I left Iowa believing in the potential as well as the perils of digital tools for political participation.

I was inspired to study this further after serving as an organizer for the Obama campaign. It was there that I got to experience the rush of trying to mobilize, organize, and galvanize people. The campaign brought out all types of people who were unified in working towards a better future. But what happens the day after the election?

This is where civic tech comes in. Civic tech provides an opportunity to engage citizens in governance beyond simply voting every two to four years. Civic tech promises a more egalitarian public sphere. Civic tech is about deepening democracy. This definition is much more expansive than efficient public service delivery. It also relates to the deeper reason that people agree upon democratic governance in the first place. Of course, the promise of civic tech is tempered by the reality of people, politics, and institutions.

How do we grapple with political incentives and technology in real life? This is again where civic tech comes in. One dimension of civic tech is being realistic about human behavior. People are social beings. People want to do meaningful work and will participate in governance if it is structured well, if it is a social experience, and when they see results. Possible outputs can include new relationships with neighbors and government officials. Outputs are not as simple as the metrics of page views or clicks; engagement should not perfunctory. Furthermore, the follow-up from participation needs to be viewed as a vital component of participation from the outset. The life cycle of civic tech requires iterative two-way communication.

On the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” events that took place in Selma, Alabama, President Obama said:

Because the single most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” We The People. We Shall Overcome. Yes We Can. It is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.

Of course, this is not confined to America. It applies to all governing institutions that try to represent “we the people.”

Civic tech is not about the tool or technology. It’s about working towards the type of society we want to live it. It has to be aspirational because so too is the democratic ideal. The very idea that a single federal government can govern 300 million people takes faith. So too does civic tech. Civic tech requires believing that the technology of today can usher in a better tomorrow. Though time will tell, the very interest and investment in civic tech presupposes that people have faith.