How We Make Change is Changing, Part II

Open Source Campaigns for the 21st Century

By Marisa Franco, B Loewe, Tania Unzueta

Read Part I of this article here

Replication +Repetition + Innovation = Anti-Fragility

The cost of stifling innovation is far greater than the cost of failed experiments.

Tactics are to campaigns as code is to open source platforms. Instead of sticking to multi-year strategic plans towards predicted (i.e. fingers crossed) outcomes, establish an initial plan of action and create room for experimentation. Even failure and error provide key information that informs recalibration. Experimentation and interpretation leads to new meaning.

Ferguson October mobilization, 2014

Here are two examples. Individual deportation defense was the bread and butter of the campaign. The circumstances of the cases illuminated enforcement practices. The organizing communicated the human impact. It addressed immediate needs and generated momentum towards the broader demand. The way it worked was that the national campaign team consulted on targeting, legal handle and strategy, and provided communications infrastructure to galvanize public support. The family or person facing deportation made key decisions on the case, as well as local groups who eventually took on more cases and in time, innovated on the steps and approach. Certain wins became precedent setting cited by other cities. Lessons were shared amongst the cluster or organizations focusing on this type of work.

Another example is about intersectionality. Southerners on New Ground (SONG), a regional LGBTQ organization, didn’t just enter the campaign as a supporter itself but sought to activate the broader LGBTQ sector to support the campaign. SONG developed messaging, frames and written pieces speaking directly to their multi-racial LGBTQ base and to the broader sector. They tapped into the common thread of confronting fear, made the connection and in essence translated the established messaging to speak to an audience more specifically. They took the slogans of ‘No Papers, No Fear’ and expanded to messages of ‘Come Out, Destroy Fear, Unleash Power’ These frames expanded the meaning and breadth of the campaign, and made the room for more communities impacted and who could be moved to support more explicit.

Images created by Southerners on New Ground, 2013

Allowing and in fact encouraging the good faith reinterpretation and experimentation of tactics creates opportunities and lessons that make the work anti-fragile, able to be strengthened by both error and success.

Purpose & Entry Points

Making something open source is not for the sake of saying it. Beyond simply promoting values of participatory democracy, it can actually work more effectively. In order to achieve that level of success the purpose has to be clear. If participants are modifying tactics and messaging, the motivation must be to improve functionality or deepen purpose. If that’s not the case, the bottom falls out and the meaning grows hollow. Open source does not simply mean that the platform or campaign belongs to no one or that anyone is free to do anything. Even an experimental free form jam session has rules. Open source campaigns function best with clear purpose, frame, values that serve as basic parameters.

So how does this all work and how can groups and individuals plug in? What makes disparate change efforts in various cities into a cohesive national force is not as simple as just logging on but it is as etheric as creating a sense of belonging. Activities that supporters can do from their own city/town is key, online engagement can supplement but not replace this. Relational organizing and network weaving provides points of entry to the bigger picture and broader objectives beyond the local context or immediate policy demand. Moments of convergence like a national march or day of action help people feel connected, and with that connection, they’ll organically plug other people in.

Mari Cruz Ramirez and Tomas Martinez, 5th anniversary of SB1070 in Arizona, April 2015. Photo: Chandra Narcia

For example, the call for a national day of action on April 5th of 2014 resulted in more than 80 groups holding over 100 events. Through consultative leadership that informs activities through deep listening, calls to action were resourced by embodied agreement and not simply because there was funding allocated to do so.

At the national and regional level, the work centered on weaving local work and national convergence, providing technical and strategic guidance, and amplification. Perhaps this is a place to stop and make clear, none of this works without strong organizing and leadership. This work involves filling gaps, catching blind spots and devising convergence and narrative based off of the local work. It involves a tremendous amount of both identification of new participants but also real maintenance of relationships.

Everything ain’t Everything

During President Obama speech in Chicago, IL, November 2014

Recognizing that groups have varied in capacity, strengths and interests there are levels of participation. Participation is fluid; groups who are part of the campaign are not obligated to participate on every initiative and vice versa. Here’s a basic description of the different levels:

The Share Bear → Unity the size of a tweet. Individuals or groups who may occasionally or religiously promote, share, retweet campaign propaganda. They also might be those who participate in online actions, signing and sharing petitions. Agreement is articulated through these actions, and because of the ability to contact organizers, share bears can communicate strong disagreement but because of the fluid nature of the relationship, are not consulted prior. Share Bears can impact in other ways, specifically by modifying campaign propaganda and messaging.

The Ride Along → The groups or individuals at this level are the quintessential “see you when I see you.” Ride alongs are like that friend that you don’t always hang out with, but if you’re at the same place you might link up or at the very least give each other the head nod greeting. Groups might have other campaigns or work that takes priority, but occasionally the campaign’s tactics align or there is temporary capacity and groups jump on. Ride alongs can often times provide really key information on other sectors or issues, and over time even serve as bridges with other sectors and groups.

The Adopter → Adopters are groups who are most consistently downloading or adopting content and tactics within the campaign. Groups at this level most often have current campaign work or organizational focus that overlaps. As a result, it is not a stretch for groups to participate in collective tactics, and in fact the national push supports their specific goals. It is often in this level of participation where key innovation can spark as groups take on and adapt strategies and tactics to respond to their particular conditions.

The Co-Conspirator → Shared issue focus is one basis of participation, but also shared political vision and experience of collaboration. Co-conspirators collaborate deeply with the national campaign team. Often times the local strategies help drive the national strategy. Co-conspirators are advanced and true experts on the issues, and in the case of their position within the campaign, have invested a tremendous amount and in the overall political project. They are both thought partners and risk partners.

Lady Liberty, created by Cesar Maxit

Why Would it Fail?

There are however, many reasons why this particular approach can fail or fall short. Writing about ‘new power,’ Jeremy Heimanns and Henry Timms observe, “There’s a fine line between democratizing participation and a mob mentality.” These types of structures and models often times are characterized as leaderless, and the perception of hierarchy or centralization can produce mistrust. We unite with the lifting up of ‘leaderful’ not ‘leaderless’ formations. There is a need for delineation of roles, experience, and impact in how we do the work. Open participation and a leaderful approach that doesn’t prop up any one figure do not erase the role of the central hub. A Share Bear may come up with a new messaging hook that gets taken up by the entire campaign. Those innovating on tactics can help illuminate a new direction that shifts the course of the work. Innovation can come from anywhere but there is still a core of co-conspirators in the lead.

As is the case in the programming sense — you are what you code, you are who you roll with. When done well, that rearranges the balance of power and leads to new openings. But the open door opens yourself up to people who you may not know representing in different contexts. The potential for co-optation and misrepresentation is very real. Credit and resources are not always simply granted to those generating momentum or doing the work. Groups with more access, relationships and money can take advantage and position themselves as responsible or representative of these efforts. This not only diminishes the capacity of the groups doing the bulk of the work, it eventually tarnishes and can damage the brand and meaning of the campaign itself.

The Way We Make Change is Changing

In our experience, what open source campaigning unlocks and provides an opportunity for is far greater than the risks. But the idea of ‘open source campaigns’ is just one way. Action based, experimental organizing and leadership that’s wiling to shift and adapt is much needed across the board to achieve transformational social and economic change.

In rooms of organizers and aspiring leaders watching different flash points turn viral, we’ve often heard the question, “how do we harness that energy for [fill in the blank pre-designed effort]?” A better question would be what do we need to do so that our efforts are relevant to and emergent from the untapped energy that flashpoints expose.

To us, the best lessons of open source technology are not about computers or wires. They are about how people can best work together to thrive. If we let go, humble ourselves long enough to listen, and let the surge of progress flow, we have the potential to generate game changing people power that disrupts what needs intervention, connects us to each other in service of justice and transforms what’s possible.

For a downloadable print version click here.

(left) Northwest Detention Center detainee hunger strike, (center) Phoenix Pride 2015, (right) AFL CIO building in Washington DC 2014
(left) Audre Lorde Project, New York City; (right) Protest in front of Phoenix ICE Field Office 2014; (below-left) Photo taken of detainee inside a bus en route to Operation Streamline, Tucson AZ 2013; (below-right) Cupcake by Organized Communities against Deportations