[cross-posted from an email I sent to a marriage_equality mailing list at Stanford]
Thanks for the forward re: the EqualityCalifornia scorecard!
Yesterday at EqualityCamp (#eqcampsf on Twitter), I met an activist lawyer who has worked at Equality California, and talked to a number of other activists working on the CourageCampaign, at non-profits in the city and the East Bay, Berkeley students and ex-(Obama organizers), designers, techies, and even hackers planning to run a SuperGayDevHouse hackathon. (JoinTheImpact tried to show, but couldn't make it.)
In this email I just wanted to (not so) briefly summarize what seems to be going on with Marriage Equality activism/organizing statewide.
EqualityCamp, an Overview
Some sixty to seventy techies, lawyers, organizers, and (often newly hatched) activists gathered at Citizen Space yesterday (2009 Jan 3) for EqualityCamp, an unconferenced organized in the BarCamp style--an "ad-hoc gathering born from the desire for people to share and learn in an open environment."
After a brief introduction from some of the organizers, we introduced ourselves to each other and got to work self-organizing to break up into theme-based sessions. As the EqualityCampSchedule shows, attendees both wanted to learn from the past--"Secrets / Lessons from the Obama Campaign", and look to the future with technology platforms for organizing (Mobile, Geospatial Mapping, and modern Social Networks). We also discussed service as a way of unifying communities, how to work with Youth / Allies / liberal communities of faith, and how to organize in communities of color and the (Oakland) East Bay.
Dream Machine: Secrets of the Obama (campaign)
Learning from the past was one theme that seemed to recur, from honoring one participant who met his current partner before Stonewall and is still kickin' to listening as organizers involved with the Obama campaign told their stories and shared their lessons learned.
As I scribbled in my abbreviated notes from Camp Obama real-time blog post (hashtag #eqcampsf), Dan Ancona described three things that the Obama campaign did successfully:
1. A structure of "Empowered Accountability", wherein you don't just give people tools, you make them into Carpenters
2. You invest in and distribute / make accessible tools such as the BlueStateDigital-powered my.barackobama.com, which integrated with the modern Voter Activation Network (or "VAN")
3. Training -- both in the technology and on messaging (more on that later)
Camp Obama may have been a different experience and set of tools for a different point in time, but it's worth contrasting the Obama strategy that worked with the "No on Prop 8" organizing which did not seem as successful.
Camp Obama sessions were generally two days, involved 300+ people, and were designed to empower people and give them tools to be leaders in the campaign.
There were three key principles. Respect, Empower, Include.
Under the direction of long-time organizer Marshall Ganz (a top field organizer for Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers, now a lecturer at Harvard), the goal of the training was not to train people how to phonebank (as organizers did here and across the state for Prop 8), but to get people in a room and just let them figure out how to make a million phone calls. It wasn't just about making phone calls of course, as training was not just a machine for phone calls and GOTV but a "machine for dreams"...
What might a machine for dreams look like anyway? They probably don't have the answer, but here's what they did do.
Of the 300+ people, dozens of smaller groups were formed and met separately according to the following structure.
1. Find your voice. For the first half of the first day of training you had to tell the story of your Self. Why did you decide to be active? What brought you here? Why do you care? The story of self gives you your first tool to talk and engage people with authenticity not mass-produced political plasticity...
2. Find out what your leadership ability is.
3. Finding your team.
4. Finding your set of responsibilities and who/how you were accountable.
Many LGBT-rights activists, after and during the fact, criticized the No on Prop 8 phonebanking scripts and media messaging as both too rigid--we were not allowed to tell our own stories at all, and were actively discouraged from doing so--and too abstract. While it seems like a lot of time to invest in having people find and tell their own stories, it also seems to foster a sort of person and leader-driven culture rather than a voter-outreach phonebanking machine.
It was said that the Obama campaign realized that "California was more than an ATM machine"--people wanted to do more and were given the opportunity to do so whereas many would-be Prop8 activists were frustrated at being told simply to hold signs (which they found difficult to acquire, another opportunity for entrepreneurial change).
So what do we learn, going forwards? I think what we learned from Camp Obama was that it's "not about message discipline but about organizing discipline". Rather than telling people what to say or not say, we need to remember and re-tell our own stories, realizing that when we reach out "the story of Self is a two-way street", and to tell one-way, un-Self-driven stories is a path to messaging futility.
How then, do we organize and organize in a disciplined fashion? Beyond the principles of Marshall Ganz / Cesar Chavez and Empower, Respect, Include? I think it's worth looking at two elements to learn from, both the organizational structure (a hierarchy, really) of Camp Obama and the way data- / feedback- / option-driven social networking web sites were used.
First, even though Camp Obama was designed to empower, it still operated under a tightly defined structure, of accountability and responsibility. I think it's worth considering the Tyranny of Structurelessness (Jo Freeman 1970) and the Tyranny of Disempowering Structure at the same time, to find some fruitful middle ground.
Second, it's worth noting how the campaign and the tech-powered sites allowed people to chose how to leverage their own talents (do you want to fundraise or phone call? Travel to another state?) and to make it easy for people to volunteer with whatever time they have.
If you'd like to learn more about Camp Obama, there are presumably folks around who have gone to one, and it's probably worth some time revisiting how Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers have organized, with an eye to how we as Stanford activists and students can also respect, empower, and include each other as we work and live towards a better future.
On Messages and other kinds of Data
In the last section I focused mainly on the structural perspective of organizing, and now I wanted to share some thoughts on "messaging" and other bits of data. While I mentioned previously that it wasn't about message discipline but about organizing discipline, it's still worth sussing out how we should craft and design our own messages. Someone at #EqualityCamp said that "the best advertising is aspirational... not a message but an ideal" and by these accounts Prop8 messaging was far from aspirational in tone, not to mention how we were discouraged from engaging our own stories of self.
And who should we send these messages to? who should we otherwise talk to or engage? A key takeaway from the second session I went to, "Mapping & Data" was the importance and challenge of organizing voter file / activation data. After each election there is often a scramble for the data gathered during the campaigns, for data (collection / integration) is expensive and information is power. Access to the Voter Activation Network (VAN) is available on a sliding scale, but at the end of the day, it still costs money and organizations are reluctant to share their voter databases with others. Geocommons and Creative Commons this is not.
Dan's article on "Power to the Edge: Obama's California Field Operation from the Future" gives a taste of how some feel the "distributed and bottom-up... way that is the clearest example of what a post-broadcast, distributed and participatory democracy is going to look like."
While we still struggle to figure out what this means, as we tweet and self-organize, network and SMS, orgs such as the Courage Campaign (who helped to fund the defend equality camp t-shirt) and working towards a world where we marry BlueStateDigital social networking sites with VAN files, allowing hoi polloi to get to voter contact in just 3-clicks.
The impression I got was that data management is a tricky business, both politically and technically, organizationally and socially. Who owns the voter data we collect? Who has access to it and by what means? It's clear that future elections will be even more savvy in their information wars--2008 was just the start.
Communities of Color / Unity within the LGBT community
There's so much to write here that I don't know where to begin. I didn't take as many notes on these last three sessions as, to be honest, I was fading a little there, but I think a few takeaways include "service as a way of unifying communities" and remembering that coalitions are not built organization-to-organization but person-to-person within those organizations. It's worth remembering in the campaign for Marriage Equality that there are other worthy fights out there, and if we don't have their back when the time comes, will they have ours?
As action items, people started to self-organize lists for queer service days, others started planning for EqualityCamp Oakland/East Bay (taking childcare and diversity more into account), and folks were reminded to keep their electronic messaging professional ("details matter"), and to provide two Calls to Action with each communication. Others learned about video production whilst still others planned a future SuperGayDevHouse.
I'm going to wrap up there and cross-post to my vox blog for posterity. Write or chat if you'd like to know more!