#4, March 2020
People Power for Sustained Innovation
Umme Sarah Hoque
Beyond change, it’s the longevity of the progress achieved that really counts if we want to transform our societies in a lasting way, a victory we can only achieve if our commitment pushes us to connect with others, on social media and in real life, and is based on a shared experience of the world.
My phone buzzes. Expecting a personal message from a friend, I grab it. I have a text, and it reads:
Hey Umme; it’s Susan from [organization]. I wanted to reach out to let you know that we have an exciting event coming up in your area. Can you join us?
I smile and spend a second trying to figure out if it comes from a real person or if it was broadcasted. Most people usually don’t know there is a difference, but I do because I work in digital organizing. I also know the sender is most likely a volunteer; a real person who shares a common interest with me. So, I reply that I can’t—I’m busy that day. She replies quickly with a follow up—What are you doing week after next? Her organization is holding another event then, and they need someone to help organize it. We exchange details about my life and her campaign as if we’d been friends for years. All the while she’s texting me from a generic number, and I know she’s talking to at least 50 other people at the same time. Still, by the end of this brief conversation, that text has become a message from a friend.
The shift to peer-to-peer communications
Perhaps nothing is more indicative of the shift in communication strategy for policy change than the increase of popularity in peer-to-peer texting, “text teams,” and distributed volunteers. From anywhere in the world, anyone who shares your interest or goal can be part of engaging with potential supporters, and these conversations are real. There are scripts, provided by the campaign or head organization, that volunteers are trained on and asked to follow—but the people who are sending the texts can answer and type in their own responses. You can have conversations at any scale and build real connections, no matter how temporary. In the future, the means or platforms we use to do this may change—when chatbots or other technologies take over—but this type of communications and organizing will remain essential.
For decades, communications has been focused on engagement as a tactic through broadcast. Getting as much media coverage as possible—sending out press releases, building relationships with journalists, trying to be a front-page story. Talking to people—sending out email blasts, A/B testing image placements and subject lines—but giving the reader, the activist, little need or way to be involved, aside from maybe donating a few dollars or signing a petition. But, when trying to build people power to make effective policy change, this type of communications can only take us so far. For campaigns that want to change or enact legislation, and then ensure that policy wins aren’t lost at the next election, people can’t be simply talked to.
With the increase in digital organizing and multi-channel media, communications has evolved to engaging with supporters by bringing them into the tent and building them into grassroots activists who take ownership of the mission, of the cause, and of the campaign itself. This type of power and movement building can ensure not only that regulatory change takes place, but also that it is accelerated, and that it sticks—that it happens when it needs to happen, not at a later point when the political climate is right or when it’s too late.
Engaging beyond the ballot box
For over a decade, I have had the privilege of working at the intersection of communications and grassroots campaigning. This type of organizing—the type that motivates, excites, and moves individuals to ongoing, sustained action—is built on strong and effective communication strategies based on a few simple requirements.
First, there must be simple narratives and a clear theory of change that everyone can and wants to communicate. As part of Solar Citizens, an organization in Australia fighting to grow solar and renewable energy, we made it clear: in such a sunny country, solar just makes sense, and many of the people who didn’t support it were those who profited from the current structure. Hostility came both from Australia’s powerful coal lobby, which had a vested interest in maintaining the country’s reliance on coal as a primary source of energy, and from those in the community who thought there were no other alternatives. This was rampant, especially from conservative and rural politicians and individuals. The campaign therefore sought to showcase solar as the other viable possibility, demonstrate its potential for everyone, and bring people of different backgrounds together to fight for it.
Effective and powerful communication must motivate and move individuals. It should tell people that this moment is not about a charismatic leader or someone else writing policy for us; it’s about all of us taking action. Because legislation can be won or lost based on whichever political party is in power, so it becomes obvious: the public must be motivated to keep politicians engaged in your policy issue beyond the ballot box. And, if the goal is to win a policy that stays, one of the key levers becomes effective communication that engages individuals to be part of the campaign with the goal of building sustainable movements. For us to expedite change that people want to see, it is imperative that people be engaged, interested, and advocating vocally for this change.
While I was working in environmental advocacy, different state governments of all political stripes attempted to increase fees for solar, meaning that it would cost current solar owners more to have solar, and make it more expensive for people who wanted to install solar to do so. But through our work using co-operative communication strategies, strong digital communication through emails, advertising, and media outreach, thousands of solar supporters found us and mobilized to stop these price hikes—signing petitions, making calls, purchasing billboards, sharing their solar story. We built a coalition of individuals across the political spectrum who believed the issue was their own. And we won. We stopped increases to solar fees and passed legislation to ensure that prices were regulated and not to be changed at will. More importantly—our supporters won. And when celebrating the win together, we reminded everyone through our communication and engagement via email, text, phone calls, and social media that our work was not done: we still had to ensure the policy remained in legislation.
Sharing our stories to believe in each other
In these processes, an important lesson arises: to truly win in the long term, you do need to build and support a large and diverse base. So, the deeper the connection-building must be and the more effective the diversification of your base, the more essential the bridges you build between individuals become. And it is there that storytelling plays a crucial role. If the importance of the story narrative was popularized by Marshall Ganz as part of the Obama 2008 campaign, it has long been used as a way of building a sense of community and connections between individuals. Ganz himself references Gandhi and the Mississippi Civil Rights movements as historical precedents for this type of communicating. It is modelled on the common tenets of human connection: the story of self—your individual experiences and challenges that illustrate who you are; the story of us—our shared condition; and the story of now—how, together, we can and will change things.
Telling a story that ties people together is the strategy that further develops movements. It was reflected when I worked on the Fight for a Fair Economy campaign, which aimed to stop anti-worker legislation (also termed “right to work,” it restricts and limits the powers of unions) and raise the minimum wage. The campaign has slowly adapted to be part of the Fight for $15. This type of community-based organizing for legislative outcomes is rooted in story and experience sharing, in low-wage workers across race, gender, and status talking to each other about their experiences. This type of engagement is grounded in the narratives of those who are part of the fight, who are showing who they truly are—families struggling to get by—and reflects the nuances of communications as a lever of people-powered campaigns.
Adapting our message to reverberate with potential supporters by highlighting their experience; shifting our framing to showcase the stories of everyone involved, as well as their differences and similarities; and engaging individuals on broader issues than simply transactional conversation is how we can keep winning and growing our base.
It also solves one of the long-standing issues of attempting to change laws and pass policies: dealing with polarization. If we want to circumvent issues of antagonism and debate, we must frame our efforts around our commonalities and our stories. We must use communications as a way to empower local leaders in a long-term perspective, starting with giving them the means to share their experience and to bring together individuals who previously might never have seen their interconnections—the hopes and the hardships they shared and to which they could relate.
People power is the best means at our disposal to create and accelerate change. It’s also the best means at our disposal to maintain change that we have achieved. Otherwise, our lives are at the whim of every election. This means going beyond following charismatic leaders. It requires communications that engages, opens, and builds powerful movements. And gives those who want to be involved the capacity to share their stories and build their own power at their own scale. With them, they will bring many. This is how we can change communities.
Umme Sarah Hoque currently works as a digital organizer for the National Domestic Workers Alliance.