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Michael Silberman

Michael Silberman

Posted: October 30, 2009 01:51 PM

350 Global Day of Action: A New Bright Line for Digital Organizing

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I didn't even notice my heart pounding until after turning the corner from W 44th street onto Broadway. Displayed on four giant screens -- the hallmark of Times Square -- were the very photos we had just been sorting through and tagging in a dingy, overcrowded campaign office downtown not even an hour earlier. And now they were flashing before thousands of people in Times Square, while Jay-Z's new Empire State of Mind blanketed us in what seemed like a real-life music video.

Before my eyes, a string of individual events and gatherings was suddenly coming together into a powerful global story -- and the most widespread day of political action in history. The photos, more than 19,000 in all, had been streaming in around the clock from a diverse patchwork of 5,245 actions taking place in 181 countries. The message was clear and coordinated--from small boats lined up in the Seattle harbor spelling 350 to thousands of children in Adidas Aba carrying signs with the same number -- all calling for "strong action and bold leadership on the climate crisis."

For a few moments, I stood transfixed with Jon and Will and Jamie, several of the 350 coordinators, to soak in the scene and watch the photos flash over Times Square. It was humbling and overwhelming all at once, and I desperately tried to imagine what they were experiencing as they blearily watched their wild dream become reality.

350 was more than just a day of action on climate change. It is rapidly becoming one of the great stories in the history of organizing. As more and more people access the tools to co-create, speak together, and self-organize, days of action like these are beginning to show us the tools and citizen leadership that will change organizing and non-profits in the same way that social media and citizen journalism transformed the news industry.

For those who spend their careers at the nexus of grassroots community organizing, technology, and social change, this is quite simply as good as it gets -- at an unprecedented time of learning and change.

So, how the hell did it happen? What was the extra secret sauce that enabled all of this to take place? And why is it shaking up the world of advocacy as we know it? Here's what I found after a weekend with this new generation of organizers -- and through many conversations leading up to the 24th.


I. Movement Builders

The organizers behind 350 were, for the most part, ego-less. I could tell you about the incredible resolve, resourcefulness, warmth, and teamwork of the bright young group of 350 leaders (plus their slightly older, slightly more famous writer founder and provocateur Bill McKibben). But these folks will be among the first to tell you that this campaign really wasn't about them. And it's not just their humble nature or that they're taking a page from Obama or first Dean -- it's because they really did spend the majority of their waking hours in service to the thousands of heroic volunteers around the world who comprise the 350 movement.

Notice how May Boeve refers to herself as a coordinator -- not an organizer -- when I ask her about her work (video). Sounds minor, but the reality is that no dozen people could have directly organized more than 5,200 simultaneous events on every continent using traditional organizing methods. In most campaigns, community organizers cover relatively small territories, working closely with volunteers to train and empower them to take on the campaign's work. In this campaign, the "organizers" were the volunteers, not the staff.

McKibben cuts straight to the bone before you can even ask how his team pulled off such a remarkable feat: "The idea that we've organized it is barely credible -- it's like a potluck supper." The heart and soul of the 350 campaign were the individuals and communities who took the vision and potential of the day into their own hands.

The 350 team has intentionally kept ego out of their organization. But don't let them hear you call it an organization -- they banded together for one purpose only, and that's one of the main ways that they were able to avoid the long march toward institution building. It's hard to imagine what it means to operate within an egoless organization -- let alone what one looks like -- since most of us spend our days working somewhere within an org chart. Everyone on the 350 team is a coordinator -- no department heads, executive directors, or assistants. They have divvied up clear responsibilities, take their jobs seriously, and are accountable to one other for delivering on their promises.

This is where McKibben's good nature and humility also make a difference. This was among the most high-functioning of campaign offices or organizations I've seen. As the team's elder and mentor, Bill's down-home nature pervaded every element of the operation and atmosphere. In some ways, it took the edge off doing the impossible. And it lent itself perfectly to creating a highly accessible and authentic online communications narrative. In one message from October 24, Bill wrote, "we didn't solve any problem today, but maybe we shifted the odds a trifle." Well, that's hopefully an understatement, but that approach sure does take the lid off your typical pressure-cooker nonprofit or campaign environment. And it's an earnest voice that supporters and volunteers can trust a heck of a lot more easily than the increasingly frequent and borderline condescending, "You did it!" subject lines.

Good organizers embody the idea that nothing can be achieved alone -- so they naturally inspire others to join the effort and even encourage others to take ownership over various components of the struggle or task at hand. However, I learned many years ago from Joe Trippi that truly great organizers build leaders. That is, great organizers are movement builders.

The 350 team is comprised of movement builders -- they were more concerned with finding leaders [who could get a thousand new flowers to bloom] than they were with developing foot-soldiers. A large part of the campaign's success can be attributed to the team's willingness to identify existing leaders and train or support new ones.

Event organizer Marianne in New Zealand sums up the approach nicely in a blog post following her event. "As an event organiser for Saturday I was given total freedom to design my event. The 350 co-ordinating committee for New Zealand offered me support if I needed it but made no attempt to control or influence my vision for the day. They encouraged me to use the 350 logo and even hosted an old-fashioned banner-making workshop at their Wellington office so that we would all have the flag ready to fly. I felt supported but never stifled and that left me the space I needed to plan our event."


II. Organizing first, technology second. 350's success was not because of technology; but it couldn't have happened without it.

Looking from the outside-in, it might appear that technology carried the day on October 24. But that's like summing up the Obama campaign's success as the result of having an effective social media or mobile strategy.

In McKibben's words, "there's no way we could have done this even two years ago, before the web, now firmly connected to cell phones even in remote regions, was built out." Like other effective modern day campaigns, technology played a critical role from start to finish -- from communications to logistics to reporting and media -- but was neither an end nor a strategy onto itself. At the end of the day, this crew understood that people are ultimately motivated by other people, not by technology.

So the 350 team prepared organizing guides, broke down the event planning process into nine clear steps, organized trainings all over the world, listened and communicated in more than 17 languages, spent a good part of their days on the phone (ok, skype) with organizers, and ultimately split up and went straight to every region of the planet to begin spreading the word and identifying local partners, local leaders, and support. They even sent McKibben on an exhausting global speaking tour that rivaled that of a U.S. presidential candidate running for global office.

They did all of this organizing faster and more efficiently by utilizing technology. In fact, as McKibben said, it's unlikely that 350 could have even left the station at a time with any less global connectivity. "We know that the internet is far from perfect," McKibben said. "We've lost contact with organizers for days at a time as the system has gone down in one poor country after another. And we had all kinds of reports from African and Asian cities of organizers sneaking into the one 5-star hotel in town to nab a little wireless so they could send us photos."

However it should not be overlooked that 350.org's organizing efforts relied heavily on tried and true organizing principles -- electrified with modern tactics. 350 coordinators crafted a simple and easily communicated message, built capacity through a variety of in-person and remote trainings, produced useful materials in multiple languages, and most importantly invested in one-on-one communications in an era where bulk communication via email lists and social media can seem so effortless. And they used technology to rapidly collect, organize, and ultimately redistribute nearly 20,000 citizen generated photos and videos that told the story of this massive global moment.

What appears on the surface to be mass distributed organizing, facilitated by the internet, still ultimately required countless one-to-one conversations. The 350 crew spent an abundance of time and energy responding to every individual email, tweet, and Facebook message they received. As co-coordinator Jon Warnow points out, the return on investment from all of those tailored and personalized communications "hammered home the lesson that you really get what you give in any community."

Those individual conversations with organizers that would have otherwise been prohibitively time consuming for a small team -- and further limited by geography and language -- are now practical as the world comes online and further adopts asynchronous forms of  communications like email and various forms of online messaging. But there's still no email list that you can buy to replace all of that individualized dialogue and still hope to pull off anything close to what occurred on the 24th.


III. Storytelling without words

At first, I couldn't quite get my head around why McKibben was so furiously monitoring the inbound photo stream -- and personally posting new images to the homepage of 350.org website with captions. The entire team was naturally curious to see what was taking place in the regions they were organizing (and their expectations were being blown out of the water), but Bill seemed to be paying extra close attention.

The answer became clear when I overheard Bill talking to media and supporters -- not just talking, but telling stories. As one of the most public faces of the team, his job was to help create an indelible, moving narrative of what was happening -- to help stitch thousands of individual pictures into a story powerful enough to reach every decision-maker in the world. The numbers only tell part of the story. The sheer breadth of events sounds impressive, but it's nothing compared to the rich, diverse, and compelling picture that emerges when you hear more about ...

  • More than 15,000 school children rallying around the number 350ppm in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (video)
  • Divers visiting the wreck of Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior to declare "350 or we're sunk" with an underwater banner (video)
  • South Africans hiking to the top of Table Mountain to drop a 350 banner over its cliffs and form a human '350' (photo)
  • Groups around the Dead Sea, in Jordan, Israel and Palestinian territory, forming the numbers 350 (photo)
  • Maasai children spelling out a singing 350 in Maasai Mara, Kenya (video)
  • Pacific Islanders in Auckland wade out into the sea and hang up 350 T-shirts on a giant washing line, signifying that the Pacific Islands are being hung out to dry. Each shirt has the name of a different island printed on it. (video)
  • The citizens of Karlskrona, Sweden create a human graph, charting the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, measured in parts per million. (video)
  • Hundreds of kayakers in Portland, OR forming 350 in the bay (video)

There's plenty to say about why choosing the number 350 lent itself to effective word-of-mouth campaigning, not to mention the brilliant emphasis on creating strong visuals (see 350's guide to capturing good photos / video). The campaign message could ultimately be conveyed as simply and elegantly as this: 350 = survival. We can see that it worked because nearly every volunteer organizer that you can find being interviewed by media echoed the same message: "350 parts per million is the number for human survival -- the most important number in the world."


IV. A stunning hybrid of new and old media.

With news outlets laying off staff at a worrying pace, it's no wonder that they're ill-equipped to cover a global (or let alone distributed) news event. This may not come as a surprise to seasoned PR flacks, but I never could have anticipated the level to which 350 would have had to hand-deliver content to media.

Co-coordinator Jamie Henn was responsible for many of the media successes. I witnessed him as well as several other staff contacting local, regional, and global news media to personally deliver relevant photos and stories for publication as quickly as the photos were coming in. Local volunteer organizers were doing the same, and it worked. 350 hit the front of page IHT, CNN, Le Monde, BBC, NYT, Sydney Morning Herald, and dozens of other outlets.

Jamie and his colleagues were quite literally patching media through to event organizers on the ground and sending iconic photos over to media. Others curated the inbound media in realtime as it streamed in to create hi-resolution galleries on Flickr for immediate use by media. No sooner did Shadia create a gallery of cute "350 kids" than Huffington Post published a piece featuring "Adorable Photos of Children" from the day's events.

This tweet from Jamie pretty much sums up my experience in the campaign office: "You know the world has changed when a kid w/ a laptop (me) is sourcing event footage from Kabul for CNN -- yeah, #350 has events in Kabul"

350.org was easily the largest global media outlet on October 24. Citizen journalists in every part of the globe documented the story in order to help make it the biggest news story of the day. Social media platforms like Flickr, YouTube, and Twitter were anything but add-ons to the campaign; rather, they were mission-critical to the campaign's ability to aggregate intelligence and media efficiently from thousands of events in order to tell the global story. A new online video platform called Citizen Global also played an important role in the campaign's ability to manage and edit incoming video footage.

Watching McKibben and other organizers pace past each other in a dank hallway doing phone interviews and pitching stories showed me the importance of telling your own story in this age -- and not just on the phone. Case in point: Most of CNN's coverage was excellent, but it was little more than a guided tour of the homepage of 350.org and the photos pouring in. The website was TV-ready.

While 350.org did avail themselves of the support of a consulting PR team, it's hard to imagine anyone having more passion for the story than those who created it in the first place. Is your PR firm as committed as this: "23 hrs no sleep, but Australian Broadcasting Corp. just called. 2 AM interview? Why not?"

---

October 24 was a victory on so many levels. Those more familiar with the climate politics landscape can better speculate on the impact 350 had on bringing us closer to a global solution. Meanwhile, we can be sure that the day was a victory for proving the democratizing power of the internet and mobile tech to truly connect us across every geographic and language border on the planet. And we were reminded that effective organizing knows no real difference between the 'online' and 'offline' worlds because the principles are the same in both.

But mostly I'm optimistic that 350 and October 24 has expanded the horizon for online organizing and campaigning in the digital age. Since the power to run effective campaigns no longer rests exclusively in the hands of well-resources NGOs or established non-profit brands, this campaign should serve as a wake-up call to any organization or leader who thinks that they've "got it covered" on the technology and new media fronts. Access to tools, technology, and now social media is relevant but can no longer pass as a strategy onto itself. Instead, forward thinking organizations will ideally study the 350 campaign to reflect on how their own team involves others in their mission, communicates, builds capacity, and measures progress in the digital age.

 

Follow Michael Silberman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/silbatron