There’s little argument that innovations in digital technologies have altered the way we organize. Social media provides a platform for raising awareness, turning out protestors, reaching new voters, garnering petition signatures, and lobbying elected officials. Though we may not always seamlessly integrate digital strategies with traditional organizing practices like canvassing and one-on-one meetings, online tools have nonetheless become integral to the way many of us think about organizing campaigns. 

As novel as the recent mix of organizing and technology can seem, organizers have long made use of new technologies to advance their campaigns — or at least, the most successful ones have. So argues Ray Brescia in his new book, The Future of Change, which looks at how past social movements and organizing drives adapted to emerging communications technologies. Brescia asserts that the most successful social movements emerged in moments of technological innovation and made good use of the new tools available to them.

We talked with Brescia, a longtime community organizer and tenants lawyer who is now a faculty member at Albany Law School, about The Future of Change and what lessons he hopes organizers will take from past social movements about how to effectively harness technology to make change.

 

Your book focuses on what you call “social innovation moments” — moments when advances in communications technologies have also spurred the development of movements for social change. Why do you think technological innovation is such an important ingredient to the rise of new social movements?

Let me first start by explaining what I mean by the term “social innovation moment.” What I try to trace in the book are the relationships between advances in communications technologies and the rise of some of the greatest and most successful social movements in U.S. history. The printing press was closely tied to the success of the American Revolution, the steam printing press helped to supercharge the abolitionist movement, the telegraph played a role in the launch of the Seneca Falls Convention, which sparked the women’s movement of the 19th century, the civil rights movement harnessed the television with great impact. 

What this says to me is that there is some significant interplay between advances in the ability to communicate and the success of social movements that embrace the latest technology available to them. And that’s what I mean when I say that advances in the ability to communicate create social innovation moments. These moments are times when such advances not just strengthen the ability of grassroots group to communicate and coordinate action but also spark the imagination and spur some to think a new world is possible, to see things in new ways, and to collaborate with those with whom they might not have collaborated before.  

Emma Coe, a leader of the women’s movement in the mid-19th century, praised the “lightning coursing the telegraphic wires” and “the smoke-girt steeds” of the railroads as symbols of progress that she hoped would usher in advances in gender equality. Today, mobile technologies are literally helping many see things they hadn’t personally witnessed before, like the abuse of African-American men and women at the hands of the police. I think another element of this connection is that activists, facing long odds, are often forced to get creative and reach out for whatever tools they have at their disposal, and that means they are able to innovate and use new communications tools in ways that were not foreseen. After the shooting in Parkland, FL, the students there, who were used to utilizing social media, have shown they can be incredibly effective in utilizing contemporary communications technologies to galvanize support and respond to their adversaries in powerful ways. 

What I try to do in the book is show how, while we have new technologies today that are helping to advance social change, we can learn the lessons from successful social movements in the past that have also had new technologies at their disposal and used them effectively to advance social change in these social innovation moments. I argue that we are in such a moment today, so these lessons from past moments can help inform what we do with these new technologies.

 

What is the "social change matrix" and why is it important for organizers to understand?

I think the lessons we can learn from these past social movements are incredibly useful in today’s social-media-fueled environment. My dive into the successful social movements that emerged at times when there was an advance in the ability to communicate showed that these movements often did three things well, and these three things are what I call the social change matrix.

First, they harnessed the new communications technology available to them. 

Second, they created what are sometimes called “trans-local” networks: organizations that are made up of local, grassroots chapters or groups that are connected to a larger organization, often spanning the nation. The local, chapter-based model was critical to many successful social movements because it enabled face-to-face communication between local members that strengthened the trust between them. This trust is always critical in social movements because you cannot work together with people you don’t trust. 

Third, they advanced a positive and inclusive message that sought to galvanize support and build coalitions across difference. In the contemporary era, think of the #MeToo movement, the coalition that won marriage equality, the Fed Up effort launched by the Center for Popular Democracy, or the Moral Mondays campaign.  These efforts have drawn in people from diverse backgrounds and focused on shared humanity and shared destiny. In addition, those coalitions did not consist of people or organizations that agreed on everything and saw the world completely the same.  Rather, such coalitions often came together around shared interests, even self-interest, but self-interest “well understood,” as Alexis de Tocqueville, that keen observer of life in the United States in the first half of the 19th century, called it. 

One example of this blending of interests, what the late Derrick Bell called “interest convergence,” was the civil rights movement, which shared the goal of dismantling the Jim Crow system with some white elites, who saw that system as harming America’s reputation at the height of the Cold War. I think examples like these, where groups were able to form coalitions in light of the shared interests of the respective members of the group are instructive today. 

In the book, I describe an effort by UNITE HERE to raise the minimum wage for hotel workers in Long Beach, CA. There, the workers aligned with small business owners and local homeowners who all wanted to see local workers earning more — and spending more locally — as a way to bolster local businesses.  I am sure the workers and these other groups did not see eye-to-eye on everything, yet they formed a coalition and were able to win a ballot referendum that passed by such a margin that it had organizers lamenting the fact they did not ask for higher wages through that measure!

 

You write that the most successful social movements have been able to adapt to and mobilize the latest technologies — and that these technologies have shaped the contours of the movements. Can you give an example of an historical movement that adapted particularly well to the technologies at its disposal? 

Most social movements, prior to, say, the late 1960s, organized themselves in a very similar fashion. They were formed into these trans-local networks I described earlier. This structure mimicked the U.S. postal system in a lot of ways, and there was a reason for that. Many of the great movements of the 19th century literally tracked the emergence of the post office. When a new post office was approved in a new population center, local chapters would emerge in that same area, partly because interested advocates could now communicate with leaders in other communities through the mail to get pointers on how to start a local chapter. So, we can trace the growth and structure of many of these movements to the growth and structure of the postal system. 

Fast forward to the late 1960s. A number of new social movement organizations emerged at the same time that a new communications technology was also coming onto the scene: the computerized mailing list. With this technology, groups began to move away from the grassroots organizing of prior generations, which mimicked the postal system with its nodes and hubs, and created a new form of organization, one that was very top down and did not cultivate grassroots leadership.   

Many groups formed, on both the left and the right, that adopted “Legal Defense Fund” in their respective names. That is one clear signal that such a group was driven by professionals and experts, and focused on high-level campaigns, rather than organic leadership that moved the organization from the ground up. One of these groups was Common Cause, which was so focused on building an expert-led organization that when asked how local members might meet up and create common bonds, the only suggestion they had was to have those members get together to watch one of the leaders on a television news show. So, we see that technology can sometimes shape the social movement itself. Technology can encourage true face-to-face, decentralized engagement, or it can privilege top-down efforts. What I find encouraging today is that social media and other contemporary tools are actually enabling people to organize locally while still being connected to larger movements, which is very exciting.

 

How do you think digital tools have shaped the social movements of our era? Where do you think activists or organizers have been the most successful at using technologies?

The Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements seem to be strengthened by social media and other contemporary technologies because they allow people to see what is happening, raise awareness, galvanize support, and let people know that they are not alone. The structure of social media — that it enables anyone to be an organizer or leader — is also one of the remarkable benefits these technologies generate. I trace the efforts of the West Virginia teachers from several years ago and show how that movement really emerged from rank-and-file teachers who were able to raise awareness and garner support for demanding justice for teachers in that state. And that effort really began on social media. I think we’re seeing a great deal of effective organizing being done today on and over social media that is helping organizers raise awareness, share information, coordinate actions, and change hearts and minds. It is really remarkable to see and gives hope that these sorts of tools can be harnessed to create real and lasting change.

 

Technologies keep getting more advanced — but have the key elements that we need to build power necessarily changed along with technological shifts? In other words, do you think there are things that social movements are able to do today that simply weren’t possible 50 or 100 years ago? What hasn't changed, even as technology has?

I think what hasn’t changed is the need to forge coalitions and build trust. What I think has changed is the ability to find potential collaborators, share information, coordinate action, and raise awareness. What is more, activists do not have to wait for media gatekeepers to amplify their stories and don’t have to fear their messages will be suppressed on digital platforms. I think that is why we’re seeing a lot more information out there about progressive issues and why such information is really starting to impact the public policy debate. It’s also allowing information that otherwise would not typically get publicized to enter the discourse, like a recent rally in Brooklyn over Black Trans rights and the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests. Even though these sustained efforts have received little ongoing mainstream media attention, news of these events is still getting out there, helping to keep the pressure up and attention on these issues.

 

What are the potential downsides of adapting our movements to changing technologies? What can organizers today learn from past organizers about how to use technologies in ways that most strengthen the movement? 

I think a core lesson of the book is that technology cannot substitute for old-fashioned, grassroots, street-level organizing that is built on face-to-face communication and trust. At the same time, technology can actually make such efforts easier, can help people find one another, and can assist in coordinating action. There is a real downside to this technology though.  Someone can feel they have done their part by sending out a tweet or liking a Facebook post. In this way, because these new technologies are so easy to use, it can give people a sense that they are a part of a movement even when they have not really engaged with the effort in a meaningful way. That these new technologies are so powerful and require little effort and no cost to deploy can sometimes be their greatest faults. People have to remember that these new technologies, as with other technologies of the past, are just means to an end. They are tools that can be used to advance positive social change through networks and movements. They shouldn’t be an end in themselves.

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