Community in modern activism

‘Community is the cement that keeps us going’

A volunteer said this to me a couple of weeks ago and it’s stuck with me.

I was out visiting a local branch of the charity I’ve just joined, as part of my induction. I was talking to one of its volunteers who had been recruited by a neighbour over twenty years ago, and been active ever since. I asked her what had kept her and other committee members engaged for such a long period of time. She thought about it for a moment and then said it was the community they’d created together. People came to expect a certain level of engagement from each other, and this had sort of bonded people together, she said.

This conversation got me thinking about the importance of community in activism and how we foster it.

Towards interpersonal activism

A lot of the opportunities for activism today are highly individualistic and let’s face it, quite isolating.

Like most professional campaigners I’m a member of a number of groups outside of work. The vast majority of requests I get are to email my MP or sign a petition or letter (does anyone know if there’s been a study of what proportion of campaign propositions take this form? I’d love to know what the actual percentage is). Once I’ve done these actions I’ll usually get asked to share what I’ve done on social media, and encourage others to take the action too. Occasionally I’ll get an invite to an event (being in London I suspect I get a disproportionate amount and they’re still rare) and if I go along I’ll likely hear from a speaker, and maybe have a couple of conversations with other supporters. Generally the socialising won’t last beyond the event itself and I’ll go back to taking actions by myself. I find myself wondering what the sum total of my actions are, hungry to build up to ‘something’ bigger but struggling to find the opportunities to really connect with other supporters to make this happen. The result is that I just stay on the list as a passive receiver of communications, or eventually get so fed up I come off it altogether.

At the other end of the spectrum there’s highly relational stuff happening. Take my friend at the branch. She was describing to me how she’d reach out to new volunteers and try to deepen their engagement. She has a list of ‘friends’ of the group, people who aren’t on the organising committee but who she calls upon to do things like bake cakes for events they’ve got coming up. She’d look out for anyone who has baked a couple of cakes in a row, and asks them if they’ll donate a prize for the raffle. If they do that she might then ask them to take some tickets away to sell for the raffle. And so on. People are obviously free to say no thanks but by giving them opportunities to take the next step, and then the next, she provides a natural route into sustained volunteering. The result? She ends up with a relatively small group of people doing high level activity offline. Although she’s not asking people to take campaigning action specifically, I really relate to it: the groups I’ve donated the most amount of my free time to have consisted of relatively small groups of committed volunteers.

Contrast this, let’s call it highly interpersonal activism, with the large groups of people in the predominantly online groups like the ones I just described being in, who are (largely) doing very light-touch activity. If these are at either ends of the spectrum, where’s the middle ground?

Beyond on and offline

It has become popular to draw a sharp distinction between on and offline activism. So commonplace is this that a lot of campaigning professionals will now say that they specialise in one or the other (indeed I’ve been guilty of saying I specialise in offline). We’ll get our online activists to take some e-actions, and our offline activists to do some stuff in their communities. The distinction is helpful in some ways: it allows us think about offering people different levels of engagement depending on their (estimated) commitment, and helps us to build structures and processes around people.

However it quickly becomes problematic when thinking about activists as whole human beings: they don’t either live in the online or offline world, they live in both. Consider when I attend a public demonstration. I’ll most likely find out that it is happening through a friend or social media, go along to the event in person, and when there I’ll check in online on my smartphone to share live photos and videos, and to see what others are experiencing and saying in their updates. Am I an online or an offline campaigner when I’m an the demo? The distinction is plainly superficial.

It’s also counterproductive to conceptualise of activism in this way. Thinking about so-called offline campaigners as distinct from online campaigners provides a disincentive to thinking about what the experience of being a campaigner is like. In other words, asking ourselves what does it feel like to campaign with our group? This matters hugely to the decisions we make about how we involve people.

Making it social

The example of my branch volunteer isn’t about people taking campaigning action, but the principle is exactly what Hahrie Han, who studies campaigning organisations in the US, captures in her excellent book How Organizations Develop Activists.* Drawing on existing research Han describes how getting people to take sustained action isn’t about making things as easy as possible, its about making it social:

Activists must have opportunities to work with others. People working interdependently are more likely to be committed to their work. When people are working alone, there is a greater burden on the work itself to be intrinsically motivating; if it is not, people lack other sources of motivation. If they tire of the work, or begin to feel like it is useless, then there are no other mechanisms to maintain their commitment. If people are working with others, however, they are motivated not only by their interest in the work but also by their interest in and commitment to the people around them.

– p.97, How Organizations Develop Activists, Hahrie Han

* I should probably start doing a warning klaxon before mentioning Han, I draw on her so much. I’m sorry, she’s just very, very good!

Han knocks the nail on the head: we shouldn’t expect the cause alone to provide the motivation for action, especially action that requires quite a lot of effort. (Incidentally I suspect this is why so much of the activism we’re asked to do now is so easy: it is based on the understandable but misguided logic that people will take more actions the lower the cost it is to them). You have to consider the social dynamics at play too, Han points out, and the effect mutual expectation has on the likelihood of us delivering on what we say we will, and on the associated reward that comes when we deliver.

If creating social bonds, mutual expectation and community is the means to deepening engagement, the discussion becomes less about the tools we use to cultivate this (and if they’re primarily on or offline tools) and more about creating opportunities for community to flourish. I’ve discovered that asking myself ‘will this build a sense of community among our campaigners?’ is a good way of deciding whether to introduce one initiative or another.

Where next?

It would be tempting to think, returning to my earlier conversation with the branch volunteer, that the answer is to create more branches and get them all campaigning. I’m not so sure.

While existing branches can be excellent examples of community, there is growing acknowledgment within volunteering circles that the traditional branch model that was the bread and butter within so many charities needs to adapt now if it is to survive. As volunteers within branches are often the first to point out, people just don’t want to be on committees nowadays. Notwithstanding some fabulous outliers, most branches of charities are struggling to attract and retain new members. We need to find ways of marrying the sense of community traditionally found in branches with 21st century ways of connecting and organising.

Thankfully the explosion of digital means we’ve got more tools at our disposal than ever. Many groups now use Facebook, Slack or Yammer to create private spaces for their activists to connect online, and I’ve personally found these invaluable in nurturing community. My heart sings when I see one campaigner helping another campaigner out, and its always a pleasure to see strong friendships form between volunteers as a result. I’ve also written about how bringing people together in person deepens this.

How we structure ‘set pieces’ of activism can make a big difference too. For example, in my last job we significantly increased the number of campaigners who met with their MPs over the course of a summer recess by setting up an open source Google Sheet which showed who was participating and when each person’s meeting was, and repeatedly drove volunteers to it. We held group teleconference calls where we’d invite those who had had their meeting to share their experiences, and create the space for those who had their meetings coming up to get advice from people who’d just done it. We framed the whole thing as a ‘summer challenge’ and consistently reminded people who else was taking part and how exciting and urgent it was.

I was inspired to try the Google suite in this way after reading Becky Bond and Zack Exley’s Rules for Revolutionaries as in that they describe how they moblised hundreds of thousands using it (and other simple tools) during the Bernie Sanders campaign. I’ll definitely be trying it again. Digital platforms can be such powerful enablers, we just have to use them as a means to an end, and not sufficient in creating community in themselves.

I’m still working out how to do this and am keen to learn from others. What creative ways have you found to deepen social bonds between activists? What’s not worked?

For me activism is an inherently social exercise. It’s about how I see the world, and myself and others in relation to it. I want to feel like I’m doing progressive politics with people I like and trust, and that what we do together adds up to more than the sum of its parts. I know that when I’ve done the most with an organisation its because I’ve felt the most invested in it. More than anything I’ve been made to feel like I belong.

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