Foglio's Field Notes

Leif Utne's random rants, musings and meditations

Why MoveOn Should Introduce Me to My Neighbors

with 7 comments

Recently, my dad proposed in his back-page column in the May/June Utne Reader, titled “An Open Letter to MoveOn,” that the nation’s premier progressive organization should go beyond issue-driven campaigns and “lead a community organizing movement across America.” (Yes, in case you’re wondering, my dad founded Utne Reader, and I worked there as a writer and editor for eight years.)

I couldn’t agree more. I especially like his suggestion that MoveOn stage a series of large revival-style cultural events designed to introduce members to each other:

MoveOn could kick off the movement by hosting stadium-sized events, harking back to 19th-century chautauquas and tent shows. Attendees would sit together according to particular affinities: parents of young children, schoolteachers, health care workers, clergy, small-business owners, elders. Like-minded participants could share their ideas about particular issues, like clean, green energy and single-payer health care. Or, if seating were assigned based on zip code and postal route, people would meet their neighbors in a positively charged environment.

All this would be interspersed with musical entertainment, stand-up polemic, and perhaps a Jumbotron visit from Obama himself. Consider it an extended-family/neighborhood reunion in which participants would meet some long-lost relatives for the very first time.

After the event, attendees would all receive lists of the 20 other participants who live closest to them. House parties would follow. Instead of discussing issues, we would simply get to know each other by telling each other our stories of “self, us, and now.”

(Telling stories of “self, us, and now” is a technique used in the Camp MoveOn organizer trainings, one of which my dad attended last year, and which inspired his column.)

I’d be thrilled to attend a rally of 5, 10 or 20 thousand MoveOn members in my area, knowing that I’d hear great bands and speakers and have a chance to meet and converse with other progressives in my neighborhood.

People often accuse MoveOn of mere “clicktivism,” of sapping the activist energies of grassroots progressives by calling on people to sign petition after petition on narrow issue campaigns. People either feel they can just click and be done with it, or they get tired of the incessant calls to action and tune out, the argument goes.

That argument is unfair. MoveOn has done more in the past decade than any other organization to build the American progressive movement, to give it a sense of identity and an outlet to flex its political muscle. The group has pioneered new models of online advocacy and fundraising, developing many of the tools and strategies that are now de rigeur in both issue and electoral campaigns across the political spectrum. Most importantly, MoveOn has experimented with new ways to move people from online to offline. Every person who signs a MoveOn petition is invited to take further action — write or call Congress, donate to the campaign, attend a rally, vigil or organizing meeting. MoveOn was largely responsible for mobilizing people to turn out on what became the largest global day of protest in history, the simultaneous anti-war rallies in hundreds of cities across the US and around the globe on the eve of the Iraq War in 2003. And if it weren’t for MoveOn paving the way, and providing critical early support, the presidential campaigns of both Howard Dean and Barack Obama might never have been possible.

Yet some criticism is justified. MoveOn’s sheer scale (5 million members) and obsession with numbers can make individual activists feel insignificant and campaigns feel impersonal.

As the de facto connective tissue of much of the progressive movement, MoveOn has an opportunity to go beyond issue campaigns and strengthen the movement by introducing its members to each other. Not under the rubric of any particular campaign or action. Simply connecting people to each other at the local level so they can start conversations and build community would be a powerful step toward revitalizing and re-engaging progressives, many of whom tuned out after pouring their hearts out to put Obama in the White House.

Introducing MoveOn members (like myself) to each other and inviting us to share stories of “self, us, and now,” and to start conversations about our hopes and dreams for our families, neighborhoods, country and planet could be the best way to inoculate the body politic against the cynicism and hatred emanating from the Tea Party, Congress, and the media. It would surely lead to more committed local activism, would surface new issues and ideas, and could rekindle the sense of hope and possibility that drove so many of us to pound the pavement and open our wallets for Obama in 2008. As my dad says: “This could be the start of an earthshaking nationwide movement.”

So how about it, MoveOn? Please introduce me to my neighbors.

Written by leifutne

September 15, 2010 at 5:13 pm

7 Responses

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  1. I remember when the Utne Reader tried to do this in the 1990’s. I went to some of those events, what we would today call meetups. We are doing this in Seattle. However, now, as then, these meetups will not cure the structural political problems of the US. They cannot address issues that are political, religious, and economic. Indeed, to get people to show up, you have to exclude those subjects from the conversation.

    Uncle Mike

    September 15, 2010 at 6:00 pm

  2. Leif, I think this post, and your father’s before it, are both right on. The role you’re talking about here is very close to the idea of a “People Organization” that I tried to articulate back in 2004 in a paper that I wrote called “Movement as Network.” It seemed pressing at the time, but now looking back, this need for large, local, cross-issue organizing networks that can bridge the online and real world is stronger than ever. I’m not sure MoveOn is the perfect answer, but it does appear to be the closest thing we’ve got to that right now.

    Over the last few years, I’ve met with leaders of traditional community organizing networks and some of their online counterparts. The conversations have been fascinating as both types of groups compared the respective strengths and weaknesses of their models. I left these conversations realizing that blending the online and offline models really is hard, but not impossible. New CRM tools are emerging that will help bridge the world of online connections with the deeper relationship-centric models of more traditional community organizing. The technology to do this is hard too, but getting easier everyday. The real challenge is re-thinking our organizational models.

    I like where you’re both going with this and look forward to hearing more.

    – Gideon

    Gideon Rosenblatt

    September 15, 2010 at 8:57 pm

  3. Really timely post as the democracy movement tries to take on Top Two Tyranny that is shutting out an increasingly vibrant set of third, fourth, and fifth party challengers. Cross-posted to Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog, and subscribing so as to connect more people to your posts.

    Robert David Steele

    October 7, 2010 at 4:35 am

  4. As you wish it may come to pass. I’m working on a project to prototype a process that might do even more than you request. It is to early to describe and share now….. but there was/is something brewing before your post. I look forward to sharing more when we get this out of the “lab”.

    Walt Roberts

    November 18, 2010 at 11:50 pm

  5. Greetings! Very helpful advice within this article!
    It is the little changes that produce the most important changes.
    Thanks a lot for sharing!


    March 8, 2013 at 11:23 pm

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