Community organizing makes changes because of Covid-19

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Social Movement Technologies provides digital organizing training and resources. Screenshot by Cirien Saadeh.

Six months ago, internet service providers were arguing that net neutrality, the idea that the internet should be accessible to all without favor to specific providers or sites, was not possible because data caps are a necessity and because the internet was not and should not be considered a public utility. 

However, because of Covid-19, internet service providers have been slashing data caps and the internet has become more necessary than ever as a household, public utility – as our primary source for work, school, and community connection. 

Locally, the work in Minneapolis-Saint Paul has changed too. For example, there’s a temporary moratorium on evictions, which may be ending soon, but increased job insecurity. A local organization, InquilinXs UnidXs por Justicia (Tenant’s United for Justice), or IX for short, has spent the last three years organizing for housing justice and to turn their apartments into a housing cooperative owned by the residents. But with a statewide eviction moratorium and several of the residents out-of-work, the organizing has shifted towards mutual aid.

“The organizing has shifted a lot. I work mainly with the base of the organization. I really cannot do the doorknocking, at all. Things have shifted to the point where we used to have the meetings in this one apartment in our building that we’re turning into a cooperative and what we’ve done now is we took that building and turned that unit and turned it into a resource center,” said Chloe Jackson, a tenant organizer and leader with IX.

Jackson discussed the ways in which organizing and organizing tools has been digitized. For example, face-to-face relationship-building meetings, called one-to-one’s,  are a no-go and neither is doorknocking, though she’s still able to connect with people over the phone or computer. 

According to Hannah Roditi, Executive Director of Social Movement Technologies, an organization that provides training and support for progressive organizing campaigns, insists that organizers must be trained to use digital tools. Roditi also believes that organizing campaigns must be strategic and intentional in how and why digital tools are used. Roditi, who is the organization’s ED and founder, believes that training is often the missing piece to organizing success. 

Hannah Roditi. Credit to Hannah Roditi.

“On the left we’re always resource-strapped. But sometimes it can be pennywise, tom-foolish where we don’t necessarily always invest in training people. With digital organizing we just have to understand that it’s very difficult to do if you don’t have staff trained up. It’s extremely the case that you have to invest in training your folks up and your leaders up. Using social media is not the same thing as using social media to organize.”

But it’s not just the organizing itself that’s changed. Frogtown resident MK Nguyen, a parent and organizer, argues that all Covid-19 and the resulting economic fallout has created some fundamental shifts in our communities and world, and even our relationship with children. 

“I think it’s changed all of us. I am somebody who is an exclusive 24/7 classroom teacher and milk machine. Before Covid-19, there was this village of people who were co-caring for my children, so I lean into my work as a mother because that is the one thing I can do for at least two people on this planet, that nobody else can do the way I do it. Because of that I lean into that as a primary, as my primary labor and work and identity. I used to not be with my kids 24/7. Not anymore they are with us all the time. And that I am not talking to other adults face-to-face outside of my husband. Everything is done via Zoom calls or done virtually. I’m producing milk and I have to think about that, but now I’m here and if my son is hungry I’m going to feed my son. In the pre-Covid apparatus, I was physically separated from my kids. That’s a huge difference. I think because I’m with my kids my son is less testy with me. Our relationship has been way more loving and open and straightforward versus when I was out in community and at work. A big part of the work that I want to lift up is that we get to be, we’re in a situation where we’re forced to think differently about how we relate to each other, particularly our kids.”

MK Nguyen’s beloved child, Stokely, age 1, with friends 2016 Children’s March, in the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul, MN
Photo credit: Thaiphy Phan-Quang

MK works for the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood and has been organizing and advocating around the Promise Agenda survey, which aims to organize Frogtown resident perspectives around legislative organizing needs. According to MK, the top five issues from the 36 respondents are: increasing teachers of color, post-conviction relief, increasing funding for affordable housing, ethnic studies, and supporting the African-American Family Preservation Act. Check out Wilder Foundation and the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood newsletter for updates on the Promise Agenda Survey. MK’s work in Frogtown is one example of local neighborhood-level organizing, but people are organizing in neighborhoods across the Twin Cities 

Ned Moore, Director of the Neighborhood Leadership and Organizing Program at the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs says now is not the time for organizers to put a pause on organizing, but rather it’s time to double down on issues and values. 

“In a time of crisis such as this, people hold on to what’s familiar, but I also think it’s a time for radical imagination, and we’re hearing a balance of both. Really, it’s an opportunity for communities to double-down on the values and principles that they held dear before this crisis: values of solidarity, racial justice and equity for family, home, and community.  This is a crisis, this is not normal, but normal was not working either for many communities.  So whether you see the systemic failings that are happening across cities as a breaking down in the system or an acceleration of the system, I think a lot of community organizers, leaders, even down to the block-level, are really grappling with how to stand in the gap, how to meet those immediate needs when systems are failing people, but then how to continue organizing and building the power to hold those systems accountable and ultimately transform them in order for there to be more equity and justice moving forward.” 

Moore also talks about the ways in which the digitization of organizing is actually empowering local organizing campaigns. Here’s Moore again: 

“It’s interesting as organizing is going digital and into the virtual world, how that presents its limitations but also creates new possibilities. I think of the work of Pueblos de Lucha y Esperanza which is traditionally based in Minnesota, now has people from North and South Dakota joining their regular organizing meetings, because in a virtual world, North and South Dakota are just as close as someone across the street from you when everyone is locked down. In that sense, as the world is shrinking to that virtual domain, it also creates an opportunity to be more expansive to be able to bring people together across geographies, across issues.  The work ahead is about responding in a spirit of solidarity to meet the urgent interests and demands that are rising from the crisis, and ultimately looking beyond what’s in front of us to what it means to build a new, reparative economy coming out of this.” 

Organizers like Steven Renderos, Executive Director of MediaJustice, are also urging other organizers to take pause in the pandemic and think about the work with a long-term vision. 

“If you’re the organizer you’re thinking about the arc of your campaign in the scope of, at best, three years, but most of the time you’re thinking of a six-month window. You start the campaign, it reaches a peak, and you hit some sort of resolution and a lot of that is because of the world that we live in today which is very immediate, instant feedback. We look for things to happen and move in quicker cycles and I think digital organizing has pushed us to feel that is what change looks like, that it happens very quickly,” said Renderos. “We are great at defending everything, we will defend from evictions, we will defend bad stuff from happening, but one of the things that she says often, something that [Norma Wong] said on her podcast a couple years ago is that ‘just because you’re really good at holding back the darkness, it does not mean that you’re creating light.’ So this question of what to do in this moment, I’ve been thinking about this at MediaJustice, how do we do the simple acts that cumulatively makes a difference. What’s a simple thing that we can do today to ensure that our people have the things that they need to navigate this pandemic.”

As Covid-19 continues to impact communities across the globe and across our neighborhoods, many community organizers and organizations have had to shift their operations to digital spaces. However, while more in-person organizing is happening in light of the unrest that occurred following the killing of George Floyd, in many ways community organizing has also had to shift itself permanently to make space for a global pandemic. 

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