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Civic Tech and Engagement: How Network-Centric Organizing Made the People's Climate March

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, September 22 2014

Hundreds of thousands marched for climate change in New York (South Bend Voice/flickr)

At a reported 400,000 people, yesterday's People's Climate March was four times larger than expected. Other articles may feature the celebrities who turned out for a photo-op; this one is concerned with everyone else, the “odd juxtapositions” of a Muslim marching next to a Christian, a pagan next to a monk, and the work (and tech) that went into getting them there.

The People's Climate March was large; the People's Climate March contained multitudes. It was designed to do so in part by the technology that connected people to the event. The landing page for prospective organizers invited them to join one of the existing “hubs,” groups united by a shared cause or identifying characteristic, or to start their own. There were hubs for vegans, for people of faith, for yogis, for beekeepers, for causes like food justice and biodiversity, and for geographic regions as small as Cape Cod and as large as “The Deep South.”

The People's Climate website was designed to facilitate organizing both online and off. Online, each hub is little more than a landing page with links to Facebook and Google groups and the hub leaders' contact information. There is also a space that hub coordinators could use for a blog. Most of the online organizing took place on Facebook or Google, where plans for offline organizing (including conference calls) were also agreed upon. People's Climate provided a guide for hubs with instructions on how to build a successful hub, suggested roles to fill, etc., and ran training sessions for hub coordinators. Each hub was responsible for organizing their own constituency: for generating buzz, recruiting and marshaling participants, and for creating visuals for the march.

Many of the ideas that made the Climate March possible, including the hubs platform, came out of the Occupy movement. Tammy Shapiro, the hub coordinator, was an Occupy Wall Street vet and had worked on InterOccupy (IO), a networking and communication tool for activists.

(Each hub had their own coordinator, but Shapiro was the coordinator for all the hubs. The title was deliberately chosen because it does not imply dictation or leadership, but something closer to assistance or facilitation.)

“One of the things I learned [during my work on Occupy] was what it means to self-organize,” Shapiro told techPresident. “There was a lot of energy, but there was no one in charge of it.”

“The hub system developed in the zeitgeist of Occupy,” she added. “There was a fear of leadership—too much so in my mind.”

But, Shapiro explained, you have to build tools to fit a moment, and that is what they did with InterOccupy. And those tools were early iterations of the hubs platform used for the People's Climate March.

Shapiro said that hubs, a platform for network-centric organizing, is different from other kinds of online organizing:

When you think about online organizing you think about MoveOn... [platforms] which usually are built around creating big lists...that small groups of people email. [Hubs is] a way to connect small groups of people interested in similar things and to allow them to connect offline or on...in places that we're already using, like Facebook.

Shapiro added that she knows Facebook is not ideal, but that's where the people are, and so that's were activists must go. She also emphasized that it doesn't come down to the tech or the platform, but the people who use it. Thinking of the platform as the track and the movement the train is one way to understand the relationship, Shapiro explains. (Veins and blood is another metaphor she has heard describe her work.)

The advantages of network-centric organizing go beyond the march itself. Shapiro hopes that the hubs space has made the the cross-country (and even international) network of climate activists stronger for the long term. She says that some form of the hubs sites will remain online, a resource for future climate change activism. She hopes that new connections within and between organizations have been forged and will continue to grow, and that “good ideas [will] spread around [the network] through informal and formal communication methods.”

Already, Shapiro tells me, the hub Elders for Future Generations has begun planning an event in 2015.

Shapiro believes that this is the largest single mobilization done through hubs. There were more than 4,000 people in over 100 Google groups, and more than 20,000 in over 100 Facebook groups. The march yesterday was estimated to be somewhere between 310,000 and 400,000 strong.

The hubs platform was one of several tools organizers deployed. In addition to the march, there were more than 2,800 solidarity events around the world that were organized completely differently, using a distributed events tool. People's Climate had, of course, a dedicated social media team. At least a dozen people were on the job yesterday, either at the march or in the office dealing with the firehose of tweets. Thelma Young, the digital organizer, said that the climate march was trending three days before it was scheduled to start.

The all-inclusiveness aspect of the march has drawn criticism and some healthy skepticism. Arun Gupta fears that the march is a corporate public relations stunt with a concrete goal, or any goal at all beyond media coverage, digital impressions and, perhaps, the donations that such a stunt attracts.

Gupta writes in Counterpunch: “[W]hen the overriding demand is for numbers, which is about visuals, which is about P.R. and marketing, everything becomes lowest common denominator.”

He also mocks the idea that branding will solve the climate crisis, adding that “we are in an era of postmodern social movements.”

And yet at the hubs level, at least, brands were prevented from organizing independently of others. When an anti-fracking group requested a hub for their organization, Shapiro said no, but suggested they organize one for all anti-frackers.