October 22, 2011

A New Era for Activism.

Journal Entry July 30 2011.

Are the days of marching in the streets, chanting, and carrying signs over for good? If we take a look at recent events in the Middle East or Europe, one might proffer a resounding “No,” but here in the United States, we have started to wonder. These days it’s difficult to get activist boots on the ground in large numbers.

Our nation was witness to large social upheaval in the 1960’s and 70’s, with very visible public protest, only to be followed by the “Me” generation of the 80’s. The technological revolution, of which we are all a part, like it or not, has brought its own opportunities and contradictions. And it is affecting the way we do everything–from voting to connecting with our communities. We voice our disapproval and our desire for change in new ways, but many of us question its effectiveness.

Everything has changed–activism, political participation, and community service. The possibilities that digital technology and the Web provide are seemingly endless, and yet the majority of us are overwhelmed. Which services should we use? How often? How do we balance our online connections with our face-to-face responsibilities? How do we know if we’re moving in the right direction?

We can connect to new people instantly, send donations via text, or build a website in minutes–but what then? The Obama team has confronted this question in a serious way. After the election, their mass of support seemed to falter. Could they rely on their Web-connected base to come through on the midterm elections? We know the answer to that question. It was “No,” and it should make us ask why.

It’s like the old adage of the scientific method: Correlation is not causation. Simply being highly connected online does not equate into effective political or community action strategy. And it never will. Changing lives for the better is hard work, and it always will be. To really experience long-term changes, activists know in their hearts that they have to dig deep; they need to design projects that produce actual results, operate in a financially sustainable way, and be prepared to build and grow over time.

Swami Sivananda Saraswati, medical doctor and founder of countless medical and charitable organizations

Fast Forward… October 2011

I started this article four months ago, BOWS (Before Occupy Wall Street). I was thinking about how activism was changing due to the creation of social media. Now here we are with a very large social protest movement on our hands. And while I have some ideas about that, which I will save for later, I would like to, for the moment, think back to what it was like BOWS. Ironically a lot of people are waking up now, but they are also wondering what to do besides march or rally. In my younger days, I would have been the first person on the block to run down there and show my anger, frustration and power. It felt good. It was cathartic and it made me feel free… for a while. Then the compassion fatigue set in. Too many issues. Too many meetings. Too many losses. In a sense, this is what my research on karma yoga is all about—how a spiritual activist looks at social change in a much more productive, holistic and–quite frankly—somewhat detached manner, in order to sustain oneself over time, and to be more joyful, skillful, and approach activism in a professional way.

I want to consider some useful habits for organizing in the non-profit world in this new era, and offer a few guidelines for using social media that make it more meaningful, more connected and most of all–more valuable. I call these the Three A’s: Acceptance, Agreement and Action.

Through my dissertation research on yoga teachers who are activists, I have been considering the in’s and out’s of social change movements today. The old paradigm wanted to change the structures at large, to tip the scales towards equality and justice. In the yoga community, the new paradigm is all about dedicating oneself to service, changing the social fabric through small, constructive acts, both at the local and global level.

In December 2009, I had put forth the idea that Twitter could become a force for social change. Having seen so many tech links posted, so much idle chatter, and a few progressive folks banding together in groups with hashtags, it seemed like a natural step. Then the Haiti earthquake hit, one of the largest disasters in our lifetime and certainly one of the largest since so many average, non-techy people became this networked.

I met a pretty hardcore guy, a pastor in Atlanta named Shaun King on Twitter, and the rest is history. I got to participate in and witness regular, run-of-the mill people having a serious impact simply through caring, spreading the word and rallying resources. We also found out that Twitter was a pretty amazing way to communicate needs from disaster areas, which was proven by Ushahidi using Twitter during the Kenyan election violence and then subsequently by first responders and humanitarian aid workers in other disasters. Needs could be posted, providers could search for them, and then connect the right people. But there are limitations to the Twitter approach, which seems to be good for short-term bursts, such as the clean up that occurred instantaneously after the riots in England. Add to that–the longterm value of relationships, creating organizations, and organizing communities. Twitter is good for a lot of things, but it has its limits.

David Emerson Works With Haiti First Responders at Kripalu

Fast forward a year-and-a-half and I am now working with AIDS orphans in Kenya, and finding a way for “regular” people to help orphans around the world. I sponsored a teenage girl who ended up in a distressful situation, then one thing led to another. Getting to know Vincent and Abigail Kenanda, the people involved in this project was an exercise in Acceptance. I had met them through a gentleman in the UK on Twitter, and even Shaun King asked me, “Are you sure they’re legit?” For smaller charities and organizers trying to connect on the Internet, this is a huge barrier to gaining people’s trust, participation and donations via online media. For us, trust was established over time, through conversations, reading each other’s materials, and exchange of many documents on email. I have to say that it felt easier to know that Twiga Kenya had an online presence, newsletters, and several working project proposals. They had documented their track record of providing services to the children, and had videos and photos to back that up.

Vincent and Abigael with Twiga children, Kisii Kenya

I have to say, it was an organic process on both sides–learning to trust each other–and I don’t know that I would have even gotten involved had it not been for what happened on Twitter during the Haiti Earthquake. There is an enormous amount of faith and hope involved in meeting people online, and during that time, we demonstrated that people’s lives could actually be saved. For those who have very little clout, it can be difficult to build bridges expressing real needs online, but small gestures here and there demonstrate one’s sincerity. As Chris Sacca (@sacca) said recently at the yoga and music festival Wanderlust in Squaw Valley, CA, “authenticated communities are emerging, in which real people connect in real ways on subjects that matter to them.” I believe acceptance is a huge part of this process.

The second important “A” here is Agreement. When meeting people online, and especially in the nonprofit space, where there is often no clear cut “business plan” in the beginning stages of collaboration, we have to agree on goals. What are the milestones that you will measure? If money is being exchanged, what will it be used for, when and how? It is important to understand each other, which is very critical when people are speaking across language and cultural barriers. This is what makes it a learning process. Goals tend to adjust as soon as realities present themselves.

Agreements establish what each party is willing to do, but also the ways in which you will interact and continue working together. If you let yourself free fall into a project, then it could become disastrous fairly quickly. According to Chris Sacca, it is best to figure out for yourself, “How can I be helpful?” Activists tend to overcommit, and then get confused when things do not turn as hoped for. Asking this question allows you to determine how your skills match others’ needs. Instead of trying to do everything, or not knowing what to do, each party explores ways to be helpful. This is the hallmark of a working partnership.

Finally, we come to Action. It needs to happen on both sides, immediately and forever. After agreements are in place, small doable goals and action steps build the way forward. Extend the effectiveness of your action steps by branching your projects out into your already established networks. For me, it happened by surprise. After I decided to work on a summer fundraising drive for the kids in Kenya, a friend of mine, artist Tracy Carlton, volunteered to make homemade clay necklaces, and within three weeks raised $1,000. In a way, it was serendipitous, and in another, simply the way it works when those with common interests, beliefs and dedication bump into each other. With this small amount of money, we were able to leverage additional donations, and buy much-needed equipment such as school supplies, sewing machine, computer, and gardening tools. In addition, Tracy made necklaces for the children in Kenya. We did not reach our original, “larger” goal, which was to purchase an Internet café, but we learned that Action rarely fails to disappoint.

Heart necklaces by artist Tracy (Indigo) Carlton

Finally, allow me to offer a “Bonus A,” if you will. This “A” stands for Africa/America. As I get more deeply involved with this project and others like it, I marvel at the fact that our connection was established on social media. I have yet to meet any of the children, of their directors, but we have a strong connection that is supported through daily communication exchange, something that would have been impossible when I first went to Africa in 1993. It took three weeks (or more) to send or receive a letter at that time. The technical developments are exciting on both ends, but can also be deceiving.

What is most important to remember about social media is that it is just a tool. If your attitude or strategy lacks integrity, it won’t make it any better. Unless you’re organizing in Third Life or Farmville, everything that happens in the online world is a reflection of your real-world scenario. And that’s another aspect of Africa/America that can help strengthen online relationships.

It helps to continuously get grounded in what academics refer to as “the materiality” of our projects. What can we do to bridge our real-world and online communities? This helps to balance the energy of the online universe, which can be like a black hole at times, sucking us in and making us wonder what the outcomes are. Is there a way to quantify the effectiveness of your tweets? Maybe anecdotally or in terms of Twitter statistical measurements, but there are certainly other real-world metrics out there that can (and need to be) utilized, such as: how financially stable your organization is, what kinds of building you are doing, and how many lives have been supported or changed for the better. Africa and America are two very different places, with different needs, and different cultures. How can we best live and be grounded within our own real-world communities to ensure more successful partnerships?

This is why the Yoga activists (or “kula,” community of the heart, as Aunsara yogis call it) are such a great example of how social media can be used to leverage existing and ever-expanding networks. Over the past couple of years, the “Off the Mat, Into the World” (OTM) (@offthemat) organization has raised $500,000 each year for various projects worldwide, such as building schools and birthing clinics. Each yoga activist completes the OTM training with founders Seane Corn, Hala Kouri, and Suzanne Sterling, and then commits to raising $20,000 in one year. Bridges are built internationally, but this can only happen because a core group of yoga practitioners work with and support each other over time. They travel as a group to their destination and meet the people they are supporting. OTM is a great example of people with very little power individually being able to make a great impact as a community, both online and off. It will interesting to see how the long-term results of these projects manifest.

Seane Corn and Michael Franti at Off the Mat fundraiser, Wanderlust Lake Tahoe 2011

Deeply engaging with my own community is something I am currently re-learning since deciding to move back to my rural home a few months ago, after living in the city for four years while going to graduate school. Even though my family has been here for twenty years, it’s a new place for me in many ways, and one that has its own nuances and needs. I am working with a local school (slowly…) to tell them about my work in Africa and build bridges between children and young adults in very different places.

Social service, seva, and selfless service function ultimately as a balancing of needs, skills and local customs. In my attempts to branch out via the Internet over the past five years, I have connected in ways unimaginable, learned a lot about working hard, and best of all, I have become very inspired. But I would be remiss if I were unable to bring that hope back home again.

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