Howlers and organizers
Digital organizing during a pandemic
Every evening, at eight o’clock, I hear my neighborhood in Denver take a collective deep breath, stick their heads out of their windows and howl. Laughter echoes over the rooftops as howlers get self-conscious or hear the trumpet player who usually joins in from down the street. It’s become an everyday occurrence since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our dog, Wednesday, who gets agitated by the sounds, doesn’t find much comfort in the eight o’clock howl, but I do. At a time when people are physically separate from each other, communities are still finding ways to reach out across barriers and connect. They’re reminding the world that we’re in this together. At a frightening time for our country and world, when distance from our friends and loved ones is one of our strongest weapons against a raging pandemic, this connection is much needed.
The digital space has quickly become one of the most important places to make connection possible. Our classrooms have moved online, as have our book clubs and our family gatherings, our happy hours and lunch dates.
And our organizing work has moved there too.
I’ve been a digital campaigner with Environment America for two years, so in some ways I felt ahead of the curve. But a lot has changed since many of our offline tactics have become unsafe or impossible. We’re not going door-to-door to speak with people directly or hosting lobby days in which we sit down with elected officials and talk about issues face-to-face. Instead, we have to use new tools to forge that connection. We must figure out ways to look into people’s eyes and speak to them about the issues we care about even when physically doing so isn’t possible.
Through my experience and by watching my colleagues embrace digital tools to do their organizing work, I’ve seen three fundamental truths fueling our campaigns in light of a changing world.
We organize because we have to, and we’ll continue to organize in the face of global uncertainty and isolation because we still have to. The issues that spark movements and action, whether that be rising global temperatures, plastic filling our oceans, bee die-offs or threats to our public lands, are just as important and urgent as ever.
What’s more, there are still victories to be had. Even at a time when good news seems hard to come by, organizers around the world haven’t lost sight of their vision for a better, healthier, more sustainable world. Every week, my colleagues Ian Corbet and Emma Searson compile pieces of good news and victories. These range from rousing, widely celebrated wins such as the Senate passing the Great American Outdoors Act, to small victories that may have slipped by unnoticed, like coal plants winding down across the country.
These pieces of good news aren’t just proof that our causes are as important and timely as ever, but that people still believe in a better future and are working to turn that vision into a reality.
The pandemic has put constraints on the ways we can organize. We can’t gather for community meetings or petition on street corners. But moments like these, when our options seem limited, are when organizers really thrive. Some of the most effective organizing movements emerged from staring down an obstacle and getting creative.
We’ve already seen examples of turning obstacles into opportunities for creativity and expansion. When PennEnvironment’s climate action lobby day had to go virtual, they used the opportunity to their advantage. Scheduling video calls with representatives and hosting the rally online allowed organizers to engage a larger and more diverse array of people across the state. The reason: participants didn’t have to travel or take a full day off of work to join in. With 481 attendees and almost 100 meetings held with representatives, it was PennEnvironment’s largest lobby day yet.
I’ve been inspired by the creativity I’ve seen as organizers use digital tools in new and unexpected ways — from Environment Colorado’s virtual scavenger hunt on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, to this year’s version of the Hands Across the Sand project, when physically joining hands across our beaches wasn’t possible.
When organizers encounter obstacles — that’s when the magic happens.
PennEnvironment at last year’s climate lobby day in Pennsylvania’s capitol
The foundation of organizing is people. It always has been, and a shift in how we organize will never change that fact. Nothing is more important than forging meaningful relationships and forming a base of people power to fuel a movement.
Anyone who has worked on social media organizing will tell you not to focus on “vanity metrics” — numbers that might make you feel good about yourself, such as the total followers you have or likes on a post. If a metric doesn’t encourage real engagement or lead to substantial action, it won’t take you anywhere closer to your vision for a better world. However, using social media to ask questions, prompt actions and give people a voice can not only grow but also strengthen your community, turning those likes and comments into a network of dedicated, involved activists.
Digital tools give us the ability to reach out across what once was an insurmountable divide of time and space and pull people into our community. We can ask someone in a different city what issues they care about and listen when they explain their position. We can ask someone on the other side of the country to sign our petition. Even when we’re cut off by social isolation, we can reach out to someone down the street to provide the tools they need to get involved in a campaign they care about.
When the clock strikes eight, I stick my head out the window to howl. I hear my neighbors calling, hooting and laughing back at me and to each other, and I think this is what community is all about. These connections are what fuel our campaigns and give strength to our voices when they’re raised together — and they’re what will strengthen our organizing when we can safely return to offline community organizing again.
Header photo: Wednesday keeping an eye on the 8 o’clock howlers