Are progressives winning on the Web?

 Action Speaks!
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  October 7, 2009


The original Highlander House.

Action Speaks!, the panel discussion series at Providence art space AS220, continues its fall run with a chat about the state of community organizing.

The series focuses on underappreciated dates in history as a springboard for chatter on current events. This time it’s the founding, in 1932, of the Highlander Folk School, now known as the Highlander Research and Education Center, a Tennessee-based training center for lefty activists.

The panel will discuss the transition from door-to-door to email-to-email organizing and ask whether Internet advocacy is the same community-building force as the more traditional sort.

The discussion, free and open to the public, is scheduled for October 14 at 5 pm at AS220, 115 Empire Street, Providence.

Panelists will include Mary Kay Harris, lead organizer for Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) in Providence; Pam McMichael, director of the Highlander center; Nicholas V. Longo, assistant professor of public and community service studies and director of the Global Studies Program at Providence College; and Heather Cronk, chief operating officer for the New Organizing Institute, a Washington, DC-based group that trains progressive nonprofits and political campaigns in new organizing tools.

The Phoenix caught up with Cronk, whose organization has trained MoveOn and the Sierra Club, among others, for a little Q&A — via e-mail, appropriately enough.

WHO IS WINNING THE RACE TOWARD AN ORGANIZING 2.0 — PROGRESSIVES OR CONSERVATIVES? That’s an interesting question, because I’m not actually sure whether it matters who wins that particular footrace. The important question is whether progressives or conservatives are winning the race toward being more innovative, more inclusive, and more empowering in their organizing strategies. I think that progressives are winning that race, and I think some of the web-based tools that have emerged have helped in that effort. I don’t think that online organizing itself is the end goal for progressives — I think it is a means to a more inclusive organizing strategy. And the progressive movement is making great strides in that direction at a faster rate than what I’ve seen from conservatives.

HOW IMPORTANT WAS THE OBAMA CAMPAIGN IN RAISING THE PROFILE OF NEW ORGANIZING TOOLS? I think the Obama campaign’s use of new media and new organizing tools is hugely important — not just in raising the profile of new media, but in “normalizing” new media for the masses. Many of the core volunteers for the campaign were folks over the age of 50 who have been volunteering on campaigns for decades — and now they’re comfortable interacting with a voterfile and phonebanking from their homes. Similarly, there was a new generation of political volunteers born during this campaign in Millennials, who now have a new standard for campaign work — one that is transparent and empowering. That’s a big deal.

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