At a tech conference it's natural to give a lot of attention to really cool technology. But too often successful social movements are only examined on the surface, and from Tahrir Square to Ferguson all we hear are cries of the "Twitter revolution" or criticisms of "slacktivism." We need to go deeper. We need to look at how social justice works, apply it to your own situation, and then pick the tools that support that work. While I work as a freelance web developer, my degree is in social movement theory and my background is community organizing, and I spent a few minutes talking about what really powers successful social change
Some of you already know lots about social justice; you've been working harder and fighting longer than I've been alive. But others are newer to this, or ended up here via a marketing or fundraising route, so I want to talk a little bit about the technology of social change.
In popular culture, we have two stories we usually tell about social change -- two lenses in which we view advocacy and activism. The first is about an inspiring leader. Like Rosa Parks, who we hear was too tired to get up and prompted a city to boycott a racist public policy.
The second story we tell is about a spontaneous event. Something shifted in the world around us, and people responded in positive ways. Egyptians took to the square, and to Facebook, to reclaim their democracy.
While both of these stories have kernels of truth -- events happen, and people inspire -- they are fundamentally not how social change occurs. Instead, it's movement-building work that pushes change forward.
Rosa Parks wasn't just tired -- she was trained, as these photos from the Highlander Folk School show. The Egyptian revolution didn't just happen, it was preceded by years of student organizing, shown in the Atavist article “The Instigators.”
The most successful social change movements didn't just get lucky or figure out how to use the newest tools, they were built through concerted strategic planning. Catalyst moments might be unplanned, but the infrastructure can be built ahead of time.
Now, in our organizations, we tend to privilege one set of actions over the other. We focus on important task-based work like website development, fundraising, communications, and the campaign strategy I just mentioned.
But there's more to an organization and more to a movement than that. There's another group of endeavors sometimes called maintenance work, and it flies under the radar even though it's crucial to keeping our campaigns afloat.
Maintenance work involves things like leadership development, facilitating communication, conflict resolution, anti-oppression work, and visioning, the things that fertilize our movements.
We often privilege task work over maintenance work. Community knowledge and strategic knowledge are devalued in favor of technical knowledge, because technical knowledge can be more easily measured.