Grassroots social justice organizations often suffer from a lack of resources and a heavy workload that leaves them struggling to keep up with the latest developments in areas such social media, fundraising and how to build a successful advocacy campaign. This weekend, more than 500 organizers, trade unionists and other activists from across the New York City area will be gathering in lower Manhattan for Organizing New York, a three-day conference that will feature skill sharing and story telling for practical revolutionaries. For Charles Lenchner, one of the main organizers of the conference, the motivation is simple: “We should care more about how well we're doing what we're doing,” says Lenchner, who spoke with The Indypendent earlier this week.
John Tarleton: If there's one thing lefties in New York are very good at it is holding conferences. So what makes Organizing New York a can't-miss event?
Charles Lenchner: Among activists there is a very intense interest in issues in what do you support, what's your ideology, which theories do you care about. But, I feel like building up skills as skills in order to be more effective in what we're doing sometimes get short shrift.
We should care more about how well we're doing what we're doing than about the ideological nuances or whatever issue or cause we happen to care about most today. Because those causes are going to change over time, the political situation is going to evolve, but one thing that's going to remain constant is that we're here and we need to be better at what we do to get better results.
JT: What are you doing to ensure this conference is as diverse as the city itself?
CL: We are working with a coalition that includes many of the most important community organizing groups in the state which includes Community Voices Heard or Make The Road, New York Communities for Change, Vocal New York and many other organizations that represent those low-income, often majority people-of-color constituencies.
Decisions about what to include in the conference and how we're going about it has all been done with an eye towards making this a place where groups like these are comfortable and included and that the content is useful to what they need to accomplish. Also, we have childcare, and we have made sure that there's at least one session with a live Spanish interpretation at any one time.
JT: One of the main focuses of Organizing New York is going to be on helping groups upgrade their online and social media capabilities. How did that come to be a priority?
CL: When I was Director of Online Organizing at the Working Families Party, I hoped to connect grassroots organizing around economic justice issues in a way that married supporters of those issues with online tools. And when I attended events like Netroots Nation, I found them to often be dominated by Democratic Party operatives who came with a DC, Inside-the-Beltway national politics emphasis that gave the short shrift to labor union locals, community organizing groups and politics at the local level.
These constituencies are important to me. They were behind the curve in how they were using their digital tools. So we set about to create a grassroots, volunteer-led learning event that would teach people, especially younger folks, what quality digital strategy and online organizing looked like so they could take that into their organizations.
JT: We face a number of serious crises these days – the economy, the environment, endless wars and violations of civil liberties among others. Why is local organizing important?
CL: It's not that national politics and issues aren't important but I think that one of the things that makes democracy have a high level of quality is that you as an individual can be intensely connected, that it matters to you in your life, in your community. Something happens at the local level with people that you can meet and issues that you can touch. Online tools can be a force multiplier that makes it possible even for small groups of people to have real influence, to have real voice and agency in what they do. Fifteen people sending emails to an Assemblyperson or a City Councilperson might have more impact than 10,000 emails to a Congressperson.
JT: Fundraising is another main topic in this conference. How should grassroots groups change their approach to fundraising to get better results?
CL: For many groups fundraising is an awful chore that they would rather not have to do but they have to. And I wish that it was seen more as integral to organizing. If you don't raise your own money then your group is not independent. If your members do not have a financial stake in the work that you do then ultimately you're beholden to other groups or other agencies or foundations. Fundraising doesn't have to be a distasteful thing that only happens in the back office. Fundraising is organizing, organizing includes fundraising. This is a movement-wide challenge that will never go away because it frankly can be really hard to just ask people for money, but it should be woven in through out.
JT: Organizing 2.0 will be held a few blocks from the site at Zucotti Park, where Occupy Wall Street once flourished. Do you expect people from Occupy to participate?
CL: We are definitely going to have a bunch of Occupy folks on hand. On Sunday we have a roots camp, which is a way of organizing the conference so that people can show up and agree on what should be done at that time, what workshop to collaborate on or who to listen to and we know that there's occupiers who are coming to participate in that. We actually have a website up where people can submit ideas in advance and have them voted on so we can generate as many creative ideas as possible.
Anyone who is concerned about the cost of fees for attending the conference on Friday and Saturday should contact us. We're doing everything we can to make sure that folks who are actually active doing important things are able to attend no matter what the cost.
JT: How would you say this conference is similar to or different from the Left Forum?
CL: The Left Forum is much more about ideas and issues. They attract an audience that wants to debate or delve into things that are of importance intellectually and politically. We emphasize skills. Also, Left Forum, to its credit, attracts a national and international audience. What we're doing is focused much more on the city and state of New York.
JT: What are some important debates that you would like to see take place during the Organizing New York Conference?
CL: I love it when people debate how online activism is really coming at the expense of in the streets activism. Another fun debate is around the use of open source tools. There's a tension between setting up your systems in a way that's fast, cheap and easy to use for anyone on the one hand versus making sure that you're not using proprietary software on the other. Also, to what extent are organizing tools pioneered by groups like Move On useful at a local level. Tech is only about one third of the conference but this conversation about what the movement's tools should be is an interesting one.
JT: Here in New York there are so many groups working on any number of issues. How can this vast collection of progressive and radical organizations overcome the balkanization that tends to take effect along the lines of geography, language, class, race, etc. and make the sum of their parts greater than the whole?
CL: One way to do that is to have events where you meet to talk about your skills. One of the nice things about bringing everyone together who has to operate say a fundraising database is that they're going to come from different kinds of organizations that believe different things but they all need to figure out how to make sure membership notices go out in the right way.