Q&A: A West Point for Community Organizing
Since its first boot camp in 2006 the New Organizing Institute has trained more than 700 organizers across the country in leveraging online tools to generate offline action. It’s the nation’s leading progressive advocacy and campaign training program and it’s quietly and forcefully redefining the way campaigns are run and social change happens. Judith Freeman, one of the organization’s founders, worked on the new media strategy for the Obama campaign and is using those same tactics to train leaders from organizations like the NAACP and the Red Cross. We spoke to Ms. Freeman about what community organizing looks like in the 21st century.
GOOD: How exactly did the NOI get started?
JUDITH FREEMAN: In 2004 there was a handful of us who had started doing this work and I organized this retreat of about 20 to 25 people who had really done a lot of innovation with how you integrate, how you link the online work and the technology with the field. It was this group trying to take things to a new level. So that retreat was really what NOI came out of, it was born out of this community of people who really cared about the work and had a vision for how, if we created an organization (which became NOI), we could train a whole new generation of organizers who understood technology, who care about campaign management and who want to integrate the best of our volunteer and field organizing strategies with how you do things online.
G: That first training—was that one of your boot camps?
JF: Yes, exactly. We have three main program areas: We have data and tech, we do a lot on new media and online organizing and how to use the internet for activism and electoral work, and then we have field organizing and organizing strategy. Some of our boot camps are a combination of all three of those areas.
G: What kind of people do you hope to recruit for the boot camps?
JF: We recruit for graduating college seniors, new graduates, or career change professionals. We get a lot of people in the 21 to 25 range and then we get fewer people who are newly interested. We got a lot of people last year who were newly interested in politics and organizing after the 2008 election. We’re looking for people who are totally committed to doing this work as their career for life, people who want to be organizers doing social change work.
G: Now that we have what many people would call a progressive leader in the White House, does that change the kind of work you are doing?
JF: One of our major goals is to promote engagement organizing and to create leaders. Whether there is a progressive or a Republican or a Democrat in the White House there’s always going to be social change that we need to fight for and so we need to have a cadre of people that are trained and doing the work in a way that’s smart and strategic. I think there are going to be places where the organizing work sort of lines up with the current administration and places where we feel like we need to push. Our job is to support the work that’s going to create real change and make people’s lives better.
G: What are your goals over these next couple of years?
JF: Our biggest goal right now is to promote this idea of engagement organizing. We can help with the strategies and the tools and tactics but we really rely on local leadership and the community that wants to get the work done. There were a lot of people who said after the Obama campaign that it was an anomaly, that you can only do that in a presidential election—there’s no way that you can get that many volunteers engaged in other types of campaigns. It’s been proven wrong.
We’re working with organizations that believe that America is full of great people that care about their country, that want to invest their time in helping make people’s lives better and so it's our job to help create a situation where people are able to do that. If we can create these structures that actually keep people engaged then it’s going to help us win victories for people and create a better society.
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