2017/Grassroots activism is hard. Can open source help?

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Notes for the session on Grassroots activism is hard. Can open source help?


If you're involved in grassroots activism, we want to hear your perspectives!

From the session discussion:

This session will

  • Survey the landscape today (with details documented on the wiki)
    • Describe grassroots activist groups’ typical needs
    • Look at the kinds of solutions in use today
    • Highlight techniques from projects like Resistance Manual that take an explicitly intersectional focus
  • Identify areas where open-source solutions could have an impact
    • Look at some existing open-source offerings, how they can help today, and how they could evolve to better meet grassroots activists’ needs
    • Identify future directions that could be even more impactful


Grassroots groups' needs

  • organize and publicize events
  • let members know about regular actions
  • provide updates on group’s accomplishments, strategy and priorities
  • discuss group’s strategy and tactics
  • help members and leaders level up organizing skills
  • help members and leaders learn anti-racism, inclusive language, and ally skills
  • provide news on “resistance” activities across the US
  • share news about and discuss local, state, federal, and interntational politics
  • let new potential members find out about the group
  • shape media coverage
  • get involved in elections in your geography
  • get involved in elections elsewhere (fundraising, phone banking, postcards)
  • work in coalition with other groups in your network
  • work in coalition with other groups in your geography
  • promote other groups’ events
  • have online/video/phone meetings
  • make decisions
  • provide a rapid response network


Discussion questions

1. What else should be on the list?

2. Which of these do you think your group does particularly well? How do you do it?

3. Which of these has your group had challenges with? Is there something you’ve tried that hasn’t worked out well?

If you're invloved in grassroots activism, we want to hear your perspectives!

Current tool landscape

italics are open-source technologies

bold indicates the most common choices


  • mailing lists: listserv , Google Group
  • Facebook: closed or secret groups, pages, events, public groups
  • Meetup: events
  • collaborative editing: Google Docs, Etherpad
  • Chat/Group Messaging: Slack, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Viber, WeChat
  • Encrypted Messaging: are there any examples of groups using Whisper, Wire, Wickr, Matrix/Riot, etc.?
  • Platforms: Action Network, Mobilize.IO
  • Forums: Discourse, riseup, Google Group, IPS
  • Live streaming video: Facebook Live, Periscope
  • website and/or blog: Wordpress, Squarespace, Wix ... is anybody using Drupal?
  • calendar: Google calendar
  • other social networks: Twitter, Instagram, Youtube
  • decision-making: Loomio (any examples of this?)

Discussion questions

1. Which of these is your group using, and what else should be on your list?

2. Which of these are working well for you? Any specific techniques you want to share?

3. Which of these has your group had challenges with?

Intersectional techniques

Intersectionality is a term coined by American civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination. Here's a working list of effective practices for activism groups.


  • reduce barriers to access
    • For physical meetings
      • Ensure they are in accessible places.
      • Arrange childcare.
      • Provide video and phone options for people who can't be there in person.
    • Avoid jargon or overly-technical language.
      • The Resistance Manual writes at a 5th-grade reading level
      • When you do use unfamiliar terms, define them and provide resources help people learn - for example, this page on Intersectionality
    • Provide information in multiple forms, taking into account people who don't have a computer (or don't want to do politics online), people who don't have a smartphone, people with vision and mobility problems and other disaibilities, people who really like email or Facebook and spend all their time there
    • Accommodate people with different amounts of time availability and different skills
      • Make sure to have tasks that only take a few minutes, and/or can be done on evenings or weekends
    • Remember that not everybody is an expert at everything so provide good onboarding and training. Examples:
      • a Web page that all volunteers (and potential volunteers) can read with information about the organization's purpose, values, and guidelines
      • a Slack Bot that welcomes people and tells them where key information is
      • a video explaining how to edit a wiki
      • training for moderators *** link to training video coming soon ***
      • definitions of key terms like intersectionality
      • "office hours": scheduled times with experienced people available to answer questions.
        • in-person, cafes can work well; many libraries and community centers have small rooms you can use, although typically you have to sign up in advance
        • on a teleconference or video chat
        • in Slack
      • "pairing" with somebody more experienced
  • institutionalize intersectionality at every step. Examples:
    • incorporate intersectional diversity in the group's vision, values, and strategies
    • highlight disparate impact of issues on different dimensions Resistance Manual
    • groups (or Slack channels or email lists) for people with intersectional backgrounds and/or for allies
      • for Indvisible Plus Washington State (Indy+), these groups were set up and are led by members, not the admins or moderatos for the main groups
    • daily action groups add links to a call to action with background from multiple dimensions (gender, LGBTQ+, economic justice, disability) and diverse perspectives within a dimension
    • a diverse (in multiple dimension) set of moderators with a commitment to an intersectional approach
    • people or roles charged with highlighting intersections between issues. Examples:
      • Moderators flag possible opportunities to cross-reference content across policy areas (Resistance Manual)
      • Volunteer copy editors look for opportunities to add links to other policy pages (Resistance Manual)
      • to highlight intersections (and avoid creating silos), route information to people looking at it from multiple perspectives. For example: Resistance Manual guidelines say that when people come across something that they’re not sure where to include, they route it to multiple team leads (folks who’ve volunteered to track specific policy areas), who then ensure it’s in the right place as well as being cross referenced appropriately.
      • relatively-experienced people who can help guide conversations even without having moderator powers
    • look for ways to reach out to people outside your usual circles. Examples
      • print leave-behinds for cafes, community centers, bulletin boards, ...
        • consider multiple versions: QR codes are great for millennials; a small amount of information in relatively large print, with a URL to get more info, is better for seniors
      • Facebook promotions/ads to reach demographics underrepresnted in your current organization
      • offer to help other groups
  • help people learn - and take on larger roles if they want
    • provide training, resources, and discussion in anti-racism, microaggressions, bystander intervention, call-in culture, etc.
    • provide mentoring
    • avoid relying on unpaid labor (especially from people in marginalized groups). Offer to pay trainers and facilitators for their time

Best practices for improving diversity and inclusion in organizations

Adapted from a list in Observations from TechInclusion16 summarizing best practices for technology companies.

  • align diversity and inclusion efforts with the organization’s goals
  • treat it as seriously as other priorities
  • prioritize and drive from the top
  • start early
  • focus on creating an inclusive culture (including training on unconscious bias and microaggressions, and keeping people with disabilities in mind) as well as getting diverse representation
  • approach it intersectionally, focusing on race and gender and disability (including invisible disabilities) and age and LGBTQ+ people and cognitive differences and other dimensions of diversity
  • broaden the recruiting pool by looking for people from non-traditional backgrounds and creating relationships with diversity-focused organizations
  • remember that not everybody’s online! - and that for many people who are online, it’s not a safe place to do activism


Discussion questions

  • What techniques do you use to help with diversity and inclusion? Possibilities include codes of conduct, training (in-person or online), processes (making sure to review public communications from a diversity perspective before sending them out), technologies (for example, using Textio to analyze language for biases), or anything else.
  • Do you do accessibility testing to make sure your online information is available to people with disabilities?
  • Online discussions on issues related to race, gender, class, disability, and the intersections between them often grow heated. How does your group deal with this? For example, do you encourage a "call-in" culture instead of call-out culture? Are there some ways of having or moderating discussions online that make them more educational and less likely to spin off the rails? Are there some topics that are just off limits
  • Looking at diversity and inclusion challenges your group has, how do today's online tools make things better or worse? Where are there opportunities to do better?
  • What projects do you look to as role models for being inclusive in multiple dimensions of diversity? What techniques have worked well for them?