"Coordinating On-line and Off-Line Organizing"


Remarks given by Chris Caruso, Director of Human Rights Tech
To the "Grassroots Use of the Internet" Conference
Yale University Law School
March 25, 2000

It's no news to anyone at this conference, that this technology revolution that we've been living through in the past 30 years is changing everything, from globalization to the apparent rewriting of economic fundamentals by this so-called "New Economy." While the information economy has produced incredible wealth and abundance, this bounty has benefited only a small fraction of United States residents. Presently, the top 1% of Americans hold 42% of the wealth, while the bottom 80% own only 16% of the wealth. This concentration of wealth is greater than it has been since the Great Depression. More children are homeless today than during the Depression. 44 million people in the United States are without health insurance. In addition, real wages for the great majority of workers have been stagnant since the mid-1970s. The information economy has created incredible new possibilities, but this boom is leaving out poor and working families.

A potent expression of these disparities is the "digital divide". Economically disadvantaged people and communities lack access to the Internet and skills necessary to use it. A study by the United States National Telecommunications and Information Administration describes that use of the Internet is directly related to one's income level; only 12% of people at the lowest income bracket are able to use the Internet, compared with 60% of those in the highest income bracket.

Further, this research shows that the digital divide, far from closing, is actually growing wider. In the past year, the access gap between the highest and lowest income brackets grew by 30%.

I believe that the same technologies that are now causing these great disparities can be used to end them. For the past five years, I have used my expertise in the technology field to develop Internet strategies for organizations of low-income people and heal this "digital divide".

I started working with the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in Philadelphia to develop an Internet strategy in 1996. The KWRU is a grassroots anti-poverty organization located in North Philadelphia. Kensington is the poorest neighborhood in the state of Pennsylvania. In the past 30 years, Philadelphia has lost over a quarter million jobs, net. In the last 20 years, Philadelphia lost more than half of its factory jobs. KWRU was able to get a computer and software donated, and were able to raise the $60 they paid for one year of internet access, and create an award-winning web page that has been linked to by 20/20 News, MTV News, Netaid, and many others.

We've developed a very successful Internet strategy over the last five years. All sorts of things can happen when you have a strong presence on the Internet. A couple years ago, a filmmaker in Sweden got a contract from the BBC to do a documentary on the impact of welfare reform in the US. He didn't know where to begin, so he sent out some general email to some lists, and someone pointed him in the direction of KWRU. He looked at the site, printed every page of the site out, stuffed them in his briefcase, and flew to Philadelphia. He then proceeded to film a documentary on the real impact of welfare reform in the US, as a way to try to influence public policy in Sweden to stop the imposition of the supposedly successful "American Model" of welfare reform in his country.

Recently, I've begun to systematized the lessons I have learned and have formed my own non-profit organization, Humanrightstech to multiply these lessons and share them with other grassroots anti-poverty groups.

I want to talk about some of the ways that grassroots organizations can use the Internet to advance their organizing work. The Internet can be a powerful tool for breaking the isolation of grassroots organizations, allowing them to spread their message and find allies from all sectors of society. The Internet allows grassroots organizations to reach a potential audience of millions with a very small investment of resources. No other communications technology offers such possibility for low-cost access to such an enormous audience. The Internet can't be compared to TV or radio in terms of cost of entry at all. Few grassroots organizations could afford to even buy time on the radio or television, much less start their own TV or radio station. But, any grassroots organization can start their own web site.

And of course, that's the problem, as well. Easy of entry means that there are many, many web sites to compete with for people's attention. Some have called this the "paradox of plenty" - people are now faced with so many choices for sources of information, it's very difficult to stand out. Traffic on the Internet today is doubling every 100 days. One way that companies attempt to stand out amongst this information overload is to pour large amounts of money into their advertising budgets to promote their web sites. This isn't an option for most grassroots organizations that I know of.

As grassroots organizations, we have to lean on our strengths in solving this problem. We have to tie our on-the-ground organizing work with our on-the-net strategies. I've found that that nexus, of coordinating on-line and off-line activities, to be a very powerful place.

I think of the Internet as a giant magnifying glass, that has the potential to let millions see what we are doing. But we need to be doing something to draw people in.

One example of successful tying of on-line and off-line organizing is humanrightstech's work on the March of the Americas. The March of the Americas was a month-long march from Washington DC to the United Nations in New York City to protest poverty and welfare reform in the US. It was held in October of 1999. The march was organized by a group of 40 grassroots anti-poverty organizations called the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign. Humanrightstech turned a van into a mobile Internet training center. We trained leaders of poor people's organizations in using the Internet to broadcast their struggles. This took the form of repeated educationals on the possibilities of the Internet for poor people's organizing, as well as on-going trainings of poor leaders in the mobile Internet training center. From this mobile Internet training center, we produced daily updates of the details of the days' events as well as original digital videos of the march, pictures and stories of various poor people and organizations that attended, spoken testimonials of violations of economic human rights, digital audio files of the educational events that took place all along the march, and discussions among groups across the country and across the globe.

The march itself generated the content for us to have compelling updates of the web page on a daily basis (see http://www.kwru.org/ehrc/moa.html). Regularly updating a website is usually a sound method for getting people to keep coming back to your site. At the same time, we were able to advertise our website with every flyer we handed out along the whole march route. We even had signs and t-shirts with our web address that went along with the march. We estimate that 35,000 people from over 40 different countries followed the march on the web that month. We tied reporting content with education content, so as people visited the page to find out about the march, then would always have choices for educational content to help them learn about the issues and struggles facing the organizations that made up the march.

One of the main goals for this kind of web activity is for building networks of support. Feeling connected to the work of an organization tends to increase people's commitment. To be able to follow a campaign like a march day by day, with multimedia content, really makes people feel a part of something. In addition to regularly updating sites, another important practice is to find ways to make the viewers' web experience as interactive and participatory as possible.

One example of an Internet-based campaign comes from the recent letter-writing campaign sponsored by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. The director, Cheri Honkala, was arrested during the WTO protests for peacefully expressing her views. She was charged with obstruction and assault of a police officer. She was offered a plea bargain that included a gag rule, barring her from participating in any demonstration for two years. She rejected this attempt to deprive her of her first amendment rights and prepared for a trial. KWRU launched an intensive campaign over the Internet, utilizing their web page (http://www.kwru.org) and a large targeted number of list-serves to encourage people to write letters to the prosecutor of the case and ask that the case be dropped. The act of writing the letter is a simple way that people can participate in the activity of the organization. Some people who encountered the letter volunteered to translate the letter into several other languages. KWRU generated over 1,000 letters from across the country as well as Ireland, France, Canada, Quebec and elsewhere. The case was recently dropped on First Amendment grounds. But perhaps as important, KWRU was able to expand its network of supporters and its influence.

Another important aspect of grassroots organizations use of the Internet is to understand the Internet as an information backbone for other forms of media. The Internet doesn't just affect people who have direct access to it. The Internet can deliver publishable documents, radio-ready audio, and soon will be able to carry broadcast quality video. One example is the work of the Atlanta Labor Pool Worker's Union. They are a union of low-wage workers who work nine hours a day doing construction and other heavy work for less than minimum wage. Somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 Atlanta citizens work every day these labor pools, which built much of the Atlanta Olympics and Emory University, and make so little money they are forced to live in homeless shelters. Some of the leaders of the union were graduates of the mobile Internet training center on the March of the Americas. They are now training their members to use the Internet both as a research medium and as a powerful tool for organizing. They use the Internet to gain access to and print out thousands of copies of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other documents created during the March, which they distribute as part of the organizing they do in the labor pools and the shelters. The difficulty that they face in getting this information is a testament to their value of it: their organization has no computer, and they walk to the library to access and print this information. Thus, hundreds of people that are living in shelters in Atlanta or working in labor pools are receiving printed information concerning their human rights via the Internet, many of whom have never even seen the net.

Another important aspect of grassroots use of the Internet is that the mastery of cutting-edge tools, like the Internet, is an inspiring and empowering accomplishment for people who have been denied access to the mainstream of society. It can literally open up a whole world to those whose lives have been very circumscribed by poverty. Another group that humanrightstech has worked with is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (http://www.ciw-online.org). Located in Immokalee, Florida, the Coalition is an organization of migrant farm workers primarily of Mexican, Guatemalan, and Haitian descent. They mostly pick tomatoes in Immokalee. They make 40 cents for every 32 pound bushel of tomatoes that they pick. They have been paid the same rate for the last 20 years. The Coalition has many accomplishments to date, including winning hundreds of thousands of dollars in back wages, and breaking up two slavery rings that existed in the surrounding communities. .

Humanrightstech trained members of the Coalition in digital video editing in order to create their own educational videos. Videos are a principal method of their education; the Coalition goes from labor camp to labor camp, leading discussions and showing videos that encourage workers to organize. They are able to show videos of the conditions they themselves work in, and their own organized response to those conditions at the labor camps where they do their educations. Even more significant, the experience of seeing themselves and their campaigns through the eyes of the video camera is immensely powerful; it clearly and forcefully shows the importance of their struggles, and allows members to see unmistakable examples of their own leadership. The Coalition has been able to stream videos over the Internet, showing the world their struggles.

Member organizations of the Poor People's Economic Human Right Campaign who are interested in developing Internet strategies for their organizing work should contact Chris via email 'chris at humanrightstech dot org' for assistance.