Infusing “Social” into Social Justice Organizations

This is a guest post by Daniel Jae-Won Lee, Executive Director of the Levi Strauss Foundation.  It was originally published on January 31, 2012 on “Beth’s Blog”.

Time Magazine provocatively named “The Protester” as its 2011 “Person of the Year” for its riveting influence on last year’s social and political events. As courageous citizens connected with each other to express dissent and organize public actions, social media tools spurred activism and social change in unprecedented ways.

Chalk up my vote for 2011’s “Best Debut Artist” and “Best Supporting Actor.”

But for legal and advocacy organizations that defend civil liberties in the United States, forays into the social marketplace come with a unique set of challenges – and, no doubt, risks:

  •  In the decentralized (indeed, some might say cacophonous) field of social media, engaging in two-way conversations means surrendering “message control” and the traditional calculus of “message discipline.”
  •  In this sound bite culture, social justice organizations must carve out nuanced positions on complex social issues, from racial and gender equity to immigration reform. What this often means is that their messages might not garner the media attention or viral traction they deserve.
  • While emotive storytelling is crux to engaging the hearts and minds of social media consumers, advocates are ethically bound to preserve the privacy of vulnerable clients.
  • Finally, substantiating impact and success to risk-averse board members may be vexing.

The Levi Strauss Foundation launched the “Pioneers in Justice” initiative to tackle the “social media for social change” zeitgeist head-on. Through this initiative, we are supporting a group of dynamic, next-generation leaders in the social justice field in the San Francisco Bay Area as they retool their organizations for greater impact. The Bay Area, after all, is renowned as a cradle of innovation – both for technology and social movements.

“Pioneers in Justice” operates as a forum to explore social media tools that may power their local advocacy work and explore “networked” ways of collaboration within the social justice sector – and equally important, a space to address any concerns that may surface along the way. The Pioneers’ approach is flexible yet focused:

  • We encourage these organizations to take sensible, measured steps to integrate social media into their organizational and social change trajectories. As Beth Kanter invokes: Crawl, Walk, Run and Fly.
  • We also aim to help them measure incremental progress against their goals of engaging younger and more diverse constituencies, driving successful campaigns, and building a moral and political consensus around their change agendas.

MiACLU is a one-of-a-kind project born from this framework.

MiACLU.org is an online, Spanish-language platform created by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, an organization well-known for its spirited defense of civil liberties (advocating free speech, marriage equality and immigrants’ rights, among other issues). As rapid demographic shifts powerfully reshape the cultural and political landscape of California, they also give rise to anxieties that may render immigrants vulnerable. Latinos, who comprise the bulk of California’s immigrant population, tend to be younger and less affluent than the state population as a whole.

Against this backdrop, the ACLU-NC is seeking a crucial opportunity to grow its impact. This year, MiACLU seeks to engage 10,000 monolingual and bilingual Spanish-speaking Californians. MiACLU is a new entry point – amplified by ethnic media and personalized through community outreach—to engage this population on the key issues that affect them.

MiACLU isn’t just a cookie-cutter to an English website—it’s an independent portal for original content in Spanish, with its unique set of tools. Facebook, Twitter and text messaging are also in the pipeline. It’s the first web-based space to promote the understanding and protection of constitutional rights among Spanish speakers by the ACLU affiliates in California. Check out this manual with vital nuggets of information about knowing your rights in the wake of natural disasters, or this article explaining how immigrants who are victims of crime may apply for a U.S. visa.

In time, it may become a platform for immigrant communities to help ACLU-NC drive momentous legal and policy victories. For example, ACLU-NC is working to keep local police and sheriffs out of immigration enforcement; Latinos account for 40% of all Californians and many experience racial profiling that is exacerbated when local law enforcement gets pulled into immigration enforcement.

So, that’s the spirit of “Pioneers in Justice”: taking leaps of faith (big and small) with social media to drive engagement and action among new and unexpected audiences. Can justice roll down like waters, propelled by viral?