When many people think about activism, they’re likely envisioning its most visible component: People emerging from the comfort of their homes to physically gather together and make their voices heard.
Those protests and rallies have established themselves as indelible moments in history on their own: the Million Man March, the Stonewall Riot, the Women’s March on Washington. But with COVID-19 spreading across the world at dangerous rates, entire countries are being encouraged to stay inside. As a result, activists have shifted their techniques so that they can still bring productive change for LGBTQ+ rights, the climate crisis, and online privacy in a time when going outside in large groups of people is frowned upon at best and deadly at worst.
“The work that I do and that so many other people do in the movement is about bringing people together,” Katie Eder, the executive director of the Future Coalition, a youth-led climate crisis organization, told MTV News. “My personal theory of change is that by coming together, by uniting, by reaching across differences and collaborating, that's how we can create real change. But we can't physically convene people [right now]. It's very difficult and provides barriers that you truly never could have imagined.”
The staff of the Future Coalition has always worked remotely, but they as much as anyone else know the power of coming together. In 2019, they helped lead record-breaking protest movements to draw attention to the modern climate crisis. They were planning another strike on Earth Day this year, for which they expected to see “millions of people out on the streets” on April 22. Now, that entire strike is going to be virtual, and the group is being forced to “reimagine what a social movement can look like in the digital age.”
To pull that off, the team is looking to the activists who laid the groundwork for their current movement — which is exactly how they put in the work before social distancing became the new standard. “We look at the civil rights movement, the LGBTQ+ revolution, [and] other large social shifts that have happened in this country as historical context and inspiration for the work that we do now,” Eder explained. “Our movements actually end up looking very, very similar to what they looked like many decades ago, even though the times have changed so much. And I think one of the reasons is because social movements haven't yet figured out how we can utilize text and digital tools to the fullest extent to bring that change.”
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ+ civil rights organization, is also transitioning their activism, which is rooted in over 40 years of on-the-ground work, as well as hundreds of staff and volunteers whose skills now have to pivot for the digital age.
“Traditionally, the [HRC] has worked with campaign organizers in various states to engage with voters and prospective voters on the election,” Alphonso David, the president of the HRC, told MTV News. “That means everything from phone banking, to knocking on doors, to working directly with prospective candidates or actual candidates for office and helping them in their operations, making sure that they're successful. A lot of that work involved [door-to-door] or hand-to-hand contact”
So the HRC started creating new tools for their hundreds of volunteers to continue to push for change while social distancing. They’ve created an advocacy app called TEAM, which helps volunteers directly engage their own personal contacts via text, email, and social media to mobilize them to vote. “In short, text messages, Facebook messenger, and Instagram and Twitter direct messages are the new door knocks,” HRC said in a press release about the app. The organization also created weekly Tuesday Textbanks outreach events with their Swing State Squad, in which HRC staff and volunteers call voters in swing states like Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The nonprofit also offers virtual training to ensure activists are still doing the work while they’re socially distancing, and they’ve created resources to transition in-person volunteer opportunities to virtual or remote events.
“This crisis is going to have an impact on how people interact with each other, not only for purposes of political organizing and the elections, but generally,” David said. “And so we are pivoting to make sure that we do have the capacity, we do have the technological support, and we've done the training. We are staffing our volunteers so that we can maximize impact in November.”
But there are some activists who have always done their work remotely: Fight for the Future is one of the most online organizations out there. Not only do their entire staff and volunteer force work on the internet, but their nonprofit has worked to advocate for digital rights and internet privacy since 2011.
“In a weird way, not a lot has changed in terms of our day to day work,” Deputy Director Evan Greer told MTV News, adding that Fight for the Future’s global team “already are used to communicating and meeting largely online.”
As a result, their shift has been more in the focus of Fight for the Future’s activism than in how its teams create that work. “The issue area that we work in of protecting people's basic rights in the digital age and ensuring that technology is used as a force for good rather than a force for greed and charity has always been important,” Greer said. “But it just became exponentially more important” with more and more people logging on. Since the coronavirus outbreak, the numbers of people using the internet in their day-to-day lives continue to increase: They’re working on the internet, conducting video calls, watching press conferences, and playing video games to let off steam and pass the time.
“This moment just clearly shows how essential access to a free and open internet is, where people can get access to real and good information, and where people can debate and discuss ideas and measures that we should be taking to address this crisis.”
That messaging shift is one that the Future Coalition has had to consider, too. “We talk about climate change as the biggest existential threat that is facing humanity,” Eder said. “But because of COVID-19, that arguably isn't true. Right now, the largest threat facing humanity and our safety and wellbeing is COVID-19.”
As these activists and organizations pivot their fight to virtual activism, they’re learning tips and tricks of the trade. For HRC, that means more targeted activism and encouraging volunteers to reach out to their friends and family directly.
“We have an obligation to make sure that we are protecting all disadvantaged and marginalized groups,” David said. “And one of the keys to doing that is shifting to digital organizing to make sure that we can get the word out, we can get the messages out, and we can keep people engaged.”
Greer agreed, adding: “Just because you can't gather people in person does not mean that you can't organize. And does not mean that you can't put real, direct pressure on your target.” She recommends organizing online protests, call-in days, petition efforts, and live streams instead of rallies.
“There's so many ways that we can still gather and exert collective power and exert collective demands on powerful people and institutions without having to meet up in person,” Greer said. “It's not like we have to reinvent the wheel.”
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