Care/Work

This week, the internet — at least the tiny section of it where I hang out — has been consumed with a conversation about care and the movement. Building off an article written last summer by my awesome co-worker Yashna, my colleague B. wrote a piece called An End to Self Care, which was published at the beginning of the week and prompted a slew of responses. In response, the good folks at Organizing Upgrade started a Community Care channel on their website, to further the discussion.

If you haven’t read those pieces yet, you should go do so. Now. Especially Yashna’s original piece. They are incredibly thoughtful, brilliant and heartfelt pieces — way above the standard of writing here at Domestic Left — and I can’t really do them justice in a quick summary. But speaking most broadly, as Yashna puts it in her introduction to the new community care channel, it is a “conversation about our capacity to survive and thrive, individually and collectively,” as part of social movements that often demand, or seem to demand, insane amounts of work.

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The most interesting thing I found about this conversation, as I read the pieces, was that of all of them, I had the most visceral (in a positive way) reaction to Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s piece, “For Badass Disability Justice, Working-Class and Poor-Led Models of Sustainable Hustling for Liberation.” Which was odd, because I am none of those things (demographically I’m pretty much a Republican’s dream American, middle-class, home-owning white guy with a wife and two kids), and, when I’m honest about it, not particularly good at connecting with people from widely different backgrounds.

Thinking more on this, though, brought me back to the fact that my foundational politicization was in the labor movement — specifically, for most of my adult life I’ve been a rank and file member of UE. For many years I served in various leadership capacities, and for eleven years, my wife worked for the union. And, while we certainly worked too hard, occasionally to the level of taking a toll on our relationship, we were constantly surrounded by a culture of struggle over work hours, and over time (something that my shop, in particular, was pretty militant about). While I would frequently bust my ass going to meetings outside of “work time,” I certainly wasn’t going to let my boss schedule me outside of my union-contract-enforced availability, or even make me work too hard when I was on the clock.

This is, of course, not a suggestion that we should bring that attitude to work when we’re employed by movement organizations (in fact, I do think it is problematic when organizers, who often expect members to spend hours every week doing work for the union or movement on top of their regular job, insist on working a strict 40 hour week). But I do think we should ask ourselves the question, do our movements really have a political program around work?

The labor movement was arguably founded, not even so much on struggles for higher wages, as on the struggle for the eight hour day — and one of the slogans for the eight hour day was “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.” For what we will. Workers in the nineteenth century demanded a right to leisure, as a whole, as a class. Are any of our movements today that audacious?

Certainly the labor movement has given up any serious attempt to shorten the workday or workweek on a political level — although the best parts of it still struggle on the shop-floor level against mandatory overtime, against speedup and for rights to do union business (including educational activities) during the workday. And, as Piepzna-Samarasinha writes so eloquently, working-class and poor people, people with disabilities, women, and other oppressed classes have both individual and community strategies to resist encroachments on their time and liberty by bosses and the state (and, though they don’t mention this explicitly, husbands/partners, parents, etc.). What movements do, at their best, is raise up the resistance strategies of the oppressed and not only transform them into collective demands, but into visions of a better society that can capture the imaginations of huge numbers of people and move them to action.

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A piece of B.’s article that came in for a lot of critique was the invocation of “a politics and practice of desire that could actually ignite our hearts with a fuel to work endlessly.” This is, on the face of it, quite terrifying. But I also want to interrogate it from a different angle — do our movements really value all work?

I don’t mean to generalize from my own experience, but I actually find straight-up leisure kind of boring. If I’m reasonably well-rested, then I’m going to be puttering around the kitchen doing food prep, or reading Organizing Upgrade, or talking with my kids — and I’m going to make the claim that, just as you can’t have an awesome rally without doing the unglamorous work of phone-banking, you can’t have productive organizers without good food, intellectual stimulation and healthy “family” relationships (however we define our family). Everything that Piepzna-Samarasinha describes — even laying in bed — strikes me as work (in that context), and it seems to me that if we truly value all work (not just the official “organizer” work), then many of our hearts are already ignited with a fuel to work endlessly.

I was asked by a friend a few weeks ago what it would feel like if we had the movement that we need, and I blurted out “it would feel like doing yoga.” I’m still not sure what I meant by that — I think it was the songwriter part of my brain that I’ve trained to make random associations taking over — but part of it is being intentional about using all of our different muscles. If we’re just using our “organizer” muscles all the time, and not our core muscles — the things we do as human beings to maintain ourselves and our communities — then our movement is going to be unbalanced and, ultimately, unsuccessful.

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The flip side to self-determined care is self-determined work (or, to go back to the old Marxist phrase, “unalienated” work). I don’t mean we all get to do whatever we want — clearly, movements and more importantly the organizations that are part of them need discipline, collectivity, and accountability (and those of us with more privilege need to pay special attention to being accountable). And, any just society also needs to have some kind of collective discipline and accountability. But maximizing how much individuals, together with their communities, get to determine the scope, pace and nature of their work seems to be a worthy goal.

This is a conversation about care, but also a conversation about work — about what work we value (or even see), and about what our vision for work is. This is our challenge: to envision a liberatory transformation of all work, and to figure out how, in whatever ways we can, we can begin to live that vision in our own lives and work.

Case Study: A Wish for the Holidays

When my company, Webskillet Cooperative, started working with the National Domestic Workers Alliance in 2011, the first real online campaign we did with them was called A Wish for the Holidays — part of a broader campaign called We Belong Together, led by NDWA and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, to bring women’s perspectives to the immigration debate.

We think this campaign is worth looking at in depth for its combination of various online organizing techniques, together with offline organizing. It is also a great example of bringing simplicity and moral clarity to what is sometimes made into a complex issue. We Belong Together has just launched the 2012 edition of this campaign, and we would love to have folks participate, and to use the comments section below to help us think about innovative ways to use social media and online organizing to reach our 2012 goal of 20,000 letters.

The heart of A Wish for the Holidays is a campaign to get children to write letters to Congress expressing one, shared wish: stop deportations so that all of our families can stay together. Every day, families across the country are separated by deportations and immigrant detentions, and 5.5 million children live with the fear that a parent could be deported. Any child can relate to the fear of losing a parent — which is the first important lesson we draw from this campaign: there is a clear, communicable goal (ending deportations and detentions) and a simple, communicable moral stand behind that goal (children shouldn’t be separated from their parents).

Both years, the campaign was launched with a video:

The video, which we spread via both email lists and social media, and which achieved a certain amount of viral lift, lays out the basic premise of the campaign, narrated by children. It also directs people to a micro-site at webelongtogether.org/wish to sign up. Using a short video (this one is only a little over 2 minutes) is, of course, a great way to introduce a campaign — and people are far more likely to share a video than a website link. However, equally important is the fact that the video has a very clear call to action (go to the microsite to sign up), and that the microsite is set up with a single purpose: to get people to sign up. This is far more effective than a general pitch to “visit our (general) website and get involved.”

The microsite is built with a distinct look and feel from the overall campaign website (We Belong Together). Even more so than in offline organizing, having a clear ask is crucially important in online organizing — and general organizational websites, which frequently have a lot of content and complex menu structures to navigate it, can create a lot of distractions. When people go to the Wish for the Holidays microsite, by contrast, everything is geared towards getting them to sign up for the campaign, and providing them with the materials that they need to participate. The link to sign up, as well as the existing number of pledges, is displayed prominently on every page, and the form loads via a javascript lightbox popup (and is available in the HTML for people using screen-readers and other assistive technologies), so prospective participants don’t even have to wait for a second page to load.

The campaign was also launched with a clear goal of how many letters we hoped to collect (when people sign up they make a pledge to collect a certain number of letters) — last year 5,000, this year 20,000. Having a goal gives the campaign a narrative arc that allows our emails and social media to continuously engage people (we just reached milestone x, can you help us reach milestone y?)

Finally, and most importantly, this campaign was not even really an online campaign — it was a great example of how to use online organizing tools to facilitate “real-world” organizing across a broad geographic area. The basic action — a child writing a letter — took place in community meeting spaces, classrooms, and living rooms across the country, with pens, crayons, markers and paper. It was a campaign than, in theory, could have been organized completely “offline.” But the online tools (the email list, the microsite, and social media) allowed the organizers to communicate to both potential participants and those who had pledged, keep them updated on progress (including scans of letters as they came in), and — crucially — to circulate a report-back video after the letters were delivered. While many, perhaps most of the letters were collected by organizations that were already part of the We Belong Together campaign, the campaign’s lively online presence, and the interplay between online and offline actions, helped individual families, teachers and community leaders across the nation who participated feel connected to people in other cities and states.

So, to sum up our takeaways from working on this campaign:

  1. Having a clear goal and a clear moral stand are important for any campaign; they are especially important in order to spread a campaign online and through social media, where tweets are limited to 140 characters and Facebook statuses not much more than that.
  2. Video is an excellent way to introduce a campaign, but it is important for the video to have a clear call to action (non-profits who enroll in the YouTube Nonprofit Program can actually embed clickable links directly in their videos).
  3. Building microsites for campaigns, instead of just creating pages on existing organizational websites, helps keep potential participants focused on the campaign.
  4. Having a goal creates a narrative arc for the campaign that can help to draw people in.
  5. Regular interchange between online and offline organizing helps keep both vibrant and exciting, and can create a sense of connection among people taking isolated actions dispersed across wide geographical areas.

This year, we’re excited to have launched the campaign earlier, and with much greater social media capacity — use the comments below to share any thoughts or suggestions for social media strategy on this campaign.