On March 2, 2018, we got a call from the students organizing the March for Our Lives. Within a day, a team of tech volunteers was in full swing to support their movement.
I’ve been working at the intersection of technology and political organizing for the better part of a decade, in the Obama 2012 campaign and since. I’ve learned that technologists and grassroots organizers are both all about building — whether it’s creating a startup, a game-changing product or a national movement. We both believe that things can be different, that the status quo can be improved and that change is worth the sacrifice of pushing yourself hard — and then harder — to get it done.
That’s why, after the 2016 election, I created Ragtag, an organization that connects values-driven volunteer tech experts across the country with progressive grassroots organizers. I saw it as leveraging an unharnessed force: Technologists who couldn’t leave their main gigs but who wanted to spend a few hours a week helping organizers dedicated to worthy causes. The major missing piece was a community hub to align skillsets and needs, and ensure that all involved are supported and that their time is respected.
As you might guess, we’ve been busy. And then we got busier.
On March 2, 2018, we got a call from the students organizing the March for Our Lives. They had the vision, they had the message and they had the national enthusiasm and support. But they had been thrown into political advocacy unexpectedly by tragedy, and things were moving fast. Within a day, a team of tech volunteers was in full swing to support their movement.
Online donation infrastructure and texting operations were put in place, and Ragtag volunteers ensured that content and widgets from multiple allies — including Everytown and Rock the Vote — were appropriately integrated into the March for Our Lives website. When website traffic surged and surged, we provided that needed additional tech support.
We’ve worked with organizations, activists and candidates across every state in the U.S., ranging from March On to Indivisible to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. We work with a slew of new (and often under-resourced) political candidates. We’ve learned a lot, and I want to share with the technology community three key elements of successfully engaging with this new generation of activists.
These people and groups move at a very fast pace. Technologists are only as useful as we are quick and plugged in. If an organization is having a mass action in less than a month, the advice you give must be pinned to that need. It can be hard for organizers and activists to think about the long game of tech when they have urgent, immediate needs. Frankly, if they’re not confident that a tech tool will help them meet their goals faster and more efficiently, they will go without it.
Your role is to deliver what’s truly needed and keep the long view in mind. Make sure that you’re posing the right decision points to encourage groups to think clearly in stressful times about their digital presence and data usage.
Resist the urge to judge an organization running a mile a minute if they aren’t completely clear on the distinction between the website they need built and a digital marketing strategy. They have other expertise. Use the opportunity to learn from them.
Everyone loves bells and whistles, but at the end of the day, if you’re talking about a group with a small budget that is mostly volunteer-run, they need solutions that are simple to administer and won’t require additional staff to maintain. This means looking first for existing tech tools, from the organizing world as well as the business world, that are easy to use, robust, maintained and well-supported.
Very few organizations, activists or candidates need anything like a custom solution, and — per the service mentality — make sure that when you’re going down (or paving) the road, the group will have the tools and expertise to keep the technology working long into the future.
At Ragtag, we’ve cultivated a system that ensures that technology is operational and tailored to groups’ needs even as individual volunteers come and go, because they do. This is critical to and respectful of the needs of the technologists and the organizers and activists we work with.
Privacy and security
I’m using these terms globally, not just to refer to the critical privacy and security needs for any given digital presence. I’m talking about the trust that’s needed to engage with these groups.
Many groups are rightly nervous about the public finding out what they’re working on. There are real costs, for people and causes, to disclosures on hard issues. These should happen because the timing is right — around an action or a campaign — not because there’s a problem with an app. Respecting what this means both for the technology recommendations and for the way you interact with activists is important.
We partner with nearly 500 volunteers based in 27 states, and they find this work very rewarding. There are significant opportunities for two-way learning, for building out one’s own ability to contribute to movements and for contributing to substantial change.
And there’s more than enough work to do these days. We strongly encourage any interested technologists to consider joining us at Ragtag. Learn more by visiting https://ragtag.org/join.
Brady Kriss is the founder of Ragtag, a group of tech volunteers helping activists, organizers and candidates leverage technology to amplify their work. Ragtag’s volunteer team helps with product design, development, support and education so that their partner organizations can focus on movement-building more efficiently and with broader impact. In 2016, Kriss organized and led a team of more than 500 volunteers at DevProgress, where they created open source tools to support progressive candidates. She is an alumna of the Obama 2012 campaign, where she was a member of the campaign’s legendary tech team as director of support, and of Democracy Works, where she was the partner success lead for TurboVote. In a past life, Kriss was a technology lawyer, focused on software licensing, technology policy and privacy issues. She likes her new gig better. Reach her @bradykriss.