Tech-Flavored Activism in Somerville, MA

Across the country, members of Indivisible groups are working to defeat the Trump agenda and hold their members of Congress accountable. This is a grassroots movement of ordinary people doing extraordinary things and Indivisible wants to celebrate that. These are the stories of the citizens of the resistance.

What’s Somerville like?

Somerville is a densely-populated city in the Boston area, just north of Cambridge.   Somerville has a lot of creative, motivated folks. It’s got a very young, highly educated population. There are lots of start-up incubator-type spaces, and lots of maker spaces for artists and craftspeople.  Many of us in Indivisible Somerville are coming from tech, and many of us are new to activism.

In my alter-ego, I’m a program manager at Microsoft. I work with engineers, designers, and customers to build technology that people enjoy using. I joined my team when it was a 30-person startup, and we were bought last year. I got to be there for all the stages of a startup and found it addictive. I’ve been dying to try my hand at building something.

The team I started with comes from open source software, which was a political movement in its own right in the 90’s. Open source software is free to use, and all the code is freely available so you can take it and modify it. Open source projects also have a history of depending on the work of a lot of skilled volunteers. A number of the people I work with spent time working as contributors to open source projects. I think I picked up a lot of ideas from that about what motivates people to do their best work, and how people can build complex, powerful things together.

How has the tech world impacted how Indivisible Somerville structures itself?

The tech world has impacted both the culture and the structure of our group. We are structured as an “activism incubator”, so we invest in projects that offer a new approach to the problems we see in our community and in the country.

Our leadership team is called “nav”—that’s short for navigation. Our projects are called “labs.” A lab can be an ongoing skills-based team:  #action is the traditional grassroots wing and plans our actions and rallies. #fund handles fundraising and finances. #writing does the copywriting for the other labs and our publications.  Labs can also be one-off initiatives: for example, we have a lab called #botany that’s working on progressive Twitter bots, which will talk to people automatically on Twitter about certain topics.

Each lab has two leads. Usually, they’re the people who proposed the project who are really passionate about it.  They are in charge of managing the volunteers on their team and helping build the organization as a whole—we support them by giving them resources and training. We just made another title too, to recognize individual contributors who don’t want to be in a management role.  We’ve been trying to give people really specific roles for their specific skills, and recognize people in the various ways they want to contribute.

What do you do to include new people, including non-tech people and non-millennials?

We started out with a lot of millennials, which I understand is rare for Indivisible groups. We also have quite a few baby boomers, because we started with a group that met Friday mornings doing progressive activism work.

One thing we’ve done is look outward and find ways to make activism accessible to different demographics. The main product of this is, Family lab, which creates a space for kids and guardians to do activism together. Last month, a group with about ten kids and guardians gathered to learn about the Safe Communities Act, a proposal to make Massachusetts a sanctuary state. We read “Azzi in Between,” a story about a refugee written for kids. We talked about the idea of home. We had the kids write down an object that makes them think about home. Then the adults and kids worked on writing and drawing postcards addressed to their state senators.

Another approach we take is to really connect individually with each new member using a process developed by our Outreach lab.  Lab members read through each form submitted by a new interested member, reach out individually to each person, and help them find their role in the movement. They also hold a New Member Orientation every month to onboard new folks. So new members are getting the white-glove service. It’s like customer management for a corporation. In fact, the outreach team is full of people who work in sales and customer management in their jobs. It’s something lots of groups could borrow.

We still get feedback sometimes that it can be overwhelming getting started and that there are lots of terms and technologies to learn. We are working on improving that.

How do you build a community and keep things fun? What’s worked?

Community Hours: Every Saturday morning, we get together at a different member’s house, hang out, and work. Anyone can come to talk or to work on their laptops together. People bring their kids, and they bring food. A lot of us didn’t realize we were neighbors until we got together! It really connected us to each other and to the town.

Drink Ups: Since the very first meeting, we’ve had a tradition of going out to a local pub afterwards to drink, eat, and chat. We’ve formed many new connections and friendships over drinks at “The Independent”. A few weeks ago we ended up cancelling a meeting and doing just the drink-up instead. To our surprise, it was a big success—people were willing to just join us and hang out.

Retreats: I make this suggestion to other groups we work with often—get your leadership team away for a weekend, together, and spend time bonding and building the organization. People are more invested and work better together if they have a relationship beyond activism, and if they feel like they have a say in what you are building together.

A note from Indivisible Somerville to red state Indivisiblers:

We have a new initiative pairing with groups in other states, specifically in red areas, and pairing them with technology and design resources from our org. We have a lot of people here who are very skilled and passionate and want to lend a hand in places where it is most needed. If you’re a group interested in working with us, please email redstate@indivisiblesomerville.org and we’ll set up a call with your team!