Daniel Jae-Won LeeInfusing “Social” into Social Justice Organizations

By: Daniel Jae-Won Lee In: Corporate Philanthropy| Social Media| Social Networking

28 Feb 2012

“The Protester” as Time's 2011 “Person of the Year” TIME magazine provocatively named “The Protester” as its 2011 “Person of the Year” for its riveting influence on last year’s social and political unfolding in Egypt, Syria, and Wall Street. 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 and human rights in the United States and abroad, 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. This often means 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.                         

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. Equally important, it is 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.
  • 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.org as by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California

MiACLU.org as by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California

Mi ACLU 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.

Mi ACLU 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 percent of all Californians and many experience racial profiling that is exacerbated when local law enforcement gets pulled into immigration enforcement.

This is the spirit of “Pioneers in Justice”:  catalyzing more “networked” approaches to address the critical social issues of our day. This increases the reach, impact, and quality of advocacy work, and drives engagement and action among new and unexpected audiences.

Now, as international corporate foundations, let us think about how we can play a catalytic role in supporting pioneering human rights advocates and organizations in similar capacities. Are we nurturing these organizations and their leaders to use social media and new technologies to boost the reach of their advocacy work? What innovative strategies can we as funders bring to bear to help justice roll down like waters, propelled by “viral”?

Daniel Jae-Won Lee is executive director of the Levi Strauss Foundation, a member of the Council on Foundations.

1 Response to Infusing “Social” into Social Justice Organizations

Nam Kernighan

November 4th, 2012 at 5:21 am

You completed several good points there. I did a search on the issue and found mainly folks will agree with your blog.

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