One of my favorite quotes about organizing states that “organizing is about equipping people with the power to make change.” It’s beautiful and it’s simple. It’s one of my favorites because it invites me to think of myself as a servant leader and ponder what my role is in manifesting liberation. In facilitating the emancipation of a community by supporting them to identify their own power, they are then tapping into that power to bring about the changes they wish to see in the world. To see a thing, do a thing and then hopefully, celebrate the success of a thing.
That doesn’t just happen. Organizing takes work, lots and lots of intentional work. Now think of what all of that work looks like…but now in isolation.
I work with 350.org in the Pacific, and the question, “what does organizing in the time of COVID 19 look like?” is something our tiny team has been thinking hard about and taking the time to really navigate with good care. If we believe that organizing is a form of leadership that enables positive community change, how do we do that in a region with poor IT infrastructure that exists in a global community that, especially now, is heavily reliant on a digital landscape to stay connected during this pandemic?
Frankly, we build our resilience. We do what we must to take the necessary steps to cope with these uncertainties, make measured adjustments to our old ways of doing things, and take purposeful steps to recalibrate our approach. What that looks like, is us doing the work to center the digital empowerment of young Pacific people geared toward ensuring justice and inclusive development so no one gets left behind.
This catalyzed the reimagining of our work, resulting in the very first Pacific Pawa Up Fellowship.
The Fellowship is an exciting 3-month long online series of training, webinars, and skillshares designed to equip young Pacific Islanders with the skills they need to do impactful climate justice organizing in an online space and transfer these skills to their offline organizing in the post-COVID 19 world.
The Fellowship has attracted 50 young Pacific leaders making up the very first cohort, and representation covers 12 countries from across the Pacific, and from 3 cities in Australia, 2 in NZ, and 1 in the US. We also have representation from 6 regional partner organizations as well.
In doing all this virtually and for the most part, in isolation, our team believes that by the end of the Fellowship, the cohort will have the necessary skills to be more effective, strategic campaigners, organizers, and communicators. They will have the skills to be on the cutting edge of digital organizing practice and develop relationships with other young Pacific leaders working in the climate justice sphere.
In this act of reimaging, recalibrating, and responding to these unprecedented times, we have learned a few things that are important as we continue to do this work. Here are 5 reflections on what it means to run an Online Fellowship in the Pacific, during COVID 19.
1. Scarcity and creativity have an important relationship
Jeanne Rewa and Daniel Hunter offer incredible principles for leading groups online and one of the points they bring up is about how oppression is compounded by technology, and this couldn’t be closer to the truth for us. Young people’s confidence is already altered by various forms of oppression and when you combine that with the limitations of our current IT infrastructure in the Pacific, the ability to prepare well and be present on a lot of these calls is tricky. So, as the convenors of these spaces and sessions, how do we ensure that we are empathetic of their circumstances? Two things, one – you do the work, you design every session with the intention of making things as less complicated as possible for them, and two – you recognize their resilience. In the past 9 weeks of shifting our work online, we have recognized the power of people’s resilience. The ability of Pacific people to turn scarcity into opportunity, learn new things fast, and try their best given their situations is remarkable. Attendance rates for the Fellowship are constantly upwards of 75% and people are learning and building their confidence with new things. They choose not to be suspended and stuck, and it’s beautiful.
2. Bodies are resources and you have to interpret body signals with more grace
As convenors and facilitators of spaces, your visual cues of whether or not people are paying attention and tracking conversations are probably very different in the virtual space. Don’t assume that because someone’s video is off, they are doing something else. It’s mentally and physically draining knowing that you probably have 50 eyes on you and that will impact you. Don’t assume that because people aren’t nodding profusely or jumping up and down, they aren’t excited or understanding what is going on. Those things just translate differently in a small box on your screen. Don’t assume silence means everything is a mess and nothing is happening. For the longest time, Pacific Islanders have understood that silence means many things. Silence in online calls is an invitation for you to sit longer in their process and an opportunity for you to ebb and flow with their new way of learning. Don’t assume that because people are not engaging they are not engaged. It’s just harder to qualitatively measure engagement in an online space. Don’t get me wrong, there are ways you can design around it, it’s just different. Give yourself time and space to observe how people are learning and don’t jump to conclusions – give yourself some space to model grace.
3. Humans are complex and nuanced. Every interaction is a gift to learn something new
The energy and enthusiasm someone brings to one session, will not be sustained, especially in the virtual world, and it’s silly to think people can be either this or that. High energy or not, enthusiastic or not, engaged or disconnected. Their emotions live and thrive on a spectrum. They will show up differently all the time. Trust that they chose to be there with you and are trying their best. Know this, process this, and claim this as your power. Young people especially aren’t just “this or that”. Pace with your people, don’t strive for perfection, strive for compassion, and dance with plurality.
4. Get into the practice of giving yourself permission
You can’t do all the things and even if you could, you wouldn’t do them perfectly. Give yourself permission to be okay with giving it your best and being prepared to recalibrate. Hold yourself to a high standard and ensure that that standard includes some self-love and humility. We are working from home during an unprecedented global pandemic. Nothing about this is easy, so don’t measure the success of your work the same way you would before COVID 19. Give yourself permission to release yourself from perfection.
5. Aim to be transformational, not transactional
Build relationships in these virtual spaces without just using that time and space to extract the information that you need. Push back against making these spaces transactional. Take your time, breathe, know that everyone is trying their best. Choose to facilitate transformation not transactions. Whenever we feel like we need to be grounded, a practice we’re committed to doing more of, is asking ourselves the question “how does this serve our people?” When you look back on your behavior during these times, do you want to celebrate the fact that you did whatever you could to build depth or do you want to be remembered as someone that just focused on deliverables and outputs and business as usual? I pray it’s the former. Many can argue that this business-as-usual mindset is what led to the increased vulnerabilities and inequities that our people are grappling with today.
The question on our minds is, what does this all mean for the future of organizing (and movement building), in the Pacific? To put it sincerely, virtual means almost real. So building movements virtually shouldn’t replace the real offline work that needs to be done. But as a movement, we also need to stay nimble and resilient. These times are calling us to transcend and I believe we have what we need to be able to do it and do it with care. Recognize that the future that we’re building towards cannot be the same as the past and the present. We have to make sure indigenous, marginalized, and frontline truths, stories, and perspectives are front and center of what we’re all trying to cocreate.