New year’s resolutions for the networked activist

Happy 2013!

Happy 2013!  Image from Flickr.

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The last few weeks of 2012 saw a number of high-profile victories for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, including the withdrawal of occupation profiteer Veolia from a major contract bid in London following a two-year campaign, reflecting the growing strength of our activist networks.

A network is simply a collection of things and the relationships that exist between them: our organizations are networks, our coalitions are networks, our opposition are networks, and our campaign targets exist as part of networks. Understanding how networks function is thus relevant to pretty much everything we do.

Early in 2012, I published an article entitled Network Analysis for Palestine Activists: science for a successful BDS campaign, which explored the basic principles of network analysis, and the myriad ways in which we can leverage those principles to become more effective in our activism. Shortly thereafter. I delivered a presentation on the same topic at the excellent Penn BDS Conference in Philadelphia.

Now, two days into 2013, I’d like to share a set of special set of new year’s resolutions for the network-savvy activist, reflecting the ways in which we can leverage our understanding of network effects to achieve even greater success in the coming year. I’ll incliude links back to relevant sections of the original article where I think they’ll be helpful.

I will build new connections in my network.

Activist conferences are invigorating, inspiring, and invaluable events are which skills are shared, new relationships are cultivated, and existing ties are strengthened. It’s a joy to see so many familiar faces year after year, but it’s simultaneously problematic: when our organizations consistently send the same people to represent us at these events, we miss the opportunity to build new connections between activists who don’t already know one another. This leads to our networks becoming more centralized rather than less, making us more reliant on the relationships maintained by a smaller number of people, and reducing the number of people given the opportunity to learn from skill building and case study workshops.

My resolution in this regard is to encourage my organization to always choose one or more newer members along with more long-standing ones to attend conferences and represent us in coalitions. They don’t have to be brand new (infiltration of both local and national groups is inevitable, but a little bit of caution never hurts), but they should be people who stand to gain more new connections as a result of their participation. Furthermore, I’ll encourage those activists attending gatherings featuring concurrent events to spread out in order to obtain more information to share with our local group, rather than just attending all of the same workshops together.

See Organizing for Sustainability in my original article on network analysis.

I will work to replicate skills within my organization.

Far too many organizations depend on a limited number of members (often a single individual) to perform important functions. This phenomenon arises for a variety of reasons: certain people find it easier to acquire particular skills than do others. Some members may have more direct access to relevant resources. Even geography can play a role. But whatever the cause, the phenomenon needs to be counteracted. Students graduate. People go on vacation, change jobs, have children, et cetera. Circumstances are always changing, and the less reliant our organizations are upon particular members, the stronger, the more flexible, and the more sustainable they become.

I resolve to encourage my organization to do everything it can to counteract these kinds of dependencies. We can hold internal training events, and develop basic documentation. We can assign partners and mentors, fostering more collaborative working relationships. We can set a goal of being able to survive the sudden departure of one or more random members without the total loss of any functional capacity.

See Optimizing Organizational Dynamics.

I will understand the network within which my campaign target operates.

It’s not only activist groups that function within networks: our campaign targets, from indivduals like Lev Leviev to massive multinational corporations like Veolia, all depend upon and are influenced by their connections with other groups and individuals. Investors, suppliers, regulators, distributors, customers, philanthropy recipients, advertising agencies, public relations firms, the list goes on. It takes time to research and map these relationships, but this is the most effective means of identifying key dependencies and vulnerabilities — the areas in which our efforts will have the greatest impact.

In 2013, I resolve to seek a fuller understanding of the web of relationships that exists between my campaign target and other entities, to utilize mapping and other techniques to help my colleagues identify vulnerabilities (and opportunities) within those network structures, and to leverage this understanding in our campaign work.

See Network Anatomy and Measurement and Pinpoint Action Against Target Vulnerabilities.

I will improve my understanding of our organized opposition.

Unfortunately, our campaign targets themselves are not the only forces working to undermine our efforts. There is a large, extremely well-funded, and increasingly well-organized network (yep, another network, with everything that entails) of organizations and individuals who seek to ensure that Palestinians continue to be deprived of basic human rights. This anti-Palestinian advocacy infrastructure exists to monitor all efforts to hold Israel accountable for its actions (especially through BDS), to formulate strategies and tactics, to share information and resources, to train activists (especially on college campuses), and to strategically direct resources to address existing, projected and emerging “threats.” As these groups refine their organizing structures and coordinating mechanisms, specific strategies, tactics and behavior patterns have come to predominate in their work, far more so now than ever before. This means that a little bit of insight into how anti-Palestinian pressure groups function is more useful to us now than it ever was before

This year, I resolve to make a concerted effort to understand the structure of and trends within the organized anti-Palestinian community. I’ll read their published strategy documents, I’ll monitor their social media postings, I’ll use Google Alerts and other tools to stay abreast of their activities, and I’ll use this information to become a more effective activist.

I will not shy away from tedious work.

While demonstrations and other public events play an important role (particularly for education and morale), I know from experience that some of the most important work carried out in the course of a campaign is not only conducted behind the scenes, but is frankly the kind of work that most activists find boring. Adalah-NY has held dozens of demonstrations in connection with its campaign against settlement builder Lev Leviev, but most if not all of the concrete victories achieved in the campaign were the direct result of targeted letter writing, strategic phone calling, closed door meetings, and other forms of private engagement — and the indirect result of countless hours of intensive, painstaking research.

More public campaign work (often the most enjoyable for most) is vital, but we can’t allow it to predominate our activity to the point that it detracts from other critical tasks. There are always people who enjoy seemingly tedious tasks to some extent, but there are seldom enough of those people in a group for every member to perform only those tasks which they enjoy. In 2013, I resolve to suck it up and spend more of my time engaged in the less glamorous, less fun, yet absolutely vital tasks that drive my organization’s campaigns.

I will spend more time planning my campaigns before taking them public.

I’ve been involved in this work long enough to witness a large number of campaign outcomes. Plenty of failures to be sure, but more importantly, a growing number (and a growing proportion) of successes. The single most common feature I’ve seen among all the most successful campaigns has been long period of time elapsed between the campaign’s conception and its revelation to the public. Likewise, the most common feature I’ve noted among campaigns which failed to meet their goals has been a very short period of time elapsing between those milestones. It takes time to select and analyze a target, evaluate potential allies and opposition, plan a strategy, hone messages, develop contingency plans for the things that can and will go wrong, and quietly build vital strategic relationships. This is simply unavoidable.

There’s no such thing as a campaign that failed as a result of too much time spent planning, but the history of Palestine solidarity organizing is riddled with examples of promising campaigns that failed to achieve their goals because premature publicity or other exposure alerted elements within the opposition, which immediately leapt into action to undermine the effort.

This year, I resolve to be patient. My organization won’t have much difficulty coming up with other other public programming while it quietly builds its campaign (activists at Hampshire College spent two years in this mode as they developed the campaign that would ultimately lead to a historic divestment victory). If my organization plays its cards right, even the seemingly unrelated public activities we conduct during this gestational period will actually provide us with additional leverage later on, helping us to map the landscape of potential opposition and allies, cultivate important relationships and develop critical skills that we’ll need to have already mastered when our campaign finally launches.

Bring it on, 2013!

That’s it for my list of new year’s resolutions for the networked activist. If you haven’t read my original article Network Analysis for Palestine Activists: science for a successful BDS campaign, you’ll probably find it helpful for exploring the concepts I’ve touched upon here.

Got any new year’s resolutions of your own to add? Let’s hear them!



Abraham Greenhouse

Abraham Greenhouse's picture

Abraham Greenhouse is a longtime Palestine solidarity activist based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter as @grinhoyz.