When the first People’s Climate March took to the New York City streets in September 2014, it was billed as the “largest climate march in history.” At the time, it was: A crowd of up to 400,000 rallied in protest of international inaction on global warming, and sent a clear message to the world leaders gathering just days later for the United Nations summit on climate change. The march, national coordinator Paul Getsos tells Fast Company, was a success: It united a broad coalition of movements and advocacy groups into a cohesive event. But it wasn’t perfect.
“I wish that the end of the march event was stronger,” Getsos says. “And I wish that we had a plan to keep our structures in place.”
This year, when the People’s Climate March descends on Washington, D.C., on April 29, it will have such a plan in place. The march organizers are making use of a tech platform, called the Action Network, which offers tools like mass email coordinating, event mapping and planning, and petition creating to progressive movements. Despite the fact that few people have heard of it, the platform is quickly becoming the technological backbone of the anti-Trump resistance. Organizers behind the Women’s March and the Indivisible Guide have used the Action Network to coordinate movements that have far exceeded expectations in terms of breadth, participation, and longevity. As more pockets of resistance coalesce and mobilize, the Action Network is poised to support them.
Unlike Facebook, which was the primary organizing tool for the first People’s Climate March, the Action Network saves the names, emails, and other data collected from people who register for events through the platform, making it easier for organizers to stay in touch with interested constituents and keep momentum strong in the aftermath of an event. In a way, leaning on email as opposed to social media may seem like a step backward, but when it comes to mass organizing, the ephemerality of social platforms like Twitter and Facebook is antithetical to the sustained involvement that progressive movements are hoping to foster.
The Action Network was cofounded in 2012 by Brian Young, who had previously worked on John Kerry’s digital campaign. “At the time, campaign structures were really out of date,” Young tells Fast Company. “They had one owner, who oversaw the website and the email list; any action had to be collectively decided and enacted by this one campaign owner. It wasn’t up to the speed and scale of the 21st century.” Young envisioned a digital campaign platform that could be collaborative, flexible, and responsive–something that would be structured and organized at the national level, but still allow for hyperlocal organizing, ironically inspired by the way the U.S.’s own federated government is supposed to work.
The Action Network was the result. The platform, set up as a nonprofit, is specifically dedicated to supporting progressive movements; it was developed during the height of the Occupy Wall Street protests, which is a point of frustration for Young, who believes that had the Action Network been available at the start of the movement, it could have kept Occupy active for longer. “They had a lot of events, they got a lot of attention for around two months, but then it just kind of faded,” Young says. “A platform like ours could have really kept it alive.”
Perhaps the best way to understand the Action Network is as a digital family tree for progressive movements. On the platform, organizers can set up a site for a national event. (Large organizations like the People’s Climate March, which likely sends out millions of emails a month, donate a few thousand dollars per month to the Action Network for use of the platform, and individuals and smaller organizations can use it for free.) Once the organization sets up a site, local offshoots can register related events, and people interested in participating in the movement can sign up with their email addresses to receive information about events, planning meetings, and follow-up actions. If this structure sounds familiar after the events around Donald Trump’s inauguration, it should: The Women’s March made use of the Action Network, and as such was able to translate a global event of unprecedented magnitude into a sustained, action-driven movement.
Through the Action Network, over 650 “sister marches” in 50 countries were organized underneath the umbrella of the Women’s March on Washington. Yordanos Eyoel was involved with organizing the sister march in Boston on January 21. “Each march was organized and operated independently,” Eyoel says, “but they were all inspired by and connected to the original event in Washington.” In the aftermath of the march, organizers at the national and local level were able to immediately reconnect with people who had attended the march and move onto the next phase of organizing: 10 actions to be carried out over Trump’s first 100 days in office. “We’ve really been able to leverage this technology in a way that’s facilitated a real community,” Eyoel says. To date, millions of people have registered through the Women’s March Action Network site.
Though the Action Network has been used in various capacities leading up to this year–organizers used it for rallies against the Dakota Access Pipeline last fall, and it broke into the market with the Black Friday protests at Walmart stores around the country in 2012–Young says that “in some ways, we’ve just been road testing everything for two years, building up to this moment.”
With the Women’s March, the Indivisible project, the March for Science, the People’s Climate March, and many more planned actions all making use of the platform (take a look; all of their websites look very similar and, as such, are easy to navigate), Young is hopeful that the platform will sustain the outpouring of interest in progressive movements through the current administration. “We’re seeing activism at a level that we’ve never seen before,” he says. “Using tools like ours to harness that long-lasting organizational power will get these movements to the end of the next two to four years; by that time, we could radically change the political dynamics in this country.”