Building Networks, Building Power: A Grassroots Internet Revolution
(An article submitted to Z Magazine which they did not publish.)
Last February (2002) while I was attending a plenary at the National
Campus Anti-War conference in NYC I realized something. If I wanted, I
could join in the heated discussion over how to organize a national network.
If I wanted, I could serve on the coordinating committee for the third
national student anti-war network. It is not hard to become a leader in a
national student activist group, as the elections are often not competitive.
But instead of joining a small group of people to shape the future of the
student peace movement from the top down, I had a better idea. Social
movements are best built from the grassroots up, and I was working on an
Internet project that could reshape how activism is done for students and
non-students alike. The project is a decentralized website that allows people
to share contacts, resources, and event information. It could replace more
centralized forms of networking that predominate in the activist world.
I believe in organization but I also believe in democracy. In the non-profit
and activist sector there are a small number of organizations that get plenty
of funding and are able to run fancy programs that smaller, local, and/or
radical groups only dream of being able to afford. A lot of social movements
are unduly influenced by small groups of full-time staff sitting in well-oiled
offices dreaming of ways to get other groups to join their campaigns.
I believe that we can turn the non-profit activist world upside down.
Decentralized networks can do a better job in facilitating networking and
sharing resource sharing than any national office. A grassroots network is
more likely to stay true to the ideas of its members.
My goal is to give every progressive activist as much power as possible to
realize their goals - that is democracy. The most critical thing to share is
contact information. Most organizations jealously guard their contacts and
with reason. Organizations are only as strong as their list of contacts and the
strength of their relationships with them. Resources are the second most
useful things. You need posters, leaflets, essays, images, books, organizing
guides, historical information, case studies, research and other resources to
educate the public, train yourself to be an effective activist, and to win
campaigns. Finally, knowing about upcoming conferences, protests,
speakers and other events is important as they give you the chance to
network face-to-face, get inspired, agitate, and have fun. If you are
distributing contact information, resources, and producing an event calendar
then you are doing most of what a national organization does.
I have always felt that if we are to succeed in fighting the power elite and
creating a better world, we need to build a multi-issue movement that
practices solidarity. Currently all activist organizations, including student
ones, have to prioritize issues as they lack the resources to address them all.
There used to be an organization called the Center for Campus Organizing
that facilitated networking between students and student groups who
addressed different issues, however, it folded in the summer leaving an
empty niche that needs to be filled.
So I have founded a website to meet these goals for student and youth
activists in the US and Canada: www.CampusActivism.org. It has been
online since April 2002. If it works for young people, within the next two
years we shall create a model that could be used for all activists - perhaps
each country could have their own site like www.indymedia.org. We are
releasing our project as free software under the GNU General Public License
Anyone can use this website to find progressive student groups and
individuals that care about the same issues or are located nearby. Currently
there are over 280 groups and 110 people listed. You can find resources on a
specific issue or share one that you wrote. Most activists do not have a place
where they can share their resources and where a significant audience will
see them. With CampusActivism.org the thousands of student activists who
previously created posters, essays, leaflets, books, images, and only
distributed them locally can now create for a national audience. In addition,
you can view upcoming events and add ones that you are organizing. You
can do all of this without knowing anything about website design, relational
databases, and without joining an organization. Most student activist groups
are not affiliated with a national network, and the ones that are affiliated are
typically not strongly connected. This website makes it easier for student
activists with others in the student movement.
The website is for student/youth activists on the political left. We want
progressives, socialists, anarchists, pacifists, environmentalists, feminists,
students of color, queers, disabled students, animal rights activists, campus
workers, and other young activists to participate. Because we include a
broad spectrum of the youth left on one website, while visiting it people will
learn about issues and movements beyond their personal focus. By doing
this, our site will promote local and regional coalition building between
As a democratic principle, people should control their own information.
With our website, by using a password you can change your entry, that of
your group, a resource you uploaded, or an event that you are organizing.
You are free to say as much or as little as you wish. After you contribute
information, it is automatically included on the website. The site lists new
items directly on the homepage, showing people that their contribution is
important. You do not have to go through a moderator. We moderate entries
on an as-needed basis after information has already been included on the
Our goal is not to eliminate national organizations. If they care about
progressive social change, then they will embrace and use this approach to
build strong decentralized networks that empower their members. They will
adopt dynamic websites that allow their members to contribute content,
instead of relying upon static content from a single webmaster or small
webteam. In fact, national groups can use this website to grow stronger by
publicizing their events, sharing their resources, and recruiting new chapters.
Decentralized dynamic websites could become a powerful tool for activists.
Already, we have the largest publicly available online database of student
activist groups in the world. We could be the next indymedia.org with a
website in every country. Used properly, the Internet can be a powerful tool
to strengthen grassroots activism and to promote democracy within our
If you would like to help, please email me to volunteer.
Aaron Kreider is a full-time unpaid activist who recently graduated from