Nicola M. Wells, Blogger and Community Organizer
"We need to treat many of our social tools like door knocking, if someone comments on our site, we should take that as a hello, and use it to open a door to a potential relationship with a new leader, member, or supporter."
Nicola M. Wells is an activist for immigrant rights. She blogs at Standing Firm for Fair Immigration Reform Movement. She has been passionate about the issue of immigrant rights since 2002, when she worked at Casa del Migrantes in Tijuana, Mexico, a shelter for immigrants and deportees. While there she lived and worked with immigrants from throughout the US and Central America, and they shared their experiences. That experience awakened her desire to make immigration rights her life's work. After she left Mexico she worked with refugee communities in Philadelphia and did research on migrant youth at a research center in Chicago. She has also worked with SOS Racisme, the national immigrant rights organization in Paris, France.
1. Tell me about FIRM.
FIRM, the Fair Immigration Reform Movement is a national coalition of grassroots immigrant rights groups working together for immigrant justice. FIRM is a project of the Center for Community Change, and is staffed by the Center, but it is led and all decisions are made by the Immigrant Organizing Committee, a table of grassroots groups that are the head of FIRM. A listing of these groups is also available on our website. FIRM is currently running the Building America Together Campaign, a national campaign to build the strength of immigrant rights in the US, and to work for just and humane immigration reform.
2. What is your job at Firm?
My first job in the United States after working in France was as an intern with the Center for Community Change on their immigration team helping to create a toolkit on fighting anti-immigrant local ordinances. The immigration team supports a national coalition of grassroots immigrant rights groups, the Fair Immigration Reform Movement. I quickly became integrated into the team as an Organizer for state and local rights.
3. How do you use technology as part of your organizing work?
Though I always had a personal interest in technology and social media, I didn't know how to integrate it into my more traditional organizing portfolio. That all changed after the massive and devastating raids in New Bedford, MA in early 2007. An organizer on our team, George Goehl, went to help the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition in anyway he could.
He immediately saw the need to tell the stories of the families that had been ripped apart by the raids, of children who had lost parents, of mother who weren't sure if they could pay rent or feed their children next week. He started a blog, and asked me to continue the project. I transformed that blog into what is today Standing FIRM and my interest in social media as a tool for organizing skyrocketed from there.
I have spent the last year meeting folks, reading, and testing out social media tools with other organizers. I'm currently co- authoring a guide to these tools for organizers like myself available at the end of this month. In addition to my continued work as State and Local Organizer at FIRM, I am working with non-profits connected to the Center to help them learn about these tools and implement them in their work in effective and productive ways.
4. What are you goals for using social media to support your organizing work?
FIRM has built a social media infrastructure that links together our blog, social network presence, listserv and static website into a coherent network of tools. This infrastructure serves three goals:
1) To generate and promote pro-migrant content, not only created by FIRM, but by our partner organizations and allies across the country; more boradly to be a productive part of the pro-migrant blogosphere that is growing stronger each day
2) To create learning tools for our partner organizations. Our partners may not be able to jumpstart using these tools on their own, and by engaging in FIRM's tools they can learn about social media, take test runs, and figure our what will eventually work best for them
3) To connect with individuals/organizations outside of our current network that are in the fight for immigrant rights- support their work, or create collaborations with them
Those are our goals for FIRM's infrastructure, but we also look to support the programs and projects of others within the immigrant rights movement. Like the new pro-migrant community blog, the Sanctuary.
5. Some staff members who work for nonprofits say that they have difficulty
convincing people in their organizations about the value of social media. How did you organization successfully deploy and adopt these
It's show and show. Telling people about these tools doesn't really do a lot for us. You have to build something of quality and bring results. That's the importance of goal number 2 for FIRM's social media tools. We've got to help not only our organization, but other organizations to learn about these tools, and the best way to do that is build it. Unfortunately, many people build things, and then forget to tell people how they did it. They show an organization the cool campaign or website, but don't give the organization the tools or insights needed to build their own. That's the importance of the guide I'm helping pull together. Now that FIRM has built stuff, learned stuff, we have to share that knowledge in a comprehensive and useful way.
One of the major obstacles non-profits face is convincing people these tools work. Sure that's important, but honestly in much of my work with organizers on the ground, that is not the main problem. The bigger problem is a lack of staff time. It's not that many of them don't believe, it's that they don't have the time or resources to learn enough to make an educated choice about what tools to use and how. If we really want social media tools to be integrated into our work, we need to figure out new ways to fund staffing for them. When non profits are running five programs, two actions, and leadership development trainings there often aren't resources left for this work. It's up to funders, consultants, and non-profit staff to find creative ways to get resources for social media, and to integrate the tools into our everyday work.
6. Tell me a story about how using a blog, social network, or other social networking tool was of great value to your mission or organization's program.
Social media tools allow FIRM to strengthen a network for immigrant justice, and to further our organizing goals. The key to our success is integrating offline and online organizing relationships. One without the other is never as effective. This lesson hit home for us last year around the vote for the DREAM Act (a bill that would allow undocumented students, brought here as children, to have access to higher education). We had about two weeks before the vote and we were being asked to do "something" using online tools. We got together with our partners at the National Immigration Law Center, and the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, and approached (offline) Campus Progress, The United States Student Association, the United We Dream Coalition, and the Campus Democrats asking them to help us reach out to students around the country and get them to organize call-in days to their congressmen in support of the DREAM Act. We wanted to have campuses around the country calling-in on the same days to congress.
Now, if we had about three months of outreach we could have pulled this off, but with only two weeks, we knew we needed to use social media to make things happen big and fast. We set up a facebook group, and started the outreach with our partner organizations. The list of local and state groups that came on board to help push out this effort online is just too long to list here, but believe me there was a massive push to sign up campuses to organize call-in days that was fueled by a unique mixtures of national, state and local groups along with passionate individuals. By the end of about 8 days we had touched something like 17,000 people with our invites and we had signed up over 50 campuses in 22 states to hold call-in days. We offered trainings and materials to each of the campuses in preparation and the organizers did their best to make these days a success. We now have a list of campus organizers across the country that supported DREAM and this action.
It was the connection of our offline and online relationships that allowed this action to take off, and social media tools that greased the wheels for its growth.
7. What's your advice about getting conversation going on your organization's blog? I noticed that you have lots of comments.
It's provocative content that hits the pulse of your audience, as well as filling a necessary niche.
I learned a lot from Think progress as a model for organizational blogging. Think Progress editorializes through interesting content, not necessarily controversial editorials. And it is independent enough from the Center for American Progress that it can cover whichever topics it needs to.
We try to do that with our blog. There are already a ton of great immigrant rights bloggers out there producing amazing content. We needed to find a way for us to fill a gap within the immigrant rights movement that was useful, not redundant. That gap was reporting from the state and local bases as well as the federal fight, and providing informative content. We focus our content on updates and news stories from our partner organizations, and we link to and support the content of other blogs that provide more opinions and editorializing around this subject. Think Progress also stays within the news cycle, by providing time-relevant content our blog remains relevant day to day.
I'm also a big believer in engaging your readers. Bloggers get this, but organizations often forget to reach out with personal emails to individuals that encourage them to post comments on their blog. We need to treat many of our social tools like door knocking, if someone comments on our site, we should take that as a hello, and use it to open a door to a potential relationship with a new leader, member, or supporter.
People that see provocative video and news stories on our blog often feel compelled to write on our blog. However, I know that they also take background information that they've learned on our site and use it in their comments and posts on other sites. For us, the most important thing is not the strength of our own blog, but rather the health and vibrancy of the pro-migrant blogosphere and the production of pro-migrant content within a larger network of allies and partners.
The Opportunity Agenda released a report last year saying that progressives dominated every progressive political issue online, except immigration. There is an aggressive anti-immigrant presence online, and we need to build partnerships with others online to fight back. Readers feel that fight, they understand the urgency of this issue, and that motivates them to join the conversation.
8. What blogs do you read by women who write about migrant rights?
Some write pro-migrant blogs, or simply cover immigration as a part of their larger scope. Two women that I've particularly been able to learn a lot from have been Liza Sabater and Marisa Trevino. I owe so much to these women and others.
At the end of the day I'm still learning about this technology right alongside my sisters, and the exciting thing is that more and more women are coming to write about migrant rights and use social media tools for justice each day. The fight continues and our strength grows and that's the reason why I love this work.
Cross-posted at BlogHer