Reflections from the People’s Climate March Planning Meeting

Two weeks ago, after coming across the meeting invite, I imagined a large auditorium filled with organizers raising their hands in the hopes of expressing their opinion about how the People’s Climate March should be organized. My first perception was that one speaker, or multiple individuals at a table, would be on a raised stage in front of the crowd, calling on people to participate and weighing each suggestion. However, after walking through the front door of the Tishman Auditorium, recognizing the inside from my time as a New School student, someone handed me a packet which included the plan for the upcoming meeting. I soon realized that my initial thoughts were completely incorrect. Even though I had been participating in networked social movements since September 17th, 2011, I applied an old frame of thinking to the new formation of social movements.

After picking up some posters, which were being freely distributed, the event began with different speakers, who expressed why they were getting involved in the People’s Climate March, in front of a large crowd gathered in the auditorium. This section comprised a small portion at the beginning of the night because, as one of the main organizers said, this wasn’t a rally and we had work to do. After explaining how the website worked, we split into breakout groups featuring different segments of the population, including students, labor, social media, teachers, youth, and many others, which were meeting in different classrooms throughout the building.

Bill McKibben made the initial call in Rolling Stone for the People’s Climate March, and 350.org are major march organizers, but this movement has a minimally hierarchical structure. There is not one single march plan laid out by a group of environmental organizers in New York City who made all the decisions among their small cohesive group. This project has no leader who must approve all ideas before they are posted on the website or added to flyers. At the meeting, I felt the familiar notion that the ideas for mobilization, messaging, and community building come straight from the people, comprised of any of those interested in coordinating with others to plan the march. There are no dues to be paid and the participation opportunities aren’t limited to filling out the Contact Us form on a website.

Since we are working on a documentary, I really wanted to get a feel for how the march was being organized, and connect with other participants to hear their discussions about the People’s Climate March. Thus, we attended the ‘New Ideas’ group, which was for those who didn’t consider themselves part of any of the other breakout groups or had innovative ideas for mobilizing. As I entered the classroom with Ed Haas, people were introducing themselves, and we gained an immediate understanding of how diverse the planning process really was. The group in that fourth floor room included activists from upstate NY who are deeply entrenched in the fight against fracking, a woman who helped organize in the projects of Lower East Side and East Harlem after Hurricane Sandy, a few people from Occupy Wall Street’s alternative banking group, an artist who was hoping to facilitate a day of action for other artists around the country, and others who were part of groups focused on climate justice. As the flow of ideas began I realized why these breakouts were important.

When you attend a community forum or other meeting and there are even only 100 people in the room, what is your chance of being heard? Will you be able to express your ideas and extensively deliberate with others? While some might contend that a more centralized structure is better organized and more focused, with a streamlined agenda, their framework can have a detrimental effect on marginalized voices and other individuals who might feel more comfortable expressing their ideas in smaller groups. Every perspective is important, and while a decentralized structure of multiple breakouts might lead to arguments and consensus building might become complicated, this structure is absolutely necessary as the voices of all participants need to be considered. The People’s Climate March, like Wikipedia, Indiegogo, and the constitution of Iceland, is being crowdsourced, reflecting the autonomous spaces of the Internet’s current formation.

Consider if this meeting had taken place before the spread of mobile phones, personal computers, and the World Wide Web. This type of structure would likely have been far more problematic before the spread of these instantaneous communication platforms. Having so many clusters of smaller numbers of people focused on different aspects of the march planning would have been far more complicated, as people would only be communicating via landline phone, sending mail, and meeting in person. Even though organizing the march would certainly still be possible, the diffusion of information would be much slower and visible to a far smaller subset of people.

One very interesting aspect of the planning process is that each of these breakout groups will have virtual spaces, “hubs”, where anyone with an internet connection can directly contact these groups and get involved, providing their own perspective and contributing their individual labor and power. At the meeting, each breakout group had a sign in sheet where participants added their contact info, so that the hubs could reach out to them and plan further meetings. I predict that these hubs will form many weak ties which have the ability to transform into strong ties over time, and these are needed for all social movements looking to take decisive action toward goals. I will be watching how these hubs form, likely discussing their structure and formation in future writings.

The networks of hubs are comprised of networks of participants, and they have a hybrid structure. Small, focused groups of organizers who meet in person and discuss ideas for planning the People’s Climate March, are also likely having conversions about the structure of the online hubs, which are in turn, visited by other individuals who are either solely interacting virtually, or will be drawn into physically attending these meetings in offline public space. There is no more distinction, these online and offline networks are interconnected and horizontal.

My belief is that this structure will have certain fissures, possibly surrounding the topic of systemic change. The familiar question arises: How far are people willing to go to save the climate? However, the structure is very also flexible and heterogeneous, so I expect the message to spread quickly, especially since it’s focused on one major issue: the climate.

While in the “New Ideas” breakout group, I noticed the people around me handing out business cards to each other, while others exchanged phone numbers and e-mail addresses. I soon recognized that weak ties were being formed right in front of my eyes, and many of these connections are likely bridging real and imagined communities who are all fighting for one cause: protecting the climate and forcing policy changes on all levels before we run out of time.

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