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Driving Online Activism To Offline Action

By Starla Muhammad -Managing Editor- | Last updated: Aug 8, 2018 - 11:55:54 AM

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Left to right: Tarana Burke, April Reign, Ed Gordon, Tamika Mallory and Jocelyn Taylor at the National Urban League 2018 Conference in Columbus, Ohio. Photo: Starla Muhammad

COLUMBUS, Ohio—The increased use of social media platforms as a conduit for communicating ideas and messages has catapulted hundreds if not thousands of social justice movements into the spotlight.

The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, #MarchForOurLives, #JusticeorElse, which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Million Man March, #BringBackOurGirls, which brought to light school girls in Nigeria kidnapped by Boko Haram, and countless other hashtags have served as identifiable markers on the internet in drawing attention to critical topics and issues. It was the use of social media that propelled #BlackLivesMatter into the spotlight and made the world focus on the reality of state-sanctioned police violence and vigilante shootings of Black men, women and children in the United States.

However, is online activism enough and how can advocates for social justice and community organizers more effectively direct its use into real, substantive difference making in the lives of everyday people? How can social media movements translate into true longstanding change?

This was the focus of “Beyond the Hashtag: From Online Activism to Offline Change,” the opening plenary session at the 108th convention of the National Urban League held Aug. 1-4 in Columbus, Ohio, at the Greater Columbus Convention Center. This year’s conference theme was “Save Our Cities: Powering the Digital Revolution.”

“It really doesn’t matter if you are active if the end result is not change and that is what we want to see,” said Ed Gordon, longtime journalist and media personality who moderated the panel discussion.

The hashtag is a means of communication not necessarily a means of change, panelists concurred. Online movements must translate into action in the streets and boots on the ground working in the community.

“I don’t need your tweet, I need your feet,” said Tamika Mallory, co-chair of the Women’s March. She was joined on the panel by Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement and senior director of Girls For Gender Equity; April Reign who brought #OscarsSoWhite to prominence and Jocelyn Taylor of JRT Multi-Media LLC.

“There are way too many who have decided that this internet activism is the end of their work and it is very, very dangerous. It is not to say that being on the internet and helping to share that information and raising awareness is not important. It is extremely important. It is a method of communication; however, there is some organizing that has to come along with that,” explained Ms. Mallory. The New York-based activist has been on the front lines not only in the area of police brutality but also as an advocate for fighting gun violence as both disproportionately affect Black communities.

She cited the case of Chikesia Clemons, a young, Black woman, whose manhandling by police at an Alabama Waffle House after a dispute with a White restaurant employee over plasticware was captured on cell phone video and went viral as an example.

“Where we have this issue with the internet and the hashtag it’s like Chikesia Clemons justice, justice, justice but yet we’re still eating at the Waffle House and we’re still moving as if this did not happen. That is where the disconnect comes for me. We can be so excited about sharing the video, everybody needs to see it to see what happened, we’re calling around. But then when it is time for us to make a decision that we’re going to cut off the corporation or whatever the entity is, we have a hard time taking that step. I think that’s where we have to go in order for us to really be effective in the work,” said Ms. Mallory.

April Reign told the audience she created #OscarsSoWhite not as anything deliberate but it was just an observation she made about the lack of diversity in Hollywood during the 2015 awards season. There were no Blacks nominated in any of the major acting or directing categories for the Academy Awards. She posted one tweet on Twitter, went to work and during her lunch time, saw that it was trending online internationally. Though much of the commentary online utilized sarcasm and humor to illustrate a point, it started something, said Ms. Reign. A few days later the conversation shifted to the lack of inclusion and equity in the entertainment industry. In 2016 when #OscarsSoWhite re-emerged the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences committed to doubling the number of women and “people of color” in various capacities by 2020.

“That’s great, but doubling from eight percent people of color to 16 percent people of color when we know what the demographics are; the demographics of the folks that go to the movies looks like this audience. It doesn’t look like 16 percent and so we still have more work to do,” said Ms. Reign. If you don’t see yourself represented on a particular show or movie, do not go see it, she added. The work must be online and offline, said Ms. Reign. “Not everybody has Twitter, what do you do then?”

People must be directed to specific action steps as a way to move beyond what has been referred to as “hashtag” or “online” activism, explained Ms. Burke, whose background, like Ms. Mallory, is on-the-ground grassroots organizing. “I recognize that when I make a tweet-thread (on Twitter) and that becomes news, people take it and make a news story from it. What my job is then is that I have to give people action steps,” she said.

“Online messages and movements must be properly communicated offline. You have to be in community, with folks organizing, coming together, meeting with people, knocking on doors,” said Ms. Mallory.

Directing people to information in their communities like the dates and times of school board or city council meetings via social media was just one example of continuing the momentum from online to on-the-ground work. Movement messages must also continue to be spread by more traditional methods of information sharing through radio, television and writing.

It is not about trying to develop a brand to become famous but it is about real work, panelists pointed out. The work must be continuous and consistent, they argued.