Organizing in the Digital Age: Lessons from the Indivisible Movement

In January 2017, in the middle of a blizzard, 50 people crammed into a Yonkers, NY living-room to launch NYCD16-Indivisible, one of thousands of similar groups born at the same moment across the US.

On Saturday, December 12th, as part of the annual RootsCamp conference, I had the pleasure of convening a conversation about movement organizing in the Trump years focused on the experience of Indivisible, one of the biggest examples of grassroots Democratic activism that arose after the 2016 election, and one where the potential and challenges of building a national, decentralized movement with vibrant chapters in blue, purple and red districts have played out in vivid and important ways. What follows is the edited transcript of our hour-long panel discussion — an abridged version is up on The Forge, an online journal focused on organizing strategy and practice. For more independent reporting and analysis covering Indivisible, see also Joan Walsh’s 2019 Nation story, “Indivisible is Working Hard to Live Up to Its Name”; Lara Putnam and Gabriel Perez-Putnam’s 2019 report Grassroots Blossom Across America, Reshaping Country’s Political Geography, and my 2020 New Republic story, “The Loneliness of the Resistance Protester.”

Micah Sifry: Today we are going to be talking about our movements, and in particular the lessons that can be learned from the Indivisible movement, a very important movement that started after 2016. We have a terrific panel, starting out with Aram Fischer, who is the co-founder and facilitator of the Indivisible Middle Tier, something that he’ll explain when he gets a chance to speak. Also, Aram is one of the early leaders of Indivisible San Francisco. In addition, we have Paula Martinos-Mantay, the co-founder of Statewide Indivisible Michigan (SWIM), which is a network of about 50 local groups across the state of Michigan. Then following her we have Lara Putnam, who is a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and one of the best academic analysts and reporters on grassroots political organizing in the post 2016 period.

It’s unusual to have a session focusing or at least spring-boarding off of the experience of a particular movement organization. And so I just wanted to say something about our intentions. This is not about trying to tear anything down or blow anything up. This is about open inquiry. That’s something that RootsCamp has always been about, being a space for cross-movement organization-agnostic well-informed conversations among actually engaged organizers about vision strategy and tactics. The things we’re going to talk about are patterns that come up again and again in movement and organizing work. Our hope is to focus on what we can learn from them and what we can perhaps take into the future as we go forward.

Our main topics that we’re hoping to cover today are 1) “channeling rage,” that is, how the movement was started and what comes next after movements take off; 2) the natural tensions that have to be navigated between movement imperatives and organizational imperatives, 2) “feeding a hungry movement,” by which we mean the role of information flow and transparency and how that can work, and how maybe that can work best; and 4) the relationship between local leaders and national leaders, and the intelligence that may be vested in either of those. And then finally, and this is I think a little more particular to the experience of Indivisible, 5) the challenge and opportunities for progressive organizers of adding to the base. In particular, in the case here, where a lot of these groups are predominantly white or working in predominantly white communities.

First, a little bit of history. Indivisible started with a Google Doc. Right after President Trump was elected, which was a huge shock for many people, and in the weeks following that election, a group of progressive congressional staffers started talking to each other and co-writing a guide that they thought that might be useful to people figuring out how to respond to Trump. They were drawing on the lessons that they had experienced when the Tea Party arose after President Obama was elected, and how the Tea Party organized locally, focused on Congress, and managed to in many cases block or at least slow down the Obama agenda.

They put that Google Doc up online for free. It had millions of downloads once the media glommed onto it and started drawing attention to it. And it was done in this spirit of, “Here’s what we know; you use it if it makes sense to you.” It’s very important that on that very first page of the original Indivisible Guide was this note that this is who it’s from, and that they were doing it in the spirit of it’s something we’re doing in our free time without coordination or support from their employer. This was a pretty important thing to say, and also that they were not setting up an organization or selling anything.

So that was the original spirit of Indivisible that a lot of people received and embraced. Things got more complicated once an organization as it happened got created. I should of course mention that also critically there was a map. From the beginning Indivisible made it easy for people to find each other. In the early days you could go to this page and look up your zip code. And if you didn’t see something or if you wanted to add something to the map you could just put your own group onto the map. I think somewhere close to 6000 maybe groups were posted, though not all of them were actual functioning groups or didn’t necessarily last that long. But there is no question and maybe Lara will talk about this when it gets to her, that this channeled a huge number of people into meaningful local groups, and many of those groups, continue today.

With that, I want to now turn the mic over to Paula Martinos-Mantay, who again, I should say is the leader of the Statewide Indivisible of Michigan (SWIM), which encompasses about 50 local individual groups. Tell us a little bit about your experience, and some of the top lessons that come to mind for you.

Dealing With the Writing on the Wall

Paula Martinos-Mantay: Like many people I discovered Indivisible in early 2017 because I was so horrified by the election results and determined to resist the Trump agenda. I’ve never really been politically engaged other than voting. In fact, I’m Canadian, and only decided to become a US citizen so I could vote for Barack Obama in 2008. So I lived for about 17 years in this country before I decided it was time to start voting. My local Indivisible group started meeting in living rooms twice a month. In 2017 we followed the lead not only of Indivisible in defending the ACA, immigrants and DACA recipients, but we also joined a local social justice nonprofit Michigan United in many of their trainings and direct actions. Within about six months I found myself joining the leadership team of my local group which is Indivisible Fighting Nine in the ninth congressional district, and our group moved to a rented space in a church basement and so we started to grow.

None of us knew what we were doing. We were not seasoned activists for the most part. We were learning pretty fast what it meant to be a grassroots resistance group. We had our marching orders for 2017 from Indivisible National to show up for protest die-ins, to pressure our Republican members of Congress, pushing our message for affordable health care and immigrants’ rights. And then by 2018, we had our footing as a local Indivisible group.

My Indivisible Fighting Nine group decided to work on voter registration and flipping seats in our Michigan State House and in our Senate, and also working on flipping a congressional seats in CD 11, the seat now held by Democrat Haley Stevens. So when I said we were learning how to be a grassroots resistance group, what I meant was, we were self taught for the most part. That’s not a bad way to come up.

Through the end of 2018, we really didn’t have a lot of guidance in the field from Indivisible National. Certainly we had national directives and meetings and lots of emails with guidance, but there was not really a strong presence with field organizers in Michigan. In fact there was no presence. We ran through a series of hired regional field organizers. None lasted very long and they honestly didn’t make a great attempt to form relationships with us. They never reached out to us.

We asked, probably over the course of a good year, year-and-a-half, for to share lists of local groups and leaders in Michigan, something beyond that map, because the map didn’t always seem to be the most accurate source of data. Occasionally, they would comply and send us a list, but they were usually out of date and largely inaccurate. So by the end of 2018, we sort of saw the writing on the wall and Indivisible told us through our regional organizer who was on his way out the door, basically, that they no longer would be sharing lists or data with us. And we also didn’t have a sense that we were getting new members funneled our way from the national organization from their own online marketing efforts

So now we start to see a bit of a problem. Those of us working in the trenches, we felt like we were being kept in a silo and not being able to network, that networking between other individual groups in our state was being inhibited. And we knew we could create tremendous power if we were united. So in January of 2019, Michelle Pallas, another local Indivisible leader in my area and I took on a task to create a statewide Indivisible coalition, so we could act as a resource for our or groups across the state, and it was at that time I met Aram Fischer and joined his Middle Tier Slack group, a nationwide group of hundreds of Indivisible leaders and that was an absolute game changer for us. Now we had some support, a place to go to for questions, best practices and advice.

Aram and Patti Crane (another California Indivisible leader) took me under their wing, and shared incredible journeys that they had, creating and maintaining statewide Indivisible coalitions, and importantly warned me about pitfalls to avoid as well. Michelle and I and a team of 10 volunteers from across the state helped us create our own list of Indivisible groups in Michigan. This took a couple of months to amass this data. On June 1, 2019 we convened our first gathering of more than 70 indivisible leaders from the state of Michigan and that was the first time we were meeting and really communicating with each other. We all agreed it would be advantageous for us to form a coalition to build power and thus SWIM or Statewide Indivisible Michigan was born. We knew we had an amazing governor Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, but Republicans held at that time majorities in both our house and our Senate so SWIM leaders decided the best use of our resources — which really was just people power — would be to flip our Michigan State House in 2020, and then our Senate in 2022.

So since then we’ve met monthly, virtually before it was cool to be on Zoom. We’ve held trainings, town halls, and meet-and-greets. We’ve formed a comms team, a message framing community, we’ve adopted candidates and flipped Michigan house seats though unfortunately did not flip our house this year. We’ve also formed relationships and partnerships with a wide variety of activists and progressives across the country and our state, most notably Indivisible Chicago, who have been incredible allies for us along with Swing Left. Statewide Indivisible Michigan, as Micah mentioned, is fifty groups strong. So now SWIM is a brand, it’s a strong one. We’ve worked hard to earn the respect and trust of both local and national organizations, and we work closely with our local, county and state Democratic Party, and our Michigan House caucus leadership as well.

We’re not the Democratic Party, and that’s part of the appeal to our members but at the same time we are working alongside our Democratic party in the state. We are not c3s or c4s, we’re community organizers, we are grassroots activists at the core. For the most part we figured out our own path, without a whole lot of guidance from Indivisible National. We knew what was best for us and for our state and we followed our own path that way. In fact, we had about thirty of our groups who became Swing Left affiliates this year, based on the recommendation of Michelle Pallas and I. That’s because Swing Left was offering us a tremendous amount of resources like funneling new members, recruiting members for our groups, VAN access, fundraising tools, dedicated field organizers and the use of a free mobilize account. The most important resource though was their field staff. We had a tremendous amount of support from them.

So in summary, we’re extremely grateful that the Indivisible Guide gave us that launching pad vehicle to draw like-minded people together. SWIM will continue to set goals that best fit our needs despite being nudged by our national organization to follow their national agenda. That does not necessarily suit our needs in Michigan. We do have an incredibly competent and wonderful field organizer from Indivisible now but she is responsible for several states not specifically dedicated to Michigan. Our Michigan field organizer for Indivisible actually quit in the last 6 weeks of the presidential campaign and his boss ended up taking over Michigan and she is amazing, Saskia Young is absolutely incredible and is working with us. She is working hard to fully understand what we need and this is a first for us in Michigan. She also understands we’re not going to jump on board a one size fits all national agenda that issued recently. So we’re ready for the next set of challenges whatever they may be.

Micah Sifry: Thank you so much, Paula. I will circle back to you on some of the learnings from the statewide group that maybe can also be used in other states. I want to turn now to Aram Fischer, who I got to know a few years ago. I should have said this at the beginning: in addition to being a journalist and longtime co-founder of Civic Hall, I also helped start an Indivisible group in my own congressional district — New York congressional district 16. And I have been involved in the efforts of local Indivisible particularly in the New York metro area, Westchester as well as the Bronx. And it was through that that I heard about MiddleTier. So Aram, on to you now. You’ve been in a sort of unique position, building this middle tier network. So talk to us about that.

How the Flow of Information is the Lifeblood of Movements

Aram Fischer The first thing I just want to say is, I absolutely adore Indivisible. This movement has offered me so much — amazing friends like Paula and Micah and many, many others who are actually on this call and even more who aren’t. It’s really added so much to my life. It’s where I learned to be an organizer. And I just want to start there, because you could ask thousands of people across the country, how much I’ve put in and how much I love it and they also have done the same.

My journey is — I’m actually not a founder of Indivisible San Francisco. I came to the second meeting, which was 70 people at the offices of Code for America, and I was very much sitting on the side because I’ve always had a pretty fierce independent anti-authoritarian streak. Having grown up in Berkeley, that’s kind of how we do it. And I was sitting on the side, not wanting to be part of any club that would have me as a member, waiting for the reason why I didn’t have to be part of this thing, because it just seemed like I’m just not a joiner, and instead I met the most incredible people. And I stuck it out and just threw my heart and soul into it.

I’ve been a lifelong activist. I come from a long line of activist Jewish women, going back to my great grandmother that I’m named after. And when Trump won I knew whatever I’d been doing as an activist I had to go from that to more. I didn’t know what more looked like, and Indivisible is where I found that home to do more. So, the first thing that happened was, I thought that I should stop complaining about all the tech folks that were ruining my city which is what we do in the Bay Area when we’re from there. And I should actually lead the tech group so I can harness their incredible talent on behalf of the movement.

And we grew really really quickly — crazy hockey stick growth. Our sixth meeting we sat two sessions of 225 people, we had 1000 people on our waiting list that day. And we had sort of 60 to 70 leaders, whatever that meant at that point, who were trying to figure out what the hell to do with that. You know, what do you do, what do you do with 1400 people who want to hear from you and follow your leadership when you’re trying to follow someone else’s?

And we figured it out.

We did all kinds of amazing things. The main thing we did was we allowed people to create pretty much whatever breakout group they wanted. I found an incredible crew of five other people and we formed something called Indivisible Data. That includes one of the foremost astrophysicists in the world, who is at Stanford — just to give you an idea of some of the types of folks I ran into. She ran our Twitter. And we ended up creating a Twitter bot that would basically blast out shareable healthcare graphics and we did it so that it shared an individual graphic for each Congressional District in the country, and it intentionally added the local Indivisible group that we had identified as someone that might want to share it out further.

We were just do-gooders; we had no idea what would happen. And next thing you know, someone from Invisible NY-19 used one of our graphics as their Facebook event photo for an empty chair at a town hall that Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney was holding for John Fossa because he wouldn’t talk to his constituents in New York 19. And that made it to the Rachel Maddow show.

And I’ve always been someone that’s kind of wanted to find my limits. So I said you know if we can collaborate doing this with almost nothing with six people drinking wine in my friend’s living room in San Francisco, what else could happen? And right around then the fight over repealing HCA was happening, and I read an article that said that the last three votes were from Illinois. I was livid. I had two back surgeries covered by Obamacare. I was a dedicated canvasser in Colorado in 2008 and did more work for the Obama campaign in 2012 in New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado again. I saw Michelle Obama speak in Durango, which was one of the highlights at that point of my activism.

And I wasn’t going to let that stand and so I got in touch with a guy from Indivisible Skokie, a place I’ve never been. And he connected me to Reid McCollum from Indivisible IL-06, who connected me to the leadership of Indivisible Illinois, and together we did the Illinois Health Care Truth Tour — a digital billboard truck that drove around from event to event in Illinois, spreading the word. We put graphics from Invisible Data on the side of it, localized graphics, depending on where the truck was, showing the local impact of repeal in all these Republican districts.

And again, I said, oh my god we need to talk to each other more. We have to talk to each other more because, when we talk to each other, amazing things happen. The most important lesson for me is this: the flow of information is the lifeblood of movements. When you let information flow across these networks and you help them connect and go from node to node, amazing things can happen because there’s phenomenal talents that are across any movement and I’ve seen it in other movements, too.

So that was kind of my core insight and, in the time that I’ve been doing this other work, I later heard people define this as network weaving. And I helped put together the Bay Area call and then the statewide call for California Indivisibles, I should say, and then founded something called the Indivisible Middle Tier. The basic idea was to try and create a space that was in between the national tier and the local tier that helps information flow in both directions. That national had something particular to give being in DC and being local also gave you perspective. I’m really sad that Liz can’t join us today from Indivisible Appalachia Ohio as we were hoping to have the rural, suburban, and urban on this call to kind of represent the red, the purple, and the blue. But I’ll speak a little bit to her experience at some point today.

Back to Indivisible Middle Tier. We co-authored a document about what we wanted to be when we grew up. There were thirty-odd people who contributed as core authors to this document, and about 200 or 300 across the country who signed on to it. It ended up not working quite how we wanted because National didn’t seem as interested in helping to make this project go. And so Middle Tier basically became like a community center for Indivisible leaders across the country. There’s about 600 or so leaders who are more or less active, statewide leaders and local leaders as well as all kinds of people who have created verticals like the secure elections network, and it’s where we go to collaborate, commiserate, and share stories. That connection between us is really the thing that makes the Middle Tier great.

We’ve achieved everything from helping on the Conor Lamb race in that special election in 2018, to helping free an immigrant mother who had been detained by ICE. We heard from our San Diego colleagues that this woman had been sent to Tucson, and that there was a judge there who was most likely to let people out of detention who had people showing up for them in the gallery. Well, how is this person supposed to have people show up in the gallery when her people are in San Diego and don’t know where she is. So we connected from San Diego to San Francisco with me to Phoenix and Tucson to people who I’ve never met who showed up in the gallery and helped us woman out and then get back to San Diego, and hopefully a richer life. There’s all kinds of different things that we’ve achieved in collaboration. I’ll stop there. I’m sure we’ll have more time.

Micah Sifry: You really gave us a lot to chew on there. Thank you, Aram. Okay Lara, so you’ve been both very closely observing as well as to some degree participating in the sort of resistance, organizing in Pennsylvania and you’ve done a lot of really great in-depth writing of academic and more generalist articles about this. So, I’m curious how you see the larger picture. In terms of how Indivisible National and local have developed and how you would situate this in the way that movements play out across the United States.

Building Coral Reefs for Collective Action

Lara Putnam: The stories that we’ve already heard turn out to be really typical of experiences across the country. I’ll make a few points about that broader context. The first is that the surge of grassroots group formation in the wake of Donald Trump’s election actually didn’t begin with the Indivisible guide. In any number of places people came together with people with whom they had some often almost tangential but prior political connection. For example, it was people who they knew from work but who they’d had conversations about politics with, like librarians who knew each other deciding they have to form a reading group because they’re librarians. In some places it was the Pantsuit Nation Facebook groups that coalesced on the ground.

Or the Women’s March. In a case in the suburbs north of Pittsburgh, women came together who were just like swim team moms who knew each other through their daughter’s team, came together to charter a bus to go to DC for the Women’s March, and afterwards they formed a group they just called Bus One, the Women of Bus One, and they have since remade politics in their township. They ended up running candidates and flipping town council. That’s the other piece that we’ve seen again and again as these new grassroots groups were formed in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, even though the guidance they were receiving from the different national conveners — whether that was the Women’s March, or Indivisible once the Guide was written and began circulating — the guidance tended to be very much focused on national events and national interlocutors.

As one example of that in the original Indivisible Guide, the words “member of Congress” appear 60-plus times, and the word candidate does not appear anywhere. So the Guide was very much a “here’s how you speak to the existing power-holders” vision that was being articulated by the national actors who these new first-time grassroots activists were listening to. And yet again and again and place after place, local groups, as they came together, within the space of their third or fourth meeting already had created subcommittees that were focused on assessing the local landscape, identifying upcoming elections and running people for office in really local elections. “We’re going to contest every seat every election,” right?

People wanted to contest school board seats that hadn’t been contested by Democrats within memory; they wanted to contest town council seats. If they were in a rural district where statewide Democrats had not been running state legislature candidates, or even congressional candidates, on the theory that they should let sleeping dogs lie and not rile up that rural electorate, the local folks that came together said we want to run someone for that office, even if we know that we’re not going to win. “It’s important to us to come together and organize and be visible politically within our region.” And so — in part because congressional districts stretch across many localities — these organic alliances or coalitions or dialogues began forming across congressional districts in ways that then in some cases, proved to be really sticky. These groups that came together and coalesced have often had a good deal of staying power.

So, to just give some quick numbers for what we’re looking at. Nationally we tried to figure out how many of the groups captured by the Indivisible map, to what extent were real groups, active groups and to what extent were they capturing the panorama of local grassroots organizing that I’ve been describing for you — which sort of overlaps with and includes groups formally identified with the name Indivisible, but not is limited to that. At the end of 2018 we looked at the national patterns, and by then it was about 4500 groups that were listed on the Indivisible map. Then we did a deep dive for two different states: Pennsylvania because that’s where I live, I know pretty well and had already been in dialogue with different grassroots groups, and Missouri, because it has a different profile, much more rural. There were about 244 groups listed on the map at that point for Pennsylvania about 77 groups listed for Missouri.

So as we tried to dive down and drill down into the history and figure out what’s going on, about a fifth of the groups listed had never actually existed: they were advertisements for something, they were double listings from something else, or someone had thrown out a gmail address but we could find no trace anywhere on social media or elsewhere that any meeting had ever been held. About a fifth of the groups listed actually antedated Donald Trump’s election — they were long-standing local progressive groups or in some cases local Democratic Party chapters or other committees. So they were existing progressive groups that used the map to provide their information to pull in new members locally. About a fifth of the groups listed had some ongoing existence but it was purely virtual so as far as we could tell, when we spoke to people or looked at their footprint. These were not groups that had ever attempted to create any kind of collective structure. It was a listserv or a Facebook group that served as a clearinghouse for individual actions that people could take individually but that didn’t require coordinating across people.

And so that leaves about two-fifths of the listings that actually did correspond to a group that had for some period of time met as groups. I would say about a quarter to a third of the listings are really groups that have thrived and have had the kind of real world engagement and collective life that you’ve been hearing described by Aram and Paula so far. And that’s huge. That’s a massive upgrade in the amount of organized spaces of citizen participation nationally. And those groups, the ones that have persisted and thrived, have often become part of loose coalitions. In many cases, individual activists have gone from being part of local Indivisible or similar groups into their local Democratic Party and have completely revitalized local Democratic Party structures. In other cases groups have ended up forming a part of the local 501c3/c4 ecosystem. So there’s sort of different routes here.

What I’m left with is the immense potential for impact of making it possible for people to find each other for collective action. So many things grew outward from the original information in the Indivisible guide and the map, and the things that people created around them like Indivisible Middle Tier (which I first heard from a leader in Kansas City, by the way, when I was doing interviews in the Missouri project). Providing that kind of infrastructure for decentralized group formation turns out to be super impactful. It’s kind of like putting old tires in the sea in a place where there used to be coral reefs. Things stick to them, and all of a sudden you’ve got the possibility of creating an ecosystem that works as a coral reef again. That’s weird. All you did was drop some dead tires and garbage and, you know the right kind of garbage there, the right kind of structures turned out to be really impactful.

That use of digital infrastructure really stands in contrast to other trends we’ve seen recently. We also have seen the use of digital outreach for a kind of Uber-ization of political volunteering, which channels people into very light touch activities, like text-banking, phone-banking or postcarding, in ways that are more atomizing. That’s not about pulling people together, sharing information and seeing what they can generate together — which is what Aram and Paula have been talking about — but rather is about harvesting the available labor from an increasingly digital space, a world in which you can channel volunteering through text banking, phone banking and so on. You can make use of very small amounts of commitment from many people without ever introducing them to each other. And the payoff of that I think is much more questionable, certainly in terms of building long term power. So those are the sort of split lessons that I see before us. Thanks so much.

Micah Sifry: Thank you, that’s awesome and the analogy of the coral reef and putting tires down to build more coral. If I can just build on that a little bit, I think, for those of us who have been around the progressive movement for some time, one of the long-standing challenges has been the degree to which our presence is mostly focused in urban areas in college towns, and that beyond that, the ongoing grassroots presence of progressives until 2016 was relatively invisible. And one of the recurring stories I think that we’ve heard a lot in the last four years, is how, in many cases, not only Indivisible but often through Indivisible locals people find each other and find each other in places that previously were thought of as dead zones or civic deserts if you were looking for other grassroots progressive Democrats, or just democrats not even necessarily progressives. What the Indivisible movement demonstrated, both through what the national organization has centered as well as the locals is the possibility of doing a lot of this work in purple districts and red districts.

So I’m going to throw one question back, particularly to Paula and Aram: You know the capacity to build these local horizontal networks that spread out — either Paula in your case to statewide coordination and Aram in your case, a kind of multi-dimensional regional and sometimes national coordination — What do you wish you had more of? What always impresses me about this is how much of it is built on volunteer time. But we also know that our movement has a lot of potential capacity, there is a lot of money sloshing around in the progressive movement, some of which actually goes into organizing, it doesn’t only go to pay for ads. So, you know, just curious what if you, you know, thinking going forward, if you could have more, to be able to do more, what would it be? What would enable this kind of work to be stronger?

Paula Martinos-Mantay: I think, at the very root of it, we could use more data from There has been a real dearth of that and a reciprocal relationship would have been really helpful from our national organization. We wasted two months pulling together our own directory of groups and leaders across the state. We still have a Michigan Indivisible map that is completely wrong. It is out of date, and lists far more groups in our state than ever existed let alone are still standing. We’ve done so much without money, that money doesn’t even seem to be an issue. Right now, though, I hear the same thing from a lot of c3 and c4 groups saying, “there’s a lot of money out there, you guys should tap into that.” But then we have to become an entity. We like being nimble, we like being close to the ground. And we like that nobody really is in charge of us, we can decide what we need to do when we need to do it.

It would be incredibly useful to have just a very simple monthly report of how many people the national organization may have drawn in through their marketing that happen to be in our region. That would be very useful. Share a list of people in Michigan who are interested in getting involved with those of us on the ground. My local group in the ninth congressional district is very blue, very safe. But again, we’ve got 50 to 100 leaders at least and 50 groups that I’m talking to on a regular basis and they aren’t seeing those prospective members sent our way. So where are they going? Onto a fundraising list I imagine.

If we had that information to tap into, maybe we could be twice as big as we are, maybe we’d have twice as many volunteers, rather than just focusing on tapping those interested individuals as potential donors. We don’t ask anybody for money. We have an Act Blue account under Indivisible’s Distributed Fundraising program to raise money for educational projects. Our SWIM organization might have $1000 in that account. And it’s only because some random person gave us $1000, we still don’t know who they are. So definitely not money, more information on who’s already out there that we could tap into what would be helpful going forward, as well as it would have helped us getting up to this point.

Micah Sifry: Great, thank you. Aram, do you want to take a swing at that?

Aram Fischer: Yeah, absolutely. So once again Paula is illuminating how information is the lifeblood of movements. For me in the coalition building or network weaving that I’ve done the most important thing is you have to have a really clear set of values. And one of the things that was great about Indivisible was that whenever I talked to another Indivisible leader, there was an Indivisible-ness that was consistent. And I would tap into that. In fact, how I built the Middle Tier originally was, I would cold email, cold call, cold Twitter direct message, whatever I could do. And my pitch was, “Hi, my name’s Aram. I’m an Invisible leader like you. I’m creating a network of leaders across the country so we can do more. I know you’re doing something amazing — what is it?” And almost invariably, people would come back with these incredible stories of how their Indivisible-ness manifested where they were. Were they in a swing district? It’s very different than if they were in a deep blue place exporting blue energy to other places.

Or if they were like Liz, who is in deep Southeastern Ohio, Meigs County, which is super poor Appalachia. She grew up hanging out around the Highlander Center and comes from this deep organizing tradition of Appalachian grandmas. And so having those clear shared values and mission enabled me to connect with folks, and bring them into community with each other. And the other thing that was really, really important, and I think is key to, to weaving networks and feeding movements, is permission. Literally, every single person, there is no hierarchy. There’s never been any claim on authority. We’re actually very anti-authority, in lots of really key ways because who am I to tell Paula to do anything? Right? I’ve never even been to Michigan.

Micah Sifry: So if I heard correctly, the main things that you both want is to keep the autonomy that you have, and to raise mainly the quotient of information that’s available to move around. Am I hearing that right? And I actually heard that you don’t want to touch the money game, because that creates more headaches than it’s worth. Is that a fair description of what you said?

Paula Martinos-Mantay: It’s not so much that it creates more problems. It’s just then you are tethered , you’re responsible to somebody for that money, whether it’s a national organization or a group that’s adopting you in some form. And we’ve been able to accomplish plenty without that entanglement.

Aram Fischer: I would add, one of the things that’s really important is to have people stay out of the way of that local flavor. It’s really, really, really important to trust the locals. So things like national endorsements or local endorsements or state endorsements have caused huge disruption to groups across the country, where we know the most important thing is to maintain the solidarity of our local group or coalition. Endorsements have a tendency to just pull us apart. And there’s a real tension there because national orgs want to endorse, right? They want to measure, they want to do things that we have no interest in. We’re just trying to do the work on the ground.

And to be real, there’s people who I see listening on Zoom right now who helped make Antonio Delgado a representative in New York. There are Indivisible leaders that were absolutely crucial to winning really crucial victories across the country. And they did it largely because they weren’t trying to be measured, they weren’t trying to raise money, just every single ounce of energy they had went into the race or the issue. Like saving healthcare, a huge early rallying point, obviously. So I think that, trusting the locals to understand where they are, who they are, and not put too much of a brand on the top of them. Because if you’re in Appalachian Ohio, a national brand from DC is anathema to what you’re trying to do. They’re feeding the hungry. That’s what they’re organizing around. They look more like the Appalachian version of the Black Panthers. And they don’t have anything to do with the national brand, that’s for sure.

Micah Sifry: One lesson to tease back out from what I just heard, and as someone who has spent a lot of time looking at how the internet and tech changes organizing, what you’re describing Aram about your experience, building up the Middle Tier network is that’s a capacity that would have been incredibly difficult to do pre-internet. The find-ability of other people and the fact that these two way conversations are more open and accessible. Someone still has to take the initiative, obviously, and curation of those kinds of networks is a really delicate thing. Aram, maybe you should be writing a guide to how to do that, since it sounds like you’re doing it incredibly well.

I saw a comment go through on the chat thread about how presidential campaigns typically tap into a massive amount of local desire to win or to defeat someone, but then they don’t necessarily leave that network behind. You know, it’s like “use us and then lose us.” And the capacity to connect locally is something we all have — assuming you have the level of internet access demonstrated by watching this event.

Micah Sifry: There’s a wonderful question in the chat from Erica Sagrans.

Erica Sagrans: The “resistance” got energized and became a thing post 2016. Obviously, this work and organizing didn’t start them. But I’m curious what you think is next for the Indivisible movement, or just kind of the resistance more broadly now that Trump is leaving office? Where do you want to take things next, in terms of the organizing, you’re doing?

Micah Sifry: Let me stick a pin in there, because that’s a great question for the last 15 minutes of the session. Absolutely.

Erica Sagrans: Yeah, we can end on that.

Micah Sifry: Well, the question I was going to go to is the role of privilege in the work. It is something that’s been reported again and again that in the case of Indivisible, organizers that the core are predominantly college-educated, middle-aged women, and predominantly white. There are also probably a fair number of middle-aged college educated men. But the amount of volunteer time that people like Aram and Paula putting in is enormous. Not everybody has the ability to do that. 40% of Americans couldn’t pay $400 emergency health bill, if they were hit by one right now. So there’s a privilege in who gets to do this work in the framework that you’re describing of, “I’m all volunteer, so I’ll do whatever I think is right.” And there’s also the whiteness issue, and opportunity which is to work on other whites. So I’m wondering if Paula, Aram and Lara, if you want to jump in on this, too.

We just went through an uprising in this country that was way bigger than what the resistance was in 2017 in terms of the number of people and the number of places where actions around George Floyd’s murder took place. So, it seems to me that historically, that’s an even bigger, very important phenomenon and one that appeared in a lot of the same places and beyond the kinds of places where Indivisible started to appear. Do you think about all of that as we head into the future?

Paula Martinos-Mantay: I can start briefly. In Michigan, at least for Indivisible groups, we’re starting to look at what we are for now, not what we’re resisting, because we’ve done a good job of resisting. And it’s exhausting. But now we need to put our money where our mouth is. So yes, we believe in racial equity and inclusion, and now what are we going to do about it? So, or for our statewide coalition, we are having our first conference of the new year, early in January, to pull our leaders together. We’d like to guide them in a certain direction, but we’re going to let it go where it goes. We need to put more of a focus on inclusion, expanding our universe, racial equity and inclusion will benefit all our communities and our organizing.. And we’ve already got some trainings that are in the works both with Indivisible and other organizations that are going to hopefully help us get there, as long as we’ve got buy-in from our leaders. And I think that’s not going to be a hard sell.

And I think we all realize how white our groups are, how old we are. And how limiting that is. Working on the Protect the Results initiative that happened through Indivisible and their partners, they pushed us to expand our reach and our network. And there were groups that we hadn’t reached out to before, easily 60 or 70. We have a lot of work ahead of us, we have got to go there. And then we have got to figure out how do they lead us, how do we connect with those organizations, and make this a better state for all of us. Because it is ugly here in Michigan. It is really ugly. I am afraid every day to wake up and look at the news. We want to focus on unity in Michigan, but it is going to be an ugly journey, maybe much worse than the last four years. I also believe we will focus our efforts on democracy reform, HR1.

Aram Fischer: I would add that sometimes I’ve described Indivisible as being on one of the fronts of anti-racist work. And it’s the front that Martin Luther King called out about the “moderate white,” someone maybe check the quote, I don’t have off the top of my head. It’s super, super messy. There’s been times where Indivisibles have done things that have made me cringe. And it’s really tough. And there’s another side of it. Here in California, there’s a rural red El Dorado County, just west of Lake Tahoe. And it’s just not a place where progressives were thought to exist, But lo and behold, an Indivisible group El Dorado Progressives rallied 2000 people. And so those people are the ones that held George Floyd uprising events in rural California, where there’s certainly very, very few black people in those communities. And they were out there holding signs saying that Black Lives Matter. And it was a coalition between local Indivisible groups and young folks coming out of say, Sunrise and March for our Lives, so on and so forth.

I want to just put in the chat that I feel like we need to be a little careful about when we talk about how white the movement is that we don’t erase the fact that there are just phenomenal BIPOC queer leaders in the invisible movement who are just, you know, leading lights of the work that we do as well.

Micah Sifry: Lara, you have your hand up, why don’t we now move towards sort of concluding remarks? And Erica’s question from before about where does the resistance go? Going forward? I think we heard a little from Paula about coming around to what are we for, not just what are we against?

Lara Putnam: The most recent conversations here around the ways in which local Indivisible groups may be demographically uniform in ways that make it hard or inappropriate for them to sort of try to colonize the world — part of what they point to is the importance of working in coalition. So it’s not about: “What do we do to make you people come to our group?” If that’s the starting point, you are never going to get to a an equitable, appropriate, engaged endpoint. Part of what I see is a huge need for information about how to go about finding that local landscape of labor activism or of racial justice activism, which doesn’t always look the same, right? And it doesn’t look the same from place to place: who the actors are, what even is a 501c3 or c4, what’s that landscape? There’s such a spectrum of organizing and groups in place after place that I think guidance about how one might go about reaching out and working in coalition and in allyship would be enormously useful. In many places, group after group has to innovate for themselves. So that’s my counterpart to Paula’s call for data about potential volunteers. The need for guidance and concrete information that helps people think about the next steps as being a matter of alliance, not just about concentrating power, but about figuring out where potential allies are and how to work together.

Paula Montoya-Mantay: Something that Michelle and I started in Michigan, sort of an offshoot of SWIM, is the Michigan Council of Activists. We started it in 2020, knowing we would have a lot of well-intentioned out of state organizations sweeping into Michigan for the presidential race. And we’ve all been through this before, stepping over each other in the field, at the doors. So we created this council of activists in Michigan so that we could all meet regularly and talk about what we’re all doing in the field. And these were groups from all over the country as well as groups from across Michigan. Our organization is probably going to go in the direction of keeping that coalition active and moving forward to expand it. We’re already asking our current 20 or 30 members, who else do we need to bring into this coalition. We definitely have to broaden our umbrella. We have a state that is so divided, red and blue. I mean, there are still Trump signs out on the lawns. I don’t understand that. And I don’t know how we’re going to speak to all those people. Unless we just simply work on unity. It’s a long-term goal. And we’re going to have to bring lots of partners into that with us, I think.

Aram Fischer: I think that the most common thing that I’m hearing from individuals across the country is we’re meeting to figure out what’s next. You know, the rallying cry was resist the Trump agenda. And you know, we did. Well, we accomplished that shared mission. And without a new shared mission. What’s next is the question. And so I think people are going to answer that in lots of different ways. Individuals are now elected in many places. They’re part of Democratic Party infrastructures. as Lara has pointed out, there’s lots that’s changed. You know, and I think now, what you have are organizers looking to, you know, for what they’re going to organize around, often, it’s just a continuation, Liz, who I wish had been on this panel is going to keep feeding hungry people in southeastern Ohio, and trying to help build power in a very impoverished place. And she’s gonna just keep doing that. You can go check out invisible Appalachian Ohio and donate, please, because it’s literally going to feed hungry people. For me, I’m going to take a lot of the lessons that I’ve learned from network organizing, and with other organizers creating a collective that who can help movements grow, and show up in the moments right to feed them the information that I wish I had had, when I was fumbling about in the early, early months of Indivisible. So that, for me, is really where I see a lot of my work going. But as far as the movement — it’s as varied as there are groups that are still going and there’s probably 1000 there, maybe 1500 that are still around.

Micah Sifry: Awesome. This has been a really rich, and provocative and exciting conversation. I want to thank Aram, Paula and Lara for giving us so much of their wisdom, and for everything that you will do for all the people on the call as well who are also active locally, whether it’s an Indivisible or other groups, thank you for everything that you do.

For more thoughts on this session and the larger lessons it offers about organizing in America in the digital age, subscribe to my newsletter, The Connector.

Co-founder Civic Hall. Publisher of The Connector newsletter (find it on Substack). Board member Consumer Reports, Public Lab.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store