Indivisible: How A 23-Page Google Doc Gave Birth To A National Progressive Movement

My Twitter feed is historically filled with tech snark and startup news but in 2017 I’ve seen a disproportionate number of #Resist House Parties, protest signs and town halls. For this I credit Indivisible, a new grassroots org which is really mobilizing local level progressives. Indivisible started as a viral Google Doc, which is just an amazing story. Thanks to their cofounder Ezra Levin for joining me for Five Questions.

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Hunter Walk: Indivisible kind of burst on the scene post-election as one of the new progressive groups putting voice to the frustration and surprise that many of us woke up with on Nov 9th. What’s your origin story?

Ezra Levin: The Indivisible Guide traces its humble beginnings to a bar in Austin, Texas, my hometown, where my wife Leah Greenberg and I were visiting my family for Thanksgiving. We met up with a college friend of mine for drinks. Like a few other friends we had talked to, she was newly politically engaged (through a private Facebook group), and she was trying to figure out what she could do beyond petitions and online activism. As former congressional staffers, Leah and I decided in that bar to write a guide aimed at demystifying the congressional policy process and copying the Tea Party strategies and tactics (minus the racism and violence).

By the end of Thanksgiving break, we had a draft, and we worked with a couple dozen our friends finalize a 23-page guide on Google Docs outlining best practices for influencing your members of Congress. We ran it by our parents, and other friends outside the Beltway, and asked them if they’d find it useful. After work on December 14th, I tweeted the guide out to my roughly 700 followers on Twitter. To our amazement, it got promoted by some very influential people, like Robert Reich and George Takei. Within a couple hours, traffic was so heavy to the Google Doc that it crashed — people couldn’t download or print the guide. That weekend, we had a couple dozen friends over to our house to throw together a website and figure out a way to start responding to all the messages coming in.

The most amazing thing that started happening almost immediately was that people were forming local indivisible groups. By January there were hundreds (and now there are around 6,000), and they had a ton of questions for us — about congressional process, about policy, about running a group that went from 20 people to 500 people overnight. We started the Indivisible Project organization in January explicitly to support this growing movement of local indivisible groups.

HW: I see lots of local Indivisible groups. What does Indivisible “HQ” provide to these groups and is there a tension between a centrally managed message versus distributed action?

EL: All of our work here at the national level comes down to one truth that we’re really proud of: we are not the leaders of this movement. There are 6,000 group leaders across the country changing what is politically possible in this country. They are not “astroturf” or “paid protesters” — they are real constituents, leading real resistance efforts in their communities. We’re committed to standing indivisible with these local leaders, and providing the support we can to ensure they can stand strong against the Trump Administration’s racist, misogynistic, and broadly bigoted agenda.

Our role is support this local leadership. Every week we provide new resources our groups need to be able to effectively advocate to their members of Congress. On the policy front, this is everything from sample call scripts on certain bills, to legislative process explainers, to comprehensive action plans on major issues, like healthcare or the Russia investigation. We also provide resources to help groups sustain their activism and make a difference in their communities — like how to organize a group or how to get local media to cover their event. We keep our groups up to date on what’s coming down the pike in Congress so they can know exactly what issues to focus on week by week.

In addition to providing these training and policy resources, we also help coordinate groups to help them take district-wide and statewide actions. We’ve set up knowledge sharing platforms for group leaders to coordinate by state, we hold regular Facebook Live and other public events to mobilize and answer questions around specific actions, and we do state and district-level coordinated events to help groups work together. There are an average of 13 groups in every single congressional district in the country, so this coordination work is crucial to ensuring the indivisible groups can have collective impact.

HW: What’s the role of the DNC vis a vis these new orgs? Do you work totally outside of the established structures?

EL: While Indivisible is explicitly progressive, we are also explicitly not an arm of the Democratic Party — and we think that’s important. A central part of our theory of change is working to ensure Democrats in Congress have spines. It’s worth remembering that early in Trump presidency, fifteen Democrats voted for Mike Pompeo CIA Director — a man who slanders Muslim Americans and is open to torture. We were happy that Indivisible groups rallied outside Democratic districts offices of Senators like Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to demand that they vote against Trump’s extreme nominees. That said, we’re happy to fight with Democrats when they’re fighting for progressive values. For instance, once Schumer committed to fighting against Trump’s extreme Supreme Court nominee (after some pressure from the resistance), we strongly supported Democratic efforts in the Senate.

But while we don’t coordinate with the Democratic Party, we do work with a ton of existing organizations that have been fighting for progressive policy for years. We’ve coordinated with Organizing for America, MoveOn, Working Families Party, and others on grassroots days of action. And we’ve worked with policy organizations like Families USA, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and Planned Parenthood to fight against TrumpCare. The fact is that we’re facing an existential threat from this country, so we believe it’s crucial to band together against his assaults.

HW: Some donors are waiting on sidelines, thinking they’ll put money behind candidate races in 2018 midterms. What’s the call to action that gets them donating to Indivisible? Do you need money? Why would $100 or $1000 now make a difference?

EL: Yes! It costs money to support the Indivisible movement (if you want to donate, you can here!). For instance, currently we have 45 local indivisible groups in Darrell Issa’s district in California (a very vulnerable Republican outside of San Diego)…and we have exactly 1 organizer for the entire state of California (and she covers Hawaii too!). This is not enough. We have over 900 groups in California alone, and we want to support them, and the rest across the country. We are building out our field operation now, and we are trying to do it as quickly as possible so that the local groups are as strong as possible come next year.

So what does your $100 or $1000 donation get you? It means we’re going to be able to support more organizers in the field. It means we’ll be able to help grow these groups to be big centers of local power for 2018 and beyond. And your small donation means that Indivisible gets to remain independent and responsive to the movement, rather than to corporations or any individual big donors.

On this note, it’s also worth explaining that Indivisible is driven by small donations by design. We have self-imposed limits on the amount of funding we’ll take from other sources, because we want to be responsive and accountable to our local groups. Ever since we put this donate button on our website, small donations have been the single largest source of funding for Indivisible. Again, this is a conscious choice. We know that organizations are responsive to their funders, so we are committed to being driven by small donations from the Indivisible movement. You can learn more about this in our fundraising philosophy here.

HW: What role has social media played in Indivisible’s growth? Which social tools or platforms have been most useful?

EL: Given that the Indivisible Guide started on Twitter, social media has been integral to our success since the beginning. Social media is still the primary way we disseminate information quickly to our entire community, which is key when our groups are responding to rapid developments in Congress, and the primary way by which we communicate our priorities and positions to the public. Our local groups use Facebook heavily to communicate amongst each other, and to spread the word about events they’re doing like “die-ins” and “empty chair town halls.” They also use it to share photos and videos from their actions — sometimes directly with reporters who amplify their stories (a tactic we suggest in the Guide). We use roughly weekly Facebook live events to reach thousands of Indivisible members and answer their questions about organizing and policy in real time. And we use an internal Slack-like communication tool to help group leaders coordinate within states and between states. There’s no denying the power social media gives Indivisible to be able to organize and share information quickly and effectively.

Thanks Ezra! Please consider supporting Indivisible!

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