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Networked Activism: Women's Causes Online

March 25, 2013

(Regina Mahone is a staff writer at PND. In her last post, she shared some takeaways from a new report that looks at homeownership and the racial wealth gap.)

Women-circleEarlier this month, I attended a Philanthropy 3.0 event hosted by the George H. Heyman, Jr. Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising at New York University featuring Allison Fine, co-author of the Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change and host of the Chronicle of Philanthropy's Social Good podcast series; Jennifer James, founder of Mom Bloggers for Social Good; Nancy Schwartzman, director of the award-winning film The Line and founder of The Line Campaign, a movement committed to empowering young leaders to create a world without sexual violence; and Vanessa Valenti, co-founder of the blog Feministing and a partner in the consulting firm Valenti Martin Media. Moderated by Tom Watson, president and founder of consulting firm CauseWired, the event covered a range of topics, including the sustainability of online activism in support of women's causes.

As Valenti noted, online activism in support of women's causes has been around for years, but it's tended to be reactive and not pursued with a long-term strategy in mind. Her consulting firm was created to assist activists in developing infrastructure to support their online efforts.

In contrast, the Mom Bloggers network has always had the infrastructure needed to carry out and promote its work. As James pointed out, however, the network hasn't always focused its efforts on social change. To help women engage with nonprofits the way they do with everyday brands, James launched Mom Bloggers for Social Good, which today boasts more than a thousand mothers in thirty-three countries working to spread "the good news about the amazing work nonprofit organizations and NGOs are doing around the world."

Many people working in the online activism space, including Allison Fine and her co-author Beth Kanter, believe that because barriers to online access globally have fallen dramatically over the last few years, "free agents" like James and Valenti are able to drive support for national/global issues in much the same the way that large, well-resourced institutions such as Planned Parenthood and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People did in the past. As Fine noted, 71 percent of Internet users are women, and many of them are becoming powerful actors on behalf of social change. "We're taking our networks with us wherever we go," said Fine.

But if mom bloggers and a new generation of feminists have been effective at mobilizing their online followers to address a range of social problems, I wondered how they managed to connect with individuals beyond their networks to talk about issues in a way that made everyone feel comfortable without sacrificing passion for the cause. Filmmaker Nancy Schwartzman addressed that challenge as she discussed the making of her film about sexual violence and the Circle of 6 app, which makes it easier for smartphone users of any gender to reach out to their friends when they are out late and sense that trouble might be brewing.

Indeed, said Schwartzman, for many it's about reaching "non-activists who are pissed off." In her case, her team and crew wanted to reach "people who buy Cosmo and would never talk about [violence prevention]," and so they crafted promotional messages for the film that sought to engage young people rather than frighten them with direct references to sexual abuse and violence.

All the panelists agreed that what social media does best is make it possible for "ideas and passion to move somewhat friction-free across platforms." Coverage of the Trayvon Martin tragedy, for example, may initially have been limited to a small, local paper in Florida, but once the story was picked up by social media, it went viral and eventually became a national and international cause célèbre.

At the end of the event, the only question I had about networked activism was this: How can we get more low-income women and women of color involved in these networks and work? While barriers to access have indeed fallen for most demographic cohorts, many women -- and men -- who might be interested in supporting a cause or campaign simply do not have the time, money, and/or bandwidth to get involved. How can we get them involved? And what can philanthropy do to support the online feminist movement, which, frankly, is hanging by a thread?

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

-- Regina Mahone

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Posted by Tom Watson  |   March 25, 2013 at 04:40 PM

Great piece - thanks! (I actually think the online feminist movement is doing very well, broadly speaking).

Posted by Marcia Stepanek  |   March 25, 2013 at 04:45 PM

Nice round-up of our Speaker Series panel on women, thanks! We'll be talking more about networked activism in our next two series panels - on cause video April 10th, and then again May 1st on how nonprofit leaders are collaborating by creating shared data networks. It's all about using the evolution of social networks to affect and measure change. Thanks for your interest!

Posted by Jennifer James  |   March 26, 2013 at 03:39 PM

Thank you very much for the mention. Plus, really great recap! Greatly appreciated.

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