The Tweet That Launched a Movement

Two thousand and forty-four miles.
A distance that would take 677 hours to walk.
A distance that would take around 30 hours to drive.
A distance that technology immediately obliterated as four passionate citizens united against police violence.


Just days after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014, civil rights activists DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie were on the ground in Ferguson, Mo., documenting on social media the unrest that ruled the streets. Shortly thereafter, the two connected with Brittany Packnett, the then-executive director of Teach for America in St. Louis.
As #Ferguson became a rallying cry on social media, Oprah Winfrey leveled a critique at the Black Lives Matter movement (which used Twitter to mobilize its followers), saying that it didn’t have clear goals, leadership or asks. Mckesson tweeted a reply, listing demands of the protesters.
Meanwhile, more than half a continent away, Samuel Sinyangwe spotted Mckesson’s response and felt compelled to reach out.
“I replied to the tweet saying that I could help develop a policy agenda that implements these demands in practice. I didn’t know who DeRay or anyone was,” says Sinyangwe, who was doing policy work for a nonprofit in Oakland, Calif. “As a policy analyst, I wanted to contribute policy.”
Two thousand and forty-four miles separated Sinyangwe from Mckesson and the other protesters in Ferguson. Yet Mckesson’s 140-character post forged a virtual connection and jumpstarted a conversation that would, in just a few short months, result in the formation of the far-left leaning nationwide organization WeTheProtesters.
Initial phone calls between Sinyangwe and Mckesson (and later, Elzie and Packnett as well) focused on a shared understanding that data needed to inform policy making so that it would gain traction with both the public and government officials at all levels.
“What made it work was that we’re all committed to the same goals, and we each have a particular skillset that added value to each other’s work. It was all about the commitment to work; it was not about our own personalities,” says Sinyangwe. “I can analyze the data and identify policy solutions. DeRay can communicate that very well in relationships with media. [Joh]Netta can make sure the information — this sort of ivory tower research — is accessible to people and Brittany has institutional access to make sure these recommendations are embedded in some of the foremost institutions of government.”
Not surprising to the activists, their data mining uncovered systemic problems with policing use-of-force practices nationwide. Taking that information, they developed and launched Campaign Zero, a series of 10 proposed policing policy solutions, like ending broken windows policing, community representation, demilitarization and fair police union contracts.
“No other group had ID’ed solutions and grounded it in data and evidence,” Sinyangwe says.
Sinyangwe and company also leveraged data to create a second resource, a groundbreaking interactive map that provides comprehensive information (name, location, description of incident and a link to related, authoritative news coverage) for each police-involved shooting in the United States.
“In the beginning, it was all about convincing the country that it was a crisis — that police violence was happening everywhere, not just in St. Louis or Baltimore,” says Sinyangwe. “No one is going to read a 30-page report on this, but people will look at something that looks high quality and communicates [the information] in much less time.”
Using off-the-shelf technology (often free or free-trial versions) as they continued to collaborate virtually, Sinyangwe and his WTP cofounders built a tech-powered infrastructure that overcame geographic limitations. (“It was literally a period of months before I met everyone in person,” says Sinyangwe.) They shared information in Google docs and sheets, held meetings in Hangouts, designed infographics with Piktocharts and created data tables using Tableau.
Typeform proved to be particularly valuable to WeTheProtesters in recruiting volunteers. The group used the platform to increase its ranks by around 16,000 people in just two weeks. These helpers were then organized into groups and used Slack to communicate, building a bond in cyberspace.
WeTheProtesters is supported by Fast Forward, an accelerator for tech-focused nonprofits and a partner of Comcast NBCUniversal. Today, the group’s biggest challenge is scaling its systems so that more citizens can become effective advocates.
“Across the country, as I’m meeting people and speaking at various venues, people come up to me and ask, ‘How do I get involved?… I want to do something, but I don’t know what to do about it,’” says Sinyangwe. “In today’s day and age, when you see the hyper-targeting of every political campaign, there is no excuse to not have a pathway to get involved. People shouldn’t have to ask anymore.”
But just in case, WeTheProtesters created a Wikipedia-style guide known as the Resistance Manual. The crowdsourced webpage tracks local, state and federal issues, offers resources on effective organizing and lists upcoming teach-ins, town halls and marches across the country. It’s part of a wave of new digital tools created since the 2016 presidential election in response to people’s renewed interest in politics.
Sinyangwe believes that it’s possible to awaken and amplify more voices, “in part because of the tools that we have available to us, because of the platforms and technology and the creative ways we’re using it.”
If he’s right, this tech-driven era of activism may bring about a level of civic engagement unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
Additional reporting by Chris Peak.
This article is part of the What’s Possible series produced by NationSwell and Comcast NBCUniversal, which shines a light on changemakers who are creating opportunities to help people and communities thrive in a 21st-century world. These social entrepreneurs and their future-forward ideas represent what’s possible when people come together to create solutions that connect, educate and empower others and move America forward.

For This Century-Old Civil Rights Nonprofit, the Real Work Is Just Beginning

The New York Urban League (NYUL) was founded in 1919, at the start of the Great Migration, to connect blacks who left the agricultural South with jobs in the industrial North. At the time, descendants of slaves poured into a metropolis where they had to fight against housing discrimination and boycott stores where black job applications weren’t accepted. Nearly a century later, Arva Rice, a NationSwell Council member and president of the New York Urban League, is continuing to fight for equality within New York City’s education system and job opportunities. NationSwell spoke to her recently about the ongoing fight for civil rights, as the nation’s first black president leaves office.
New York Urban League is approaching its centennial. What issues are you anticipating will be core to the league’s next century?
One challenge for us is how the conversation about race has changed over time. When I meet with others, I talk about the importance of this particular time in history. The fact that when I first came to the Urban League in April 2009, President Obama had just been elected and we were hearing, “You all have a president. That’s the ultimate level of equality.” Unfortunately, in the last seven years, we have also had Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray and all things in between, like the intentional voter-suppression laws and attacks on the Voting Rights Act. The work we do is more critical than ever. There’s a generation that cares about racial equity, but we need to engage them in different ways. Maybe they want to march and be involved in grassroots movements, some want to be engaged in policy discussions and some want to become part of the establishment themselves and run for office. All of those ways are correct and right, and we have to figure out how to support that going forward.
Besides equal access to education and employment, the NYUL’s mission statement references working toward a “living environment that fosters mutual respect.” What does that mean to you?
Envisioning a world of mutual respect means that folks can not only tolerate but appreciate difference. I’m fascinated by how we define diversity and inclusion. Diversity is inviting people to a party, where inclusion is getting everyone to dance. I think that distinction is important, because to get everyone dancing, you have to think deliberately. You need to think about what is going to include people across generations, and most importantly, you need to be intentional in order to create environments that bring others to the fore. You have to be thoughtful, because it’s not going to happen by accident.
The racial biases pointed out by Black Lives Matter and the rising economic inequality in American cities were both on the minds of many voters last year. In what ways does New York reflect and buck the trends of what we expect from cities?
New York is often leading the way. We’re the ones who were really pushing for higher wages, with the Fight for 15 campaign. We’re also second place for technology and innovation. That’s why the New York Urban League is focusing some of our work on STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics], giving young people the opportunity to not only play with technology but also be creators. There are some folks that say, “Oh, people of color aren’t interested in tech, because it’s not cool enough.” And I push back on that. This is not about being cool; this is about being accessible. Without having somebody who you know, any experience, any interaction with someone who works at Facebook, Google, Twitter, how can they know that’s something they can do? We’re helping to break through that, and then provide skills. The fact is that people of color will be passed over if, once again, they are not included in intentional ways. The reason why I feel privileged to lead a historic black organization is because you’re constantly focused on making sure that there really is equality. Until the day we feel like there truly is real parity, we’re not finished.
What have you learned about leadership during your time at NYUL?
I have learned that leadership is about doing things that make your stomach hurt. And that just because your stomach hurts doesn’t mean that you’re unusual. If you are doing it right and pushing yourself and the people that you manage and your stakeholders and your donors, there are going to be times when it’s uncomfortable. It’s a growth pattern. The other thing I’ve learned is that the only people who don’t make mistakes are the ones who aren’t doing anything. So I need to forgive myself for those times I made mistakes, figure out what I learned, dust myself off and go on to the next thing.
What are you most proud of having accomplished so far?
We have a program called Empowerment Days for our young people, which is basically Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work days. We take 200 girls and 150 boys on the first and last Friday of March, respectively. They’re able to go and meet people at places like O, The Oprah Magazine, black enterprises, the Yankees, Google and Microsoft. Basically, they spend the day with people who may look like them or have similar backgrounds and experiences, and find out how they got into those careers. And one of the reasons I’m so proud of that is because we have a level of access, as an organization that has a 97-year history of impact on communities. So I can call people and get my calls returned at a level that I wasn’t able to in any other position in my career. Every time we do an Empowerment Day, the young people are excited about a senior vice president or a receptionist that they met. That’s fantastic, because we would not be able to do that, if it were not for the relationships that the Urban League has within the city.
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Continue reading “For This Century-Old Civil Rights Nonprofit, the Real Work Is Just Beginning”

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