Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Netroots Nation 2011

Cross-posted at Feministe.

When I heard Netroots Nation was going to be in my hometown of Minneapolis this year, I jumped on the chance to register. I totally lucked out, too: I was a student, which took $100 off the registration fee, and had just gotten my tax returns– without which, I probably wouldn’t have been able to justify the cost. As you can imagine, I have been waiting eagerly and impatiently for this weekend for months!
You can see a schedule of the sessions and their descriptions here [PDF]. It was difficult to choose, as so many of them looked interesting and were sure to be helpful, but I was extremely happy with each of the session I attended. Highlights of some of the panels I attended:

The first panel was called Get the Message? This session focused on the ways in which progressives can improve the way that we deliver our messages. For example, as Tate Linden, a marketing strategist, noted, “progressives ineffectually use logic to counter Conservative faith-based arguments.” To do so is to fundamentally misunderstand faith in the first place; and, he was quick to note, “faith” doesn’t necessarily have to be religious in nature. Conservatives, as a group, have faith in a number of things; most notably as of late, the Founding Fathers, and their perceived intentions– not to mention the free market. Another common mistake that we as lefties tend to make is over-intellectualizing certain things, like acronyms. Linden noted that “LGBT” sounds like a gay sandwich; perhaps we need a name that is a bit more “catchy” or emotionally-grabbing? The same thing goes for things like sCHIP. What sCHIP actually is is not immediately apparent by the name we’ve given it; this is a flaw that we should address. While “our side’s” insistence on intellectuality is respectable and certainly a benefit, we do have to appeal more to mainstream America, or we come off looking like elitists, and people feel condescended to by elitists.
The second session I attended was Managing a State Community Blog, featuring Joe Bodell, Eric Pusey, KT Musselman, and Katherine Haenschen. This was the only session I had actually planned on attending prior to arriving, because I read Joe and Eric’s blog, the Minnesota Progressive Project, and was looking forward to meeting them and learning some organizational tips for maintaining a group blog.
The session was largely a question-and-answer workshop, with many folks in the audience sharing tips on advertising, social networking, and other issues, as well as the speakers themselves offering tips. For example, most bloggers know that in order to attract and keep more readers, content needs to be generated frequently. One idea to help generate good content is to contact local progressive non-profits for ideas. Many progressive non-profit organizations have websites with blogs, but how many people go to their websites and read their blogs on a regular basis? How many people not only read the blogs, but also participate in any kind of community within that blog, or comment frequently? Not many of us. So why not ask if they’d like to contribute articles to your group/community blog? You benefit from the content and pageviews, they benefit from the decidedly wider audience.
Another good tip is to simply ask for what you want, even if you think you won’t get it. You can contact a candidate’s campaign staff and ask for press releases; this is beneficial to the candidate and their staff because bloggers can say things about a candidate’s opponent that a candidate and their staffers may not be able to get away with it. You clearly benefit by primary source material from which to create more quality content.
The third session was After Citizens United: Combating Corporate Power in Elections. Like many of the panels I attended, money was a central focus of the discussion. The solution offered by the panelists here was, perhaps surprisingly, a constitutional amendment ending corporate personhood. Many people think that such an amendment would never pass, as it’s been quite some time since we’ve amended the Constitution; on the other hand, the support is behind the spirit of the amendment. It was mentioned that we often perceive the fact that there are so many grassroots, progressive non-profits that are working toward the same thing as an indication of factions within the progressive movement; this is not necessarily true. On the contrary, these groups are fighting for the same end goal and are mobilizing their communities. As is another frequent theme of Netroots this year, starting small and coming together to effect real, nationwide change is key to progressive victory. Simple measures work best, as Laura Flanders of GritTV noted: contact local media, local candidates who they are accepting donations from, be present at as many open forums and townhall meetings as you can manage. We can make a difference if we’re willing to be persistent.

During days two and three, excitement and engagement grew, as did new friendships that were formed on the first day. One notable event you may have already heard about was the confusing appearance of Andrew Breitbart. Breitbart’s BigGovernment is, naturally, painting the event as Breitbart innocently wandering into a public space only to be accosted by racist and homophobic leftists who were hell-bent on attacking him. Now, I wasn’t terribly impressed by the asinine questions being asked of Breitbart (whether or not he has done cocaine is irrelevant to, well, everything), but how accusing him of being racist and asking whether or not he’s slept with male prostitutes is racist and homophobic is beyond me.
The last panel on Friday that I went to was called Left Out? Women, Politics, and the Progressive Movement. Attending this panel was, like so many others, a difficult decision. I also wanted to attend Ask A Sista: Black Women Muse on Politics, Policy, Pop Culture and Scholarship, but thought that the Left Out panel might be more relevant to myself personally, as someone who plans to run for office in the future. I was expecting to hear solutions on how to combat the generalized misogyny that still exists within the progressive movement, but the panel ended up primarily focusing on the problems, and not so much the solutions which, as someone who’s been immersed in such topics for some time now, I was already familiar with and wound up being rather bored. I decided to check out the #nn11 hashtag on Twitter, and noticed a lot of activitysurrounding the fact that Ask A Sista and Left Out? were overlapping, and started to really wish I’d gone to Ask A Sista. So I got up and left, and headed next door, where the panel was being held… and really wished I’d been there from the beginning. I wish I had more to say about it, but having gotten there so late, I was mostly left with a feeling that I’d missed a great deal of great conversation and an opportunity to learn a lot. You can watch the video recording of the session here.
The final panel I went to was called Diving Into the Deep End: Mastering Communications of the Most Difficult Progressive Topics. This was a fantastic panel to end the conference with, and it left me inspired and practically ready to head across the street to the Hilton where RightOnlinewas being held. Thankfully I didn’t, as one of the panelists from this session actually wound up being punched in the face by a white supremacist… but that’s a story for another day.
I attended many other panels, and missed a whole lot more, but overall, I came away with the same feeling as many others I met: for progressives to win, we need to start at the local level. National politics is just as corrupt as ever, and as the name Netroots Nation implies, we can make change by utilizing the power of individuals getting together to make real change, starting small and moving forward. As a person who is increasingly inspired by grassroots, bottom-up activism and being present in our fight for human rights and social justice, I left Netroots with the goal of trying to bring together people from “both sides of the aisle,” as it were. During the long lunch break on Friday afternoon, I bellied up to the bar at The Newsroom for some food and a beer, and found myself sitting next to a couple of folks who happened to be attending RightOnline. They were also from Minneapolis, and we had a good time gently ribbing one another about being racists and homophobes, and wanting to take paychecks and distribute them among everyone else, respectively, and agreed that more people needed to be nice and forget about the hate-mongering that is increasingly present in partisan politics. We chatted about good local beer, and whether or not Obama was progressive enough for progressives, and conservative enough for conservatives. I left feeling pretty happy about the interaction, and found out that there was actually an event geared toward bringing the two groups of attendees together for some light-hearted drinks and conversation. I wish I’d gone.
Instead, I’ve decided to try and bring the local attendees of each conference together for some decidedly hate-free conversation about our shared values and common goals. Perhaps we can manage to get together without the hate, and try and work through some of our differences, as they’re perpetuated by the media. One of my goals is for all of us to try and better understand the fears and the goals of each side, and work toward common solutions — without worrying ourselves about who’s voting for whom in 2012 (at least for now). I want to encourage other folks who are up for the task to do the same thing. While we clearly have very profound differences, progressives and conservatives can find common ground. It will be hard work, but it’s high time we all hold ourselves responsible for creating a better world. And, as Van Jones said in his amazing keynote, “never let anyone drive you so low that you hate them.” I want that to be something that we can all try and remember, as difficult as it might be. As a result of the talented folks I got to hear speak, the amazing activists I met, and the inspiring energy from the entire conference, I’m committed to trying to ease up on the hateful rhetoric I often use on my own blog, as well as elsewhere, and focusing on bringing people together.
Ending the conference was also my former congressman, Keith Ellison, with a fantastic speech, as well as a pretty hilarious and creative song by musician and songwriter Jill Sobule. For your listening pleasure: