Published back in September 2001 was a Ford Foundation-sponsored project titled “Networking the Networks: Improving Information Flows in the Immigration Field,” by Suzette Brooks Masters and Ted Perlmutter. This research explores how immigration networks use technology to improve communication, share knowledge, and coordinate action. The research surveyed many different immigration-related groups, including advocacy, technical assistance, full service, and legal groups. I had the opportunity to work with several advocacy groups, and would like to revisit this research 12 years later from the advocacy perspective. What has changed? And what has stayed the same?
One of the biggest changes was the rise in social media and mobile technology. These tools have significantly lowered the barriers to communication and have facilitated networking within the field. The research found that 80% of the organizations they surveyed had a list serv and 75% had a website. I would say this may have increased, but some groups still use neither because instead of costly services to maintain a website and list serv, they can utilize free tools like a wordpress blog, facebook page, and twitter profile. “Google groups” is a free tool that can also serve in place of a list serve. All of the email addresses are entered into the group list and an email can be sent out to everyone at once. Privacy is still maintained and only an administrator can email the group to avoid the “reply all” issues. Google groups lists can’t be manipulated like email list servs, targeting certain groups and individuals. Yet for a low budget, donation based, grassroots organization, google groups will do the trick. Recently list servs services like Mail Chimp are free up to the first 2,000 subscribers, and it includes templates. This is perfect for local groups just starting up. Once they gain more than 2,000 subscribers, they will also have more fundraising options which could help them pay for the increase in fees from a list serv service like Mail Chimp. The research report indicated that “immigration groups rely heavily on group email (list servs), to obtain new information and disseminate time-sensitive information.” Groups still rely on these tools, but now they are more accessible.
The report also cited that most groups do not have a dedicated technology staff person. I believe this has definitely changed. Most groups now have at least one, if not more, staff members or volunteers working on building the organizations presence on social media or other online platforms. These services are much easier to maintain than a full website, so it is much easier to find someone with the necessary skills.
With the spread of these technologies, immigrant groups have formed better networks, can communicate and coordinate much more easily with less time and money, and can strategically integrate communication technologies into their operations — all of which are updates since the 2001 report.
Not only have these technologies dramatically improved immigration networks from a local community level to the national level, but these new technologies have also had the revolutionary effect of changing the way flows of information are structured in the immigration advocacy networks. Previously, back in 2001, only a handful of groups dominated the role of disseminating important information to the field. These mostly likely high budget, well organized, national organizations can now have just as much coverage and influence as local coalitions. For example, recently the leader of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition’s work was highlighted by placing her on the Time 100 List of Most Influential People. The ADAC is a Phoenix-based organization, but its work and the persistence of their groups leader pushed them into the national spotlight. Many groups like ADAC are also now well networked with other local coalitions in the Phoenix immigration advocacy community, as well as through national organizations like the United We Dream Network. UWD coordinates the actions of 52 local organizations around the country. These network structures and new coalitions were facilitated by improvements in communications technologies have had a profound impact on the structure and density of the immigration advocacy networks. Now instead of a few national organizations controlling the agenda through a top down approach, national coordinating bodies receive their information from the local organizations and can make decisions and strategies that are much more responsive to the local communities.
What is most exciting about these changes is knowing that with each passing year, there will be more changes. As communication and information technologies improve, so will networks. As networks improve, the voices of these advocacy groups grow louder, and they want change. I look forward to the day when their voices are deafening, change becomes inevitable, and a responsive and responsible CIR plan is passed. And with another year full of new technology down, we are that much closer. Happy New Year everyone!