Advocacy within Deep Online Relationships: Strategy for Discussion Boards

One of my favorite blogs, Community Organizer 2.0 (which I like not just for the content but because the author is totally genuine and generous and fun) had a feature a few months ago on free monitoring tools that nonprofit organizations can use to keep track of online conversations. One of those she mentioned was BoardTracker, a tool for monitoring conversations in a variety of discussion forum threads. She and I “talked” back and forth a bit about advocacy in discussion boards, and how a tool like this could help, and then I spent some time playing around with BoardTracker and thinking about organizing and advocacy within the discussion board context.

So, here are some thoughts on how you might get started in using these powerful relationships to mobilize for advocacy, and a story that might give you some inspiration. I’d love to hear from you: are you currently participating in a discussion board/forum? If so, do advocacy issues ever come up there? Do your clients use discussion boards as part of their support network? How might you incorporate advocacy into those formats?

My first thought, which I think will resonate with you if you’ve participated in discussion boards before, is that you need to understand the ‘culture’ of the board before thinking about how you’d interject an advocacy or organizing ‘ask’ into it. In some cases, using BoardTracker to monitor conversations and then jumping on to guide participants to advocacy opportunities, would be appropriate, and it’s certainly an easier way to keep track of what’s happening on those multiple channels. BoardTracker allows you to choose specific threads to monitor, or to choose those within certain categories, so you could start by “lurking”/listening to these threads, not just for content (what’s being said), but also for some of the norms around posts and some of the parameters of the relationships among participants. In some forums, particularly those dealing with certain diagnoses, or with family/relationship issues, someone dropping in out of ‘nowhere’ to link people to an advocacy initiative would be not just ineffective (because people tend to disregard posts from those they don’t know) but, worse, intrusive and even kind of creepy (people often forget that discussion boards are public and become quite intimate in their disclosures and, indeed, some discussion boards, while nominally open to the public, do require registration to view or post).

This means that, depending on your issue and how you want to connect advocacy to discussion boards, you may want to invest in really becoming a participant in a couple of boards where the content or orientation of the participants is closely linked to your message. Be transparent in who you are and why you’re there, but also (just as in face-to-face organizing) be willing to provide some of the support that brings people to discussion boards in the first place. Online, we sometimes forget that coming out of the blue with a request for action is off-putting; we need to build relationships here, first, too.

For many social work organizers/advocates, it makes sense for you to figure out where your clients/constituents/leaders are already engaged in discussion boards, and how you might build on those relationships as part of your advocacy strategy. Even better, cultivate the leadership of one of those participants to handle the discussion board work him/herself, so that, then, the advocacy piece is coming directly from someone who is already a bonafide member of that tightly-knit community.

And, finally, I think discussion boards have some features that make them particularly well-suited to advocacy work online. They often have people at different points of their ‘process’ (be it related to addictions, parenting, mental illness, physical illness, unemployment…), which provides a sort of built-in mentoring and ensures that at least some participants are no longer in such dire crisis that they can’t see beyond today. They provide fairly intense support, in many cases, which can help people to take steps with which they might not otherwise be comfortable, and facilitates reflection after taking action. And, while relationships are deep, they’re also fluid. On most boards, anyone whose circumstances meet those of the other members and is open and honest about his/her participation is welcome, making discussion boards not only a place to start but also a place to send and groom new and emerging leaders, too.

So, now, a story: For several years, as my husband and I struggled with infertility, I spent A LOT of time on infertility-related discussion boards. I got to know many of the women (they’re almost all women) on those boards, and there were certainly days whenthey understood me better than anyone else. It was a dark and very difficult time of my life, and their experiences and support were crucial to my survival. Still, I was still an organizer, and an advocate, and so I often thought about how to harness some of the power of those women, their knowledge, their passion, and their relationships, but in a way that would help them to heal and grow, not exploit what they had worked so hard to create–a safe space. That’s critical, I believe, to advocacy within discussion boards: we have to honor the participants and their community.

I’ll never forget the day when I sat down to the forum and found that one of the members had delivered, after several years of struggle with infertility, a stillborn child. Even today, it makes me cry to write about it. We were all devastated for her and scared for ourselves: after coming so close to bringing home her baby, she had suffered a horrible tragedy. And the same thing could happen to us. A week or so after her first post, she began to express her anger at a system that denied her the regular ultrasounds that would have detected the umbilical cord wrapped around her child’s neck and that didn’t tell her about counting kicks until it was too late. She wanted to do something so that the death didn’t seem so unbearably senseless; she wanted to come together with this community to make some good out of tragedy.

And, so, gently, I asked if she wanted some help putting together an advocacy campaign to push for state legislation that would require health care professionals to provide patients with information about fetal death and to create standards for insurance reimbursement for additional ultrasounds. She had found a lot of information, in frantic late-night Internet searches, and she pulled it together. I helped her plot a strategy, and other participants came forward to express willingness to take up the cause where they lived, too. She connected with experts in the field who gave us guidance on model legislation and clinical best practices. And many of us also reached out offline to our friends and colleagues who, while not a part of this infertility community, cared about this issue, too.

I can’t say that we experienced across-the-board success, honestly; one of the challenges with legislative advocacy in this venue is that, while the legislative changes require considerable work within each state (and a fairly long time trajectory), the participants in this group moved in and out as their own situations changed (I, myself, didn’t stay active with the boards after I had my oldest son), and we didn’t have a critical mass in any one state. But we did see some bills introduced, some additional provider education, and, perhaps most importantly, a new tool for our collective healing, and a new sense of our common capacity, alongside people with whom our relationships were as ‘real’ as could be, even though they were always virtual.

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