My Experience at RootsCamp


First off, I would like to thank you all for sending me to RootsCamp National 2010. I truly had an amazing experience.

For those that went to RootsCamp NY, I must tell you that RootsCamp National is a whole other experience. First off, we had 2 days of sessions and each was 45 minutes long and in 12 different rooms. “The Wall,” I estimate, was about 20 feet long. There was just too much to do and everything I say here, truly, is the tip of the iceberg of the experience.

Unlike RootsCamp NOI, the sessions were filled with experts. And I mean experts (it was in DC after all, so it is not a real surprise). These were the heads of departments of well-known progressive organizations. Blue State Digital, DNC/OFA, ActBlue, Democracy for America, Salsa, Democrats.com, Voter Activation Network, NGP, MoveOn.org, 1 Sky; you name it, they was likely represented.

But what do I mean by experts? As most of you know, I am a computer nerd. Thus, I mostly went to technology, new media, and social media sessions. I thought I had a good understanding of various technologies and how they could be use for activism. I am a novice in comparison to many of these people. They had understanding of APIs (Application Programming Interfaces – simply put, a way for various programs to communicate with each other) that I had no idea even existed.

One of the rules of RootsCamp is “If this is your first time at RootsCamp, you HAVE to present.” (It is not actually enforced.) The first session I attended entitled “Changing the World with Your Cellphone.” In that first session, we went over how text messages have a certain priority for us over phone calls or emails in that we drop everything to read a text message as soon as it is received. From there, we went over various mobile practices like text messaging tools, QR codes, and writing smartphone apps. I was fervently paying attention and taking notes on my laptop. I was having such a fun time learning from others that I realized that I did not want to present, I wanted to learn.

I am not to say that RootsCamp is by any means intimidating. Quite the opposite. One of the necessary parts of education is that people learn from each other. We were encouraged to give our own ideas and experiences. Just because the presenter is talking about a topic does not mean that he is an expert. The real experts are those that have tried the different practices and seen how it works when tailored to their needs.

The best example I can give in regards to that is what I got from the last session I attended on Saturday, entitled “Making Technology Cheaper: Free and Open Source Software.” Some representatives from Stars with Stripes explained how they have been working to merge various Drupal (a web content management system) modules (mini-programs for the CMS) into an easy-to-use right-out-of-the-box system. However, a debate about WordPress (a blogging-oriented CMS) versus Drupal ensued. Team WordPress talked about how easy-to-use it is and how it works well for the vast majority of users. Team Drupal explained that though it is not very user-friendly, it grows with the website and scaled well. (In full disclosure, I am on Team WordPress. I have used Drupal and it just was over head.) The consensus of the room, in the end, was that each program was good, but the decision on which to use is dependent on the size of the website, what its goals are, and who would be using it.

I was having a great time learning even more maneuvers for using technology in politics. However, while on line for a food truck for lunch, I heard a gentleman explain how he lost his job as a science teacher in Louisiana. He explained that since Gov. Bobby Jindal refused to accept stimulus funds, some of the budget cutbacks fell into education. Thus, many school districts replaced math and science teachers with computer programs. As he told it, the students logged onto a computer, opened the program and it went over the materials for the class as well as provided exercises and tests. It was a wake-up call to me about how for all of the technological developments our society has made, we cannot take out the human element.

On Sunday morning, I attended a New Organizing Institute Technology Working Group meeting. We talked about the challenges we have with technology and politics. Namely, we have so much data, how can we sift through it? Also, there are so many different solutions out there and some firms are charging hand-over-fist for their products, how can we find the best solutions while using minimal resources? Well, the solution was clear that we would be working as a community and a team to solve these problems and making them as multi-faceted as possible that it can easily be adapted to a given user’s needs. Thus, those of us in attendance became the founding members of the New Organizing Institute Technology Working Group. Everyone works with these programs and data in different ways and, by collecting the most input possible, the greatest possible output can be produced. This was proof positive of the mission of RootsCamp in that everyone has some skills or experiences that are essential in making a productive plan for activism.

On Friday, I received an email from one gentleman named Mo Maraqa who was an ambassador from NOI. He told me that I was identified by NOI as a rising star in NOI and that he wanted to meet for 10 – 15 minutes to discuss the opportunities NOI offered for my future career. I have to admit, when I got that email, it felt, at first, random. After a moment, it was flattering that a national political activism organization such as New Organizing Institute found potential in me just from my meager work as a college student. Mo and I scheduled to meet on Sunday at 12:30 for lunch. However, he had an emergency and was unable to make our meeting.

The only downside to this education is that it was tailored to activists and groups with large budgets. I looked at the prices of some tools that were being introduced, some were thousands of dollars. Coming from the Brooklyn Young Democrats, a small and young organization, such options would be out of our price range. I would have liked to find more free or low-cost solutions for many of the tasks. But, that is by no means to say that no products for groups on a slim budget were not presented. For example, on free way to send out text messages is to use Twitter and have your membership sign up for updates via SMS (more details can be found at http://support.twitter.com/articles/218610-how-to-get-updates-on-your-phone-without-a-twitter-account).

I am positive that my fellow campers will agree with me on this: at RootsCamp, you get back what you put into it. Like I said after RootsCamp NY, I wish I had more time to go to more events. From what I detailed, it may seem like it was a progressive technology conference. It was not. I just chose to go to the technology-oriented sessions. However, there were also sessions on national security, the “Citizens United” decision, fundraising, canvassing, storytelling, and venting about the problems with the Democratic Party. There were only a small handful of the 100 or so sessions that I really had no interest in attending.

I would recommend that everyone tries to go to RootsCamp next year. If you cannot make it, at least, try to go to a state RootsCamp. Every second there is worth ten times as much as the money and effort it would take to attend.