Charlie Furman is a fantastic human. He grew up Minneapolis and studied film at UC Southern California with a focus in children’s media. What I find most inspiring about Charlie is the amazing work he has done as an activist – he’s one of the rare people who can move between issues and movements naturally, adding a huge amount to every organization and campaign he works with.
I met Charlie in New York where we worked together on the People’s Climate March, something we’ll discuss at length in this interview. Right now, Charlie lives in Oakland and works for Fight for the Future.
How would you describe what you do?
I see myself as a cross between a digital campaigner and a digital organizer. I use the word digital for both because the primary way I think about my work is how to use the internet to get good things for the world done.
What would you say is the difference between a campaigner and an organizer?
When I’m campaigning I’m trying to get a specific end goal accomplished. I’m trying to stop a company from doing bad things or trying to pass a certain bill and make it a law, or much more often, stop a bill from becoming law. And when I’m organizing, I’m more focused on encouraging people to do things themselves, to take on more leadership or to take a more active role in the campaigns that affect them.
I think it’s a really important difference because, when I’m campaigning, most of what I’m doing is encouraging people to sign a petition, make a phone call, share this, tweet that, which doesn’t really leave people more empowered than they were before – aside from maybe a sense that there are lots of other people who also care about these issues.
But it doesn’t leave them in a place where, if the organization I work for stopped existing, they would suddenly be more empowered or more able to win those campaigns. So when I’m on the digital organizing side, a lot of what I do is thinking about how to parlay the skills that I’ve developed to other people.
How did you start doing what you do?
It’s funny, when I look back on my days in college there’s this interview I did my senior year that was like “I don’t see myself doing social change work or activism on a professional level, or really working on structural change, because I like doing more service based work,” which is what I was doing at the time, feeding homeless people at night on Los Angelas’ Skid Row. And then, 6 months later, I became a full-time organizer and it amuses me every time I look back on it.
What was the transition there?
The transition, if I’m being totally honest, is that when I was in college I really thought I was going do a PHD in media studies and I wanted to study with this guy named Henry Jenkins. When I was at USC as an undergrad he changed schools from being at MIT to teaching at USC, so I studied with him for a year and took a couple classes and did some independent research with him and I decided I didn’t want to go straight through USC for 10 years. So I looked for something else to do and wound up finding a thing called Green Corps and decided to do that.
Since then, I’ve never really looked back. I’ve actually run into Henry a couple of time at SXSW and other places I’ve been for work and it’s endlessly amusing to me that the way it happened was just “I don’t want to stay at USC for 10 years, so what should I do for a year or two instead.” And now it’s pretty clearly my career path.
Why do you do what you do? Was there a politicizing moment for you or was it always something you had somewhere inside of you.
I’ve always had it in varying degrees, but I think the point where it really became a question of spending a lot of my life doing things that are good for the world is when I found out that…
Well, when my dad was alive he was gay and the thing that really flipped a switch in my brain was watching the movie Saved with him, which maybe explains why I wound up studying film of all things. I went and saw it with him and that’s when my dad told me he knew he was gay as a young man and went through behavioral corrective therapies to convince himself for years that he wasn’t gay.
When I thought about how terrible we are to other people in our society – telling them they can’t be themselves – and that I’m literally a product of that system in the most concrete and direct way, it just feels wrong. It feels like the only thing that really makes sense is trying to bring about a world where people are able to be themselves. It just seems so wrong to be a product of such a terrible system, I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Any advice for people starting out as budding activists or starting to get involved in social change?
Just do stuff. The number one thing I’ve learned from organizing is that the best thing you can do is to just do things. Because you’ll learn. A lot of the time we let “am I doing this perfectly” get in the way of doing anything at all. And I think that’s a really bad habit for us to be in. Certainly we should try to do things right as much as possible, but if we wind up paralyzed and not doing anything, that’s worse.
Let’s get specific, let’s talk about the People’s Climate March. We’re one year on from ‘The Largest Climate March Ever’ – what was your role during it?
I was the Digital Coordinator for the People’s Climate March itself. I think I was the third person that was hired? Maybe the fourth to work directly on it. And I accepted the job a week before Bill McKibben’s rolling stone article came out that announced the march. I started working 4 days before it and wound up managing a lot of that rollout, which was a really fascinating thing to start doing when we didn’t actually have a date yet.
That’s the thing that a lot of people forget – we didn’t have a date for the People’s Climate March for, like, a month and a half after that.
What was the structure like inside the People’s Climate March? How did things get done?
There were central staff and a thing called the Mobilization Support Team (MST) that was comprised of people from some of the partner groups. They were sort of steering our work, but a lot of the time they were more in charge of having veto power over certain things because a big part of the ethos of the march was ‘to change everything it takes everyone’ so the idea was, how do we facilitate everybody doing stuff? That was a really big part of it.
There was also a field team, a digital team, and then there were people from lots of other organizations and partners that had their staff working on it, either by plugging into some of those systems as they existed or in doing their own component part of the march. One example being Energy Action Coalition and 350 who both spent a bunch of time trying to get youth and students from around the country to come to the march.
And then there were the hubs and the tables and whatever else.
Yeah, there were a bunch of different tables and then a lot of hubs. Oh, the hubs. That was a thing. Hubba hubby hubs.
How many people ended up being a part of the core team staffed to work on it?
I literally have no idea by the end of it. I just don’t. You know, it just kept growing. And it grew very quickly towards the end. Just like the number of RSVPs and people we expected to be there shot up over the last 2 months, it felt like staff doubled every day in the month before the march.
But at the same time it was still – from my perspective, and now I’m interviewing myself – it was surprising how much we pulled off with a relatively small number of staff working on the march for a long period of time.
Yes, very true. By the end of it the digital team was myself, Thelma who managed all things social media, Tammy who was in charge of all things hubs, and Ash who provided support across all those different pieces. And then there were all of the partners like yourself, and Duncan at 350, who really made up the core of the digital strategies that happened around the march. I still don’t understand why the hubs were a part of the digital team – but Tammy, this is a shout out for you. Also, there should have been 5 Tammy’s, maybe 10.
What was the digital strategy approach that you took and why?
Almost every principle that applies to organizing offline applies to organizing online, you just have to think a little bit different about what it means. In the context of the march, one of the things that I was thinking about is organizing people where they’re at. And where they’re at is on a whole bunch of other people’s email lists – not on the People’s Climate March email list which was a very tiny number of people.
So, what we did – and this was one of the thoughts from the beginning – was setting up a separate email list that wasn’t necessarily going to continue existing. We encouraged everyone to send signups to PeoplesClimate.org. There were a couple reasons for this: one is that I did tests really early on and the PeoplesClimate.org page just converted significantly better because people believed there was a real reason to sign up for something that wasn’t branded with an organization they were already connected to. That’s my hypothesis for why it was converting 2-3x better – which was incredible to see.
The way that the rest evolved was around the phrase “it takes everyone to change everything.” We wanted to open space and make it so people could bring whatever they wanted to it. A lot of the time that’s just a statement, it’s not facilitated in any way. It’s just ‘do whatever you want’, but that in some ways is not that helpful for a lot of people. Because, while it’s a license to do things, it’s not helping to show them where they can plug in that’s actually helpful.
I think that’s one of the things that people have trouble with – they say ‘I want to plug in, but I don’t really know how’ and so they need some sort of guidance. That’s what got us thinking about the hub system. There are so many answers to ‘why do you care about climate change’ and people work on climate in so many different contexts that creating something like the hubs made a lot of sense.
The hubs gave us a way to facilitate people getting involved however they wanted. It wasn’t just ‘hey, come and get involved’ it was ‘hey, come and get involved, do whatever you want, here are a ton of different ways you can plug in that are actually meaningful and easy for you to navigate’. What we wound up with was a hundred plus different hubs that were ways people could get involved.
The best way to engage people seemed to be simply asking them a question: What issue do you care about? Where do you live? What skills do you have? What identity do you hold that make you care about climate change in a particular way or makes you want to organize with people that share that common identity?
Tammy did a really incredible job working with a lot of the groups, and a lot were anchored by people who are incredible organizers in their own right. I think that’s one of the most powerful pieces to what the digital program eventually turned into.
But, in hindsight, I would have spent a lot more time focusing on the way the digital team and the arts team could overlap. These days, most people find out about things through the internet, but one of the best ways to start getting people involved is having them make stuff for the thing they care about.
Making stuff is incredibly hands on, but it’s also a great way to meet a lot of people who care about the same thing. That’s why the mayday space is so incredible and why the people’s climate arts team was so incredibly invaluable.
Where most of the arts work was being run out of and a second meeting space aside from the Midtown office that people could work out of. Half my time in an ‘office’ I was at Mayday.
What was something that went better than expected?
One of the things that went better than I expected was how many partners were willing to do things at the same time. We wanted people to believe this thing is real and it’s going to be huge – one of the ways to do that was to get as many organizations as possible to announce the march within 24hrs of each other.
The goal was to build momentum. Plenty of people are on one email list, or none of them, but people who are on multiple would suddenly see multiple emails at the same time. We did this a couple of times. There were a lot of feedback loops and positive reinforcement so that people seeing emails from multiple sources were also seeing articles, posters, and social media posts.
I think that turned out even better than I expected – when we lined tons of things up to all happen together it was incredibly powerful. The subway blitz day was really big part of that too. We had a day of action with tons of people sending emails and the next day there were people out at almost every subway station in the city handing out postcards during morning rush hour and evening rush hour. Along with a particularly strong media push around that time, it made that week and a half a giant explosion of ‘this thing is everywhere.’
What was something that didn’t work?
There are so many things that didn’t work! It’s hard to separate those things out because there were a lot of things that didn’t work but parlayed themselves into things that did work.
I think that’s a really important part of the whole process of organizing, especially when you’re in a digital space. When something doesn’t work, you figure out, create a hypothesis about why it didn’t work and you either pivot, you drop it, or you iterate on it so that you can take what happened last time and significantly improve upon it.
One of the earlier examples was the first round of the hub system. The reason it didn’t work wasn’t because people weren’t interested, it was because it was so difficult to create a new page for each group. It was an incredibly daunting task to get them started and then teach people how to use them. It just didn’t work.
Eventually we ended up using a ‘Sweet Process’ that I wrote when I was deliriously tired and was, honestly, pretty snarky. The internet is complicated, so I felt like one of the best things to do was to use giant pink arrows and just add little bits of funny commentary to try and remind people that this thing is really silly, but also totally understandable.
The way it ended was saying “if you have this kind of a problem, do this. If you have this kind of a problem, do this. And if you break your hub send me an email in all caps that says ‘OH MY GOD CHARLIE HELP ME I BROKE MY HUB’.”
Fortunately I didn’t get any of those emails which makes me think the Sweet Process actually worked surprisingly well.
What are your highlights from the march?
It’s a very silly highlight. Ahead of time there was this idea that there would be a moment of silence – we were all kind of like “this is never going to work. There are going to be way too many people, not enough people know about this, there is no way this is going to work.”
But, you know, Vanessa did a really great job of making sure all the bus captains knew about the moment of silence and we got as many people onto the text message loop as possible so we could send a couple of messages about during the march.
So there we were, watching in the digital HQ for the day and we all sort of half jokingly stood up and did the thing for the moment of silence while we were watching the live stream. But then, while we were joking about it we saw it happen on the screen and we were like, “oh my god this actually worked, oh my god it was actually silent on the streets of New York for like… you know, it only ended up being a few seconds where it was silent, as opposed to a minute. But 2 seconds of silence on the streets of New York is incredible and that was amazing.
And that was in remembrance of front line communities and those impacted by climate change?
That’s right. And then we rang the alarm, which was yelling. The other half of it was sounding the climate alarm.
The other thing that was a real highlight for me was the number of celebrities who were in the march as a person. There were a few like Ban Ki-moon or Al Gore who came into the march for a little bit and had a special security detail. But there were plenty of other people who were just in the march to be there. People like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, taking selfies just like the rest of us. I thought that was really amazing. People who may have been contacted by specific organizations but some of whom I’m sure were just like ‘this is important, yeah I’m going to be there – this thing is going to be giant.’ So that was cool.
How about lowlights? When were you at your darkest moment?
I don’t think I got to send an email about the march to the people who RSVP’d on our website for like a month. I tried really hard and it took a month to be able to send emails. That was bad.
That was the worst part?
Spoken like a true digital campaigner.
It sounds silly, but these people RSVP’d and then heard nothing about the march for a month and we were trying to convince them that this thing was real and it was like ‘this is the worst way to do this.’ We were eventually able to send those emails and it got a lot easier.
What was the problem? Why couldn’t you send them?
You know, there’s a problem when you’re kind of half accountable but not really accountable to a lot of different people at a lot of different organizations. It makes it really hard to do anything. Credit to Paul Getsos, who was one of the march coordinators, he was like ‘what do you need’. And I was like ‘I need to be able to send emails and not be afraid that everyone is going to yell at me all the time’ and he was like ‘great, do it – if anybody yells at you they’ll come to me and it’s probably not going to be a problem’. and guess what, it wasn’t a problem.
You know, one of the really important things sometimes is just people being like ‘I will own the blame for this, so just do it -– you can just do it and if anyone says anything they can come to me and we can deal with it then’ and yeah, that was what we needed and that’s what happened.
It took way too long to get to that point, but the important thing is we got there far enough ahead that it was awesome.
Final question. One year on, what do you think? What’s your reflection on the march as a whole? Was it successful in what it wanted to accomplish?
I think we should have been set up for more follow-up. I think that’s how almost everything goes, where you’re like ‘I think maybe we have enough in place for follow-up’ or ‘we can figure it out at the end’. And it’s like ‘no, we can never actually figure out afterwards what the followup should be, the follow-up needs to exist ahead of time and it needs to be a real plan for months.’
In a funny way, The People’s Climate March had to deal with being so much more successful than I think a lot of people ever expected it to be and, all of a sudden, afterwards people were like, ‘wait, what should we do with this now.’ It took awhile and now there’s going to be a People’s Climate Movement, as it’s now called, which has events happening on October 14th.
But I remember when 6 months came and passed and it didn’t feel like anything had happened, I was really disappointed. There was so much energy there and I think that the process of ‘what should we do next’ instead of being as organic as a lot of the things that came out of the march, didn’t wind up getting matched.
Part of that has to do with funding the people who are paid to work on it. It didn’t need to be another organization, but I feel like there’s a whole side of what was possible that wasn’t realized because the follow-up was kind of missing. Most of the people that I was working with were done 5 days after the march. They were basically done at the end of the week. I was only around for 2 weeks, or something like that, and it’s not really enough time to fully realize a follow-up plan.
That’s a ball that I think most people dropped. And a lot of people flagged as a thing that was going to happen and was going to be a problem, because almost anybody can predict that follow-up is going to be a problem. But it’s still the biggest place that I think the ball was dropped.
So I lied, there’s one more question because, I’m just realizing, there was an immediate follow-up call #FloodWallStreet – how did that fit in with the People’s Climate March?
You mean the thing we built the website for 7 days before the People’s Climate March? When we were like, let’s stay up until 3 in the morning building another website for something else.
Yup, that thing.
I’m really glad that it happened. I thought it was really incredible to have a clear statement that ‘capitalism drives the climate crisis’ as its own action and it was something that was more radical than what was going to happen at the march itself.
I think it’s incredible because it’s really important for people to recognize that economic forces are a massive part of what drives climate change and so many systems of oppression. I do lots of internety things, so I think of stuff like hacking and that was one of the coolest parts of #FloodWallStreet. It was hacking the People’s Climate March by being like, ‘hey, guess what, tons of giant NGOs are going to throw down for a really big march, we’re going to have this thing the next day and tell people that they should totally come to this and have 2,000 people sit in on wall street which normally would be incredibly difficult.’
I think it was clever and smart and I think it’s one of those things we should always be thinking about – how to hack the other systems that are going on so we can make them better. Hack in the most positive of ways. Hack for good.