söndag 3 februari 2013

I'm an activist!

Last month I couldn't even spell the word "actevist" and now I are one... :-)

Being an academic, I read a lot of text (no shit, Sherlock!?). In fact, it just so happened that I read three academic books about social movements at the end of last year. One of these books specifically concerned social movements in the age of the Internet. But no matter how many books you read, it's only possible to get non-personal, theoretical insights from reading books, and what has happened lately is that I've been part of a groundswell grassroots social movement. So much has has happened in the last two weeks, and this is my chance to write and reflect about this extremely intensive period while it's still recent. I still wish I would have had time to write this blog post a week ago since so much has happened and so much has changed in that short time!

This blog post consists of three parts. The first part "tells it like it is". In the second and third part I analyze two different aspects of collective action in the age of social media.

It all started less than two weeks ago and this is what I wrote in my Facebook feed "back then" (only 12 days ago - but it feels much longer):

Found out yesterday [Mon Jan 21] that the local school is "full". The presented "solution" is that my son and 95 other 5- and 6-year old kids will be bussed every day to a nearby [high] school where they will spend their first five years (until a new nearby school is finished in 2018). Not an acceptable solution -> eruption of discontent and online activities among 200 parents (and parents with younger kids should care too, because our situation will also be theirs a year or two from now).

The suggested solution is an [half] abandoned high school (Brännkyrka gymnasium) near the E4/Essingeleden highway - one of the busiest highways in Northern Europe with almost 200.000 cars passing by each day less than 100 meters from the school and with noise and air quality levels that licks (or is above) legal limitations.

Politicians and civil servants have utterly failed to plan for this situation despite having had 5+ years to prepare, think and act. Us parents found out about this only yesterday, and we all have to choose a school for our kids only three weeks from now. Thanks for that! (irony). The responsibility for this total fuck-up is distributed among a variety of institutions and actors - i.e. "no-one is responsible".

This really stinks! The only upside at this moment is the enormous amount of collective energy that has been unleashed (organized through a FB page), as well as the high level of specialized and relevant knowledge among (affluent, well-educated) parents. Some have knowledge and/or skills and others have time (perhaps being on maternity or paternity leave with a younger sibling).

I have just offered to help set up an evolving Google-docs document archive as a resource. Right now I'm not just reading about activism in the Internet age, but am part of it.

As a result of commenting and being active on the Facebook page, plus setting up a bouquet of Google documents to organize and coordinate internal activities, I was invited to a "steering group" meeting on Wednesday (only two days after the information meeting and one day after I wrote the Facebook message above). I have since spent quite a lot of time being an activist, but less in the very last 4 days (further explained below). Although I wasn't drafted to the steering group solely on the merit of being a man, my gender didn't hurt as we ended up being ten women/mothers but only two men/fathers in that group.

This far, I can divide the last two weeks of activism into a number of distinct phases:
- Phase 1, information meeting in the school auditorium - ignition (Jan 21)
- Phase 2, outpouring of my energy and frustration on Facebook - explosion (Jan 21-22 - one of the posts I wrote was really nasty and mean and I had to apologize and distance myself from parts of it a day later when I had calmed down some)
- Phase 3, I was drafted into the steering group and became a part-time activist and rabble-rouser - direction (Jan 23-)
- Phase 4, We won (?) - victory? (Jan 31-)
- Phase 4, Second and final information meeting in school - endgame (Feb 11)

--- Background/rant ---

At the information meeting (Jan 21) about the upcoming deadline for choosing schools, all parents were very surprised to hear that there is no place at all in the local school - nor anywhere else in the local area - for any of the 96 kids who were born in 2007. We live 200 meters from the school and my oldest son already attends that school. These reasons would carry quite some weight if not for the fact that they apparently had decided not to accept any children at all this particular year. Instead there would be a bus service for five years (!) to a nearby (3 km) high school, until a brand new school was to be finished in 2018.

How long is five years? I'm a university teacher. To get an engineering degree at KTH takes half a decade (five years) and that represents half an eternity to my students. To my son, five years is a whole lifetime - since he is five years old. And now we find out, with too little time to make any alternative plans, that he is supposed to make daily excursions to a highway where more than one million cars pass by every week for his "second lifetime" (the next five years of his life). That just wasn't acceptable. The proposal that was presented wasn't even thought through and many practical questions remained unanswered:

Parent: "will there be seat belts on the bus?"
Parent: "there is no physical space outside the ordinary school for 100 parents and 100 children to congregate and wait each morning - where exactly will the bus pick up the children?"
Parent: "how will you "deliver" my daughter back to the local school just in time for me to pick her up in the afternoon?"
Parent: "who will keep my son company outside the school if I'm delayed by a stop in the subway?"
Spokescreature standard answer: "[I can't answer that right now as] we're behind on the detailed planning".

Parent: "what about the air quality and noise?
Spokescreature: "we are doing new measurements. If they are above the legal limits, this alternative is off the table".
Parent: "so what is the back-up plan?"
Spokescreature: "there is no back-up plan"
Parent: "if so, how do we make a choice concerning which school to choose three weeks from now?"
At this point I don't remember exactly what spokescreature's answer was, except that it was an implicit plea to "put you trust in us" - which unsurprisingly did not go over well or have a lot of traction in this particular audience and at this time.

This was all very upsetting, but I have also noticed that you sort of had to be at the meeting at that time to become upset and worked up enough and take things one step further. Almost only people who actually were at the meeting have become activists afterwards. Part of that is because the meeting was such a sham and the answers given to reasonable questions were so flimsy. One angry dad shouted: "admit it, this proposal is something you thought about over a coffee break last Friday". I was angry too. I confronted the spokes and told him that there is only one thing that both he and us parents agree on, and that is that this all is a great failure. He replied and said that he had never used the term "failure". He had repeatedly used the terms "poor foresight" or "insufficient foresight". He claimed to not have used the the term "failure" and said that was my personal interpretation of what he had said.

I've been thinking about the terminology some. I have realized that he could not use the term "failure", because that would imply responsibility on his behalf and with that responsibility also an obligation (of sorts) to fix and "make up" for this failure. If instead it was only a matter of "insufficient foresight", then that's just one of those unfortunate things that happens now and then. I personally on the other hand think that half a decade of "insufficient foresight" happens to be a pretty good definition of "failure". Don't you agree?

It later turns out that the city of Stockholm has bought prognoses about the number of children (and the need for building schools) from an engineering consulting firm, Sweco. They apparently make predictions based on complicated models of "reality". The city bought a prognosis in 2010 that estimated that the number of school children in this area of the city would reach 362 in 2019. The latest prognoses, arriving just before Christmas revised that number to 943(!). How is it possible to go so wrong? At this point I'm pretty pissed off. Exactly how does the procurement process for buying worse-that-worthless prognoses look like? Exactly how incompetent do you have to be to work as Sweco building and managing software for making prognosis? But wait - the city of Stockholm doesn't have to buy worse-than-worthless prognosis from a private company, so exactly how incompetent do you have to be to buy these prognoses (taxpayer money!) and to make long-term plans for basic social services (schools) if you are a civil servant working for the city of Stockholm (salary = taxpayer money!).

I know this sounds like a rant where I'm going of the top, but the thing is of course that almost all of the 96 children born in 2007 already went to day-care in this area back in 2010 (and earlier). The school became full this past summer, so why didn't someone figure out that that would pose a problem one year later? It's actually really easy to search on the web and find all the day-care centers and how many children there are in the area. There are currently almost 700 children in our soon-to-be 10 local day-care centers. These are children born between 2007-2011 (between 1 and 6 years of age as of today). They all want to start school as six-year old before 2018 - when the new school is finished.

The politician with the ultimate responsibility for schools in Stockholm (Skolborgarrådet Lotta Edholm, Fp) now says that "we should look at the demographics that the local city administration [with responsibility for day-care services] see, that is, how many children there actually are". No shit, Sherlock!? I think that's a great insight - the only problem is that it is five years late. And really, anyone with any kind of responsibility for this mess and just the slightest sliver of imagination ought to have been able to figure this one out a long time ago without even getting up from the chair...

Ok, so now I've displayed some of the righteous anger that gripped me and many other parents at the meeting. And we organized. Many people have chipped in, hunting down and hounding civil servants and politicians, searching for answers and suggesting alternative solutions. The pace has been high and it has sometimes been difficult just to keep track of what has been done (not to mention who has done what). 

I was working at home this past Monday, but let's face it - I didn't get much work done, but rather spent most of the day working as an activist out of my home. I sent more than 40 activist-related e-mails that day and the majority was sent to my fellow members of the steering group. I've spent most of the time during some evenings, and some of the time during all of the evenings as an activist during the last two weeks. I've spend some more time during the daytime hours too, to keep up with the flow.

--- Division of labor ---

Being part of the inner circle, I now have insights both into the public face of this movement as well as the behind-the-scenes footwork. A LOT happens behind the scenes, away from the public eye, including brainstorming, strategizing and planning actions that haven't been launched (yet). Over the course of just a week or ten days, a division of labor of sorts quickly emerged and my "slot" in the steering group has become note-taker at meetings (we don't really have an agenda and a secretary), trying to make stuff we want to happen "actionable" and preferably also finding the name of a specific person who is suitable and willing to take it upon herself to do that particular task.

I should sometimes have done a better job of following up and making sure that tasks were in fact performed, but haven't had the time to do that in the hurried tempo of this distributed effort. Also, people do a lot by themselves when filled by a purpose and a mission, and it has in fact been quite an effort at times just to keep up with what everyone else has done, is doing, and plans to do! I have also been responsible for a variety of specialized Google documents that have supported our effort (one document with names, titles, job descriptions, mail addresses and telephone number of politicians and civil servants who are of interest to us; another document with ideas for topics we could/should write about in on our Facebook page, another document with notes from the steering committe meetings and so on). 

It's not that that necessarily had to be my slot, but since no-one else volunteered and it thus seemed I was best one suited for the task... (having had a vision of how eminently useful Google documents would be for this specific task and creating them in the first place). Other persons did other things (division of labor). One women had liberal access to the telephone all day long and took it upon herself to call people left and right (something that would have been very difficult for me). Another man works a construction firm and thus understands the business of building things (like a school for example). Another woman is on maternity leave and has time to do "grunt work" (draw posters) should that be needed. Yet other people have specialized knowledge about how to understand environmental measurements, primarily air quality and noise, as well as how to interpret previous environmental court cases. Yet other people know how to get in touch with and pitch our message to the media (there are parents in our network working in both print media and TV). We've been on TV, radio and press a number of times and that is a great way to put pressure on politicians (who in their turn put pressure on the civil servants). There really is strength in numbers, in diversity and in a good division of labor too!

--- Social media ---

Social media really has been our best friend. There are some deep truths in Clay Shirky's book "Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations" (2009). The cost of coordinating any activity has fallen through the floor with the arrival of social media. To do what we have done is 10 or 100 times less costly (in terms of money, effort, coordination) that it would have been 20 years ago. It's not necessary to build up a hierarchal organization with many levels. All that is needed is a "place" online where people can congregate (in this case a Facebook page - it currently has more than 360 members but we are unfortunately missing out on the people who don't use Facebook). Social media almost makes it unnecessary to make detailed plans and portion out tasks. If there are enough persons with enough energy, one person can identify a need (we should call this person), another person can make the telephone call and report back and a third person can aggregate and disseminate information for the benefit of all. This is totally in line with how open-source software is developed, and that's pretty cool.

Another aspect I find interesting is that you don't really even need to know anyone (to have a relationship to specific other parents) in order to participate and chip in. You don't need to spend a lot of time and energy ringing on doors in order to recruit people. It's enough to lean back and see what happens on the Facebook page only to later invite the most active parents to the steering group. I was invited myself despite not knowing any of the four "founding mothers" of the Facebook group. And we can work really effectively despite hardly knowing each other at all only a week earlier. That would never have happened (or been a lot more difficult) before social media. Our children attend a bunch of different day-care centers in the area, so it's not like we were all best friends beforehand. And it's definitely an advantage to have parents from many different pre-schools get together (for example if you want to distribute leaflets to all the 600+ children, which we did last week).

All-in-all, it's been a pretty intense period. I mostly wear my "parent hat", but in this blog post I have also at times shifted to my "researcher hat". I have to admit that as a researcher I find this experience interesting and will for sure be able to relate to it and make use of it when I read about social media and activism from now on.

Oh, and we won. Perhaps. Four days ago we got an open letter where it said they are changing the directions and are now primarily looking for a local solutions that doesn't need a bus service for the children. While it looks good, the actual wording is bureacracy-speak and there is unfortunately a lot of hedging. "Primarily looking for..." can fail and make the fall-back option seem necessary. We won't know for sure until the second/extra information meeting which has been planned for next Monday (Feb 11). But if they go back on their "promise", the parents will for sure be furious and ready to tear down city hall brick by brick - so let's hope that doesn't happen. The city hall is after all a nice building and I got married there...

It's of course not possible to build a brand new school in a very short time, but the proposed solution is to build some kind of temporary classrooms. And us parents will be there to make sure it turns out all right. Now that we are organized, I think we will be powerful factor in expressing our opinions and negotiating with the school for many years to come - and that another interesting insight.

I've been thinking about more sneaky stuff but I don't want to "show our hand" and write about strategical and tactical decisions and moves that we have made. That can wait until after the extra information meeting on Feb 11 and a later follow-up blog post.

Here are a couple of photos. They might clarify the point of why I don't think the proposed high-school is an acceptable alternative for my son. My son would be taken to school in a bus, but I might want to go pick him up now and then and this is the road seldom travelled:

This is (part of) the nice and cosy high school where my son and his 95 five and six-year old friends would spend their first five years in school - in the company of their new 17-year old "friends":

Below is the view of the next-door neighbor of the school, Essingeleden and the E4 highway. The highway passes the school by slightly more than 50 meters away. It is one of the busiest highways in Northern Europe and it might just be the one road in Sweden with the heaviest traffic of them all. It's not the ideal environment for small children (that's an understatement).


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