Dr. Ceasar McDowell likes to tell a story about Bob Moses, a key organizer in the civil rights movement. In the 1960s, Moses pioneered a unique way of bringing people together in Mississippi, in which the focus was on relationships rather than on a specific end goal.
"Moses was asked about the most important thing to come out of the civil rights movement," McDowell says. "Bob said it was the meeting, the ability of people to come together and talk and discuss issues, to make other things happen." McDowell calls this "small 'o' organizing," as opposed to "big 'o' organizing," which mobilizes a large set of people to bring their power to bear in the face of institutional power.
McDowell, a professor of the practice of community development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, spoke Sept. 18 at Queens. His lecture launched the annual "Best Minds Conference," a retreat focused on communication and community engagement issues organized by the Knight School of Communication.
As director of Engage the Power, a global civic engagement organization, McDowell and his colleagues recently created campaigns to recognize the value and importance of questions raised by all citizens. For example, from a resident of Japan: "How do we make our transportation systems more resilient to disaster?" Or from Germany: "How can we discuss global problems when we do not know how to solve our local ones?"
The group's recent work in Colombia asked 10,000 people to donate questions, then prioritized them into themes. The top questions were answered in a political forum of the five candidates for mayor of Bogota.
"In the forum, for every question posed by an academic, the candidates had an answer," McDowell said. "But for every question posed by the public, they stumbled, they didn't know. These were questions coming from somewhere else, outside the normal framework, and there was no way to prepare for them. They had to do with how to make the city a better place."
McDowell is now immersed in the group's largest question campaign to date, a program focused on domestic violence in Cambridge, Mass. The program includes about 65 partner organizations, such as universities, the police department, and neighborhood watch organizations. For six months, organizers have been encouraging ways in which citizens can donate questions, flowing in from community meetings, text messages, e-mails, phone messages and other channels. The campaign tags them, advertises and promotes them in media, places them in a database, and organizes them into themes that people can vote on. The city will address each of the top themes in separate three-month periods, beginning in 2013.
"The important thing about this is building whole new relationships and networks of communication that the city now feels that it can tap into, to build community in Cambridge," McDowell says. "We call it 21 days of questions, 365 days of action."
McDowell focused the lecture more on community relationships than on new technologies, but posed a contrast between Facebook and Creative Commons. On Facebook, he said, the site's real value is in the content, messages and images contributed by people. Without this content, Facebook has no value - but people no longer own their own content. Creative Commons, on the other hand, is focused on developing ways for people to maintain and control ownership of their online content. "People have to have power over their own voice," McDowell says.