Saturday Sep 21

Action Builder: Empowering Real Social Change

One of the fundamental problems with most progressive organizing tools is that they have been designed by for profit companies with a for profit mentality that seeks one-time value extraction. People aren’t treated as people. They’re treated as consumers, who we want to do that one thing – whether that’s earning ad revenue through clicking, buying a product, or pulling the lever for the right candidate.

When we started the design process for our new organizing tool Action Builder in 2017, we knew we wanted to craft it intentionally in contrast (or opposition) to this transactional model. We understood that if we built cooperatively with organizers, the results would be a tool that treated people more humanely as whole people from the start.

Cooperative Design

In the 1970s, while design theory was taking off across the globe, the Norwegian Iron and Metal Workers Union decided to take an active approach to the new world of computing. What if the workers themselves, who knew what needed to be done better than anyone, had a role in designing what work computer would do going forward?

The Union reached out to computer scientist Kristen Nygaard, who worked with them to create tools using an approach called ‘cooperative design’. Nygaard worked directly with the union to design programs that would help them stay ahead of the computer revolution, and also worked with them to pass pro-worker regulations that would ensure workers, not just corporations, had a say over how technology was used in the workplace. A win for creating better tools that meet workers’ needs, and respects their humanity.

In our design of Action Builder, we’ve been bringing cooperative design back to these democratic and egalitarian roots. We’ve structured our design and development process so that our development partners – currently more than a dozen unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO – informs every step of the tool’s creation. For the first eight weeks we conducted back-to-back interviews with labor organizers asking what they want. It turns out, when organizers describe the tool they need – they need something that respects people as people.

Throughout the design process we took mockups back to organizers and asked their opinion – had we gotten it right? One example: we, collectively, decided early on to structure the tool so that individuals are identified with a bright and prominent color-coded assessment of where each person stands in the ladder of engagement. That assessment helps guide the next one-on-one conversation and leads to that person’s deeper engagement with your organization or cause.

This isn’t a tool for getting a person to do that one thing, one time. It’s a tool for creating robust, deep, organizing networks, with neighbors talking to neighbors, coworkers talking to organizers, and organizers managing the ebb and flow of conversations to build power individually and collectively.

How did we get here

The seed for creating Action Builder was planted during large union organizing campaigns decades ago. In many workplaces, some with more than 10,000 workers, organizers had to identify every worker, their interest in the union, and develop relationships with them, one-by-one. This information was tracked on huge wall charts to identify how people related to each other at work and how organizers and leaders could reach them to talk about the union. Now, all the data once spread over wall charts can be found in a mobile device.

In the hands of grassroot leaders in the community or in the workplace, Action Builder revolutionizes organizing. Now, organizers and community leaders will be able to more efficiently facilitate meaningful face to face conversations, as well as have the tools needed to identify and train folks to reach their own organizing potential  right on a cell phone or tablet. Instead of spending hours ordering and updating data on paper, organizers can focus on one-on-one conversations, building relationships, and fostering trust and solidarity amongst workers.

Action Builder is being released at a critical time. The political landscape today is as belligerent as it was during those union organizing efforts, when companies ran divisive and racially-charged campaigns that relied heavily on misinformation and distrust.

Americans have responded to Trump’s election and his devastating policies with record-breaking displays of resistance. From the Women’s March to the People’s Climate March and March for Our Lives, more of us have become engaged than ever before. But simply mobilizing isn’t enough. Protests and marches are great for turning out new activists but organizing is essential to hold onto and develop those activists and turn them into leaders. That’s how we’ll build a full-scale, mass movement for progressive change.

Action Builder is designed to be put to use long before the final days of an election cycle or on the eve of a political march or rally. It is a set of tools built for people in the community or workplace who know what issues affect them most. As people show their support for your issue or candidate, they can be added into Action Builder immediately and given tasks to get them more involved by the people they know best. A small number of staff organizers is enough to build a robust, scalable program, recruit leadership, and call on local activists to take actions on behalf of the campaign.

Whether Action Builder is used for community organizing, elections, or in the workplace, it is designed on the fundamental principles of successful organizing: identifying leaders, establishing contacts, expanding a network of people, and moving them along through a process of engagement.

Organizing is a time-tested process, repeated thousands of times over in every corner of this country - and the globe- and at the scale facilitated by Action Builder, will build lasting power on the ground where it counts most.

So what?

Organizing is hard, and will always be tough and time consuming work. With the challenges our world faces, and with the growing power of global corporations, we need strong networks of people organizing for the greater good more than ever.

But most of the tools we have – the transactional tools – won’t help us build and scale the people powered networks we need. Getting a person to vote, getting a person to show up to an event – that’s step one. Helping a person realize their own power? Have them show up again and again, and reach out to their friends, and start a chapter? That’s change. That’s the change we need.

Action Builder doesn’t do this work for organizers, but we believe – thanks to organizers with us every step of the way – that it is a tool that is built for this work, to scale this work, and to help more organizers spend more time doing the hard part: building power.

Martha Grant is Product Manager for Action Builder and Mark Fleischman is am President and Founder of Action Network and a long time union official and activist. For more information head to

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