After graduating from college I spent a year working as a community organizer on issues at the intersection of labor and immigration. I had taken a number of social justice-oriented courses during my undergraduate studies, including a course on activism and organizing, but this did little to prepare me for the job.
Making matters more complicated, at the time, the organization I was joining was in the midst of a mini-crisis. The person I was hired to replace had managed to burn a number of bridges with the community during her tenure with the group, deeply damaging the organization’s reputation. I quickly realized that although I may have been hired to empower immigrants and workers through rights training, wage-theft campaigns, and the like, being an effective community organizer was going to take something else: networking!
In this context, networking meant building connections among and across community gatekeepers, stakeholders, and other relevant players operating in shared geographic and social spaces. Much of this was done in person, but some of this consisted of connecting with activists and organizers across the country through email, video chats, and social media.
As I slowly began the work of repairing fractured relationships at the local level and building new bonds with existing activist networks across the country, an elaborate Personal Learning Network (PLN)—or a group of people who engage in the creation, distribution, and sharing of knowledge—emerged.
At the time, I knew nothing about PLNs. As Alison Seaman explains in “Personal Learning Networks: Knowledge Sharing as Democracy,” PLNs are one positive outcome of—and response to—the ever-expanding digital world. Seaman stresses that PLNs draw upon “the Internet’s capacity to store information and facilitate [x] connections,” driving learning through feedback, insights, documentation, new contacts, and new business opportunities in networks of trust and reciprocity.
The PLN that developed out of my organizing work was not restricted to the digital world. Indeed, it was a hybrid of linkages that spanned time, space, and the web. As a network we shared information on legal rights and resources, discussed organizing tactics, and kept track of immigration raids and changes to labor and immigration policy. As an organization, we got to brainstorm and problem-solve with people facing the same challenges that we were. We learned to draw on the successes (and failures) of others, and adapt and innovate in order to meet local needs. We were inspired to keep trying even when things didn’t go our way (which was often!).
Years later, the value of networks has not been lost on me. Networks play a huge role in my research and writing, both in terms of the ability to carry out my work (e.g. using Facebook and Twitter to recruit immigration attorneys to participate in an online survey) and the ability to collaborate with colleagues around the globe (some of whom I’ve never met in person). What’s more, those with whom I speak in the course of my research often highlight the importance of networking in their lives, too—whether immigrants drawing upon community knowledge in the face of deportation or capital defenders seeking advice on shared listservs).
Digital or otherwise, networks help prevent isolation and stagnation. This is as crucial to academia as it is to organizing, and is certainly well worth the effort.