Carol Howard Merritt: Social media for social justice

One advocacy organization that works on behalf of its homeless friends finds itself too busy not to tweet.

I was taking a friend on a tour of Miriam’s Kitchen, the feeding and social services program housed in our church. Miriam’s provides a full array of services for our homeless guests, not least an amazing breakfast and dinner. When we walked into one of the offices, I introduced my friend to Miriam’s Development Associate by saying, “This is the woman behind the Tweets.”

My friend frowned. “I tried Twitter. I was on it for about an hour. And that was it. I just don’t have the time. How do you find the time?”

The Associate responded, “Miriam’s Kitchen makes sure that I have the time.”

I smiled at the exchange. I wondered if we had come in while the Associate was designing a magazine ad. Would the same question have come up? The question of time is important when it comes to social media. But as Miriam’s raises funds and awareness around the issue of homelessness, they know that Twitter is an important part of their strategy.

Miriam’s Twitter feed is fun and insightful. They tweet the menu of the day, statistics on homelessness, needs of the guests, and appreciation for volunteers. They retweet what people say about them, and they quote funny things that the chefs say. They let people know about fundraising events. The tweets have spurned other organizations to hold events for them. One day our guests received a box of socks from California because someone on Twitter read that they needed them. As silly as Twitter may seem to those who are not active with social media, it has become an important tool in social justice work.

When a church or nonprofit groups wants to get the message out about an issue like homelessness there are many strategies they can use. There are the traditional avenues like direct mailings, press conferences, and press releases. They can assemble print, radio, or television ads. Each of these is important. But they can also take a great deal of money, time, or (frankly) power to pull them off. If an organization has those things, then using traditional media can be very effective.

But what if a church or organization doesn’t have those things, but they still want to speak out on an issue? There are many more tools in our box now, and even though they take time, they are often easy and inexpensive to utilize. 

Blogs allow us to generate news and information without having to worry about the layout of a regular newsletter or the cost of paper. They allow people to respond in comments. Many are set up so that the article can be shared over Facebook and Twitter. While a direct mailing only targets the person to whom it’s addressed, a well-written blog can allow for interaction, involvement, and sharing of personal stories. Through blogs we can become aware of other people who are working on the same issues, and begin to form important constellations of thought. Facebook can be a place where people share causes with their friends. Twitter is an effective means of getting the word out, recruiting a young volunteer base, and raising money around an important cause. There are on-line petition sites and advocacy networks that gather similar organizations around particular causes. There are sites where we can post PowerPoint presentations, YouTube videos, podcasts, or Livestream events.

While traditional media allowed a person to consume information, new media lets a person interact, respond, and share. Younger generations are putting down print media and turning off the television. So as church leaders seek to engage young activists, they will need to use the same tools that a new generation is using. This is an exciting time, when so much of how we consume and share information is changing. In the midst of all of this, we will need to use as many tools in our box that we can. It will worth the time to keep up with it all.