A Closer Look: The Challenges and Opportunities of Community Organizing During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Lead Organizer Graciela Uriarte and Organizer Kai Guzman meet with precinct captains from North County on Zoom.

By Edgar Hopida

SAN DIEGO – The ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties’ community organizing team brings people together to challenge unjust power structures and to promote a more equitable society. Hard work under the best of circumstances, this has become even more difficult with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic.

ACLU-SDIC organizers meet this challenge by using digital tools and new strategies that make it possible for people, who for a variety of reasons are disenfranchised and left out of mainstream society, to participate in civic life and advocate for a better quality of life for themselves and their families.

Organizing work is difficult because it requires building relationships and trust with and within marginalized communities. It’s time consuming and requires significant resources. Now, organizers are faced with additional hurdles, including the inability to bring people together in a shared physical space for face-to-face meetings.

For ACLU-SDIC organizers, not being able to meet people in the communities they live is like showing up to work with a half-empty toolbox.

The organizers’ role at the ACLU-SDIC is to activate engagement in local, state and federal campaigns. They strive to build an active base of community advocates who can be mobilized to participate in meetings, rallies, hearings and delegations. They create volunteer leadership development programs that empower communities. And they build relationships with community organizations, faith leaders, business leaders and donors to advance people’s civil rights and civil liberties.

The COVID-19 pandemic not only forced our organizers to change the way they conduct their work; it also shifted their priorities.

Graciela Uriarte, lead ACLU-SDIC organizer explained: “Before the pandemic, we were working on immigrants’ rights efforts and police accountability and transparency. We were about to delve into our education equity work during the summer. COVID-19 forced us to pivot. We are now focused on keeping our communities safe from the virus by demanding that officials reduce the number of people who are in jail or detained in immigration facilities. We are also demanding that public health officials release demographic data related to the pandemic and pandemic response for all communities.”

The pandemic has exposed longstanding inequities in our health care system, Uriarte added. This has led to the urgent need for an “equity taskforce” to help identify and address disparities that make some people more susceptible COVID-19. After community organizers advocated for it, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors formed the equity taskforce in June. If all this work sounds daunting, it’s because it is. More so, considering the size of the ACLU-SDIC’s organizing team.

Uriarte runs a lean, hardworking team consisting of Organizer Laura Baeza and Organizer Kakai Guzman. In addition to supervising the team, Uriarte oversees organizing work in the South Bay. Baeza’s organizing work is primarily in Central San Diego, while Guzman  who recently joined the team, focuses on organizing efforts in North County.

The organizing team’s work would not be possible without the support of our enthusiastic and hardworking volunteers, including people involved in the ACLU-SDIC’s “precinct captain” program.

The program consists of key volunteers who work to organize and mobilize people within their own communities to more effectively use their collective political power.

“Keeping the precinct captain program thriving during the pandemic has been challenging,” Uriarte said.

“The precinct captain program is predominantly made up of young women of color, young people and people of diverse backgrounds. These communities are among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Uriarte. “Some of our volunteers have had to disengage due to health reasons or to take care of loved ones, while others have been busy as part of the region’s essential workforce.”

However, this has not deterred the ACLU-SDIC organizing team.

Organizers now use video conferencing tools, such as Zoom, to increase the number and frequency of check-ins with volunteers and precinct captains. Many of these virtual visits are not necessarily related to campaigns. They are often simple contacts to see how volunteers are doing and how they are managing during this public health crisis.

Advocacy events also had to be adapted to occur online rather than in physical spaces. Remarkably, switching to virtual meetings has increased attendance, rather than hurt it.

For example, our May 20 virtual Member Legislative Info Night had more than 60 attendees. This was almost twice the number of people who have shown up for similar events convened at our office. One reason for improved attendance is that many people live in far parts of the county and it’s difficult for them to drive or take public transportation to certain locations. Virtual meetings have made it easier for some people to participate from the safety of their homes.

Another well-attended event was the first “Flattening the Curve of Inequality” webinar, which garnered more 300 attendees. Due to the overwhelming demand for this webinar, ACLU-SDIC livestreamed subsequent webinars on YouTube to give more people an opportunity to benefit from the series. The five-part series received an estimated 1,000 viewers.

“The organizing team is taking these lessons learned and applying them to other advocacy efforts,” said Christie Hill, the ACLU-SDIC’s deputy advocacy director.

“Despite these unprecedented difficulties, the shift toward more digital engagement has given the ACLU-SDIC an opportunity to increase attendance at events, encourage more participation in giving public comments at virtual government meetings and provide more skills training in digital organizing,” Hill said. “This pandemic is a time of historic disruption and uncertainty. Our organizers are working hard to ensure it’s not a time of historic injustice as well.”

To volunteer at the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, please fill out this form.

Edgar Hopida is the civic engagement communications strategist for the ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties.