IFAS | Freedom Writer | October 1994 | computers.html

Using computers to fight the right

Scores of groups formed to oppose the hard right's political agenda are springing up across America. Some are small, sustained by one or two people; others consist of coalitions with hundreds, even thousands of members.

In time, the mobilization of these groups will mean the ultimate defeat of the radical Religious Right. While many concerned citizens are looking for a quick fix to defeat the hard right — IRS investigations, congressional hearings, the courts, or negative national press — the truth is that the downfall of the Religious Right will come through grunt work at the local level. In other words, plain old-fashioned activism and organizing in local communities.

Working hard, however, isn't always working smart. And while the use of technology is no substitute for hard work, when used wisely, the two can complement each another. With technology available to the general population, activist groups are discovering the effectiveness of computers.

Today's activists employ computer technology in three primary areas — at home, in the field, and in communication with others. With a computer, printer, and the right software, organizations can greatly increase their effectiveness.

Nowadays, news spreads at the speed of light, literally. It is important for activists to keep up to date about important events and to be able to communicate with other groups and activists. Computers enable local groups to communicate with others across the country and around the world. This is accomplished through modems, e-mail, bulletin board services (BBS), and computer-generated faxes.

A modem is a device in your computer or attached to it that sends and receives information over regular phone lines. E-mail (electronic mail) services are provided by companies such as MCI, and online services such as Compuserve or Delphi. With e-mail you can send an electronic letter to anyone who subscribes to an online service. If their computer is not on at the time you send a letter, it is stored in a centralized “mail box” until the intended recipient retrieves it. You can also receive mail in the same manner.

Modems are also used to send and receive fax transmissions and any file stored on your computer's hard disk. Any document in your computer can be faxed without having to print it out and feed it into a fax machine.

Bulletin board services (BBS), allow computer users to “talk” with one another, or to post information for the other members of the service.

Hundreds of BBSs, dealing with every subject and interest, exist. The hard right uses BBSs both to communicate among its adherents, and also to monitor groups they oppose. Of course, groups fighting the radical right can join and monitor the opposition's bulletin boards. The Internet, the so-called information superhighway, may be accessed through any one of numerous online services.

Research is a key to successful activism. Local groups formed to challenge the radical right should know the opposition. One way to do this is to carefully monitor the letters to the editor in your local paper. Make a database file of letter writers who support the religious right's agenda. (Of course, when you see letters in support of what your group stands for, contact these people to let them know of your existence, and invite them to join.) Each file in your database should note why the person is listed, and where to find a copy of their letter to the editor, or other information, in your vertical files.

Sometimes radical right groups announce their meetings in the newspaper. On the other hand, you can often find out about these meetings by visiting local Christian bookstores. Many Christian bookstores have bulletin boards for public notices. These interesting stores are a good place to find announcements about up-coming meetings for groups such as the Christian Coalition, Concerned Women for America, Citizens for Excellence in Education, etc. Note the groups and individuals you find listed on these bulletin boards, and then enter that information in your databank.

Some researchers visit conservative Christian churches in order to gather information. This is often an excellent, but overlooked source. Activist church foyers often display literature from local and national religious right organizations. Another way to gather information is by joining local and national religious right groups. Just by getting on their mailing lists, you will receive information about their activities on a regular basis.

Compile every article you can find on the radical religious right. Enter pertinent information from these articles into a database, and note where to find the original article at a later date. Maintain data on national figures as well as local activists.

You never know when the information in your files will save the day. Perhaps a minister in your community decides to run for public office. There is nothing wrong in itself about a minister running for office. However, you run his name on your computer and find that his letters to the editor have been published over the years. Next, you look in his vertical file for these letters and find that three years ago he advocated some extreme position. Now, you are equipped with information the public should know about this candidate. (How you use the information depends on how your group is organized. Non-profit organizations are not allowed to oppose or endorse candidates.)

Perhaps your group is involved in voter identification and mobilization — activities which are nearly impossible without computers. If you know who supports your interests, and if you can get them out on election day, you will win every battle. Remember, the war is going to be won on the local level, community by community.

Generally, an organization's activities cover three broad areas: fundraising, membership, and activism. Without funds there is no organization. As income and expenditures must be carefully tracked, good bookkeeping is essential. Computers are ideal for this task. A number of inexpensive bookkeeping and accounting programs are well-suited for the small organization.

Information about donors and members is easily organized using a simple computerized database. The database should include basic information such as addresses, phone numbers (include fax numbers and e-mail addresses), member's interests, a record of donations, and a list of volunteers. The data base is invaluable when the need arises to contact members quickly. The program can print a list of mailing labels, or phone numbers — and even dial them automatically.

Computers are also useful in securing operating capital. Grant money for almost any cause is available on both the local and national level. Grant seekers can keep track of foundation guidelines, deadlines, and grant timelines with a computer. Time management programs are excellent for managing grant proposals. Calendars and built-in timers remind the user of upcoming deadlines, and pop-up notes are useful for keeping pertinent information on each potential funder.

Sometimes activists get so caught up in the work that they don't take time to raise the needed funds. While this is often a problem, it should not be the norm. Using computers to stay on track in fundraising may mean the difference between success and failure.

If your group publishes a newsletter (an excellent way to keep members informed and interested), a computer is by far the best way to maintain a mailing list and print labels. A database program can also track membership and subscription expiration dates. If your group wants to publish a newsletter, there is no better way to publish an attractive newsletter than with a desktop-publishing program and a laser or inkjet printer.

Finally, if you don't set goals for your group you probably won't accomplish much. Time management programs, as mentioned above, can help keep your short-term and long-term goals on track. Of course, using a word processing program for all of your writing is much more efficient than an electric typewriter.

For more information on specific computers, printers, and software, check out computer magazines, catalogs, or visit your local computer store. Magazines such as Home Office Computing review computers and programs, and list the current best-selling programs.

Computers may seem costly at first. But without them, no organization can compete.

© 1998 Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.