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Building a Groundswell, Lighting Up the Network

By Valarie Kaur


When a dozen twenty-somethings gathered in my tiny living room in the fall of 2010, vexed about the firestorm of protest against Park 51, an Islamic center planned in Manhattan known as “the Ground Zero Mosque,” we had no idea that we were planting the seed for a movement.

We were Christian, Muslim, Jew, Sikh, Buddhist, Hindu and Humanist Millennials who had come of age in the decade after September 11, 2001. All of us were tired of witnessing religion wielded as a weapon to destroy, denigrate, and demonize others. This time, through drumming up controversy around Park 51, a small conservative network had succeeded in spreading widespread fear of Islam. When a pastor in Florida sparked riots around the world after threatening to burn the Qur’an, we gathered in my apartment to ask what we could do to stop the madness.

Valarie Kaur speaking out against sex-trafficking.

Valarie Kaur speaking out against sex-trafficking.

Kicking off a strategy session, I looked into the beleaguered faces of my friends and decided to try a different approach. I asked us instead to envision the world that we wanted. Literally. We closed our eyes and imagined what our street corner would look and feel like in a society where every human being lived, worked, and worshiped without fear.

Something surprising happened: a sense of ease and openness filled the room. The frenetic energy and anxiety which characterizes so much of public interest work melted away, and we felt a sense of calm and connection we had felt in church, or in the woods, in prayer or in meditation.

We began to share what we saw – the respect for all people of faith, the freedom to be openly gay, the ability for immigrants to come out of the shadow, the capacity for women to care for their own bodies… the list goes on. These were not mere pictures of social or political progress: we were expressing a shared moral vision. The concern that brought us together in the wake of Park 51 was part of a larger concern for human dignity in our society.

A New Approach

Dr. Henderson at a Groundswell action.

Dr. Henderson at a Groundswell action.

It seemed to us that the conventional way of fighting – for one’s own rights, issues and peoples – is woefully inadequate. Growing up in the era of Facebook and Twitter, our generation’s notion of “community” already stretches beyond color, class, faith, and nation. We often see ourselves in one another’s struggles: we knew we could not achieve racial justice without also securing the equality of women, economic justice without also protecting our climate. We wanted to fight in a way that matched our worldview. How might 21st century digital tools connect and support us – and others gathered in living rooms across the country – in a common struggle for human dignity?

A 200-year old seminary in New York City was ready to explore this question. Under the leadership of its new president, the Rev. Dr. Katharine Henderson, Auburn Seminary was refashioning itself into a force for movement-building. They invited me to join their staff in 2011 to build an initiative that would help equip people of faith to “trouble the waters and heal the world.”

Groundswell was born

Groundswell’s 9/11 Ribbons of Hope project swept across the country. Photo: Angela Jimenez

Groundswell’s 9/11 Ribbons of Hope project swept across the country. Photo: Angela Jimenez

Groundswell is a digital platform that gives faith leaders and communities the tools to wage campaigns as part of a national multifaith movement. We bring together people across faiths and backgrounds in actions; we amplify the voices of faith leaders in the public arena; we connect issues that are typically fought separately.

In our first year, Groundswell led campaigns to defend religious pluralism, stand for LGBTQ dignity, fight human trafficking, support disaster relief, and organize for reform in the wake of mass shootings in Oak Creek, WI, and Newtown, CT. Now in our secondyear, thanks to the leadership of Isaac Luria (director of Auburn Action), Groundswell has become open-source: people across the U.S. can now launch their own online campaigns on the same platform as part of a networked movement.

Today, the Groundswell community is 60,000 people strong.

When I travel the country, I meet congregations, faith groups, and informal circles like the one in my living room who want to do more than traditional service projects to fight injustice – they want to become political. Today, these groups can leverage the authentic voices of their priests, rabbis, imams and young leaders of all kinds in campaigns, whether to stop budget cuts to the homeless shelter down the street or call for federal gun control. Groundswell can equip these groups with the right digital tools and connect them together – like nodes in a constellation – so that they know they are not doing the work alone but as part of a broader community.

To be sure, nothing can replace the feeling of community when gathered in a living room, sharing ideas and drawing up blueprints for concrete action. Groundswell is meant to support – not replace – the thousands of faith-based, spiritual and humanist communities on the ground who are already committed to social justice. It connects campaigns and communities online, whether organizing for marriage equality, women’s rights, climate justice, gun control, or immigration reform.

A Groundswell parade to The Village Voice offices in New York to protest sex-trafficking in the publication’s classifieds. Photo: Angela Jimenez

A Groundswell parade to The Village Voice offices in New York to protest sex-trafficking in the publication’s classifieds. Photo: Angela Jimenez

For centuries, faith leaders have helped lead the greatest social movements of U.S. history, from women’s suffrage to civil rights. People of faith and moral conscience have always had the ability to transcend small-minded politics and appeal to the greater human spirit of love and justice. In a time of soaring social inequality, environmental degradation, civil rights violations, and gun violence, our nationneeds these prophetic voices more than ever. Groundswell is one of many emerging ways to lift up these voices in the months and years to come.

The light of social justice flickers in brave corners but can fizzle in isolation. To achieve meaningful change in a networked society, that light must shine in a bold constellation. From my living room to yours, may we envision a better world together – and in the darkness, shine a light.