UUCSJ Uses Digital Activism to Help People Find Connection While Making Change

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The Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice (UUCSJ) has been using an emergent method of connecting people through activism: the Community Action Circle. Gina Collignon, staff member at UUCSJ, speaks to how Action Circles provide the necessary activism our world needs today while creating opportunities to be spiritually fulfilled at the same time — while on the internet. 

With much of our lives now lived through a screen, daily justice work has experienced major changes. Activists and organizations are required to rethink not only how to replicate their actions and events for an online setting, but also how to recreate the kind of nurturing connections that are typically found face-to-face. The Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice (UUCSJ) is one organization that has shifted some of their work to small, intentional online gatherings known as Community Action Circles.

The concept is simple and repeatable, which is part of what makes it so powerful. People who are interested will form a group of no more than 20 people to spend about an hour out of their day supporting a cause or a local movement. Everybody joins a virtual meeting room, introduces themselves and checks in, and then takes action together. A common method of ensuring connection and the feeling of togetherness is to have a shared Google or online slideshow where every participant can follow along. 

“A crucial aspect of Action Circles is that we are coming together online in a very intentional, facilitated way,” said Gina Collignon. “Using the presence of a group makes people more committed and encourages them to take more time out of their schedule. If we do community building the right way, people come away with grounding energy and a chance to be together in this time when everybody is far apart.”

The UUCSJ strives to provide experiential learning for spiritually grounded activism. Community Action Circles have the capacity to do just that; participants get hands-on experience with digital activism while engaging in a meaningful space intended to nurture the spirit.

On July 23rd, for example, volunteers took on 13 different actions. Among these, volunteers signed a petition calling on legislators and ICE Field Directors in San Antonio and Philadelphia to stop the latest family separation crisis, and personalized an email to leaders of Congress urging them to prevent the end of TPS (Temporary Protected Status) protections due to expire in January 2021. Flanking the local Massachusetts organization Building Up People Not Prisons, they received state legislators’ contact information and a script where they pushed for free phone calls from prisons. 

A major goal of the Action Circles is to train participants to lead the circles themselves. This way the impact multiplies — for every one UUCSJ Action Circle, potential leaders emerge from the experience better equipped to start their own community of digital activism. 

For every one UUCSJ Action Circle, potential leaders emerge from the experience better equipped to start their own community of digital activism. 

Another reason that the UUCSJ encourages people to build communities themselves is that their Action Circles tend to attract people from across the country, meaning the actions are usually on the national level. When participants learn to replicate the circles within their local communities, they can follow the asks of local movement leaders and partners.

“The idea of digital action circles is a collective effort. We did not invent them — we just put our own flair on them,” Collignon said. “With COVID-19, our in-person program had to be radically rethought at the same time that activism is even more needed because COVID exacerbates systemic inequalities that had already existed. Community Action Circles arose from this need.” 

“With COVID-19, our in-person program had to be radically rethought at the same time that activism is even more needed because COVID exacerbates systemic inequalities that had already existed. Community Action Circles arose from this need.” 

The UUCSJ is offering online programming. If you know a group of people who would be interested in taking part in a Community Action Circle, see their online programming here or visit uucsj.org.

Written by Aidan Wertz, UU the Vote blogger. Aidan is a college student in Middlebury, Vermont and a lifelong UU.

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