Zooming Out: Strategizing for a Just Recovery in Virtual Spaces


At CESR we believe that transformative change will not happen unless different movements fighting for rights and justice come together. We recently experimented with a new format for sparking conversations online, gathering more than 50 partners and allies. The result? Valuable insights on the shared challenges of building a just recovery from COVID-19.

In late March and early April, we organized two community calls, inviting partners and allies from across the social, economic, and environmental justice movements. Our aim? To learn from each other's work to transform the economy in the wake of COVID-19; to collectively reflect on shared challenges and opportunities; and explore ideas for how we can stay better connected and engaged to advance common goals.

When we meet in person, it’s often the chance to chat with new people that sparks the most interesting ideas or exciting collaborations. We were really craving these spontaneous conversations. Creating the opportunity for them online was an experiment! But one we’re really glad we tried, because it prompted a rich discussion about mobilizing across movements for a just recovery to COVID-19. More than 50 people joined the two calls—a diverse group of activists from around the world, whose work spans a range of issues, from the local to global.

Those who joined us described the chance to meet and get to know new people as “refreshing”, “energizing”, and “cathartic”, which fostered a sense of community that helped “reduce isolation”. We tried out an interactive methodology for the calls. This included open space for conversations in randomly assigned pairs and gathering responses to a set of prompt questions through simultaneous note taking in a shared document. This created a “different dynamic”, a “more relaxed atmosphere" and “a shared cultural space”, which was “completely refreshing”, “extremely engaging and stimulating” and “felt safe and warm”.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Read the reflection note about the calls here

For us, one of the biggest benefits of this methodology was the breadth and depth of collective wisdom we were able to capture in such a short amount of time. To share that communal intelligence more widely, we’ve written up a short reflection note about the calls, which you can read here. It outlines major insights and key takeaways from the conversations.

In general, there was consensus that growing demands to transform our economy to guarantee all of us the right to a dignified life had resulted in—sometimes significant—rhetorical shifts. But, by and large, concrete action was still lacking. In large part, this is because there hasn’t been a significant shift in power structures within the institutions that make up the global economic governance system. As a result, there are also plenty of instances where those in power are still resisting efforts to bring human rights into debates about a just recovery.

Unpacking this paradox, the pandemic has “laid bare” the injustices of the current system in a way that “cannot be ignored anymore”. In some countries, this has prompted policymakers to focus on how the recovery can be equitable. But, at the same time, they’re having “a hard time opening up to new perspectives” while they’re in “firefighting mode”, which means deep systemic changes are not a priority. Instead, they’re committed to “trying to stabilize the old broken system”.

This means our advocacy is taking place in a context where opportunities are constantly shifting and, sometimes, appear to be both opening and closing at the same time. The strength of corporate power is making much-needed reforms seem politically impossible. For activists, the challenge is to mobilize around a reform agenda that is sufficiently focused to convince policymakers of its feasibility, but that represents “first steps” towards broader, more transformative, shifts in power.

Shifting from strategy to tactics, we also grappled with the realities of cross-movement mobilizing in virtual spaces. Spaces for civil society advocacy—and opportunities to confront power holders—in formal processes have shrunk. This narrowing is a huge risk for advancing intersectional rights-based agendas. Nevertheless, sharing examples of successful and not so successful efforts to address this highlighted a number of opportunities as well as challenges for amplifying efforts that align social, economic, and environmental justice.

In some ways, the shift to virtual advocacy “can level the playing field”. Not having to travel means different, often unheard, voices can be brought into debates in ways that “we couldn't afford in person”. There’s also been a stronger appetite for collaboration, which working online can make easier. In other ways, online spaces reinforce inequities, due to disparities in internet connection; language barriers; and safety concerns. In this respect, working virtually has also siloed people even more. This means a lot of online activity has been quite “surface level”. Major protests over the last year didn’t originate online, for example. Digital activism played a role in amplifying them though. So, one way of strengthening virtual activism is to see it as part of a “hybrid” model, happening in combination
with in-person actions.

We hope the reflection note sparks some valuable and thought-provoking questions for our partners and allies. From the very positive feedback, it's clear we're not alone in craving more meaningful ways to connect and strategize on these issues. We heard a number of suggestions about what would be good use of time for future calls, including drilling down on specific issues and more space to find intersections between people’s work. We’re exploring what this might look like in practice. Please do get in touch at info@cesr.org or acorkery@cesr.org if you’re interested in learning more about these plans as they take shape.