In early August, organizers from the March for Racial Justice connected with us, needing a website for their march in Washington DC on September 30th, 2017. We were able to get started on August 15th, after writing up a statement of work that outlined a design and development process.
It quickly became clear that things were moving faster than our plan could handle. There were over 6 thousand people “going” to the Facebook event and over 50,000 “interested”, with no website to speak of. Andrea, the point person who brought us into the project, was overwhelmed and stretched thing, taking on more than she could handle. In addition to making a website, our goal was to make her life — and the lives of the other organizers — less anxiety-inducing.
We were quickly brought into their project management system, got on the same page as their core organizing team, and collaboratively formulated a plan to get this website put together. The original plan started with a sitemap, provided by the organizing team. Given that info and their technical desires/limitations, we came up with a feature list and reorganized their sitemap. The interactive features included:
- Resource library
- Sister march map (and sign up)
- Endorsement capture
- Volunteer sign up
It turned out that many of these features were already being handled in an ad-hoc manner. A stopgap website was being put together by the design team Design Choice on Squarespace (these were the folks who did a bang-up job building the brand and identity for the March).
Initially, we planned to build the site with WordPress but determined that it would be best to stick with what had already been developed and continue implementing custom features into Squarespace. The platform is pretty flexible as far as proprietary systems go, and we knew it would be quick and easy to get admins on the site, empowered to make changes.
Though Squarespace can be pretty limited, it allows teams to build an online presence that looks great. Most non-developers really love the drag and drop feature on the page builder and limitations of the text formatting keep things neat and tidy, even when there are a bunch of different people pitching in and making edits. The downside is that there is no revision history, so many people pitching in can cause serious problems.
Once the site went up, we started seeing all kinds of change requests spring up from stakeholders, so we built a content tracking sheet in Google Sheets. This is standard practice for us, as it helps us stay on top of edits and overall site progress.
This sheet acted as an outline for the sitemap as well as a central resource for links to live pages and Google Documents where people could edit, suggest, and comment on content before it went online. Having this in place allowed us to let self-organizing take over. When more people have a stake in the work and are empowered to take charge, things get done a lot faster, especially in a semi-chaotic situation.
We created two custom features for the M4RJ site, the Resources library, and the March map. These are easy to build yourself if you have some time and patience. Learn how to build these tools using Awesome Tables with our tutorial.
The resource library
The M4RJ organizers wanted to build a resource library so that the march would have an impact beyond the day of the March. This space would serve as a hub for people to share information about racial justice. The Squarespace blogging feature is pretty weak and it would have taken an absurd amount of time (which we didn’t have) to make a custom feature within the platform. Even building it in WordPress would have taken too long.
We finally settled on building a spreadsheet that would feed directly into the site via Awesome table. It had a few key bonuses:
- It could be updated by a lot of different people.
- The styling could be easily updated to match the site.
- No one had to log into Squarespace to make edits.
- It took mere minutes to set up.
Awesome table is fairly intuitive once you understand its basic principles. We were able to coordinate two volunteers to add custom styling to the tables so they better matched the site theme.
The sister march map
Organizers wanted to create a map that displayed “sister marches” around the world. They already had a Google Form that fed a spreadsheet where they were tracking potential sister marches as they sprung up. Because the marches were self-reported, the organizers had to confirm that they were real before we added them to the map. The workflow looked something like this:
- Sister march organizer filled out a Google Form to announce their march.
- #M4RJ organizer reached out to confirm details about the sister march.
- Once verified, the entry in the spreadsheet is marked to be added to map.
Using some Google Spreadsheet functions, like QUERY(), we were able to add awesome table functionality to the existing spreadsheet without ever interrupting the organizer’s workflow. You can see the live map here: https://www.m4rj.com/sister-marches/
Looking toward the future
The team rallied together to make something pretty incredible happen in a very short period of time. It was wonderful to be included.
In the end, we all agreed that it would have been really nice to stand something up that was designed for marches. The good news was that we built a great site. The bad news was that it was a rush job and had to be built on a proprietary platform. Looking into the future, we know we’ll get more requests like this.
This isn’t the first time that we’ve done this either. It’s not at all uncommon for us to be given similar parameters for a project: short deadline, lots of organizers, volunteers aplenty, and similar feature requests. It’s stressful for both the team organizing the march and the team providing support.
Because we profoundly believe in sharing resources and maximizing efficacy, we want to build an open-source version of this website that everyone can use. It’s just one of many projects that, if crowdfunded, could provide a huge amount of financial, emotional, and technological benefit to the network of activists and organizers working on positive change.
More on that in a later blog post.