How to Organize a Movement


Suzie McCarthy Cole Geddy
Following President Sullivan's sudden resignation, many of us expected some type of explanation to leak out, but there was only silence. Since it seemed that the Board of Visitors would not be forthcoming with the University community, an explanation of their decision required ramping up the pressure on them.

At that time, I didn't know how the Board was appointed, but I knew that as a public university, the Board was tied to the governor. Media pressure, therefore, could be an effective way get Gov. Bob McDonnell involved.

I started the Facebook group "Students, Friends, and Family for the Reinstatement of President Sullivan," and the goal of the group was to get a critical mass of members so we could draw media attention and put pressure on the BOV to reinstate President Sullivan.

To be honest, I wasn't sure in the beginning that Sullivan's reinstatement was possible. But calling for her reinstatement was powerful because it was a simple message and one that a large number of stakeholders—students, faculty, alumni and staff—could agree on, regardless of their theories about the reasons for her ouster. In those early days, we had no idea what had happened. Rumors abounded on the Web, ranging from gender discrimination to Wall Street collusion.

The next step was to let people know that the Facebook group existed. We needed the group to include a cross-section of the UVA community, so we could present a united voice. Individual groups can be placated, but a united front would require action.

In the age of news customization, we choose to read stories that interest us. News sources that had been running the resignation story, therefore, would be read by people interested in the ousting. Google news alerts helped me and other members of the group keep up with the coverage. I posted a brief message with a link to the Facebook group in the comments sections of related stories. I also emailed reporters who were writing about the resignation and told them what we were doing.

The Faculty Senate's decision to come out in favor of reinstatement gave us a lot more room to maneuver. By positioning our group alongside the Faculty Senate, we were able to secure a greater degree of legitimacy for our message.

The power of the Facebook group to draw people to an event became clear during the Rally for Transparency that was held on the Lawn during the June 18 BOV meeting to appoint an interim president. Several thousand members of the UVA community gathered on the Lawn, some driving several hours to show their support for Sullivan.

The next day, I woke up at 5 a.m. to find that an interim president had been named by the BOV. The general atmosphere of the Facebook group was one of despair. "It's over" was a common post.

Gov. McDonnell was returning from Europe and we quickly began "Operation Firestorm." Group members called the governor and emailed both their local delegates and members of the BOV. The mood of our group changed when the Cavalier Daily began to tweet the contents of emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act between Rector Helen Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kington leading up to Sullivan's ousting. The tenor of the group's messages on Facebook changed from depression to outrage. We announced a Rally for Honor would be held on Sunday, June 24. The goal was to create an event to showcase the unity of the University through our values of honor, transparency and civility.

The organization of the rally took place entirely on Facebook. Along with announcing the event, the Facebook wall listed our need for a sound system, flyers and speakers. Responsive posts and emails poured in. A community organizer was put in charge of the on-the-ground organizing—everything from sourcing electricity to garbage bags. This was a great example of "crowdsourcing," which happens when members of an online group contribute services, goods or ideas. Within the UVA community, we have experts in every field imaginable.

The day before the Rally for Honor, emails from University community members poured in regarding the civility of the event. They were concerned that the rally would be disorderly and discredit the message of civility that was so important to getting the Board to reverse its decision. All of us were near an emotional breaking point. I went online and posted an appeal, which explained the situation and pleaded that all of us act as our best selves at the rally.

The next day, as I stood on the steps of the Rotunda, I looked out at the crowd gathered peaceably on the Lawn and I felt great pride in the UVA community. Not only were we a group that demonstrated our values through our actions, we were also one that achieved positive change.

Currently pursuing a PhD in comparative politics at the University, McCarthy studies the dynamics of social movements. She is credited as a driving force behind the use of social media to organize rallies on the Lawn.