Obama’s Traveling Latino Town Hall

In the post-2.0 era – where the new world of technology comes together with the old world of organizing – you sometimes get the opportunity to pack a room with as many people as possible.

Source: JD Lasica

That was the idea at an event this weekend at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. The event, the latest in a series sponsored by Latinos in Social Media (LATISM), headlined a digital town hall moderated by leaders for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans (Disclosure: I am a board member of LATISM and co-producer of the event). Using a town hall format modeled after the ancient idea coupled with a few modern twists, Juan Sepulveda, director of the White House initiative, (pictured) and Jose Rico, deputy director of the White House initiative, instigated a conversation about education and Hispanics that went well-beyond the four walls of the museum.

For the White House, the content of this conversation is top priority. As I’ve noted in several columns, the top three agenda items for President Barack Obama’s 2012 Latino platform are immigration, education, and youth. The town hall in Silicon Valley – like others the White House is planning in the coming months – speaks to all three (while immigration is not the focus, the plight of sons and daughters of immigrant families is a huge emotional draw). But just as important as the content is the method of delivery, something that all marketers to Latinos might find interesting. Every four years, the presidential election cycle brings innovation to the digital marketplace. This time, the innovation is coming early.

From the Ground Up

Town halls are nothing new, of course. And the addition of modern social-tech tools (the museum event incorporated a live Twitter feed) is now a staple at most social technology events. The innovation came this weekend in the combination of a number of concepts that marketers have been looking at for many years.

The first of these concepts is ideation from the groundswell, or in political terms, the voters. At the Silicon Valley event, Sepulveda got the whole room working together on making recommendations to the White House on priorities for improving education for Hispanics. The format – a mashup of native-American tradition and more contemporary approaches to “facilitated meetings” (e.g., The World Café) – was designed to stimulate smaller, intense conversations at tables in the auditorium, and then allow the facilitators to roll up the most popular contributions. The approach was both refreshing – after a long morning of keynotes and panels, many people in the room were of course clamoring to be heard. But it was also efficient. The Obama team walked away with far more feedback than they would have gotten had they used the venue for just a keynote speech, or the kind of town hall that emerged in the 2008 election – a Q&A with individual members of the audience, without the conversations that help test and vet the best ideas.

Beyond the Room

But the White House wasn’t just interested in the conversation in the room. The livestream on Twitter – greatly facilitated by the hashtags #latism and #HispanicEd – took the most popular ideas in the room and aired them in the Twittersphere. Again, there is nothing new here. But listening to Sepulveda and Rico, one gets the feeling that this is more than just getting the conversation going beyond the four walls of the room. As many other social-tech savvy marketers know, Twitter is not just a platform for digital conversation, but perhaps the world’s biggest open database of opinion (just as Google is the world’s largest closed “database of intentions,” to paraphrase John Battelle). The more the White House feeds the database, the smarter it gets.

Road Trip

But it forces the question: how do you add to the database? Sepulveda and Rico – a remarkably tight duo of policy rockstars – are taking this digital town hall on the road. And, yes, again, there’s nothing new about the political road show. But combined with the facilitated meeting approach, and the data aggregation they are getting from Twitter, they are aiming to get both the opinion and enthusiasm required to mobilize people at the local level. As the last two elections have shown – most dramatically, perhaps, through the use of data visualizations by commentators like John King – national campaigns are won on the local level. With Latinos proving to be the swing vote that either party might need to win key battleground states, keep an eye on the traveling Latino digital town hall. It might be the ticket to 2016.

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