Berkeley's Freedom Flame Kept Alive by New Generation of Digital Activists

Fifty years ago, students in Berkeley ushered in an era of student activism that has inspired social movements the world over. The Free Speech Movement (FSM) began when a group of Berkeley students decided that they could no longer tolerate the hostility of the university authorities to free speech, political organizing and academic freedom. FSM changed the course of history and in turn ensured the city of Berkeley become synonymous with civil liberties and social justice organizing.

Times have changed and many argue that it is a reputation that is no longer deserved. While Berkeley is more progressive than many places in the U.S, it is clear that the culture of large-scale student activism has changed. Many claim the youth of today are apathetic. Others say they just engage in different ways. It may also be that exorbitant college fees play a large part in taking the radical edge out of the student population.

One group that continues to fly the flag for the Berkeley's campaigning spirit is the Citizen Engagement Laboratory, or "CEL", as it is commonly known. CEL is based near the university in the Brower Center, a hub for numerous environmental and justice groups. Founded by Berkeley born film-maker and activist Ian Inaba, alongside friends James Rucker and Daniel Souweine, CEL helps "incubate and accelerate" groups who want to harness the power of technology for transformative social change. It builds on the success of web pioneers like, which was born in Berkeley in 1998.

According to CEL Managing Director Cindy Kang, their work is all about building on the legacy of previous generations in order to create new ways for people to get organized, be seen and get heard.

"Traditional tactics remain integral to grassroots organizing and campaigning. What we're seeing now is a convergence of online and offline organizing, which is engaging people on an unprecedented scale. Groups like, and have shown that you can connect and mobilize large numbers of people with limited resources. The recent climate marches in 166 countries are an example of this. If done strategically, online action generally leads to offline action - to conversations, debates, phone calls, protests and eventual cultural and policy change. It goes much deeper than just email based petitions. It's about activating all aspects of democratic engagement," says Kang.

Since its foundation in 2008, CEL has helped over a dozen organizations reach millions of people and create lasting change in the areas such as political reform, climate change action, and in stopping corporate abuses. Each year, through its open-call process, CEL incubates new organizations to help them get off the ground. It has also recently launched CounterPAC, a new initiative focused on fighting corporate money's corrupting influence on politics.

While some argue that CEL's approach to campaigning lacks depth and feeds a culture of "clicktivism", it is worth considering the real victories that it has led to.

These victories include the recent decision by Google to drop its involvement with lobby group the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), due to their stance in denying the reality of climate change. This landmark victory was due in no small part to the persistent campaigning of CEL's 'Forecast The Facts' team, not to mention the longstanding anti-ALEC campaigning by partner organization

Other victories from the CEL community include the monumental 2012 defeat of the SOPA internet censorship legislation, which was led in part by the one million plus members of Demand Progress. Another is Reebok ending its relationship with rapper Rick Ross after tens of thousands of Ultraviolet members campaigned to highlight how his comments on rape contributed towards mainstreaming rape culture. Similar victories have included's campaign to push CNN news anchor Lou Dobbs off the air due to him spreading what they say were "dangerous myths about immigrants."

Berkeley's campaigning spirit is also spreading globally through the work of OPEN (Online Progressive Engagement Networks), which was founded by Berkeley campaigner Ben Brandzel. OPEN is helping connect, support and found groundbreaking citizen-led democracy groups in Australia, Canada, India, Nigeria, Ireland, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the UK, and beyond.

"Online engagement can be effective but we're not about favoring one approach over the other" says Cindy Kang.

"We have many mountains to climb and it's going to take all types of people acting in a variety of ways. All tools are needed, whether that means protesting and direct action, online organizing, or creating new social enterprises and innovations. Face to face connection is so important and the web has a lot to offer in terms of helping facilitate that."

"The Free Speech Movement was born out of a response to an undemocratic and cruel system. That system still prevails but so too does our commitment to do whatever we can to stop it and build a new world in its place." she added.


Ruairí McKiernan is an award winning social innovator and a Presidential appointee to Ireland's Council of State. He is a founding member of the soon to launch Uplift campaign organization in Ireland and he recently concluded a research visit to CEL. His website is and he is on Twitter @ruairimckiernan and on Facebook