The Florida-based Dream Defenders is taking an eight-week break from social media to focus on building the organization’s grassroots membership and structure. The group announced its hiatus from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram in a statement posted to their website last week as its leadership and members look back on the organization’s history and forward to its future.
“We have attained social media popularity that doesn’t necessarily support a growth in our membership, nor does it give them a strategic advantage in transforming their circumstances locally,” the statement read.
“We recognize that people trust and love our brand because we are led by the work that our members are doing,” the statement continued. “But, it troubles us that participating in Twitter conversations and television appearances are held up as ‘doing the work,’ when we know that so much more has to be done.”
The decision to take a social media hiatus emerged after months of reflecting on the organization’s work and direction, said communications director Steven Pargett.
“We were wondering if the amount of weight we had in pushing those national crises was actually helping us to do the work locally,” Pargett said. “The answer wasn’t always yes.”
The Dream Defenders was founded in 2012 in the wake of 17-year-old Travyon Martin’s death and has organized a number of high-profile efforts against police brutality and state violence. The group emerged during a 40-mile march from Daytona Beach to the Sanford, Florida roughly 40 days after George Zimmerman killed the teen.
Pargett said Dream Defenders’ shut down of the police department pressured the arrest of George Zimmerman. In 2013, Dream Defenders staged a 31-day occupation of the Florida State Capitol to demand a repeal of the Stand Your Ground law in the state.
The organization is now engaged in conversations with its members and movement elders to define what freedom and liberation mean for these constituencies, where the organization has failed, and articulating a vision that allows Dream Defenders to organize with a long-term commitment to liberation, said Ahmad Abuznaid, a co-founder of the organization and its current legal and policy director, and chief operating officer.
“We’re getting back to having conversations with people that are not bound by 140 characters and to giving people the freedom to define their own narratives,” Abuznaid said.
To that end, local chapters have been active in organizing against mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline.
The Tampa Dream Defenders mobilized around for Brittany Overstreet, a teenager who was assaulted by a police officer in her high school. They pressured the state attorney to drop the charge against Overstreet of “resisting arrest without violence” and launched a “Kids Not Criminals” campaign against the disciplinary policy in the city’s school system.
“We pushed our local Hillsborough County School Board to change school handbook policies to eliminate some of the discretion on subjective offenses like "insubordinate" or "disrespectful" behavior which perpetuate high discipline rates on black and brown students,” said Tampa Dream Defenders member Chardonnay Singleton.
“We are now focusing on building an effective grassroots strategy surrounding busting the school-to-prison pipeline,” Singleton added.
Dream Defenders at the University of Central Florida has been engaged in a private prison divestment campaign whose long term goal is statewide divestment from for-profit prisons.
UCF member Saleema Ali said corporations such as the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America aid the school-to-prison pipeline and increase recidivism rates among youth in the community.
“These systems in place continue to hold our communities back and prevent them from really being successful,” Ali said.
And organizers in Miami have partnered with additional organizations against the gentrification of Overtown, a historically Black neighborhood.
Miami Dream Defender Armen Henderson described the conditions of organizing in the city.
“Here, a large development company wants to build a $1 billion luxury megastructure (The Miami World Center) in the city most historic, underserved, poorest, Black neighborhood (Overtown) using money that was supposed to be used for the dilapidated infrastructures that currently stand,” Henderson said.
Though organizers were unable to prevent the development of the center, they did secure a community benefits agreement to guarantee jobs for residents and to “ban the box,” removing the ability to discriminate against formerly-incarcerated people in hiring practices.
“At the end of the project we hope to create a template and set a standard for fighting gentrification in low income neighborhoods across the country,” Henderson said.
But looking back, co-founder Ahmad Abuznaid said he is proud of the organization’s first three years.
“We’ve made quite a few mistakes and we’ve made really long strides. I’m immensely proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish and I’m even more proud of what’s ahead of us.”
Self-critique is an important aspect of The Dream Defenders’ development, Abuznaid concluded:
“We have to be very comfortable with critiquing ourselves so that others might feel comfortable doing the same.”
Learn more about the Dream Defenders movement by visiting their blog.