Jason, I am so excited to have you here today. Thank you for coming on Sounds Good.
Yeah, great to be here. Thank you so much for having me.
Now, this bot has become like a total staple in my life. I'm a little bit of a nerd about it. And I know that for so many people listening who pay a lot of attention to politics, it's become a really, really helpful resource for them as well. You co-founded Resistbot back in early 2017. I'd love to start off by asking you to tell me about the moment that you knew that there was something missing in the advocacy space and you -- like, instead of somebody else being the one to do something about it, you decided you needed to be somebody who did something about it.
Yeah. So it's funny. I mean, the reason Resistbot exists is because I had co-founded a very similar company back in 2010 during the Obama administration called Votizen. We did a lot of similar stuff that allowed people -- basically we figured out how to connect people's Twitter accounts to like their officials. So people could used to be able to tweet 2gov, which is a precursor brand of Votizen. But people could tweet 2gov and, you know, like add their zip code and be able to send, like tweets. And this company actually printed those out and deliver them and handed them over to Congress.
Yeah, we figured out a way to connect sort of online advocacy to offline real advocacy. Because, you know, we noticed -- as people are still noticing that a lot of the online stuff, like people are talking online and they're shouting and complaining about stuff. But that doesn't always get delivered into the people that are actually taking the votes in Congress for us.
So my first experience in the civic engagement space was creating this company called Votizen. And, you know, it was venture funded which taught me some lessons, namely never to do it again. But, you know, we had some money. You know, we had to be able to prove out a business model. And it was just really hard to do in the amount of time that we had. So it had to be shut down, merged into something else.
Causes Brigade. That's another long story. But fast forward to 2017, and that was it. Like we we wanted this thing called we wanted a Votizen-like experience to be able to deliver to people who were complaining about not being able to reach their members of Congress. So setting the table back in, you know, after the election in 2016 and into early 2017, lots of activism all over the place, indivisible chapters, women's march. People were really scared.
People were calling Congress. And it was a level of civic engagement that had spiked significantly from the Obama years. There's only so many phone lines that will go into any congressional office so most people are getting busy signals, voicemails, et cetera. So with that being the reality, yeah, I was just dying to create something that would serve as sort of a pressure release from all that activity and get it delivered. So that's where Resistbot came from where we just built a system where you could just text and then it would print out on their fax machines in Congress.
I remember finding out about Resistbot probably really early on and just loving that visual of I can send a text message and it will literally print out a piece of paper -- because that's how I imagined a fax machine working -- print out a piece of paper with my note on it. And you can't ignore that piece of paper that's showing up at an office. You know, they've got to either recycle it or put it on somebody's desk and at the least is making some noise and just thinking what a great way to channel my frustration.
You know, if I'm going to sit down on my phone and I'm going to tweet out something I'm frustrated. About at the time I was living in Tennessee and I did not feel like my senators were representing me well. And so I was like, well, I could sit down and tweet or I could just hop over to this text message and I can send this thing and it's got a bigger chance of having an impact. And I know I know in those early days, it was it was faxes, text to fax.
How has Resistbot evolved since then? It's been four years. I don't know how to do math. What has changed in the service? What has changed in how you're reaching elected officials?
So how it evolved over time? You know, obviously, we had to stop the faxing for the most part around September, October of 2017 just because it had gotten to such a point where they were just unplugging them. Because you're right, they did have to take off. They were sometimes they were coming in digitally. So they were they would come in sort of as OCR like a lot of the fax machines in the actual chambers of Congress were coming in digitally.
So they were coming in as digital artifacts that had to be OCR-ed processed. And we often got feedback from congressional offices to like, OK, put the address here so we can optically, like, render it and put the text over here and that would be easier for us, which is kind of ridiculous because, of course, we could just send it to them digitally, it was going from digital to like a fax like back into digital.
And then, of course, the same problem that existed with phone lines existed with fax lines in which we could only deliver so many at a given time into the congressional offices. So we had to branch out to local offices, district offices like in state. Yes, we've evolved like way beyond fax, like at this point when we launched it was a text, a fax and only in Congress. And now you can text and we deliver through a variety of means, whether it's web forums, whether it's fax, postal mail. Whatever it is, we tend to pick the fastest, cheapest method and we kind of go down the road from there.
But the end user doesn't have to think about it. They just say, I want to deliver this letter to all my state reps. And then the system figures out, you know, maybe the governor doesn't have an email and has a fax or fax the governor and email the two representatives. So we handle all the delivery and whatever means that they can accept it. And it is in a way that they are used to processing it.
So unlike Facebook, Twitter, social media, these are their official published means of taking messages from constituents. So we're not forcing the offices to sort of look at something new. We're just making it easier for the user and getting it into the ways that they process. And I think the biggest evolution of the bot over time is that we continue to create tools for the individual organizer to be able to create these campaigns, these movements. We didn't have campaigns back when we launched, along with a lot of other things.
You know, people had to sort of write everything out themselves. Often that was a barrier. Congress says that, hey, you should always write your own words and you should always kind of tell a personal story and do all this other stuff. But, you know, the problem with that is that it takes a lot of time. It's on that all a lot of the good government folks want end users to kind of do things that take a lot of time.
And a lot of people don't have time. A lot of people can't call during business hours. You know, there's nurses that work, then work the night shift and sleep during the day. And there's just a lot of people that, you know, where it's not fair to demand lots of time spent in order to have their voices heard. Meanwhile, special interest groups, rich folks can just pay a lot of money and have an incredibly outsized amount of influence on their elected officials.
So it's just it's just not fair. You know, forcing methods that take lots of time tends to produce sort of incoming lobbying that speaks to an upper class accent. So, you know, we wanted to create things that people could participate with, you know, as little time as possible, but delivered in an effective way. So that's where we ended up creating like our existing, our relatively new campaign and petition system where we've made it so individual organizers can create these large movements, get people to sign on, and then it's delivered.
And that was like the USPS effort was actually created by just some woman in Tennessee just created this petition and it ended up ballooning into 1.7 million signers.
And it just shows you one person can make a difference. It just went viral. People were sharing it all over the place and it just really took off. So we've focused ourselves in 2021 and beyond on, we're just laser focused on creating tools, very inexpensive and easy tools for the individual organizer, individual community organizer, individual activist.
Like if they want to change something, here's all the tools. You know, you can create this, you can create this petition, you can create a vote drive. You can turn out votes for a candidate that you care about in your district. You can generate letters at any level of government. We have mayor, we have state legislature and on up. And we're just continuing to make that toolset kind of as powerful as possible and as inexpensive as possible.
So, you know, people that, you know, people that are are underrepresented, and you don't have all the power of someone with tons of money to buy politicians can be heard. The thing that's blowing up the platform right now is this line three pipeline issue. And it's mainly pushed by indigenous people. And, you know, talk about people that don't have a voice in our government. It's upsetting kind of how little representation they have and seeing them use Resistbot and blow this thing up and get a lot of attention and get a lot of letters delivered into Congress.
And it really it makes us proud and and it makes us believe that we're headed in the right direction.
One thing that I'm hearing really clearly through what you're saying is that you have a very clear mission and vision for the organization, and that's what's allowed you to pivot so much while also staying true to your mission. Because, you know, from the outside perspective, you know, the original sales pitch for Resistbot, in my mind truly was, you know, use this text to fax your member of Congress. But that wasn't the mission. The mission was help everyday people reach their members of Congress and actually create change or reach their elected officials and actually create change.
And because you were able to, you know, roll with the punches when one piece of technology didn't work or one mode of delivery wasn't effective or whatever and and pivot things, you were still able to stay true to that. And it sounds like you've been able to expand to doing all kinds of, you know, new things that serve that purpose that's going far beyond just contacting your elected officials, but also, you know, signing petitions, submitting letters to local newspapers, signing up new voters to vote, finding town halls, helping people run for office, which I guess maybe I'll kind of jump in with another question and say among all of those different things that you offer Resistbot users, how would you deem what is most effective in creating change, or is it kind of all of the above?
Yeah, and that's exactly right. We want to create -- our DNA is allowing people to be heard in an easy way that was most accessible, you know, Resistbot could have been an app, right? But, you know, people sort of have stopped downloading apps and they're kind of hard to figure out and they're not universal. And there's a whole lot of things that aren't accessible, like even the congressional web pages aren't particularly accessible for people that have special needs.
I mean, you know, there's sort of critics out there that said within three weeks of launch that we were building technology people need. And I was like, OK, well, I mean, apparently that's not true, right? Yes. There have been ways where people can contact Congress, but there's been a variety of obstacles in their way. And I just don't think that these folks have been listening to those people. And we have.
So, yes, the mission is very much like make it as easy as possible to make that person as powerful as possible. We want, you know, kind of minimum input in and maximum output out in terms of power. And yeah, for us, it's a letter of engagement, certainly like someone that's signing a petition today might be someone that's going to run for office tomorrow. Like people just generally aren't -- I think a lot of us take civic education for granted.
And even, you know, I've learned a lot about, you know, a lot about the different ways one can civically engage while building all the features of Resistbot. But, yeah, you're correct. Like, you could sign a petition one day and then maybe you poke around and look at the other features and say, oh, wow, look, like maybe there's a, you know, a vacant office for school board or county council.
And maybe I want to run for that. Why not me? And you won't get everybody to do that. But if you get a few people to do that out of the millions of people that would sign a petition, I think that's that's very much a net positive. Those are people that would have never considered doing so in the first place. But they've engaged and we've taught them a little bit about kind of the ways of civically engaging in their community.
And for us, that's a big one. I mean, getting someone from signing a petition to considering maybe they could run for office and actually, you know, be a public servant, you know, that's a big one. So it is. Yeah, it's hard to say, like, kind of what's one, you know, what's more effective than another thing. And I think it varies based on kind of the issue. It varies based on the geography.
Big thing for us is I think similar to your mission is we get people in: they believe, they sign something, they become part of a big movement. And then whether that movement succeeds or fails, we want them to continue to be involved, continue to have their voices heard. Because the fact is, if those people aren't speaking out, you know, the others will do it for them. The money interests will do it for them. The lobbyists that are able to be paid by big corporations that can walk in and, you know, have their meetings whenever they want.
That's going to be the voice that the you know, the official remembers not, you know, not yours. So as like non big moneyed special interests, we have to be the ones that are always speaking out, not be apathetic and be out there doing the work, you know, otherwise just other people are going to speak for us and they're going to sort of do what they want.
I know one of the biggest questions that I get when I talk publicly about advocacy work is people are asking, do politicians actually pay attention to the letters and emails they get? Like, do they care? Do they ever change their opinions? And I'm curious, you've overseen millions and millions and millions of people reaching out to their elected officials. Do you think that it actually moves the needle?
It depends. It obviously depends on the issue. Now, there are certain issues where if you break this down, the problem is, is there's a certain amount of issues that are sort of very partisan polarized issues. And, you know, the far right Republican is probably never going to do the thing that a bunch of liberal Democrats are going to push them on. Right. They're just not believable on that because in their mind, you know, they're kept in power by that base of far right folks.
And then that gets into gerrymandering and sort of drawing your own districts. And it's kind of depressing to you know, there's a degree of inflexibility that just comes from kind of the political environment and the structure that we find ourselves in. Now, ideally, you know, our political districts are drawn in a fair way and sort of everyone's represented equally or rather community is represented equally. We want everybody to be heard far left, right, middle. We just want their interests to be heard.
And we want good government folks. We just want the elected officials to act in a way that sort of helps the most people, but certainly there's some issues that are just harder than others. The thing that we found, the issues that we found most popular on Resistbot have been most successful on Resistbot are ones that just affect daily life. We got our start. You know, Trump was attacking a lot of different kinds of rights.
And I think that people rising up, making a lot of noise about them, I think that helped quite a bit. And the one in particular that stands out is health care. You know, the Republicans took over every branch of government in 2017. And, you know, Trump came in with a promise to his base that we are going to repeal Obamacare. Guess what? That did not happen. And I think that it didn't happen because a lot of people that had a lot to lose stood up.
They protested. They certainly, you know, they wrote and called Congress. You know, people confronted somebody in front of Jeff Flake in an elevator. I mean, it was kind of everything was kind of being thrown at Congress at the same time. And you just have a few Republicans that just wouldn't wouldn't pull the trigger. Of course, you know, most most famously, John McCain with the late night thumbs down. The USPS issue is kind of a similar one where people were getting engaged in that, that were not political.
I mean, your kind of standard political issues that people that are paying attention are always involved in. But like this was the mail, just getting mail on time and having it work. It was not a political thing until that point. And now you had this problem where, you know, there was first the pandemic issues related to it, where it was like, "OK, let's kind of put some our funding in and kind of help the post office deliver during the pandemic."
And then it was outright sabotage. People depend on the mail. Small businesses depend on it to just function and earn a living. People get prescriptions through the mail. People get checks, Social Security checks, VA checks. All kinds of things depend on the mail that are not kind of partisan left, right issues. And we saw just a groundswell of people telling their friends and whatever to support the post office, text Resistbot, you know, make it known this is important.
And it certainly drove the needle. So, yeah, certainly what I've learned is these kind of, I don't know if you want to call them kitchen table issues, but, you know, if politics are working really well, it's kind of like the air conditioning. You don't really notice it. Like if it's comfortable in your house, you're not really thinking that it's too hot or too cold. But if something breaks, then you're going to notice it, know something breaks, that you rely on your daily life.
All of a sudden you're an activist, you're an organizer, you're going to get political. It's about kind of fixing and adjusting public policy to help you. And the level of severity kind of depends on, you know, how many people will get involved.
So I think that makes total sense to me. And I think what I'm hearing to some degree is, you know, maybe the highly partisan kind of big issues, like, for example, abortion aren't going to get solved with, you know, X amount of letters to your congressional office. But the things that kind of affect all of us or maybe a little bit less, like clearly partizan have some real power to to move the needle because ultimately elected officials just want to please the people who are voting for them.
And if it doesn't seem too partizan, then they can just make that change and it's not going to hurt them too bad. Another thing that I think I've found to be really helpful is just paying attention to my elected officials and figuring out who they are. When I was in Tennessee, you know, I had elected officials that I really disagreed with on a number of levels. But by reading articles that they published by following their email newsletters, things like that, I was able to figure out where we might have some shared values, even if I didn't like the way that they expressed those values.
And I was able to, you know, write letters that kind of spoke a little bit to those shared values and saying, like, you know, I think that you could maybe express those values by voting for this thing that you might not be thinking about. And to be honest, I found it to be really effective, even ended up having meetings of my elected officials to, you know, talk about these things. I got all dressed up in a suit and everything.
And I think that when you can basically express it in a in a less partisan way, it can end up being a lot more effective than maybe the traditional public talking points.
Yeah, I think that's exactly correct. I mean, whether they're Democrats or Republicans, I mean, they need votes at the end of the day. And, you know, everyone wins election by sort of starting with their base and kind of working towards the center. You know an issue that we have very active in the platform right now is fixing social security disability insurance. I mean, it's been at below poverty level for a long time, and a lot of these folks are getting, you know, seven hundred, you know, between seven hundred and eight hundred dollars a month.
And they're expected to live on this. And it's it's heartbreaking. It's terrible. And for the amount of money that we have as a nation and what we spend on all kinds of other stuff, it's a travesty. We've got a lot of this kind of disability advocates that are pushing them. And that's not really I mean, where does that fit, left or right? It doesn't. It's just something that, you know, left and right have been just ignoring this community for 20 years and it hasn't been fixed.
And so with the with kind of the upcoming budget bills and spending bills, they're trying to get these these fixes put into that bill. And we've got a lot of folks organizing on the platform to make sure that happens. I think that should happen. But, yes, those are those are the kind of issues where I think that people can definitely make a difference. But yeah, I mean, if you're certainly if you're kind of base of like, oh, like my voice does matter is like something as politically polarizing as abortion rights and gun rights.
These are kind of tougher generational battles. But that doesn't mean that engaging on some of these other issues doesn't matter. And what I'd like to add is certainly once you get to state and local, I think your voice matters so much more. You know, the unfortunate fact is, is that there's 435 members of the House and each of them represent between seven hundred eight hundred thousand people, you know, thanks to a law passed in the late 20s capping the size of the House.
So it's just very hard. And that's why you have intermediaries like unions and special interest groups and lobbyists and all this kind of stuff is because it's very hard to you know, it's hard to figure out what everybody wants. But we had a bunch of young people, I think there are college kids. They created a campaign on Resistbot just after the the George Floyd events in Minneapolis. And they were able to get a longstanding fix to the New York state law about police transparency, be able to get that passed through around that time.
They were able to use timing and just they were able to get a lot of attention on it. And they got a couple of state senators on board and they just kept sharing it. And that was kind of start to finish. And I think it was less than a week. So certainly like doing things at the state level, you know, I think they have a higher probability of success. I mean, Washington is kind of a very difficult place, but state capitals can be can be a little bit more forgiving and certainly more so when you get down to the city level.
And we added, I think we have something like eight hundred mayors or so on the system. Now, we added the ability to get to mayors a few months ago.
That's awesome. That's a really great reminder that, you know, it's not just the politics that I'm reading in The New York Times or The Washington Post, but it's the politics that are happening on a local level. They can really affect a lot of people's lives and we have the ability to affect that. That's super helpful. I guess one question that I that I have is, would you describe this as partisan, nonpartisan? Like what are the political leanings of the organization when we created the platform?
I mean, you could say that it's kind of biased left. But, you know, the fact is that Trump was kind of a unique individual. And I think, you know, even if you look over the events of the past four years, it's kind of hard to just say that he was just a Republican, kind of the attacks on people's rights and on the rule of law and democracy were kind of just all across the board.
And people on the far right will define, you know, they can define partisan however they want. Of course, they've long said people that don't agree with them are rhinos. They're not really Republicans and blah, blah, blah. But like to them, everything that doesn't agree with them explicitly as partisan. So The New York Times is partisan, and the Associated Press is partisan, CBS News partisan. You know, anything that is on the far right is partisan.
So for us, it's not about like left. Right is just about kind of rule of law and democracy and kind of values of just helping people that need it. So, you know, for us, it's we're not explicitly partisan. We don't work with it. We don't actually work with the DNC. Like if you ask the Democratic Party, like, I don't think we can work with them because we're not technically partisan. We're technically nonpartisan. You know, it's kind of clear as to kind of what party in Congress sort of believes in democracy and what doesn't.
So, I mean, I would say we're pro democracy, pro-constitution, pro-rule of law, and adhering to the values written in the preamble of the of the Declaration of Independence.
Thinking about the causes that I care about and that I'm passionate about, the listeners are passionate about. You know, I think one thing that's sometimes challenging is how to convey those values into the political arena. You know, if I'm really passionate about better gun safety laws or protecting wildlife or ending the death penalty on a state or federal level, you know, sometimes I'm like, I know that these values are true, but how do I tell my elected officials?
Do I just say I care about this? And I hope you do, too. Do I research a bill like and see if there's one coming up and tell them about it? One of your big goals with Resistbot is to kind of reduce that like anxiety and that decision making process to just empower people to take the action. But what kind of advice would you give to me and people who feel like me where it's like, OK, well, how do I craft this message?
Because I know that the political arena can make a difference here, but I don't really know how yet.
I think you said it best a little while ago first. I mean, there's the obvious I mean, if you're going to write just some angry rant full of curse words and, you know, whatever, which certainly happens a lot. I mean, we actually had actually got a call from the FBI one time because we had a user threaten a member of Congress and we had to kind of assist because that was not good. I mean, because it doesn't usually get to that level.
But certainly people will use swear words and curse and whatever, and those things just get thrown out. There's no point. I mean, if you if you want to complain and swear at someone you know. Yeah. You can go yell it out on the street, whatever, but writing it to your member of Congress probably isn't going to do anything. You know, I think it's the same way you try and convince anyone else, just like you said, you know, find some common values, find some common sense.
Maybe there's polling data, there's probably some exceptions. I mean, there's probably some politicians that are just absolutely corrupt and owned by just totally owned by moneyed interests. And there's nothing you can do. I'm an optimistic person. I think by and large, you know, politicians generally want to stay in power because they think while in power they can do the most good. So, you know, tell them how they can do the most good and find, you know, find some humanity in there and and appeal to that.
And I think the more important thing is if you're going to create a campaign, is to, you know, write out something that's going to convince other voters and get them to sign on and get them to agree. As for, like, how to convince people on all sides of the political spectrum, you know, that's that's kind of that's certainly not my expertise. You know, a lot of people have written books on that. I mean, Lakoff has written a lot of great books on messaging.
Jonathan Chait has written books on messaging and how to how to appeal to liberals and conservatives alike. But that's probably all I can say is I think you've actually said it best early in the show.
I found a lot of success with storytelling. And, you know, for me, you know, meeting with elected officials, I've spent a little bit of time advocating for funding for HIV and AIDS treatments on a global scale. So global development funding, PEPFAR funding, things like that. And as a photographer, I had the unique experience of getting to travel all over the world, you know, meeting like, for example, women who were HIV positive in Rwanda, who because of amazing HIV therapy, they were able to give birth to children who were HIV-free.
And these women are going to live full, long, happy, healthy lives and their children are as well. And I got to tell some of those stories to my elected officials, you know, through letters and sometimes in person. And those stories, you know, it seems like it was really effective. And it doesn't have to be a story that you personally have. If you don't have expensive things that could be like, "Hey, I read this article, you know, I would love for you to consider." It's things like that I think, I just think about it from an empathy perspective of this staffer is going to spend their day sitting in this office reading these things. If you can have the most interesting email that connects with them on a heart level, then maybe in that staff meeting later with your member of Congress, you know, they're going to have a little bit more ability to to spend an extra 60 seconds talking about your message than somebody else's. And that can really move the needle, it seems like.
Yeah. Yeah, I think I think you're absolutely right. I mean, I think you have to always put yourself in the position of the other person. And, you know, if you were kind of reading this message, you know, why write something that's going to put them in a defensive posture? Definitely make make it appeal to the heart, to make an appeal that, hey, this this affects this number of people. This is really important. This is, you know, for this particular community, this is life or death, which is what the Social Security insurance issue is.
I mean, it's very it's very important to these folks. And they just have to be a lot of times the staffers have to be educated. But, you know, certainly, yeah, venting and attacking and whatever doesn't doesn't usually do the trick. But, yeah, those types of personal stories can be very powerful. And certainly, you know, there's plenty of examples where these types of things aren't, you know, aren't partisan. The issue you just mentioned was was a big one for George W. Bush. And George W. Bush also had, you know, it's now it's kind of famous. He read a book on the Spanish flu. And he immediately directed folks to kind of get prepared for that. And what are we doing to get ready for this? And it certainly wasn't. This is, these aren't kind of left, right things. It's like is just how do we how do we take care of other people? And there's certainly plenty we can talk about about Bush and kind of who he did and didn't care for.
But in terms of those two issues, in terms of AIDS and the pandemic, he was -- he tried and he was definitely moved by, you know, moved by stories. So it's certainly possible.
I'm thinking a lot about just how, you know, we're halfway through 2021. You know, almost two years into this pandemic, and it feels like we're still just getting beaten over the head with a lot of bad news. Of course, the bad news has been coming for a long time now. And you've gotten to oversee an organization that has been responding to that bad news and truly creating good news in all parts of the country on a local level and on a national level.
I wonder if you have some parting words of either encouragement or directive to take action for people who feel overwhelmed by the injustice in the world and want to do something about it by getting involved with their elected officials?
Yeah, well, I think I think the entire pod I would I would hope does that. But you can definitely, definitely, definitely make a difference just by taking the very simple action of signing a petition on the on the ballot. You know, there's people that, for example, the stop line three issue, there are people that are working on this thing day and night, you know, sharing it on Twitter, making TikTok videos. They're pushing it out.
And as those numbers go up, they just get more and more encouraged and it gives them kind of fuel to carry on. So even if you're not going to be the type of person that's going to spend hours on something, just your one signature, your one little bit of your time to minute. It's like doing the most basic thing that's going to kind of give fuel, you know, think of it as food for these guys to keep going.
And, you know, you're giving you're giving other folks inspiration as well. But, yeah, I think certainly there's there's areas all over the place. There's injustice everywhere where if you speak out, you can make a difference. You know, maybe it's not kind of the biggest, most contested congressional federal issue there is. But you can look in your community, there is a lot of bad things happening everywhere. And, you know, you can speak out about about those things.
And if you don't, you know, then it just kind of continues on the way. It always has, right? So, you know, I hope that folks can can see injustice and speak out about it in any number of ways. And I don't think that that doesn't take a lot of time. It just takes takes some courage and some some belief and that they can make a difference.