Oakland City Park Supervisor Uses Social Media to Mobilize Volunteers

Tora Rocha first came to Tech Liminal seeking a more effective way to promote community involvement in Oakland’s city parks and gardens. At the time, she was the Head Gardener at the Morcom Rose Garden, which features 8 acres of roses, maintained by a small crew of 3 people.

Her job didn’t have many expectations as far as using technology. It only required her to carry a Blackberry, respond to text messages, and use a database called City Works. Then in July of 2009, disaster struck. “There were three of us, and then budget cuts came,” said Tora. “Suddenly I was responsible for 12 other sites in addition to the Rose Garden. I knew I couldn’t do it alone. I needed volunteers.”

Tora had already started a volunteer group called the Dedicated Deadheads to maintain the Rose Garden, and she wanted a web site to post volunteer events and coordinate them. “I went everywhere. I talked to all sorts of web consultants who claimed to work with nonprofits, and they were all quoting me $4,000 or $5,000. We had no money… and how were we going to get donors without a web site?”

Then Ann Katz of the East Bay Children’s Book Project told Tora to contact Anca Mosoiu at Tech Liminal. Anca quoted her a fraction of what the other consultants had. “Are you kidding? I asked her. ‘No – no, I’d love to’ she replied. I was in shock,” said Tora.

What Tora wanted was a web site similar to the San Jose Rose Garden which at that time posted all hours worked by volunteers in a competitive format that encouraged volunteers to log their hours and compete against one another. However, that group had a fully dedicated web team to manually input everyone’s hours, and Tora didn’t have the manpower for that.

“I didn’t want to upload all their hours – no time for that. There had to be a way for volunteers to do it themselves,” said Tora. Tora knew she was asking a lot. Anca not only created a tool for this, but the tool, called Our Volts, is now available nationwide for any nonprofit to log volunteer hours for free.

“I wanted to go to the moon and she built me a rocket,” said Tora. “Now all my volunteer hours are in one location.” The number of hours worked is a critical factor in grant applications, with each hour worked being worth approximately $22 of grant money. That’s “social currency” with a vengeance. “If I need to talk to the City Council or to a grant organization, I can log into Our Volts and tell them exactly how many people worked where, and how many hours. I’ve got 3200 hours logged and that’s still only half of them, because some volunteers just go and work and don’t tell anyone.”

After taking workshops at Tech Liminal, Tora had developed a slew of new skills, which she used to promote park events and even to just share moments of wildlife. She posted regular updates to Facebook on volunteer activities, learned how to take photos with a digital camera and upload them to Flickr, and used both these means to keep in touch with an ever-growing community of local followers. She learned to create presentations in Keynote and upload online videos.

A strange synchronicity seemed to follow in Tora’s wake like a vortex. Anca nicknamed Tora “the Toranado” because it seemed that as soon as they would talk about a third volunteer – that person would walk right past the door! “I wanted to start a composting program, but it turned out that there are strict rules about the temperature of the compost,” she said. “Then another Tech Liminal volunteer created a wireless gadget that actually sends the temperature of the compost right to my phone! How cool is THAT?”

“Tech Liminal attracts people with a high level of both brilliance and caring. I mean, how many hacker groups are reaching out to municipal parks? The storefront feels more like a lounge, or a social space… or a library. It doesn’t feel commercial, like someone’s trying to sell you something. Ordinary people can go in there and get information without feeling threatened, or pressured.”

Tora also learned how to use Facebook and Twitter. “I could sent out a tweet when I was at the garden – and all these people would just show up. I never thought of social media as a great gardening tool before. And now – I’ve been promoted, and I’m in charge of 100 sites, not just 12.”

In addition to being the penultimate Santa’s Helper, Anca had the ability to make technology accessible and understandable in lay terms. “She can take all that high-value jargon and make it available to everyone. When I wanted that web site, she didn’t ask me questions like did I want it on Tumblr or WordPress. She just asked me what I wanted it to look like.”

“She never dumped jargon on me or treated me like a child. All these young techie guys would talk to me in this jargon, and if I didn’t understand it, they’d treat me like a child. Well, one time I started talking to them about botanical names and said, ‘Now you know how it feels.’ Anca has a natural ability to make people feel comfortable.”

“When I walk into Tech Liminal, I feel like a sponge. And I want to learn more… I knew nothing about social media two years ago, and now I’m pretty fluent in digital photography, social media, web sites.” In addition to pulling all this off and getting a huge promotion, Tora started a nonprofit. As if she didn’t have enough to do!

Then she went on to talk about her new and current projects, which include starting pollination and habitat gardens to teach kids about the relationship between pollinators and food. And, she’s raising monarch butterflies at home for a new endangered butterfly zoo.

“Here’s another example of synchronicity where all I have to do is think about something and it’ll happen. I was releasing three monarch butterflies in the park one day, and it just so happened that a teacher from the Oakland Environmental Sciences Academy just happened to be passing by. When I told him what I was doing, he asked me to wait and he went and got his entire class from across the street to come and watch.

“The kids were crazy about it, and they ended up taking more monarch caterpillars home and raising them as a class project. Who knows, if we get the kids interested now, maybe one of them will grow up one day to transform the Department of Agriculture, steer it away from big business and encourage more environmental activism.”

Tech Liminal isn’t just about computers. One of their hands-on projects included making special vests for Tora’s Dedicated Deadheaders – the Rose Garden volunteers. “They earn a vest when they become master gardeners. Of course, being deadheaders – I suppose it’s the connection between the Grateful Dead and all the roses in their art work – the vests had to be tie-dyed.” So, a crew assembled at the Tech Liminal headquarters, made 27 vests, and then retired to the Rose Garden for the tie-dye portion.

“I asked Anca for a Volkswagen… and got a Porsche… or maybe a Batmobile!” laughed Tora, a Tech Liminal evangelist to the end.