With politics being one of the most contentious topics in America right now, ordinary citizens are engaging in activism efforts in increasing numbers, and this Chicago startup wants to help.
Gather, a centralized online platform for political activism, provides users with tools to organize every aspect of their civic engagement work, including group communications, connecting with others and coordinating rallies or demonstrations. It was founded in June by Alexander Swerdlow and Ryan Kuang, two juniors at the University of Chicago.
Gather users can set up a profile and choose from a list of 23 causes that they’re passionate about. Topics range from animal rights and immigration rights, to progressive healthcare reform and criminal justice reform.
“We allow them to access a wider pool of activists,” Swerdlow said. “Rather than just posting to 100 activists in a Facebook group, they’re able to access thousands of activists across the entire city.”
Gather can only be accessed online right now, but Swerdlow said a mobile app will be available in mid-September.
But this isn’t Swerdlow’s first startup. When he was only 15, he launched GivingBackPacks, a company based on a philanthropic model. For every backpack sold, one was donated to a child in need.
“I learned pretty early on that the idea that philanthropy needs to be separate from business is pretty ridiculous,” he said. “I was passionate about this notion that we could build a business, generate income and have meaningful revenue, but also be contributing to a significant social effort, and that’s largely what we’re doing with Gather. We’re using a for-profit model to generate social change in some fashion.”
A basic Gather membership is free. However, the company will be launching additional subscription-based memberships with more features that will roughly be around $10 per month.
“There’s a massive spike in interest in civic technology,” Swerdlow said. “People were catalyzed to act after the 2016 election and are really motivated to not let what happened in November happen again.”
Throughout the summer, Swerdlow said he has worked with civic organizations in Chicago, asking them to bring their efforts and following onto Gather. So far, they’ve partnered with six groups, including ACA Consumer Advocacy and Direct Action Everywhere.
Gather only operates in Chicago right now, but Swerdlow says they have plans to expand to San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C. At the moment, Gather’s staff only includes Swerdlow and Kuang, but there are plans to hire four interns this fall, and the team will work out of UChicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
“We’re using a for-profit model to generate social change in some fashion.”
Swerdlow said Gather is a non-partisan platform and is open to activists and organizations of all political beliefs, those liberal and conservative. However, he said the platform is not open to hate groups, such as the KKK and other white supremacy groups, adding that they are taking steps to prevent these types of users from joining.
“We are not interested in policing speech or regulating the spread of opinions and discourse,” Swerdlow said. “Groups from across the political spectrum can host Gatherings on the app. Our primary concern in this area is to make sure our users are safe, and we have taken steps in building the platform to ensure that. As we grow, we will keep this top of mind.”