Rich Neimand, Strategist
Politics and policy is a contact sport — if you aren’t hitting people hard and consistently, you aren’t winning. The effectiveness of various civic engagement activities is highly situational. Activities are more likely to be impactful when they are part of a strategy that takes into account which activities are most likely to create the intended change. For example, a national protest movement in Washington against the repeal of the Affordable Care Act would be less effective than in-district and in-state engagement of key representatives and senators who are persuadable. Local engagement might be more effective in things like participation in town halls or organizing groups of known donors and respected activists who can get private meetings with the representative.
You have to figure out the political traction point with an elected official and then tailor the activism and engagement to the persuasion vehicle that will make the greatest impression. Emails and calls are recorded and tallied at federal and local offices, so they do matter, as long as the people contacting live in the district. The most impactful activities tend to be the ones that are the most personal, and that very much includes political contributions. On the latter, they are more effective if you make them personally and connect them directly with an ask. If you are going to give someone money, let them know why and what is most important to you. I never make a contribution unless I can get someone’s ear and they can hear me. There’s is no respect for online candidate and party donations —people in front of 7-Elevens have more respect for their donors. Making donations to effective advocacy organizations, such as HRC, is a good strategy as well—especially if they have a reputation for having a good lobbying and organizing team and for delivering wins. They can provide huge volume to your voice. Finally, local and direct civic engagement with policymakers has less of an impact if you are a progressive in a majority conservative area or vice versa.
My advice for people in these situations, where the only people who matter are similar partisans, is to change your registration to the majority party and become active in the local party. It is the only way you will have a say in who represents you—and you can have an impact in the primary which is effectively the entire election. It doesn’t take much to take over a local party and context. Raise a hundred grand or so, spend it smart and you can own the place. Get your friends together, re-register, pool your money, take over caucuses and run a more moderate candidate. So, civic engagement does matter as long as it is connected to a larger strategy and a critical mass of people who are coordinating individual and groups activities. If you simply sign a Change.org petition, fly into Washington and march and then check out, you may feel good about yourself and have a nice trip, but you’re going to lose. Remember, it’s a contact sport. Work until you bleed, and make your opponents bleed out.
It isn’t enough to be frustrated and hope that others will handle the business of change for you. When Michael Jackson sang, “I’m starting with the man in the mirror, I’m asking him to change his ways,” I had to scrutinize my role in shaping our future, whether through my action or complacency. When 2pac rapped, “Don’t ever change, keep your essence, the power is in the people and politics we address,” I was inspired to catalyze everyday people to make themselves heard.
Artists like me have a profound responsibility to shift the culture. We have always existed at the heart of social change, with our artistry providing anthems and soundtracks to the movements of our time, from civil rights to LGBTQ equality. The right song, movie, poem, painting, etc. can spark someone to discover their voice and commit to action. And when those actions occur – like participating in a rally, calling a representative, or signing a petition – we give courage to other people who were waiting on the sidelines, voiceless and apprehensive.
I recently spoke and performed at a conference at NYU for social innovators, and I was honored by this remark from an attendee:
“I’m from Venezuela and I’ve been hearing political speeches my entire life. When I saw you perform and speak, that’s the first time I saw someone and said, ‘That is a leader. That is someone who is using their fire to help others to find their fire.’”
That’s the power of the arts to advance positive social change. We can’t move the needle by asking a select group of organizers or activists to handle demonstrations, outreach, and advocacy on their own. Through the arts, we can move more people off the sidelines and profoundly shift our culture through action for the causes we believe in.
It’s time for music and arts that are here for this defining moment in our history.
We been here, we been aware
Community is changin’, we’re breakin’ the cages
We been here, we been scared
Eliminate hatred, we raisin’ the nation
Peaceful protests, we been there
You could watch from drones, or smart phones
But unless you on, the front lines, you won’t
Understand the force, of the folks in here
We posted here, we know this year
Ain’t a normal chapter but we flying past ya
If ya think we actin’, just lights ‘n action
Getcha camera snapping when my mic’s in hand
Cause I’m chantin’ here, I’m landin’ here
My land of freedom ain’t abandoned
Stand up for the girls in here, the Muslims here
The dreams deferred, the peace we earned
For the people there, readin’ vows in here
‘Cause love is love, we everywhere
We every day never wait any way any how
Gettin’ loud for the earth we here
Ain’t come this far to just fall back
With a right to vote and a fire to stoke
With millions woke, many more to go
Hell no, you won’t take my right to hope
We fought for our rights in here
Double O license to light this here
Come along, if ya hollow, it dawned on you
Wantin’ the stars, then we can never follow
Takin’ off for tomorrow
Farewell to the stat quo
It’s the best of us verse the worst of foes ‘n we right in here
Amy Lynn Smith, Writer
Just ask Richard and Mildred Loving or Edie Windsor. Better yet, ask the millions of people whose lives are immeasurably improved because these activists — who started as average citizens, just like the rest of us — stood up and spoke out all the way to the Supreme Court.
One voice at a time, we can steer the conversation in one direction or another. We can make people think, whether they like it or not, about our view. When enough people share the same view — and say it out loud — it becomes impossible to ignore. A storm of public opinion is formed drop by drop, until it becomes a wave crashing on the shore.
Every drop makes a difference. Edie Windsor did not single-handedly make same-sex marriage the law of the land. She was joined by other plaintiffs in other cases over the years, decades of protesters in the streets, citizens writing letters to the editor, cultural influencers like Max Mutchnick and David Kohan — who probably never imagined their sitcom Will & Grace could impact public opinion about marriage equality to the degree it did — and LGBTQ individuals with the courage to let their true selves be seen. Every one of those actions made a difference.
Admittedly, when we’re in the thick of trying to change minds it can be tough to remember that one drop can create a resounding ripple.
I’ve been using storytelling to educate and engage people about the positive impact of healthcare reform, especially the Affordable Care Act (ACA), since 2011, when I was working on President Obama’s re-election campaign. I’ve continued telling those stories — including my own — ever since, turning a solo into a chorus.
Have there been times I felt like I was shouting into the wind? Absolutely. There were days, weeks and months when I thought no one but the trolls on social media could be bothered. But I kept telling the stories anyway.
Then this summer, one of my U.S. Senators, Gary Peters, told my personal story and others from the Senate floor in opposition to efforts to repeal and replace the ACA. Not only was I honored, I was motivated to keep doing the work I do, because he confirmed what I’ve believed all along: our stories matter. The increasing volume of personal stories made “repeal and replace” a much tougher fight than the ACA’s opponents undoubtedly imagined it would be — a losing battle, as it turns out. It’s unlikely that the war is over, but healthcare advocates will be emboldened for the next skirmish by proof that their voices have the power to change minds.
Not everyone is going to engage in the same way I do — or you do, for that matter — and that’s how it should be. Our actions should be as diverse as our voices, each of us getting involved by doing whatever we do best, for the causes we care about the most. The more personal our engagement, the more impact it will have.
Activism can be exhausting and daunting sometimes. But the next time you wonder whether activism creates change, imagine getting a letter from every single person your advocacy has helped. Much like the drops of water that make up an ocean, the pile of letters would be so vast you would never be able to read them all. But you’d know they’re there. You could rest your weary head on them for a moment of gratitude and then keep moving forward with renewed vigor, knowing that your work does make a difference.
Lauren Griffin, Scholar
Activism works, but only under certain conditions. Many activist efforts fail — sometimes because of challenges that are outside the organizers’ hands – but sometimes because of internal failures that hamper action and dull their effectiveness.
One of the biggest challenges activists face in creating new movements and new campaigns is organizing strategically. The most effective campaigns have a specific, set goal and strategically-chosen targets that help to move the public and powerful actors closer to their goal. This can be difficult to achieve when mobilizing large constituencies which may not always agree on what the overall goal is, or when facing sprawling, society-wide problems like climate change.
Consider the Women’s March which took place in January 2017 in opposition to Donald Trump’s inauguration. It was successful insofar as it was the biggest single-day protest in American history. It helped new activists learn about organizing and gave expression to public discontent — the sheer numbers involved may have helped the President’s opponents realize their collective strength.
The March did have a set of organizing principles, but many of these, such as the idea that “every person and every community in our nation has the right to clean water, clean air, and access to and enjoyment of public lands,” remain somewhat abstract. This means that it is difficult for both organizers and political allies who want to help coalesce around specific policies. There is always the risk that taking on too many targets at once dilutes a movement’s strength, as does setting goals which are ambiguous. It is difficult to know when you’ve won. Activism works when organizers have a concrete goal in mind. Research also suggests that framing goals in concrete rather than abstract terms maximizes the happiness volunteers feel, a key ingredient in building a movement with staying power.
Activism also needs to match the goals of the movement with its tactics. Too often new activists who are inspired to make social change begin their quest by proposing an action — a march, a rally, a boycott. Their hearts are in the right place, but these are tactics, not goals. Understanding what the target is and what the movement is specifically trying to achieve allows activists to use the type of pressure most likely to get them to their goal.
Rallies may be useful for opposing a local ordinance, for instance, but would likely be less effective at influencing the behavior of a national corporation. Likewise, letter-writing campaigns may sway legislators but are unlikely to influence a judge who must uphold an unjust (but cConstitutional) law even if they personally disagree with it. Understanding how different tactics play to different strengths and weaknesses, and how to best incorporate each stage of activist work into an overall strategy, are key to making activism work.
Erin Hart, Strategist
Donna started smoking when she was 14. She tried to quit at graduation, when she became pregnant and twice after that. At 34, she was dying. It was uncommon for this type of cancer to progress so far in someone so young, and Donna and John agreed: they had to learn from what happened and stop it from hurting other individuals, couples and families.
Donna died that year. John decided to devote his life to their shared commitment to help other families. Now, 12 years later, he still travels the country to expose the tobacco industry’s tactics for marketing its products to teens. He tells people about how addictive cigarettes are, fights for tax increases that stop young people from starting to smoke and prevents – in every way he can – tobacco’s toll on another family. I’ve worked with John and listened as he’s told this story. I’ve seen it affect legislators’ decisions and individuals’ behaviors – much more than when they hear the statistic that smoking is the number-one cause of preventable death in the US.
Activism provides channels for stories like John and Donna’s, and these channels are available to nearly all of us. That is why activism can be powerful: because of its ability to create a connection – via a story shared in a letter or a phone call – and because of its availability to nearly anyone who wants to be a changemaker.
Activism works when we fuel it with powerful stories about real people and their experiences. Protests, phone calls, marches and more are channels we use to connect. We use those channels to deliver stories that engage audiences and influence decision makers. These stories can make every individual’s phone call or meeting memorable and lead decision makers to act on what we share.