There is a natural tendency to experience a letdown after such an exhilarating event. We must not allow that to deter us from remaining vocal. How to do that in a way that really makes a difference is the subject of this blog.
Especially for relative newcomers to activism, it’s hard to discern what’s effective, what’s a relative waste of time, and what might even be counterproductive. With the widespread attacks on our values and goals coming from the new administration, we feel pulled in many different directions, egged on by frantic calls to do something right now (and struggling to figure out which might be “fake news”).
Having worked in social change since childhood in the late 1960s, mentored by people who were active long before I was born, I’ve learned and seen for myself what works and what often does not. I’ve been in the leadership of campaigns that stopped two proposed nuclear power plants (including one already under construction), established recycling programs when that was still rare, saved a city mini-park from being turned into a fast-food restaurant, gotten green-energy legislation passed, and helped elect candidates who appeared to be the longest of long-shots. In this article, I’d like to share some pointers that I hope will help you figure out where to most usefully put your energies in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead.
In this installment, I’m focusing on separating legitimate actions from scams and on influencing legislators. I’ll address other action strategies in subsequent posts.
Over the last several decades of my social-change work, the advice from legislative staff members and lobbyists hasn’t changed much. Here are strategies for influencing elected officials, starting with the most effective — but see the important caveat* following this list):
- Personal visits to a legislator’s office; speaking out at town hall or other public event held or attended by the legislator (most effective)
- Letters to the Editor and opinion pieces written by local folks in newspapers and online news sources
- Phone calls to the legislator’s office (slight bias toward the district office, versus Washington)*
- Hand-written letters and calls mailed to the legislator’s office, especially with your personal story of how the matter affects you or your loved ones; typed letters are a little less impactful*
- Personalized e-mails using the legislator’s Contact Web page, especially with your personal story (much less effective than letters and calls, though)*
- Impersonal e-mails and online petitions simply copying the arguments drafted by the organization promoting the issue (least effective, although staff members often do report numbers pro and con to the elected official)*
Do you see a pattern here? The more effort it takes to initiate the communication, the more impact it has. If you use a method that takes more work, the recipient of the communication will consider you more dedicated to the issue.
*Important caveat: Legislators almost always ignore communications from outside of the districts or states they represent. That includes the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader of the Senate. Staff members try to determine whether the person contacting them is really a constituent, and if not, they don’t keep track of the calls. So, whenever you see a request to contact Paul Ryan (unless you’re a Wisconsinite) or Mitch McConnell (unless you’re a Kentuckian), or any other member of Congress who doesn’t represent your home, the best thing to do is contact a friend who does live in that official’s turf and ask your friend to make the contact. Don’t waste your time expressing yourself to people who aren’t listening. (There are rare exceptions — rare enough that you might as well make this a rule.)
But what if my Senator/Rep is one of the “good ones”? As the authors of the Indivisible Guide note, it is helpful to support your elected officials who are doing good. But if you, like me, feel a little ironically disempowered by having elected officials to whom you’re always saying “thanks again,” I have an action step for you at the end of this message.
Many times each day, I’m seeing in my Facebook feed, e-mail in-box, and text-messaging app a series of urgent calls to action. Many of these (though perhaps not all) are well-intentioned, but quite a few contain tell-tale signs that their strategies are ineffective or even harmful. Frantic admonitions to make calls or send e-mails and then “COPY AND PASTE THIS” nearly always contain incorrect information and bad strategy. (There’s a reason they’re circulated in a way that makes their origins obscure.) In a few cases, they may even be planted by the right wing to keep us busy spinning our wheels, or to collect our identities for later harassment.
Here are some “action alerts” to avoid: →