Hard-Won Tips for Twenty-First Century Activists
by Letty Cottin Pogrebin
In more than forty years of writing, activism, and fundraising for the issues I care about, I've learned a thing or two -- or five -- about what works and what doesn't:
- "There is no end to how much you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit." I don't know who coined that maxim, but I've quoted it for decades because it's true. Many people have a dual motivation for their activism -- the upfront goal of advancing a cause and making the world a better place, and the hidden goal of aggrandizing or promoting themselves. Maimonides said the highest form of tzedakah (charity) is anonymous giving. I think the best test of a pure commitment to social justice is one's willingness to do the work with zero expectation of honor or recognition. Sign your writing, by all means. Own your ideas (and failures). Accept kudos and plaques when earned. But don't slap your brand on everything. When there's a photo op, don't stick yourself in front. Let your colleagues push you forward. Let your works sing your praise.
- It's important to sign online petitions and lend your name to ads sponsored by progressive groups. But those are acts, not activism. How do you tell the difference? Acts are easy. (You can't just click "send" and imagine you've changed the world.) Activism is hard. Activism takes hours, days, nights of dogged effort. Activists don't just sign a petition; they organize hundreds of thousands of other people to sign it. Better yet, they organize dozens of folks to show up, sheaves of signatures in hand, at the office of the person with the power to effect change. And if that person doesn't respond appropriately, they make his or her life uncomfortable until the desired result is achieved.
- Maybe I'm too cynical (or tired or old), but I no longer believe in the efficacy of street demonstrations. I say this as someone who marched against the Vietnam War, for civil rights, women's rights, and reproductive freedom. In 2003, my husband and I traipsed down Broadway with two grandchildren and about a million other people to protest the invasion of Iraq. In 2004, another million of us congregated on the mall in Washington, D.C., to protest the curtailment of abortion rights. Neither effort had the slightest effect on Bush administration policy or the Supreme Court. And neither event registered on the public consciousness beyond one news cycle. Yes, street demos bring us together and make us feel good. And yes, the Tea Party started with disruptive loudmouths and staged media events. But if the debacle of November 2 taught us anything, it's that systemic change ultimately happens through electoral politics. To pile up votes for our side, you have to craft a clear message, recruit winnable candidates (or run yourself), and get down in the trenches to influence local and national campaigns.
- The political is personal. To change minds, raise money, or goad someone into action -- whether your issue is racial or ethnic harmony, Israeli-Palestinian peace, immigration, or tax policy -- it's not enough to send out a group email. You need to individualize the message, get on the phone, host a parlor party, send authoritative information to buttress your position, link interested people to relevant resources. The first rule of organizing is "out of sight, out of mind," so whatever you do, remember to follow up. And don't assume someone's a lost cause until they say the word "no."
- Fundraising basics: Focus on an aspect of your issue that directly connects with someone's passions. Ask for a slightly larger donation than you think the person is capable of giving. (They can always say no, but they may be flattered that you think they're successful enough to afford that amount.) Don't do the "pitch" until after the main event (luncheon speaker, film screening, or plenary session). People need to feel spiritually invested in your issue or group before they'll invest financially. Don't oversell. Be concise. If possible, be funny. Humor softens the transaction. Don't disappear after you've got the money. Stay in touch.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a founding editor of Ms. magazine and author of nine books, including the novel Three Daughters. She's also a founder of the National Women's Political Caucus, former chair of Americans for Peace Now, and a past president of the Authors Guild.
Her articles in Tikkun include "A Values Approach to the U.S.-Israel Relationship," March/April 1998; and "The Un-Jewish Assault on Richard Goldstone ," 2010.
Source Citation: Pogrebin, Letty Cottin. 2011. Hard-WonTips for Twenty-First Century Activists. Tikkun 26(1): 60