Saturday, June 17, 2006

Ingredients of Successful Activism

Below is an article I wrote for Ruckus, a progressive newspaper at the University of Washington (one that, sadly, wasn't published at all during the 2005-2006 school year). Hopefully the summer edition will be published, as they solicited a number of progressive leaders on campus for tips about successful activism.

Don't lose sight!
By Karl Smith

It’s easy to make fun of the College Republicans. Their annual events include an "Animal Rights BBQ," where they grill the flesh of the animals - a striking statement on the Republican understanding of the term "rights;" a "Conservative Coming Out Day" which attempts to equate admitting oneself as a member of a group that controls the Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary branches to being a member of a group that is constantly threatened with state and federal constitutional amendments diminishing one's personhood; and, of course, the "Affirmative Action Bake Sale," an annual attempt to again appear on the O'Reilly Factor by marginalizing the value of underrepresented students and completely ignoring social and institutional forces of inequality. These are laughable events in that they are examples of what I’ll term 'bad activism.'

Step back for a moment and consider what exactly it is we're trying to accomplish through our activism on campus. This sounds trivial, but it’s not; the College Republicans aren't the only ones who don't get it. It can be a whole lot of fun to hold an event for progressives to get together and satirically deride our opponents – it's certainly not difficult these days – and I’m not trying to diminish the occasional holding of such events, but they shouldn’t be the primary focus of our activism and advocacy work. We need to reach out BEYOND the progressive community to those who otherwise be apathetic or even opposed to us; we need to communicate our moral vision in a way that’s accessible to everyone.

This might strike you as a daunting task, but it's far from impossible. Consider the remarkable achievements of the Fair Trade Coffee Coalition (FTCC) this year. They convinced Housing and Food Services and Tully's Coffee Company to offer a Fair Trade Certified espresso blend. Though they're not finished transforming the UW into a 100% Fair Trade Certified coffee campus, they accomplished the enormous task of convincing students across campus, especially those beyond the progressive community, of the value of Fair Trade Certified coffee. They successfully communicated the moral vision that we have a duty to those who produce the products we consume. Indeed, by the end the few remaining opponents of the FTCC accepted the value of Fair Trade Certification but fell back on the argument that they demanded the right to choose between exploitative and non-exploitative products (may I nominate this for Conservative Argument of the Year?). So how did the FTCC get there? Unlike the CRs, the FTCC went to other groups across campus, such as the ASUW Student Senate and the Residence Hall Student Association, giving presentations about Fair Trade Certification and why it was a beneficial idea. Where they met opposition, they didn’t belittle those challenging them, they engaged those individuals in dialogue, eventually persuading the vast majority.

So how can you, as a progressive activist, ensure your advocacy and outreach are actually accomplishing something? First, make sure your outreach extends beyond those who already support your cause. Design your publicity to attract those who would otherwise be apathetic or even disagree with you. Second, step back and consider the event from the point of view of your opponents – will you further alienate them or engage them in further dialogue, thus creating the opportunity to change their position? Finally, remember that language matters! Frame your ideas in ways that communicate, and are consistent with, your moral vision. For more on this, George Lakoff's Don’t Think of an Elephant! is the perfect starting point.

Positive progressive change IS possible and can start right here on the University of Washington campus. There’s no time like the present for bringing it about.

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