The Budget Activist: Making Change Through Letters and Petitions

 

I was going to write a book called The Budget Activist. But it isn’t happening. I’ve lost the passion to finish the project. I still feel passionately about the subject matter, but I feel like it’s no longer my story to tell. The good news is, I still have plenty of pieces I can share. Many of the words are already written, however incomplete. This was the sample chapter. I hope you will find it useful and share!

 

The Power of the Written Word: Making Change Through Letters and Petitions      

I’d spent the previous four months working with a committee of parents and teachers frantically trying to get answers from the management of our school district facilities department about the hazardous health and safety conditions at my child’s public school.

When my home-grown petition to the School District of Philadelphia crossed 1,000 signatures overnight, I awoke to a message via Twitter.

“Do you have any time to talk tomorrow?”

It’s an official at the district – someone who has been ignoring my emails for four months. But the constant stream of petition comments in her inbox is the straw that’s broken this employee’s back. It sounds like she’s just as tired of the bureaucracy as I am and wants to resolve this.

The issues are not small or simple.

My local school had received a damage rating of 57%, with 60% being the benchmark for building closure or replacement, according to the Facility Condition Assessment Summary Report released by the school district. I was shocked to see that my children’s school was one of the worst rated in terms of structural and environmental hazards. We were miles behind our neighboring public schools and among the worst in the entire district. According to the report, which included some striking photos, we had flaking asbestos tiles in the auditorium, potential black mold in the basement, a severely deteriorated roof, no bathroom exhaust fans, and a wide variety of other alarming concerns.

Desperate for answers and a tangible course of action, I’d rallied parents, teachers, and local environmental allies. We know this is a systemic issue – not only across our own public school district but around the country. We don’t want this to work just for us; we want to set up a model to help other schools. Despite sending emails to school district officials, the superintendent, the School Reform Commission, and members of city council, no one would answer my questions about lack of safety or communication transparency.

As a last resort, I’d started an online petition, which was quickly picked up by our local public school news media outlets—we’re lucky to have those because we live in a large metropolitan area. Before the district official’s call, I’d planned to attend the School Reform Commission meeting that night with signatures in hand. As I leave to catch the subway, I have a renewed sense of hope and promise.

“Your words have not fallen on deaf ears,” the school district official has reassured me.

Right now, they’re just words. But I’d heard it in her voice – action will come.

The Philadelphia School District is a notoriously tough nut to crack. We could have an easier time taking on an oil monopoly.

Sounds impossible, but it can be done. Take it from Erin Brockovich, portrayed by Julia Roberts in the namesake film, the former legal clerk who was instrumental in building a case against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company of California for contamination of drinking water with hexavalent chromium. Since her legendary win in the ’90s, Brockovich has been fighting for environmental justice – and often winning. However, financial compensation provides little reprieve when such damage already has been done.

Erin may have the glory of an Oscar in her name, but she is not an anomaly.

Cleaning Up Tide’s Act

In February 2012, Massachusetts blogger and mother of three Lori Alper began a petition asking Proctor & Gamble to strip 1,4 dioxane, a known carcinogen, from Tide detergents. Thanks to tools at Change.org, which help spread the word about activist-generated petitions, Lori’s petition received more than 78,000 signatures – but even then, P&G didn’t respond.

However, due to the expansion of the petition campaign, major media caught wind of the issue and publications like New York Times and Forbes suddenly joined the call to action. This also led to a partnership with the nonprofit organization, Women’s Voices for the Earth, whose consumer advocacy amplified the voices of thousands more consumers who took to social media to express their outrage.

Media coverage increased and an Oakland-based nonprofit legal organization called As You Sow took Proctor & Gamble to a California court – and won. They agreed to drastically reduce the levels of 1,4 dioxane in Tide’s laundry products. And it all started with one mom on a mission.

“It’s so gratifying to know that my petition brought more than 78,000 voices together to alert the public that Tide contained a cancer-causing chemical and motivated P&G to make a change,” Lori says. “I wanted to show people that we can make a difference.”

A Movement Movement

Another mother, Lauren Somers in Montgomery County, Pa., led the charge against her suburban school district when she learned kids would only be given physical education during one quarter of the school year.

“They had no gym class, no playground, no recess, no before- or after-school intramural programs, no integrated movement breaks during classes – nothing,” Somers says.

Somers started alone and then galvanized the support of parents and teachers by sharing research showing the academic and physiological benefits of daily movement.

“It took the better part of three years of making the case at a school board meeting, gathering signatures, and meeting with the middle school principal,” she says. “Eventually, they changed it to every other day during two marking periods and added an after-school intramural program.”

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Cory Kirsling, a dad in Minnesota, was sparked to action after his first-grade son had a reaction to the dust from the tire mulch on his school’s playground. After he posted about it on Facebook, his cousin sent him an NBC news story about the dangerous volatile organic compounds that emit from these pools of shredded tile rubber.

So Cory decided to write a well-cited letter to the school board and administration. Not surprisingly, the response was a combination of inaction and defense. But the more he learned about the lack of regulation and lackluster testing of substances found around the school, the more alarmed he became. So he sent that same letter to the local television news department and they aired a primetime news story on the subject.

Things snowballed from there as people from all over the world contacted him to share their own stories of concern and even sickness potentially attributable to regular interactions with tire mulch. Cory built a team of allies, locally and globally, and the local news followed his advocacy. One year after Cory penned his initial letter, the school board voted to remove and replace the tire mulch.

The news spread from school board meetings to the Minnesota state government, where there’s currently a plan to remove tire mulch from 46 school playgrounds. And the entire state of Minnesota will be voting on a tire mulch moratorium bill in 2018.

An Eco-Conscious Kid

It’s not just adults who are taking a stand for change – children can be some of the most effective activists.

In 2012, 10-year-old Mia Hansen started her own Change.org petition to get the popular chain Jamba Juice to stop serving its smoothies in Styrofoam – and it worked. Mia collected over 130,000 signatures – and received a response from the company within three weeks. Jamba Juice sent her a letter promising to phase out Styrofoam by 2013 and replace it with a more eco-friendly alternative. And they did.

Busy People Get Stuff Done

It’s easy to look at a story like this one and figure that it was just fortuitous – or that the process described sounds daunting. You’re probably thinking, “Sure, a 10-year-old has time to deal with a petition, but I have three kids and a mortgage.” I hear you.

In reality, most of the people who launch these campaigns are some of the busiest people around, juggling full-time jobs, childcare, and a whole host of “stuff”. But, you know the old expression, “If you want to get something done, ask a busy person.”

Still, few of us can afford to make volunteer activism a full-time job. That’s why it’s helpful to have abundant tools and strategies at our fingertips to save us from door knocking and finger-cramps. Social media can connect us with like-minded groups of friends and neighbors eager to lend a hand. Free petition Web sites offer simple ways to spread messages. Old-fashioned letter writing is far more accessible through Web sites that allow you to customize a template message, and then all you have to do is click to send it on to your designated contact. (For a full list of these see the “Resources” Section.)

In fact, the total time and effort Lauren spent in her Phys-Ed battle only totaled about 20 hours of her own time over the course of a lengthy process. She says the most satisfying part was realizing how easy it was to communicate and generate parent support thanks to social media.

“Parents and teachers readily shared their views and research articles,” she says. “What took the most effort was having patience and persistence in getting the bureaucratic wheels to turn in a timely manner.”

Strategic Partnerships Can Make All the Difference

Sometimes, though, progress can move rather quickly – especially when you grab the ear of a business with a financial incentive. That’s what happened to Lacey Kohlmoos when she couldn’t find a place to pump breastmilk on a business trip by train between Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station and Union Station in D.C.

As the online organizing strategist at Care2, Lacey was already working with citizens to turn their petitions into full-fledged, winning campaigns. But it wasn’t until a few months later, when she was inspired by all the social media posts for Breastfeeding Awareness Month, that she decided to do something. That’s when she created a petition on Care2 demanding that Amtrak provide lactation facilities at Union Station in DC.

Lacey says she got an overwhelming amount of support from lactating working moms. She connected with fellow frustrated local mom, Samantha Matlin, and asked her to start a petition calling for lactation facilities in Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.

After gathering over 50,000 signatures between the two Care2 petitions and getting some press attention from D.C. and Philly media outlets, she emailed Amtrak’s communications manager asking for a meeting to discuss possible lactation facilities at the two stations. When she didn’t hear back, she invited all of the petition signers to join her in a Twitterstorm targeting Amtrak, which generated more than 2,000 tweets within 24 hours demanding lactation facilities and linking to the petition.

One of Lacey’s colleagues happened to have a connection with Mamava, a company that makes and installs lactation pods in public places, and he set up a meeting for her there. They loved the petition and jumped on board the campaign.

As she was putting pressure on Amtrak to get lactation facilities, Mamava reached out to Amtrak about placing an order for some pods. And while Amtrak never responded to Lacey and Samantha directly, they did respond to Mamava– by ordering some pods expected to be installed in Philly, Baltimore, Chicago, and New York City Amtrak stations this year (2018).

It was a fortuitous chain of events, but not an uncommon success story. Viral petitions often lead to media attention and connect the movement with corporations, non-profits, and other influential parties who want to help turn an issue into action.

The Power of One to Motivate Many

Diane MacEachern, author of Big Green Purse, is a longtime activist who was instrumental in using a door-to-door petition to push forward a single-use bottle ban in Michigan in the late ’70s. But, then, after a few years of trying to replicate that model in other states, the beverage industry figured out how to beat grassroots campaigns.

Does the growing impact of social media pitted against the strength of corporate interests make it easier or harder to advance change?

“I think if we want to make measurable change with meaningful results, we need a team to do it,” Diane says. “For example, change at the legislative level is hard to achieve solo simply because there are so many people to lobby. If you want to change a company’s policies, you need a group of stakeholders to weigh in, or a lot of social media influencers to get involved.”

However, she says, the power of the individual to be a catalyst shouldn’t be underestimated.

“You can trace back almost every effective social movement to an individual: Martin Luther King Jr., Rachel Carson, Lois Gibbs, Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger – all of whom succeeded with no social media other than word of mouth and the ability to mobilize the aggrieved,” Diane says. “Still, they’d be footnotes in history if they’d tried to achieve massive change on their own.”

Diane notes the benefit of being an individual is that you can just get going – you can strike the match that lights the fire all on your own. “But there’s no fire without kindling, right?” she says.

In these cases of consumer, legal, and even neighborhood justice, it just took one person willing to put demands in writing and share them with people who had the power to make change. We have always had the tools at hand to start movements, but now they are even more accessible and easier to amplify.

If You Have Five Minutes:

Visit sites like Care2.com or Change.org and sign up for alerts on issues that matter most to you. Add your name to a few petitions and share them on your social media. On those sites you also can hear more petition success stories – and maybe even be inspired to start your own!

If You Have An Hour:

Check out the free “Activist University” on Care2.com, which offers training, tools, and webinars for generating winning petitions. It offers key tips for writing concise petitions that include a clear demand, a personal story, and a good visual.

If You Have More Than an Hour:

Start that petition! Here are 10 tips to get you started:

  • As someone who works with online petitions everyday, Lacey Kohlmoos knows the strongest petitions have a clear, specific, and achievable goal or “ask.”Not only will you have a better chance at creating real change, but you also will be more likely to get more signatures. “For instance, a petition to ‘create equal rights for women’ is not very achievable, and it is unclear what exactly is meant by ‘equal rights’. This ‘ask’ would result in a weak petition,” Lacey says. “But a petition demanding that Congress pass legislation requiring equal pay for women or demanding that a university adopt a better sexual assault policy is clear, specific, and achievable.”
  • Lacey also emphasizes that a personal story goes a long way in making your petition more powerful. Although you may attract some signers by presenting them with straight facts and figures, you’ll get a lot more interest in your petition if you make it personal. “People may feel sympathetic if you talk about the tens of thousands of children who go to school hungry, but they’re more likely to take action if you talk about the little girl in your 3rd grade class to whom you give a granola bar each morning so she won’t go without breakfast,” she says.
  • People have short attention spans, so keep your petition to no more than 300 words. Think “elevator pitch” – imagine that you are talking to one person and only have 20 seconds to get them to sign your petition.
  • Make sure you’re addressing the right decision-maker at the company you’ve targeted. It’s not a bad idea to copy the CEO, but you want to direct “the ask” to the person in charge of making the change. Also copy whomever handles PR and communications for the company.
  • Share solid reasons for that company, person, or group to make your requested change. Offer data, statistics, and examples of other situations where this problem has been handled well. When possible, offer solutions for the problem at hand. For example, rather than just asking a company to stop using a product, offer suggestions for a cost-effective and practical alternative.
  • Lacey also recommends using a visual that will grab people’s attention. The picture at the top of the petition is the first thing that people will see on the website and on social media. “Only use stock photos when you have to; a personal photo is always better,” she says. “And keep it face-focused when possible. Care2 tests have shown people are more likely to sign petitions with photos of people and animals where the viewer can look them in the eye.”
  • A petition often can lead to a snowball reaction and help you pick up allies along the way. Seek out sympathetic nonprofit organizations and community leaders who may want to help extend your message. Tweet the petition at celebrities and influencers who have demonstrated an interest in your issue, and ask them to retweet. E-mail influential bloggers and message Facebook pages and users with large followings.
  • Hashtags help people link up with your cause on social media. Viral hashtags like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have become real catalysts for national conversations. You can also tag your shares with relevant keywords like #animalwelfare or #healthcare.
  • Once your petition gains some traction and you reach an impressive number of signatures (that number will vary based on the circumstance), contact the media to see if anyone is interested in covering the issue and your efforts about it.
  • Don’t forget to deliver your petition! It might sound obvious, but a petition serves no purpose if it doesn’t get into the right hands. Deliver in person if possible, but electronically if you can’t.



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