Effective Activism and Advocacy v. Astroturf Organizations and Posers
by Angela Smith
"An unsuspected enemy is doubly dangerous." ~L. Frank Baum wrote in "The Emerald City of Oz"
Effective activism and advocacy requires dedication, commitment, great research, civic literacy, and intelligent strategy. Most activists and advocates are dedicated and committed to their causes, but, often fall short when it comes to great research, civic literacy, and intelligent strategy.
Dedicated and committed individuals who recognize injustice and abuse and wish to do something can: work on their own; with an organization; or may even start their own organization. Individual activists working alone can do great research, advance their civic literacy, and even strategize effectively without much help and without joining an organization. If an individual activist wishes to join forces with an established organization or create their own, there are a few important issues they must consider first if they wish to be effective in their activism and advocacy.
It is vitally important that individuals who care about a specific cause enter volunteerism with their eyes open and with significantly developed goals for their cause to avoid the pitfalls of misdirection, disorganization, manipulation, and inefficacy. A good rule to follow here is not to assume anything, including that the organizations know what they are doing or are effective.
Once an individual has identified at least one significant goal they have and is seeking an organization that can help them achieve that goal, they need to determine if the organization they've selected shares that goal and what the organization has done or is doing to further that goal.
To determine if an existing organization is effective in strategizing and succeeding in regards to short-term and long-term goals, ask the following questions: (If an organization or individual activist avoids answering questions, responds with insults or disrespect, and acts and speaks differently in public than in private, this is a serious indicator that the individual or organization may be an Astroturf Organization, poser, or provocateur.)
1. Does your organization share my goal [insert goal here]? And, if so, can you tell me more about what your organization has done to achieve this goal? (If you have more than one goal related to a specific cause, ask this question regarding each goal.)
Sample Q & A
Q: Does HEAL wish to stop institutional abuse and further children's rights in the US?
A: Yes, HEAL works to stop institutional abuse and to further children's rights in the US.
Q: What has HEAL done in its efforts to stop institutional abuse and further children's rights in the US?
A: HEAL is perpetually building a database of detailed information regarding fraudulent and abusive facilities for children and teens that includes news articles, victim and family reports, lawsuits, and law enforcement records to provide information to assist journalists, victims and their families, attorneys, law enforcement, and regulatory agencies in their efforts to report on and hold accountable violating facilities and programs. In addition, we provide survivor and parent support to help individual victims and their families as well as to assist with preventing institutionalization in the first place. We filed Initiative 999 in Washington State in 2008 to improve laws to better protect children and families from fraud and abuse. Unfortunately, we did not get the needed signatures before the deadline and it did not go to the ballot for public consideration. For more information on Initiative 999, see: http://www.sos.wa.gov/elections/initiatives/text/i999.pdf. Because collecting 224,800 valid registered voter signatures in Washington State between March and July is next to impossible without a very healthy bankroll or hundreds of dedicated signature gatherers, that effort was unsuccessful. But, it is public record and remains so on the Secretary of State website. And, we think that is a success in its own right. Moving forward we are developing our State Action Plan and working to educate our volunteers and members so they can be a "lobbyist" for children in their home States. For more information on this project see www.heal-online.org/actionone.htm and http://www.heal-online.org/action2.htm. [If an organization cannot provide information on their goals or their efforts that clearly shows action and not just talk, they should probably be avoided if your goal is to be effective.]
2. Who founded your organization and who funds your organization?
Sample Q & A
Q: Who founded HEAL and who funds HEAL?
A: HEAL was founded in 2002 as a registered student organization at the University of Washington. Angela Smith is co-founder of HEAL. Smith is a survivor of institutional abuse. Smith is also a graduate of Highline Community College and the University of Washington. Smith also successfully completed 1 year of law school and is on extended hiatus from law school due to personal matters. Beyond that, you can learn more about Angela Smith by visiting www.heal-online.org/hqseattle.htm. Most of the other founding members of HEAL moved or stopped being actively involved after graduating from the UW in 2005. To learn more about our chapter coordinators, please visit their webpages linked on our homepage at www.heal-online.org. HEAL is primarily funded in-house by our primary volunteers and coordinators. However, we do receive less than $500 per year from donations through our site, by mail, and at events. [If the organization refuses to provide information regarding founders or funding, this is another red flag. If the organization claims to be, or you later learn it is, funded by or run by individuals or businesses with a vested interest in perpetuating the injustice by providing false information, misleading victims regarding their options for seeking justice, or undermining effective actions by feeding confidential information to the offending individual, business, or organization that results in their avoiding investigation and accountability, volunteer somewhere else. And, don't align yourself with those who would ask you to be willfully blind because of their own misguided loyalties.]
3. How can I help?
Sample Q & A
Q: How can I help with the teen liberty campaign?
A: It depends on your skills, the amount of time you have, and what you are interested in doing. For people who don't like the public eye or spotlight, research, survivor support, and parent support are all areas where HEAL needs more help. If you don't mind being in the spotlight, you can: organize and participate in marches and protests; volunteer for public speaking events (i.e. guest speakers at colleges and high schools, etc.); become a coordinator; or be a media liaison. You can participate and support our existing campaigns and efforts, or get our help in developing your own campaign. For more information, see www.heal-online.org/solidarity.htm. [If an organization cannot provide you information on volunteer opportunities and/or asks for money and ignores your offer to volunteer, that is a red flag. Avoid organizations who are more interested in your pocketbook and hosting lavish events than they are in your ideas and organizing effective campaigns.]
Since this is a blog article and not a book, the suggested question portion ends here. It is very important that you don't take what people say or what other people say at face value. In the case of HEAL, our primary campaign is teen liberty and our opposition is a multi-billion dollar industry with far-reaching government ties and influential relationships. We are effective and resourceful. And, we are experienced, informed, and involved. If an individual makes a celebrity of themselves with one action (i.e. representing victims in one case against the opposition), don't assume they are on your side. Find out if they've done anything besides that case and talking about that case. Don't recommend or align yourselves with individuals because they charmed or impressed you with their celebrity or public persona. Demand evidence that they have done anything to further the cause beyond celebrating their own notoriety for the last 20-30 years. And, check any public documents to see if there are inconsistencies or clear misinformation in the celebrity's writings and statements. If you don't know if someone has written or said something that is false, find someone who would know and get their help with research and forming an opinion. If someone refuses to answer your questions, insults you, disrespects you, or otherwise shuts you down, don't admire them. You deserve honest replies to your questions, consideration, respect, and validation. Those who redirect the conversation and fail the transparency test will lead you astray. Beware!