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Strategies for effective activists

Lessons learned in the fight for reproductive rights.
By Erika Fox
March/April 2004 3.1.04

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There’s no magic success formula for advocates of a cause or an organization. But as a lobbyist for reproductive rights in the conservative Midwest for more than two decades, I have learned a thing or two that might be useful to other advocates for controversial causes. I was a recent law school graduate when I started my lobbying career on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment in Missouri and later in support of other then-called “women’s issues,” including reproductive rights. Until I retired a year ago [in 2003], I worked as a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood in Missouri and Kansas.

What works and what doesn’t

It took me a while to realize that the legal approach—marshalling unassailable facts and law in support of my cause—was not going to win over most lawmakers. Neither was showing that the majority of citizens agreed with me. What I learned was that legislators’ positions on issues are likely to be determined by their religion, party, occupation, family, colleagues, campaign manager, neighbors, hometown newspaper, urban or rural district location, or organizational affiliations.

Several years ago, lawmakers who had previously supported Planned Parenthood’s participation in the state family planning program began voting to exclude it. They hadn’t changed their mind about the value of the program or our participation; they said they just didn’t want to subject themselves and their families to further ostracism by their churches. In general, policy makers adopt the position that they think will minimize the hassle from those they are closest to and that will allow them to get reelected, reappointed, or elevated to a new office.

The use of new technologies to recruit, educate, and mobilize supporters has been widely hailed. Depending on the size and quality of your list and software, you may be able to bombard a policy maker’s office with hundreds of calls, faxes, or e-mail messages. This ability can be important in securing a swing vote or keeping a supporter from switching sides. But my experience is that it is neither sufficient to build solid long-term support for your issue nor likely to change votes once a position has been staked out. For that, there is no substitute for old-fashioned grassroots organizing.

In 1999, the Missouri General Assembly passed a ban on what abortion opponents call “partial birth abortion.” Despite a well-organized barrage of phone calls and postcards between final passage in May and the veto-override vote in September, we gained only two votes in the House. Results in the state Senate were equally dismal.

We learned that we needed people in each of the targeted districts who had an established relationship of trust with their state representative and senator, people who could carry our message personally, develop a visible groundswell of support in the district, and recruit key members of the legislator’s circle of influence as advocates. Without that, constituent communications can be dismissed as coming from people they don’t know and “who don’t support me anyway.”

Don’t wait for an emergency to identify likely converts to your issue and to cultivate the relationships and district support necessary to produce change. When officials believe there is an active, committed corps of advocates in their own community who have the ability to rally voters either for or against them, they will pay attention and possibly rethink their position.

In dealing with legislators, don’t overlook any possible supporters. Don’t write anyone off permanently. When pro-choice advocates dismiss Catholics, Republicans, and representatives of rural districts, we are ignoring a huge portion of the legislature. (Conversely, those of us who work for “liberal” causes should not assume that we can count on all Democrats.)

As a fledgling lobbyist, my instinct was to write off legislators who voted “wrong” on a key issue. I learned that we couldn’t afford to alienate anyone. Although they might oppose abortion rights, they might be willing to help with a family planning or sexuality education issue.

If you remain approachable and maintain civil contact with all legislators, the incivility or extremity of your opponents may drive some of them to your camp. A veteran anti-choice state senator was the lead sponsor of right-to-die legislation. Right-to-die opponents—who also opposed reproductive choice—so abused the senator that he became a strong pro-choice supporter. Their behavior gave him new insight into the extremes to which they would go to force government interference into the most personal decisions of individuals and families.

There is another reason to maintain good relations with policy makers who won’t go on the record in support of your cause, but who may be sympathetic: They can affect the process by making sure a proposal isn’t heard, keeping it off the calendar, or being absent for a vote.

While we usually support our position because we think it is just or essential for the common welfare, there are other ways to sell it to decision makers or potential allies. You might get a proposal adopted by explaining how it saves taxpayer dollars, attracts federal matching funds, eliminates red tape, or benefits a legislator’s pet project or constituency. Many proposals have been defeated by arguing that it would be too expensive, too complicated to administer, interfere with local autonomy, create a new bureaucracy, or have unintended consequences.

Messages and media

One of the key lessons for the reproductive rights movement—taught to us by our opponents—is that you cannot allow your opponent to define you. You must define yourself: the name of your organization, the description of its mission, and the essence of your bill or proposal. Conversely, try to define your opponents and their cause in terms least likely to appeal to the public, decision makers, and voters.

People who oppose the availability of legal abortion claimed the word “life” as their own. They proclaimed themselves part of the pro-life movement and named their organizations accordingly. The word holds special significance for Americans (as in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”) and neatly embodies the activists’ central argument that abortion is murder. Those working to maintain access to abortion were called abortion supporters or pro-abortionists.

Reproductive rights supporters responded. The need to find a special word embodying equally compelling American values led to the adoption of “choice” as a name and defining concept. It had the additional virtue of being applicable to a broader range of reproductive options than just abortion. Some organizations changed their names. The National Abortion Rights Action League settled on “NARAL Pro-Choice America.” Their television campaign, “Choice for America,” placed reproductive rights issues in a context of freedom, family, opportunity, and obligation to the next generation.

The choice movement also expanded its public agenda to feature issues such as state funding for family planning, insurance coverage for prescription contraceptives, comprehensive sexuality education in schools, increased availability of emergency contraception, and other women’s health measures—topics that poll much higher support than abortion issues.

These message strategies apply also to individual initiatives. Pro-choice organizations learned a hard lesson from their opponents’ so-called “partial birth abortion” campaign. Carefully crafted to vilify abortion providers, it raised the emotional level of the debate with horrifying graphics, confused the issue with distorted rhetoric, and ultimately eroded overall support for keeping abortions legal. We have learned to name our own proposals using terms like “contraceptive equity” and “the women’s health initiative.”

Good messages require effective media strategies. Media coverage adds urgency to your calls for action and helps lawmakers pay attention. The vast majority of people get their news from television. Therefore, advocates need to figure out how to compete for TV time with fires, crime, and dog bites. Human interest stories can work. If you can locate a reasonably articulate local person who exemplifies the dire need for your proposal, your chances for coverage increase. Another trick is to provide something so visually interesting that they can’t resist.

When we invited reporters to interview our president in front of Planned Parenthood windows shattered by rifle shots, his message deploring domestic terrorism against women’s health clinics was on television morning, noon, and night for two days.

Proactive campaigns

Most advocates are slogging away in support of causes that will outlast us: peace, hunger, the environment. So it is critical that we regularly undertake campaigns with limited but achievable goals so we can hearten our supporters (and ourselves), strengthen our organizations, demonstrate momentum, and make steady progress toward our larger vision.

In the nineties, choice activists began looking for opportunities to work more proactively and build momentum—while not letting our guard down. We needed to broaden the appeal of our movement by taking on less inflammatory issues, and we wanted to expand access to reproductive health services.

You can tailor a campaign to take advantage of some new opportunity: a governor interested in making a mark, a major event illustrating the compelling need for a change, or newly released evidence that supports your case.

With a campaign you initiate, you have time to shape the proposal, develop messages and media strategy, build a coalition of cooperating organizations, educate supporters, recruit legislators and sponsors, and marshal resources. Such campaigns can help you talk in depth with previously uninterested legislators whose interests coincide in some way with yours and try to gain their support, even if your short-term campaign fails.

You are building capacity to win in the future.

Building political clout

One key to political effectiveness is to make electoral activity a direct extension of advocacy work. While numbers are not a critical factor in changing a legislator’s vote on an issue, numbers are the key to changing legislators. If you can compile a list of 1,000 supporters of your issue in a particular state legislative district and get half of them to the polls to vote for your endorsed candidate, you can affect an election. Activists who work hard to convince their legislators to take action on behalf of a cause are highly motivated to help re-elect those who took the desired action and to replace those who did not. Similarly, voters educated about a key issue prior to the election season will be more easily motivated to make that issue a priority at the polls.

Reproductive rights organizations in Missouri have developed a list of about 150,000 pro-choice voters with contact information for organizing, grassroots lobbying, and elections. The ability to carefully target efforts toward those predisposed to support your goals is critical to success; if your issue is highly polarized, it is counterproductive to communicate with voters who would oppose your candidate if they knew his/her stand.

Advocates, serious about maximizing their efforts on behalf of their cause, must help their organization develop the structure, skills, and resources to do political work. If your group can’t participate in politics directly, you can cooperate informally with a similar organization that does participate in elections; become active in a political organization that will agree to make your cause a bottom-line endorsement issue; play a major, visible role in the campaign of a supportive candidate; or start your own political organization.

Your organization’s ability to elect or defeat a candidate is one of the calculations that a legislator makes in deciding whether to support your issue. I have come to believe you cannot ignore this aspect of advocacy.

Getting mad and firing off letters to elected officials is a time-honored tradition in our democracy. But to promote deep and lasting political and social change, individuals and organizations must combine organizing, communication, and election goals that put irresistible pressure on strategically targeted decision-makers.


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