An activist is one who acknowledges the truth of Edmund Burke’s famous quotation, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
If you want to do something for pro-life or other worthy causes but don’t know where to begin, read on. I write out of my own context, that of a parent in the educational field, but the general principles should apply to activists everywhere.
DON’T BE INTIMIDATED BY YOUR LACK OF EXPERIENCE
We often fight battles not because we feel we are the most qualified person for the job but because no one else steps forward and the cause is too important to be lost by default.
Your experience will rise over time. Use whatever professional status you have. State your credentials. If you are a doctor, lawyer or high school teacher so.
Consult with those who are professionals. You know you are not an expert so all the more reason to pick the brains of those who are. Experts are often too busy or feel too threatened to speak out. Going public may threaten their practice or work but they may well be willing to help you behind the scenes. Of course, if you can encourage them to speak out, do. This may occur over time as their confidence builds. We forget that even experts can feel intimidated.
By spending time with experts and their writings you can learn to translate highly technical information into layman’s language. This is an invaluable role in today’s highly complex society.
It is hard going before boards or the media simply as a homemaker or parents. I know. But now I realize I had one real advantage over the professionals. I had nothing to lose. They couldn’t hurt my job or reduce my salary. I was my own person. I was a free agent.
People, moreover, will identify with the parent. They know you have a human interest in issues affecting your child. You will be perceived as a real person not a faceless bureaucrat.
YOU CAN’T GO IT ALONE – HAVE SUPPORT GROUPS
Friends may be less involved than you but you will need their moral support and encouragement. They can be “bodies” at a meeting or may clip items for you. You can’t be waging war at the front with no supply lines behind you, not for long.
Network with other sympathetic groups, politicians and professionals across the country. Attend conferences for both information and contacts. Record addresses. You do not have to agree on every single point but if you have a common cause then stay in touch. You will avoid reinventing the wheel and can alert each other to new developments. Sharing in the victory of another group helps a little when your own is experiencing a setback.
Probably the most satisfying experience for me in going before school boards (terrifying though it was) was meeting people who I did not know until we met on the same front, fighting for the same cause. It made it all worthwhile. I count them among my most valued and respected friends.
ONCE IT IS KNOWN YOU ARE WORKING ON A PARTCULAR ISSUE YOU COULD BE FLOODED WITH ARTICLES
You cannot afford to subscribe to all the magazines and papers that might cover your issue (although you should increase your subscriptions). One school trustee had a friend volunteer to not only to clip relevant articles but to also highlight them.
All this material will be useless, however, if you don’t file it away in an organized fashion. Some of the most effective parent activists I know are homemakers with filing cabinets.
OBTAIN ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS AND READ THEM THOROUGHLY
Don’t ever depend on hearsay no matter how “reliable” the source. Check it out for yourself. Quote accurately. Learn to read between the lines. It’s harder to learn what goes on in the classroom, but not impossible. Screen films, review plays, read every page of a book or curriculum. Know what you’re talking about if you want to be taken seriously.
In studying a report read the preamble but only debate the recommendations. That’s where they mean business.
TALK IN THEIR LANGUAGE IF YOU WANT TO BE HEARD
Avoid terms, however that would compromise you. KNOW WHAT YOU WANT
Propose positive alternatives and solutions. Propose workable compromises. Ask them, “What are you going to do about…? Question them, “What is the educational value of…” but have some answers of your own
CRITICIZE CURRICULUM AND POLICY NOT PEOPLE
Don’t name call. Stay polite, one parents’ group was careful to limit their discussion to the classroom texts even though it was the same teacher who consistently made the most inappropriate choices. How tempting to have gone after that teacher but it is often easier to change textbooks than teachers.
WRITE FREQUENTLY AND YOU WILL SPEAK FLUENTLY
Most people prefer speaking to writing. Yet the discipline of writing will actually improve your oral presentation. You will find yourself more articulate and succinct if you have had to express yourself on paper first. Don’t read your notes aloud, however; that will put everyone to sleep. Write then speak spontaneously. You will gradually end up quoting yourself.
You may need to tone down your language. Have someone you respect edit your work. Only you, however, can speak in your voice.
PREPARE A WRITTEN HANDOUT TO GO WITH YOUR TALK
People new to an issue cannot take in all they hear but they may be convinced when they have time to read you over. If you don’t get much time to speak all is not lost with a handout. You also appear to have done your homework; people will take you seriously.
Be brief. One sheet two sides is the most that is likely to be read. Read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and you will never be caught dangling from a participle
Your written work will help you pick up again after a lull. We all forget our arguments. Best to have them down on paper for a quick jump-start back into action.
Work behind the scenes to persuade sympathetic trustees or MPs. Meet privately with ones you have a chance of winning over. Out of the limelight they can raise concerns and you can clear up misconceptions. In public they may not feel so free and in the heat of the moment may oppose you. When they know you better they won’t stereotype you. Only novices and masochists walk into confrontational meetings without first lobbying.
Find sympathetic trustees and politicians who can alert you to issues, notify you of meeting and give you relevant documents. Learn timetables and agendas and find out what recourse or appeal is available. Always ask, “What is the time-frame?”
Talk privately with teachers and principles and you may not have to go “public.” Not every matter has to be resolved at the board level. One Toronto parent dreaded a long, drawn out battle over some ghoulish illustration in children’s book (Stephen Gammel’s horrific pictures in Alvin Schwart’s More Scary Tales to Tell in the Dark). The elementary school librarian immediately offered to remove the book; apparently the library board had decided that the book should be on the shelves only at the librarian’s discretion.
TALK SELECTION NOT CENSORSHIP
Discuss whether material is age or grade-appropriate. Classroom material is the most sensitive because every child has to study it. An offensive book in the elementary school library might not be so objectionable in the senior school library. It might, however, be unsuitable as a classroom text at any grade level. Many parents’ groups limit their discussion of books to class texts.
REMEMBER THE LADDER OF SENSITIVITY
- Classroom texts (most sensitive)
- School library: elementary (JK to gr. 6) senior public (gr.7 and 8) high school.
- Public library: children/young adult/adult
- Book store.
Don’t shop in convenience stores that sell porn. Patronize those that have cleaned up their act.
PICK UP THE PHONE
I have called police, university, hospital and government departments; indeed, any number of people and places that would have intimidated me if I had had to make a personal appearance. The phone is one of your most valuable tools as an activist. It breaks down barriers fast.
GO AFTER THE MEDIA
Don’t wait for the media to come to you. Send op-ed articles (opinion pieces) not just letters to the editor. Where possible, make contact with a friendly columnist and share your material. If you dislike the bias in a paper phone the reporter, columnist or editor.
Keep a file of media contracts. Phone stations before a broadcast and offer background information. Offer to debate. Don’t rant and rave but try to give a new perspective. Where possible break the stereotype they have of you. Even under real provocation stay polite and cool but firm. Let the other side make fools of themselves. Keep radio and TV phone numbers handy and phone in praise and comments. Don’t just call when they blow it. We tend to ignore them when they get it right.
BE READY WHEN THE MEDIA COME TO YOU
Of course they will sometimes catch you off guard. Barry McLouglin Associates Inc. who run seminars called “Encountering the Media,” advise you to negotiate: “Buy time. Say to the reporter ‘Let me call you back in an hour.” This will give you a chance to gather your facts. Find out all you can from them before you speak. Don’t talk of the record.
SAY WHAT YOU WANT TO SAY
McLoughlin advises, “Be message not answer driven. Bridge and deflect:
‘Let’s look at it in a broader perspective.’
‘There’s a more pressing problem.’ Let’s not lose sight of the underlying problem.’ ‘That may be but have you considered…’
‘Prepare brief quotable quotations. Fax background information.”
ATTEND MEETINGS AND SIT ON COMMITTEES YOU HAVE A CHANCE OF INFLUENCING
If you decide to run for office try to do so before you are too well known by the opposition. Encourage the politicians who do not support your views.
Administrations will stone wall. Document every phone call you make and write letters (retaining your own copy) to record your perseverance.
DON’T GIVE UIP
Don’t give up but take breaks to avoid burnout. We don’t know how God will use what we do. Simply do what you can then leave it prayerfully in His hands. Remember that we are called to be faithful not successful. I find the vision of Ezekiel 9, bleak, as it may first appear, encouraging. If we “grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done” in our city God will have mercy on us. We may not necessarily wipe out the detestable things but we are called to speak against them. The famous watchman passage in Ezekiel 3:17-21 is along the same lines. We must warn and dissuade the man who does evil else his blood will be on our hands. He may not heed us but we will have been faithful. Thus we cannot avoid fighting for a cause on the grounds that it may not be successful.
PICK YOUR FIGHT
Don’t tackle every issue that comes along. Worth as it may be you can’t afford to spread yourself too thinly. If you are in for the long haul, be realistic and focus your effort.
YOU ARE CALLED TO BE A PARENT FIRST
Don’t try to save the world and lose your own backyard. You can be a good role model for your kids as they see you thinking critically and taking on the system, but they need you primarily as a parent not as a crusader.
BE SURE THE SCHOOL AND COMMUNITY SEE YOU AS A WHOLE PERSON
Don’t just critique policy and curriculum but coach a team or organize a Fun Fair.
Godspeed. Let’s keep in touch. What would you recommend?
Sue Careless is cofounder of Parents for Responsible Education, a Toronto group.