But our path can’t be that easy, or why advocates can’t be Amazon

Even I, who have not watched television since the 2008 Olympics, have seen those “easy button” commercials. And my husband and I joke about how Amazon.com makes it so easy to order (just 1-click! great!) that we end up buying way more than we really needed (and paying more; we’ll do just about anything to get stuff delivered).

We know that there are two ways to shape behavior: the hard way, which requires motivating people to do something different, even something that they may not really want to do; and the ‘easy’ way, which relies instead on changing the context in which behavior happens, so that we reset the default.

I still think that there’s a lot that we can do to make it as easy as possible for people to advocate, and I still think that’s a fundamentally good idea. There are enough barriers to action naturally that we need to make sure that we’re not constructing any more.

But, the more that I think about it, the more convinced I am that, unfortunately, we just can’t make activism too easy.

If our targets–those decision-makers we want to listen to us and to our concerns–know that it’s that easy, I worry that our impact will be sorely diluted. I mean, the movements that have really changed societies (and, in the process, laws) have required far more than a click from people. And that has been precisely their power, the ability to demand much of people who, in the process, discover much about themselves and their leadership.

I don’t know what the tipping point is, certainly, that spot at which advocacy becomes too easy to be very meaningful. And I’m not going to stop thinking about how we need to build cultures within our organizations and our movements that create as many entry points as possible, that provide people with activism mentors, and that integrate advocacy into people’s lives to the greatest extent possible. To do otherwise is to pretend that “real” advocates will do anything, against any odds, and that kind of martyr complex doesn’t do anyone any favors.

But I’m also not going to spend a lot of time figuring out how to “amazon” our advocacy efforts, how to strip them down to such a low threshold of engagement that we are asking very little of those we want to move.

Because, really, are we moving them much, in the ‘1-click’ school of activism?

I get it, I do, that building activist structures is probably easier than helping people connect meaningfully with a cause, and with each other, and overcoming the powerful inertia built into our psyche and our culture in order to bring people together for transformation.

I guess I’m just concluding that our world is a little different than buying books (and loaf pans and tape refills and everything else my husband finds for us on Amazon). Here, there has to be some sacrifice, because the advocacy is a signal to those in power of what we’re willing to expend to address the problems that motivate our action.

There has to be some struggle.

And that doesn’t come with free shipping.

6 responses to “But our path can’t be that easy, or why advocates can’t be Amazon

  1. I struggle, Melinda, with this as well. We get the encouragement to “just click here” to sign a petition, send a form email, etc. I wonder how much good those things tend to be. Sure we get people to do it, but does anyone really see it or do anything about it?

    But on the flip side, when we are trying to motivate a busy parent to get her ideas/concerns to a legislator, we are far more likely to get her to send an email than write a letter or make a phone call. So, we settle with trying to get that parent to take the email and at least change it, write their own personal story, etc. with a real goal of getting some other meaningful interaction from them.

    As always, thanks for the thoughtful blog. Now… go buy local so all the locally owned stores don’t dry up and lawrence is left with only a walmart and amazon boxes on everyone’s doorsteps!

    • Audra, what if we think about ways to make advocacy both more meaningful and still pretty easy for our clients? What if we invite policymakers to come to an open house to meet families, or collect stories and deploy them in our advocacy? What if, essentially, we’re sort of asking the wrong questions–“how can we make emails and phone call responses to action alerts quicker?” instead of “how can we turn some of what our clients are already doing with us into advocacy?” What do you think?

  2. You are right. I think this is one of the big lessons I’ve learned thus far in the Advocacy Fellowship (note, I said ONE of the big lessons).

    I think all of our families want to know they have a voice and I think MOST want to leave an impact, but few know how or feel they have the ability to do it. When we do ask families to join us in an effort – either by telling a story, or allowing us to share their story for them, or meeting with a policy maker – we always hear similar responses. They say, “Me? Really? you want ME to go?”

    I think it is about empowerment and opening a door where someone didn’t even think there was a portal.

    But I still go back to the blast of emails – this is the one area where we still struggle. The “just click here” from our WONDERFUL partners in advoacy who call us to action is helpful. But in our telling parents – change the subject line – erase parts of the email (or all if you want) and write your own story – they freeze. We are not there with them, helping them form the words, they are in their homes and writing. Some will do it and they do it well. Others don’t.

    So for those who don’t, is the forwarding of the “just click here” email good enough or is it better for them to not do it at all?

    • Here’s my take on it, Audra, but I’d love to know what others think. Jake Lowen and I spend a fair amount of time talking about this very issue, actually, and there is quite a bit of emerging literature on these questions, too. I think that, if you are building relationships with elected officials, such that, when the emails come in–even in ‘form’ form–they are in context (“oh, I know that organization, and I know that they’re mobilizing their constituents to advocate on this issue”), then those form emails can still mean something, especially if they are a valuable way for you to ‘ease’ people into advocacy (as a first step, then, not the sum total of their advocacy activity). I certainly still reply to some of those alerts, sometimes because it’s a quick way for me to take action on an issue that isn’t really central to me, and sometimes because I just want to preserve a relationship with the organization doing the asking. But the key is that you’re doing an analysis of what your goal really is, and why this particular tactic feeds a strategy likely to bring success on that goal. Is there someone who is likely to be moved by a lot of communications that are pretty impersonal? Are you using an e-advocacy alert to build a list of advocates that you can then mobilize in other ways? If the answer to those question is yes, then it can absolutely be valuable. But if we’re just asking people to email because we fear that we can’t ask them for more, or because we don’t know what else to ask, then we have work to do in building our leaders, organizing our base, and/or expanding our arsenal of approaches.

      What do others think?

  3. Yes, we certainly have those who will do more. (that pyramid Jake talked about is very accurate with our partners – some we engage in more personal, powerful ways than others). I, too, want to hear more from others on this topic.

  4. Pingback: Happy Week! Three years in retrospect | Classroom to Capitol

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