Taking Root through Civic Engagement
Posted by Paul
February 26, 2015
This past weekend, I attended Take Root: Red State Perspectives on Reproductive Justice. It’s a conference held in Oklahoma dedicated to outlining and working through the struggles of RJ activism in unfriendly environments. As was expected, the conference was excellent, the panels were very informative, and this year they had the largest number of attendees yet!
One panel I attended that I really thought was interesting was called RJ and Civic Engagement. The question it raised was, “How do we develop and support effective reproductive justice activism and civic engagement?” The panelists all spoke on effective RJ campaigns they have been a part of, and the strategies that led to that success.
The first thing they talked about was the definition of civic engagement and how to accomplish it, in general terms. This definition included things like informing voters, inspiring action, building a vibrant and powerful movement, and continuing development. The idea here is that engaging the community on issues that affect them can be a very powerful tool for promoting justice.
One of the major points I thought was important is that they stressed the importance of one on one conversations. Putting ideas out on social media can be useful, but nothing can replace a face to face conversation with someone. People respond to direct communication much better than anything else, and they also build a comfort level with talking about the issues to others. This aspect is equally important for the spreading of the movement.
A key part of conversational activism to remember is to meet people where they are. This applies geographically, linguistically, and ideologically. Physically, we need to go to where people are to talk about issues instead of passively waiting for them to come to us. There are more allies out there than we know, but most of them won’t take any action unless they are reached out to by the leaders of the movement.
Linguistically, we need to make sure we are communicating with people in a manner they can understand. For many, this may mean translation of materials into the language they are comfortable with. But this also could mean that we need to use basic terminology and not much jargon when talking about issues to people without a background in the subject.
Ideologically, we need to be patient with people as they transition to being more aware of the issues around them. For most of us, there was a time when we were not knowledgeable or had different opinions, and it takes someone seeing that potential in us as advocates for us to take that next step.
Another major part of a successful RJ organizing effort is encouraging and supporting people’s ability to take action. Taking action is transformative. It can move a person from a silent supporter to a champion for a cause. Even something as simple as showing up to a protest or a group meeting can allow people to see their role in the movement as important and valid.
Often people in conservative communities feel isolated, and may believe there are few others that believe like they do. Active community involvement helps with that. The more people are involved actively with the cause, the more visible it is in the community. This success leads to more success in the future, as more people are thinking and talking about our issues.
One of the best examples of using all of these tools to bring together an effective engagement campaign was brought by Julie Burkhart, Founder and CEO of Trust Women. Last summer, Trust Women ran a campaign here in Wichita, KS to identify and engage supporters in the community. They did this by doing a door-to-door canvass where volunteers and staff talked to potential supporters, taking a survey, and having supportive individuals sign a petition.
This utilized the aspects of face to face communication, meeting people where they are, increasing visibility, and encouraging action. The campaign was effective, with many citizens excited to see this being done. This work is especially impressive given the special stigma assigned to abortion in Wichita after the murder of Dr. George Tiller in 2009.
Because of some of the unique challenges of this campaign, we discussed tips for how to go about pursuing a campaign like this. Trust Women used data from several sources to identify potential supporters, to increase the amount of supporters they could reach with limited time. This also helped with safety issues, reducing the amount of people that would be unwelcoming to this topic.
Take Root is a unique conference, because it allows us in hostile environments to learn from each other how it is best to approach activism and engagement in our communities. Much of our information on these issues is based on organizing in swing states, or even supportive states. Take Root goes beyond that, and helps us to learn what works for us.
There are few spaces for us to do that, and for that reason I am extremely grateful this conference, now in its fifth year, has grown into such a force for activists in states like mine.