I’ve been involved in Amnesty International for almost seven years (I make seven in September), three of them with the local St. Louis chapter and four of them with the Saint Louis University chapter. It’s not actually all that common in Amnesty for students to transition to a local group, partly because the resources aren’t exactly there to aid the transition and partly because life can get in the way once college gets out the way. But, I digress.
In these seven years, I’ve learned a lot about human rights work and what it takes to make things happen. Events are never easy to host and to plan, and it’s even harder to bring people to them. There are 1001 human rights issues to work on, and you can’t work on all of them. You have to pick on or two. Besides those, here are four major lessons that I’ve learned from all that human rights work.
You Need Different Avenues for Engagement
Not everyone is going to attend every single meeting, but this doesn’t mean that those who don’t attend meetings aren’t engaged or interested in human rights. It might mean they can’t make those meetings, or that they don’t have the time for meetings. To increase engagement, you need a variety of ways for folks to engage with the issues and with your group. This can include a website, social media, email, a newsletter, online actions. Having options for more passive engagement, such as social media or email, allows people to interact on their terms and when they do have the time.
Besides, some people might not want to jump into a meeting or into events with a new group right away. These passive engagement opportunities can allow those people to become more accustomed to the group and/or the issues before finally showing their face at a meeting or event.
Phone Calls and Handwritten Letters Have a Lot of Impact
I’ve heard it said more than once that handwritten letters and phone calls don’t work. People won’t read them, or listen, or care that you care about this or that. Not only is that not true, but these naysayers often don’t have good solutions of their own to accompany their criticisms. I like to think that those are just excuses for them not to do something, not to care, and not to worry about these issues at all.
In fact, phone calls and handwritten letters can have an immense impact, and they did have an immense impact in Burma’s release of its political prisoners in early 2012. No, it wasn’t just one phone call or a handful of letters. It was a lot of calls and letters over a long period of time. The point with these is simply to take actions, to show concern, and to put pressure. One doesn’t put any pressure. But, once there are hundreds and thousands of them in reference to one issue, it’s understood what everyone is communicating and what it will take to make it all stop.
You Have to Make it Relevant to Them
When our chapter was focusing on the three Generation 88 students in Burma who were sentenced to fifty, sixty years in prison for protesting the gas prices. While gathering signatures for our petition, a young woman asked what this had to do with her and the United States. Honestly, not a lot when you consider the circumstances with the situation in Burma, but if you don’t try to make it relevant, we won’t get this person and many others on our side.
You do have to be creative with relevancy, and in this particular instance, the best way to show relevancy might be to say that s/he could have a direct impact on helping these people. But, with today’s information overload and with everyone vying for everyone else’s attention, you really need to show how the issue is pertinent to the person you are talking to and how it’s worth their time to sign the petition (or donate money, or whatever the specific action is).
You’re Not Going to Get Everyone to Care
Once, when I was gathering signatures for a Troy Davis petition (petitions are a big part of Amnesty’s work, if you haven’t noticed), an older woman declined because she believed that pedophiles deserved it. Although pedophiles can never ever receive the death penalty, unless they happen to kill the children, this woman was no longer willing to listen to us even though our petition had nothing to do with repealing capital punishment (just repealing it for Troy Davis).
The point is, not everyone is going to care about the issues or about human rights, even if the she is misinformed as to when the death penalty is applicable. Yes, it’s important to try to change those attitudes, but you also need to pick your battles and to change attitudes with the right methods. Obviously, an argument stemming from a signature request isn’t the best place or way to have the discussion.