Accidental Activist

How to Effect Change (in Less than 30 Years)

The business of being an activist requires an immense amount of patience - and a lot more besides.

By Ben Bull
Published September 28, 2007

During a seminar hosted by a prominent Toronto journalist that I attended recently, I put my hand up and asked: "Are you making a difference?"

The reason I asked this was because the journalist in question had recently written a series of articles on affordable housing and crime, and yet nothing had come of it.

"What are we to think when we advocate for change," I continued, "and nothing changes?"

I knew that this reporter was employed by a 640,000 circulation newspaper. If she can't make things happen with all that influence, I wondered, what hope if there for little old RTH?

The reporter considered my question for a second and then replied: "I do make a difference. I have no doubt about that. I am able to get the discussions going, to give them momentum. It's just that some discussions take a little longer than others."

This response got me thinking, again, about activism. When I consider today's hot-topic Hamilton issues like bringing in the CBC and building a light rail network, it occurs to me just how long these affairs have been on – and off - the agenda.

Councilor Brian McHattie brought up the need for a CBC bureau shortly after he first came into office, some four years ago. And Light Rail has been in and out of focus here on RTH ever since our inception.

Other municipal events have taken even longer to curry favour, Like Toronto's HtO beach on the Harbourfront - essentially a huge sandbox with umbrellas – which took 30 years to build!

All of which leads me to conclude, once again, that the business of being an activist requires an immense amount of patience. And a lot more besides.

As is customary (for me at least), I have thought long and hard about how, and why, some political issues get attention and others don't. So here are a few ideas about why this happens, and what we can all do to push our way up the political speed-dial.

Five Steps to Effective Activism

1. Create Pressure. As I sat in on the CBC presentation in Hamilton it occurred to me that one of the reasons this had come about at all was because Hamiltonians had made themselves heard.

The more time I spend in the world of activism the more I realize that building a successful cause is like putting water in a dam. You write letters, you make phone calls, wave banners at demonstrations, sign petitions – you do whatever it takes – and it creates pressure. The water builds up.

Eventually the dam bursts. Often, as is the case with the CBC at least, the initial puncture may be just a trickle – a 'promise' perhaps, of better things to come or a token policy gesture - enough to roll back the tide. Of course this may initially set back the cause a little, but so long as the water fills back up and the pressure is maintained, the dam will burst in the end.

2. Craft The Message With Care. As with all aspects of communication how the argument is framed and targeted is essential. It's not about you, after all, it's about your audience. What do they want to hear, what interests them, what will get their attention?

Messages which are simple and relevant to the target audience are always more effective. Is 'Make Poverty History' a good tag line? How about 'Light Rail. Right Now.' (Hamilton rail coalition's soon to be released campaign)? Campaign messages that communicate clearly outlined objectives that resonate with a target audience will get through.

3. Communicate The Message With Care. How to disseminate the message? Should we have a demonstration and throw rocks? Should we write letters to the editor and op-eds, too?

Although direct action ending in violence has sometimes contributed to a cause's success (see the UK Poll Tax riots of 1990 – hey, I was there!) there is rarely any energy for change unless there is a definite substance to the debate.

Likewise, its unlikely change will be affected unless the time has been taken to build meaningful relationships with friends and foe alike – the protagonists and proponents of your cause, the key players in the debate.

Fill the dam up with good will, well-thought-out articles and well placed points of view and see the pressure build.

4. Timing and Luck. There is not always a lot you can do to affect the timing and luck surrounding a debate except perhaps to recognize that these are two key aspects to its ultimate success. If political history has taught us anything it's that policies are generally only implemented when the time is right.

I wonder whether Churchill would have become Prime Minister if he wasn't Secretary of Defence first. Could Bush have invaded Iraq if the Twin Towers hadn't been hit?

Here in Hamilton we have to ask: why is the Lister funding being promised right now? Why is transit so high on the political agenda? Could factors like the upcoming election, increased congestion and the alarming prevalence of smog days have anything to do with it?

The timing and luck involved in political change can also depend on unpredictable waves of public opinion, which, from time-to-time, wash their way over the powers that be and burst the banks of the dam.

Sometimes disconnected world events – wars, actions by other countries, economic upheavals – precipitate a change. In so far as you can predict events related to your cause it is worth remembering that often all an activist can do is work to frame and inform the debate and then wait, wait and wait – until the time is right.

Sometimes, of course, change comes a little too fast. Perhaps we did need to beef up our airport security measures ahead of the Twin Tower strikes, but are all these other measures necessary? If a change is brought about in a time of intense political pressure there is always a risk of a knee-jerk reaction, a good intention gone astray.

That's why it is critical for policy advocates to try to stay in touch with as many of the factors surrounding an issue as possible, so that when change does come the manner and timing of it is managed and the policy is implemented in the right way, for the right reasons.

5. Patience! Some of the most critical political issues have been set back through lack of patience. While it is important to keep the waters of the dam filled to the brim, it is also important not to muddy them and shake them up too much.

A protest turned sour because of the slow pace of change, or a nastily worded op-ed may make us feel better for a while, but it may also put back our cause months, years or longer still.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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