How to Be a Better Activist

Yesterday was a huge day for me, having the privilege interviewing 9 experts about everything one might need to know about how to be a better activist, and hearing both from accomplished organizers on the outside like Lola Elfman and Karl Frisch to people who play the inside game: people like Republican lobbyist Andrew Shore. We even had two people with experience in answering the phones come in and chat about how that process works and what’s involved: Annalee Flower Horne and Sarah Shive.

I’ll be posting the videos up next week, but I wanted to get some of the top lessons out of my head:

  1. Ire Doesn’t Work

While Congressional Dissatisfaction is high, upwards of 80% of members of Congress get reelected. Congress knows this and because of this, they’re not afraid of constituents calling and screaming on the phone. They won’t treat anything you say as threatening, they’ll treat you like you’re crazy. So being overly aggressive, rude, or otherwise belligerent just doesn’t work. The same goes for the community as a whole. Congress isn’t afraid of being called stupid or sellouts because, well, whatever you may think about them, people keep voting for them.

More importantly, even if you do express your ire, you’re not taking it out on the right person(who again, doesn’t care that you’re angry). About a year ago Sarah Shive and Annalee Flower Horne used to answer the phones in Congress. This is what they look like:

Sarah and Annalee said it best: “yelling at the person on the other end of the phone when you call Congress is like yelling at your waiter in a restaurant about your food not being cooked right.” Their job isn’t to make decisions or change policies. The job of a legislative correspondence desk is to efficiently take messages from people, and as accurately as possible aggregate those messages up the chain of command. They cannot change the temperature of your steak on your own, and if they could, they probably would. So when you’re writing to Congress or calling them up, keep that in mind.

  1. Dispassion Wins

Andrew Shore, the Republican Lobbyist for NetCoalition said: “I’m able to persuade members of Congress effectively because it’s a job for me.” In other words, Shore isn’t “fired up and ready to go” over his clients, he’s doing a job for people who are paying him. This, he says, gives him an advantage over others who may be more passionate, but more irrational about the change that they’re seeking. By taking the charged up emotion out of the problem, he’s able to weigh the opposition, see where the pressure points are, and look at the system objectively.

This is interesting friction because obviously – because the more charged up you are and the more you care about an issue, the more passionate you’re going to be on an issue, but the less objectively you can look at it. Andrew, on the other hand is a hired gun. He’s able to look at the issue, figure out where the mechanics of power are, and execute a plan.

If you’re looking for a reason why professional lobbyists tend to trump citizen advocates – sure, money and time may have something to do with it, but so does knowledge of the system and a good plan.

  1. Know Your Assets

Lola Elfman from talked a lot about a theory of change. One key piece of advice she had for activists was to develop a theory of change and to take an inventory of your assets. What’s that all mean?

A theory of change is the idea that you should work backwards from your ultimate goal, and leverage every asset that you have in order to get there. So, the change you want to make is “end world hunger” then you should ask yourself how does that get achieved, and work backwards until you start finding some immediate actions that you can cause in order to create that change. “End thirst” isn’t a very actionable outcome, but “build wells in Africa” is. So finding who you need to convince to get those wells built, and what you need to do in order to build those wells becomes actionable items. It sounds a lot to me like the ideas behind the popular productivity book Getting Things Done. Breaking up large tasks into easy, achievable (and measurable) subtasks.

In order to do that, you need to grab a pen and a piece of paper and also take a look at the assets at your disposal. Your assets are a total inventory – from your laptop to your award winning sense of humor (in my case, it includes an amazing Al Gore imitation), and from the friends that you have to the amount of time you have to dedicate to the project.

Once you know what your assets are, and what specific changes need to be made, you can start making some changes.

  1. The Way Congress Listens is Broken

Back to Annalee and Sarah, one thing we discovered that I found terribly frightening was this: the average office in the United States Senate has two people dedicated to answering the phones and an average of four people there to handle all the phones, emails, letters, and faxes that a Senator receives. Let’s do some math.

We got the math (laughably) wrong during the show, but it’s still amazing. Presuming that the average call lasts one minute, this means that a Senate office can handle a total of 120 calls per hour, or 960 calls per workday. There are a total of 100 senators, meaning the entire United States Senate can handle 96,000 calls per day, and the House can handle about 417,000 calls per day. So at their maximum, most efficient capacity, Congress can hear from a little over a half million people per day, or 0.167% of the population. Since it’s not statistically sampled, how’s Congress to know whether or not people are actually upset about something, or that it’s just a well organized fringe?

Fortunately, smart folks like Marci Harris and Josh Tauberer are working on the problem at Popvox – thanks to her for coming and talking about her solution that is “building the road between people and Congress.”

  1. The Internet Offers a Lot Of Assets

Jeremy Carbaugh from the Sunlight Foundation showed off a plethora of tools for how to monitor what’s going on in Congress and perhaps explore some of those levers of power inside of Washington. Tools like Influence Explorer,, and aren’t just educational tools – they’re the “Yahoo Finance” of politics: the tools people like Andrew Shore use in order to understand the mechanics of power in Washington and use them effectively. When you make your inventory of activism assets, make sure to include these.

  1. Media Can be Activism Targets, Too

Show producers and media personalities are as susceptible to public pressure as anybody else. Karl Frisch reminded us that we need to be better media activists: if you want better media, start writing to the media and telling them. It’s a topic covered in my book, as well as Dan Gillmor’s seminal mediactive.

  1. Faxes Are Dumb

Just because Government tends to be behind the times a bit on technology doesn’t mean they use the fax machine. Don’t even bother was what Sarah and Annalee said. They don’t get counted, they generally just get thrown out. I told them I knew of one vendor who specifically only used faxes to send letters to Congress and they laughed at me and said “wow, no one should ever use them.” Ouch! Sadly, the same day a service I use frequently, HelloFax launched this.

  1. Conclusion

Hope these tips are useful. And if you find what I got out of our guests useful, try following them on Twitter. Here’s a handy list of those that are on twitter. And Then there’s Annalee, who seems to prefer Google+. Look for the videos to come soon!

I’m sure that I haven’t covered it all: just 8 hours of interviews is nowhere close to enough time to master this subject. So if you have any thoughts or ideas – or even disagreements, you should let me know in the comments. And if you find this useful, you can always buy the book!.

Thanks to O’Reilly, Expert Labs, Popvox, and Alex Howard for their support and help throwing such a great event.

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