What Would Rosa Do?
Rosa Parks. Now she made a difference. The outpouring of emotion at her death this year was a reminder of how a simple act of protest--refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man--could steer the history of a nation.
But what about the rest of us?
Mary Shull used to be pretty typical of the overburdened, uninvolved American. She would read the news and feel peeved and powerless. So many issuesthat the Pittsburgh stay-at-home mother cared about--from the war in Iraq to the deficit. But with a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old, so little time to get involved.
Shull found that getting involved isn't as daunting as it might seem. Eager to do something, she signed up with MoveOn.org, the grass-roots Internet advocacy group. Still, when an organizer asked her to help get out the vote in the 2004 election, her first thought was: "Are you crazy? I have two little kids I'm making dinner for." Nonetheless, she set out nervously the next day, children in tow, to knock on neighbors' doors. "People started thanking me, and I thought, this is pretty cool."
Just click. Though special-interest lobbying is now a $3 billion-a-year industry, the spread of online political groups has tilted the playing field more in favor of regular citizens. With a few clicks of the mouse, busy people can stay on top of their issue, connect with others, and make contributions.
But computers do not carry much weight in the legislative arena. Online petitions and E-mails are the communications most likely to wind up in the trash; half of congressional staff doesn't trust them, according to a new survey by the Congressional Management Foundation.
When it comes to applying leverage to lawmakers or getting action on the local level, the personal approach is best. Grass-roots experts and congressional staff agree that the single most effective step is to meet with the lawmakers who represent you--in a local office, the state capital, or Washington, D.C. Learn who your representatives are, which one is in a position to advance your cause, and what his or her stance is on your issue. (Online advocacy groups and Internet search engines are a great way to ferret out these details.) Arrange a meeting, tell your story simply and from the heart, and end with a specific request.
Lindsey Connelly learned firsthand the power of this approach. When she was 9, a brain tumor left her blind and unable to walk or talk. After years of physical therapy with Easter Seals, a nonprofit health agency, the 14-year-old can now speak, dress herself, attend school, and walk short distances with assistance. All that progress, however, was threatened by proposed cuts to Medicaid, which pays for her treatment. This October, just before a key congressional vote on the cuts, Easter Seals brought Connelly and hundreds of others to meet their representatives. "If they didn't keep Medicaid up," Connelly said, "it would basically paralyze me." The vote went in her favor, though Congress is still negotiating the legislation.
Even Christopher Kush, an advocacy expert who helped prepare Lindsey for her trip, was surprised at how much her story moved the lawmakers. "There's something unignorable about a human being sitting and asking for your help," says Kush, the author of The One-Hour Activist: The 15 Most Powerful Actions You Can Take to Fight for the Issues and Candidates You Care About .
If going through lawmakers doesn't work, you can always appeal to the court of public opinion. Writing letters to the editor and opinion pieces is a great, free way to draw attention to a cause. Protests and rallies are another. "If you're ignored by your representative," says Kush, "then you raise hell."
This story appears in the December 26, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.