Today in the U.S. we are facing one of the worst climates ever
for access to medical care and social services for AIDS and
other needs. Government budget problems, combined with the
dysfunctional financing of medical care, are threatening
Medicaid, ADAP, and the long-standing agreement that most people
with HIV in the U.S. can get treatment.
For years the AIDS community has done well in the media and in
building public consensus on what needs to be done. But we have
been much less effective in grassroots organizing -- in giving
those who agree with us effective, satisfying actions for making
their values and priorities known. Perhaps 1% of U.S. citizens
who care about AIDS have *ever* let any of their political
representatives know it. So Congress, the White House, and state
and local governments seldom hear from their constituents back
home. And that hurts everything that happens in AIDS.
After watching this happen for years, I have become convinced
that we could do much better in mobilizing popular support, by
slightly refocusing some of what we are already doing. AIDS
organizations and activists already have the skills and
Improving Action Alerts
As an example of what is needed, consider what must be changed
to improve Internet action alerts so that they are truly
accessible to everyone who cares, not only to experts or
A year ago, it was clear that we were being hurt in Washington
because members of Congress were hearing about AIDS (especially
international issues) mainly from media and a few activists and
professionals, but not from the voters in their districts. Since
then important progress has been made. Now there are usually
several action alerts and sign-on letters circulating at any one
time. As a result, more people are contacting their
representatives, and AIDS is treated more seriously in political
These action alerts vary in quality and credibility. Some
include errors that could easily be fixed, such as misspellings
or obsolete information. More important are judgment issues that
are harder to detect -- such as whether the alert is based on a
thought-out, workable strategy, or only on somebody being upset
one day and wanting to do something. And many alerts try to get
people to act by hammering on how bad the problem is -- while
those most likely to respond already know this, but need help
with other obstacles.
The main problem is that unless people recognize a sponsoring
organization or already know the issue very well, they have no
way of knowing which action alerts they truly want to support.
Therefore many alerts that may look accessible (because they
correctly avoid jargon, abbreviations, or insider code meanings)
are still effectively available only to those already involved.
The general public, even those who completely agree on the
issues, cannot use them intelligently.
Even very experienced activists have sometimes had to retract
their endorsement of a campaign that turned out not to be what
it seemed. How can we expect people to speak out on our issue if
we do not negotiate the necessary credibility up front?
The Right Target Audience: Those Who Care But Are Not Already Connected
Action alerts should be credible, feasible, and rewarding to all
who agree on the issue -- not just AIDS specialists. Here are
- Any action request or other grassroots campaign should be
designed for a target audience -- not for no one in particular.
For most alerts, we suggest addressing someone who already
agrees on that issue, but may live miles away from the nearest
AIDS organization or activist, and not personally know anyone
involved. Imagine also that this person wants to bring the alert
to his or her church group, civic or political club, or other
social circle -- also non-experts. An action alert package must
provide exactly what is needed to do so. Probably it will
include a one-page explanation, plus a background document (or
Web link, preferably to a page designed for that campaign) for
anyone who wants more information.
People usually join causes not as individuals, but as members of
social circles. Therefore, campaigns should facilitate group
involvement, as well as helping individuals who want to act on
- The action alert should be based on human values and not
assume special knowledge of facts, or of their special
significance. If it does include facts, these should be
separated from the action item, so that people are not asked to
sign someone else's research. Otherwise the alert will lose
supporters unnecessarily, because many will feel that they do
not have enough background to publicly endorse the factual
statement. For example, everyone would agree that children
should not die, but not everyone would sign a statement saying
that 610,000 children under 15 died of AIDS in 2002.
- The way to make an action alert credible to the general public
is to negotiate it in advance among different organizations
and/or public figures, including some that are widely known and
respected by the general public (such as Doctors Without
Borders, which recently won a Nobel prize), or major churches,
or popular celebrities. This may seem like a lot of work, but in
fact it is already being done. For years AIDS organizations have
developed sign-on letters, often endorsed by over a hundred
well-known organizations, including both AIDS and non-AIDS
health, political, religious, and other groups.
These sign-on letters do help. But unfortunately they waste most
of their potential, because once they are released they are
finished. They do not involve the public because they give
people no chance to act. Usually the letter and signatures are
delivered to some office, and perhaps a press release goes out.
Then it is all forgotten, because there is no follow-through.
On the other hand, most action alerts do have the follow-through
in public involvement -- but did not bother with consensus
development. Generally they are sent out by one organization
that is all but unknown outside the AIDS field. No wonder they
cannot generate many letters, phone calls, or other actions
requested, since only AIDS specialist can be confident that the
action request is credible.
Imagine what could be done by combining consensus development
with actions that any supporter could take. These action alerts
could break out of AIDS circles and reach many more people.
- One way to make it much easier for someone to bring an action
alert to his or her church group (for example) is to get a
national office of that church to endorse it. Then all the
members of the national group have an occasion to bring the
matter up if they want to.
The way to get organizations to work together on a citizen-
action campaign is to reach a meeting of the minds first. This
requires ongoing dialog to discover areas for working together.
Instead of bringing a finished product or preconceived plan, see
what can be developed mutually. The AIDS catastrophe affects so
many people and organizations that the opportunities for working
together are endless.
- Once this groundwork is done, one still must tell people about
their opportunity to help. Reaching the public is a separate
challenge. But there are self-starters who can pick up an issue
from a friend's email or a newspaper, without needing an
organization to provide someone to hold their hand. And we can
publicize campaigns by coordinating them with major news
- We should pay attention to developing actions that fit
gracefully into peoples' lives. We need to understand and
address their real reluctances to act. Contacting state or
federal political representatives, civic or political
organizations, corporate offices, etc. should not be a high-anxiety chore.
Perhaps citizen action could become a practice worth doing for
its own sake -- designed to guide us through effective styles of
everyday living. Imagine a discipline like Tai Chi, only built
on interpersonal moves instead of physical ones. (This writer
started a Web site to explore the possibility,
The bottom line is that by properly targeting our action
campaigns, and negotiating the right consensus and sign-on in
advance, we can involve many more people than before -- without
necessarily building a major national grassroots organization,
something the AIDS community has not yet been able to do. Better
use of the skills we already have could increase public response
many times over. We are addressing people who already agree with
us on the issues. The critical need now is to provide specific
actions that truly work for them.
ISSN # 1052-4207
Copyright 2003 by John S. James. Permission granted for noncommercial reproduction, provided that our address and phone number are included if more than short quotations are used.