by Emily Bookstein, ’11
In spite of its nickname “the Farm,” Stanford offered students few avenues for studying the food system: it took years of student activism before the university added coursework in sustainable agriculture and set aside a half-acre for a sustainable ag practicum. But in 2009, student demand still overwhelmed the small farm classes and the campus food-systems community was fragmented, underdeveloped. As the leader of a food-and-farming student group, I believed that an educational farm would nurture a stronger student community and spark changes in food policy and personal behavior. When I and other club leaders discovered that the Dean of Earth Sciences, Pam Matson, was going to propose creating a 2-acre educational farm to President Hennessy, we seized the moment and started a grassroots campaign advocating the proposal. From circulating online and on-paper petitions to parading a huge carrot (made of chicken wire and papier–mâché) through White Plaza, we aimed to popularize and build support for the farm. Hennessy approved the proposal, and the farm is being sited.
Three years later, I am a community management intern at Causes.com, a Bay Area tech startup that builds free online tools for grassroots organizers. My coworkers and I help independent activists and non-profits alike to run collective action campaigns and develop issue-oriented communities online. From this vantage point, I can see a little more clearly why our farm campaign succeeded, how we failed, and what we could’ve done to get what we wanted. I frame these thoughts as a short-list of five principles that I believe would apply to any campaign.
1. Give a reason for today. I can imagine that signing a petition for a student educational farm might, at first, rank pretty low on many students’ agendas. After all, there are so many good causes to support, not to mention so many assignments to complete. But we tied our campaign to something urgent – the Dean’s proposal for the farm, otherwise to be evaluated in an administrative vacuum free of student voices – giving students reason to take action immediately.
2. Use the resources you have. What led me to Causes was my interest in the Internet as a resource for organizing – how anyone with an Internet connection can aggregate the power of individual citizens. Beyond using the campus Wifi, the farm campaign team took advantage of three vital and available resources: access to email listserves, which quickly disseminated our petition; friends with established relationships with the Dean, who in turn had access to President Hennessy; and of course, free food to offer while tabling. As a result, we gathered hundreds of signatures and news of the new farm’s popularity reached the president through the Dean. What resources do you already have at your disposal?
3. Use your momentum to build a movement. If our goal was to lend bottom-up student support to a top-down proposal for an educational farm, we succeeded. But if our goal was to launch a student movement around food sustainability and justice at Stanford, we fell short. How come? I would argue that it was because once students had signed the petition, we didn’t provide a next step. To paraphrase the famous activist Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, action is the oxygen of a community organization. I wonder how many times student communities have bubbled up around an urgent issue, only to dissolve because the group didn’t broaden its vision beyond that single event.
4. Follow up. The farm campaign ended with the school year. I stuffed a manila folder full of hardcopy signatures hard-earned from tabling in White Plaza – and there it sat on my bookshelf, never to be touched again. Aside from manually entering all those email addresses into one massive message, I had no way to follow up with people who’d been excited about the farm and signed the petition. This was a loss not only for the sustainable food movement on campus, but for the students who might’ve wanted to pursue their interest in food and farming.
5. Know what you want. In talking with organizers about their campaigns on Causes, I’ve heard the phrase over and over: “we want to raise awareness.” The same was true for the farm campaign coalition, too. We capitalized on the administrative push for the farm to draw students’ attention to the importance of food education on campus. But we didn’t lay out what we wanted from students beyond their signatures. What did we really want “awareness” to accomplish? Acknowledging that we wanted students to join our community as a result of our campaign would have allowed us to proactively plan for it.
Learning on the fly how to lead a campaign, I didn’t concretely identify these basic principles back then. But in my work at Causes, such best practices fairly leap out at me. I contact active student leaders, learn about their organizations, and brainstorm with them how to take advantage of Causes’ social media and campaign tools; these tools run the gamut from interactive quizzes to behavior-changing pledges to straightforward petitions, and they’re designed to be sharable with networks of friends through Facebook and through email. So, the user interface on Causes.com makes campaign tactics – and, by extension, organizing principles – literally visible. I wouldn’t have predicted it, but working for this tech startup is making me a much more organized activist.
Emily Bookstein graduated as an Earth Systems major in 2011. She can be reached at emily dot bookstein at causes dot com.