In addition to participating in the occasional big event, such as a rally, march, or lobby day, you can organize your own gathering to raise awareness of your cause and recruit others to get involved.
"House parties," for example, are an increasingly popular organizing tool: You invite friends to your home for food and drinks and to watch an educational DVD, listen to a guest speaker, or join in a conference call with an expert or an official. Guests then may write letters, sign a petition, make donations, or join a mailing list.
At some Amnesty International house parties, guests watch a documentary about interrogation practices used by the U.S. government, and then they can write a letter or sign a petition on behalf of specific detainees at Guantanamo.
By speaking up at a public forum—such as a "town hall" meeting hosted by a local politician or a public hearing—you can share your point of view on an issue. In this kind of venue, you can ask policy makers whether or not they’ll take a specific action. You also may capture the interest of the local media that are covering the event.
Several years ago, Herminia Servat’s immigrant-advocacy group, CASA de Maryland, drafted legislation addressing the problems of domestic workers in Montgomery County, Md. She and the other volunteers met with members of the county council individually and spoke at hearings and community meetings. CASA members gathered thousands of signatures at malls, churches, and Metro stations for a petition supporting the legislation. "We had to show the council that it wasn’t just domestic workers who wanted this passed," said Servat.
As a result of CASA’s efforts, the Montgomery County Council recently made law a measure providing greater rights for domestic workers. Believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, the law requires, among other things, that employers offer written contracts specifying the terms and conditions of employment, including hours of work and pay. "For so long, this work has been invisible and hidden, but now, finally, workers have a document supporting them and the support of the county," said Servat.
Reach a broader audience by writing editorials or letters to the editor for local and national newspapers and Web sites. You can express your views in a brief letter if you’re responding to a recently published article, or you can write a longer op-ed if you’re delivering fresh perspectives based on your expertise or experience with an issue.
"The op-ed pages of major newspapers and Web sites are read by diplomats, businesspeople, scholars, and those in the highest levels of government. They can sway public opinion and change the world," said Catherine Orenstein, who has written for and inspired articles in The New York Times, Ms. Magazine, and The Washington Post about helping women have a voice on the nation’s op-ed pages. Orenstein travels the country teaching seminars for women on writing editorials and getting them published. Although she does not keep a tally, she said that more than 20 of her former students have sent her published essays to let her know of their success.
To get an editorial published, Carolyn Lumsden, editor of the editorial page at the Hartford Courant and a former president of the Association of Opinion Page Editors, advises making your argument pithy. "Keep it to 700 words or less, and don't expect the editor to cut it for you," she said. She counsels making your point clear right at the beginning and asserting why you are uniquely suited to write about the subject. "Use lots of evidence," she continued, "reports, statistics, expert quotes. And then acknowledge the argument of the other side and answer it."
Lumsden urges prospective editorialists to respond to the news quickly. "If something happens, try to get your op-ed in that same day, or the next morning," she said. Finally, emphasize your own take on the issue. Don’t just repeat what other columnists on your side of the fence are saying. Use your story, and end the editorial with forceful statements.
Finally, she advises, "Make sure you copy edit and fact-check your op-ed before you send it. If an editor finds a mistake, that can seriously lessen the chances of the piece being published. You start to question whether the author has done their homework."
Tap into the broadest of audiences by using social-networking Web sites, such as Facebook.com, MySpace.com, Change.org, and AARP.org, where you can create profiles and find groups and individuals who share your interest in certain issues. Setting up a new group on any of these sites is a free, simple way to establish an initial Web presence for your cause, so that you can post event notices, contact information, and more.