I´m sure you are all familiar with those email alerts or posts on your Facebook newsfeed from Syria, from Palestine, from Guatemala and even from Colombia calling on you to take action about some human rights crisis somewhere. I don’t know about you, but I often feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of crisis in the world and underwhelmed in my ability to make a difference in light of everything. After all, I am just one person. What can I do, besides press the delete button?
I have been living and working in Colombia for just over two years, first on the Caribbean Coast with MCC partner Sembrandopaz, and now in Bogota with Justapaz. The people I worked with, including Ricardo Esquivia, became friends. During my time on the coast, I joked with the community leaders of the movement of the Mountains and didn’t sleep for three days during the peace march.
When Jorge, one of the community leaders, was put in jail, and Ricardo and the rest of the leaders threatened with arrest, it was real. All of a sudden, I was the one sending out email alerts and posting petitions on Facebook. I sent in letters to all of the addresses in the action alert in a flurry of activity. I felt a complete lack of agency and this was the only thing I could do to help.
Therefore, I wasn’t expecting a lot. But when I checked my email at work a couple weeks later, I found a short letter from the Canadian Embassy sitting in my inbox. Would I be interested in a meeting to talk about my concerns about the events on the Coast? Was I ever! After some emailing back and forth, some colleagues and I set off to visit the embassy.
Over coffee, we shared about the situation and outlined our concerns to an Embassy staff member. It was a productive afternoon of network building and moving forward. Ricardo and the leaders remain threatened and Jorge is still in jail, yet we know that behind the scenes, things are moving. That is hopeful.
It is also hopeful to know that our small actions work. My contact at the embassy related some of the best strategies for engaging in internet activism. Petitions are okay, but personally addressed letters are even better. My email immediately came to the attention of the embassy because, even though I copied and pasted the text from the action alert, I personally addressed the letter to the Canadian Ambassador in Colombia. In Canada, current policy ensures that government representatives respond to letters personally addressed to them; this is excellent knowledge to ensure that petitions and advocacy actions are actually effective. As well, for each letter received, there is an assumption that additional citizens are also concerned. The more letters, the more that concern is magnified.
It also helps to be clear, to be precise and to ask for specific action items. A bad example of a specific action would be an ask to stop violence in Colombia, but a good example is asking the Embassy to speak to the prosecutors in charge of Jorge´s case and ensure they are operating under human rights standards. Many of those specific petitions can be found in the action alert, already formulated for you.
In her book, The Art of the Possible, Amanda Sussman provides some additional letter writing advice. First, state your objective in the first line. In the second paragraph, state who you are and your credentials, in the third list the rationale for your request and relevant facts, and in the fourth paragraph outline who else supports your views and why. Of course, governments are not the only recipients possible for a letter writing campaign. Think about letters to the editor, faith groups or other human rights agencies.
So, I am only one person. But I can do something. I can a send a letter. I can sign a petition. I click the delete button a little less frequently now and wonder about the lives and friends of the people involved. I may never know what the impact may be, but I have faith that my small actions do make a difference.