Grassroots Advocacy: Putting Yourself Out There

Posted Wednesday, October 26, 2011 - 10:58
Find fresh ways to energize support for libraries
NYPL supporters give the main library a protective hug June 4 at the height of a budget battle with the city. Photo by Walter Chang

Librarians shouting about funding is fast becoming old news. We need to find new ways to take a stand against library budget cuts. A grassroots push is a terrific advertising tool, and it can be really fun to pull off. It’s a wonderful motivator to get people out and keep them coming back to do more. An event can score press coverage, and it will allow you to frame the debate the way you want it to be seen. Having a rally, a march, or a read-in gets to the heart of activism and advocacy. Mobilizing people toward a common goal is an incredible achievement, in whatever form you accomplish it.

First, take some time to think about your goals before you go rushing off to organize an event. What do you want to achieve? Do you want to get some press? Are you trying to collect a mass of petition signatures and postcards? Do you want to show your numbers to politicians and decision makers at a public hearing?

What’s your goal?

If you are trying to get petition signatures, then go where the foot traffic is, even if that is not near your library. If you are trying to bring the press out, then make sure there is some kind of hook to draw them. Are you trying to rally your supporters in the community? If so, don’t plan an event at 10 a.m. on a workday. Think about what you want in the end, then create the event to fit those goals.

If you want a big press event, you need to be creative. “Librarians Protest Budget Cuts” is . . . ho-hum. The zing of “Librarians Read for 24 Hours” or “Zombie Librarians March to Protect City’s Brains” can get reporters excited about what you are doing. Give supporters and politicians something new, a fresh angle, and they will (hopefully) attend in force and get you into the media stream.

Are you trying to put pressure on politicians directly? Show up at a budget hearing and see if you can give testimony. Line up your speaking points in advance and rehearse them, be polite but firm, and dress professionally. Ideally, you’ll bring along a bunch of your friends and supporters, who will do the same.

Avoid pointless activities. Identify your target audience, and plan your event accordingly. It can feel great to wield an angry sign and yell at the world, but if nobody is listening, you need to try another way of getting your message across. Find people who will listen, and find things to occupy their time while they are out there supporting you. Soaking up the rays while you wear a library T-shirt does not equal activism (sorry). Use the time and resources you have at hand. A dozen marchers protesting where neither politicians nor press can see them may seem like a waste of time, but if they are drawing a crowd, they could be getting a huge number of petitions or postcards signed.

Keep ’em on their toes

If you plan ahead, you will be able to use your time, personnel, and resources to best effect. Don’t go to a budget hearing and scream while throwing books. Don’t ask your well-loved school librarian to burn the mayor in effigy. (Rule of thumb: Don’t burn anyone in effigy, or you’ll end up looking like an idiot.) But there’s no reason why the same campaign can’t include both a dignified patron making a plea that brings tears to politicians’ eyes as well as a radical street-theater event with puppets and balloon banners. Changing your tone keeps people on their toes and prevents them from putting you and your ideas in a box.

Remember that you set the tone for your event. When we plan an event, we try to keep things fairly chipper and fun. People have a lot on their plates. If your event promises to be compelling, fun, and rewarding, chances are people will show up in droves.

You also need to give people something to do at your event. Just holding a sign gets pretty boring. Don’t make the task onerous, but giving folks a job allows them to feel useful and helps you out in turn. Have them fill out a postcard. If they seem invested in that, then have them ask other people to fill out a postcard, too. Did a mom with kids just stop by for a minute—but she uses the library all the time? Maybe she would like to have her children color a ready-made “I Love My Library” sheet, which you have handy. Let people take a shift at the petition table or the sign station, or ask them to work the crowd with a stack of postcards. If you vary arrangements and change tasks, people will stick around and find new ways to help out that you hadn’t anticipated.

Reach out to your natural allies

Libraries don’t exist in a vacuum. You can’t make a case for your public library’s budget by going against other public service providers. Budget cuts are terrible for everyone. Over the course of your campaign and during events, opponents, skeptics, and the media will probably try to pit you against other public service providers. Don’t let them. Buying into the false competition not only insures that you lose valuable allies, but also validates the notion that public service cuts are acceptable. Your job is to get out there and make an affirmative case for libraries—not argue that 100 library workers are more valuable than 100 firefighters or 100 teachers. Keep your event on message, which means library-focused.

It is extremely important to reach out to other public service providers fighting cuts and invite them to your events. By doing so, you are concretely demonstrating that you consider them to be allies. Having a rally at your library branch? Make sure to drop off a flyer at your local firehouse and police precinct. Take the time to attend the events of other groups. A rally protesting education cuts is a great place to pass out flyers for your candlelight vigil as well as make organizational connections. Show through your actions that the fight to protect public libraries is a fight to protect essential public services.

“Being involved” means different things to different people. Some folks may like attending a rally, while others limit their involvement to gathering petition signatures or writing a letter to the editor. Whatever their comfort level, it is essential that they feel their contribution is welcome. Ideally, supporters will dip a toe into the water of activism, and then slowly submerge themselves until they are full-fledged activists. This won’t happen if they are derided for their initial efforts. Many groups lose supporters early on because burned-out organizers berate new recruits and lay a guilt-trip on them for “not being committed enough.” Don’t make that mistake. Thank people for showing up, welcome whatever level of support you receive, and give people opportunities to get more involved. Never take it personally and lash out if folks don’t act the way you want them to. Also, keep in mind that guilt is a lousy motivator. Telling people “You weren’t there last time but you better be there this time” ensures they will never come out to an event again. Instead, give them a purpose: “If you do” is very different from “Because you didn’t.”

While planning a rally, march, or demonstration, it is imperative that you take the time to research local laws or ordinances relating to public gatherings. You presumably have a legal right to protest, but how that protest is expressed may be the subject of regulation in your town. Many cities and towns restrict the location or size of gatherings and require permits. Some also ban the use of certain signs or props. Don’t wait until the actual event to discover this. You want to keep your participants safe and informed. If you have a National Lawyers Guild in your area, contact them, or ask your friendly (and free) public reference librarian to help you research local laws. Make sure to verify everything with a reliable source (preferably the actual printed ordinance). There’s a big difference between what someone may find objectionable (a loud rally, for example), and what is actually illegal. Know your rights.

As an organizer, you have a responsibility to your participants. Are you characterizing an event as child-friendly? Be sure the event really is family-friendly. Will your event draw a significant police presence? For one reason or another, some patrons or groups may be wary of law enforcement and may avoid events that will attract police or security officers. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t include protests, marches, or demonstrations in your campaign. Just be sure your intent and the situation are clearly communicated to supporters so they can make an informed decision about attending.

Ultimately, the best advocates for the library are the gifted and committed staff at the library itself. When people receive great service, they value that service. When people can count on you for help when they need it, they will be much more likely to help you when you need it. Serve the public as if your life depended on it, and the life you save might be that of the institution itself. Communities value their libraries. Individuals love their libraries. Make your services, collections, and programs so great that even suggesting library cuts is political suicide. Together we can make libraries safe for generations to come.

LAUREN COMITO, ALIQAE GERACI, and CHRISTIAN ZABRISKIE are librarians and library activists in New York City. Their organization, Urban Librarians Unite, and the Save NYC Libraries campaign it coordinates, have put on 24-Hour Read-Ins and a Zombie March and formed a human chain around NYPL’s Schwarzman Library. They have solicited over 10,000 postcards from library users, dressed as superheroes and clowns, and are willing to try just about anything to keep the doors open and the desks covered. To find out more, visit www.urbanlibrariansunite.org and www.savenyclibraries.org.