Standing up for human rights is a noble and challenging mission. It can often come with high risk, so it’s important to be educated and prepared before stepping into the fray. Before beginning, you should be sure to build a strong foundation. That includes educating yourself, knowing how to identify reliable sources and legitimate organizations, and realizing that accomplishing a goal may not occur in your lifetime. Once you’ve put in that early work, here are some ideas on how to start campaigning for human rights:
#1 Recognize the importance of good leadership and accountability
Whether you’re starting your own organization or joining one, it’s essential to take close look at how the leadership is structured and how accountability functions. While passion is necessary for human rights work and should be welcomed, campaigns also need strong leadership and systems for accountability. People and organizations with the best intentions make mistakes.
Ideally, leaders should be those who are the most affected by what the campaign is focused on or at least a huge part of directing the group’s direction. Constructive criticism should be encouraged and not silenced. Well-intentioned groups dedicated to important causes have been undone by poor accountability, so be aware of how that works in organizations you’re a part of.
#2 Team up with other organizations and activists
There’s strength in numbers. To get the most clarity on an issue and devise the best ways to raise awareness, organizations and activists can ban together. This gives a message and campaign more reach and resources. When multiple organizations participate in a campaign, there’s more opportunity for learning from one another, including those with different – and perhaps conflicting – perspectives. As long as there’s mutual respect and a common goal, these unions can be very beneficial. At the same time, you should be cautious about joining with an “unlikely ally.” Make sure you understand any controversies that might be shadowing them or if partnering with them could hurt rather than help your campaign. As with all things in human rights work, thorough research and discussions are essential.
#3 Set clear goals
When you’re starting human rights campaigning, it can be overwhelming. There are so many pressing, multi-faceted issues. Even just taking on one facet of one issue is a big task. A common mistake is neglecting to set specific, clear goals. As an example, if your organization is focused on clean water in a city, you need to set goals where success can be measured. This where research comes in. What areas in that city need clean water? How is “clean” defined? Setting clear goals is foundational to any campaign. Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry developed a “ladder of clarity,” which consists of four rungs to a successful social change campaign. Clear goals are the very first rung. The clearer your goal, the better your campaign will go.
#4 Study past campaigns
What campaigns have come before yours? What was successful and what wasn’t? While academic research hasn’t dug into human rights awareness campaigns as much as other types of campaigns, there are still many examples out there. Look at different methods – like writing letters, protests, fundraising events, advocacy, and more – to get ideas on multi-pronged strategies. Find and talk to activists and organizations who have run successful campaigns. You can look to campaigns outside of human rights, too, because many will be structured the same. All campaigns are striving for some type of goal and while details may vary, there’s something to be gleaned from any campaign that achieves its mission. Learning from the past is an important part of paving a way forward.
#5 Plan on using a variety of strategies to raise awareness
Successful campaigns don’t rely on a single strategy. To get your message to as many people as possible, you’ll use a variety of outreach methods. As an example, let’s consider fundraising. Relying on a single big event may bring in a lot of money if it’s done well, but you can raise even more money by employing a handful of methods. That can include talking to local businesses about matching donations, applying for grants, and using social media to run multiple fundraising campaigns.
How do you know if a strategy will work well? As we mentioned earlier, studying past campaigns is a great way to see what resonates with people. You can also “pre-test” your strategies through focus groups and surveys to see how people are likely to respond. Thanks to the internet, organizations are now able to reach more people than ever before, but it can still be challenging to get your message out there. Use social media and the web to your advantage, but have other strategies (like public actions) in place, as well.