Doing something small but meaningful

Post-US election, I’ve seen some advice on how to have impact (mostly focused on political impact) through small but meaningful actions, and do so sustainably. I wanted to start collecting such resources here.

A friend wrote on how to be more politically involved without burnout:

1. I know donating money doesn’t feel like doing a lot, but it’s often the most effective and efficient way you can help people or push for change. Setting up automatic monthly donations to your organizations of choice is extremely helpful because it allows them to plan effectively over the longer term rather than trying to figure out what to do with a sudden windfall or figure out how to make up an unexpected shortage. Check whether your employer has a matching program for extra leverage!

2. I looked at my weekly schedule and found a few places I reliably have time to make phone calls and do research (to figure out what I need to be making phone calls about and be sure I have enough background information)….

3. I am trying out a few local volunteer opportunities, and I’ll see what sticks in the long term.  If [the first thing I try] doesn’t seem sustainable for me I’ll look for a different opportunity. When you are considering volunteer opportunities, look for things you will enjoy. Do you like talking to people? Do you enjoy manual labor? Would you like your volunteering better if you brought some friends with you, if you worked alone, or if you got to meet lots of new people?

4. Connecting with an organized group is a fantastic way to avoid reduplicating a lot of effort. I’m using the spreadsheet at to guide my calling efforts and short-circuit my dithering about how to rank the many important issues I could be working on….

6. Don’t think too hard about where to put your efforts. There are lots of different things you could be advocating for, donating to, or helping with. You don’t have to find the very best one! It’s really easy for me to get caught up in trying to figure out what the very most important issue is, and how I specifically can be the very most effective helper I can, but every minute devoted to trying to figure out what to do is a minute you aren’t actually doing the thing. Pick a set time to research — “I am going to find and compare organizations working to help people register to vote for the special elections in North Carolina for 30 minutes” — and then go from there. ( — they’re currently organizing, so they know money will help and they’ll be contacting me later in the month or in February to let me know what else I can do from out of state)…

More good advice at the link.  And I like that a lot of the advice also applies well to any cause (burnout is always an issue), which also giving concrete examples and resources for people who share the author’s causes.  Also, I miiiight be the kind of person frequently subject to analysis paralysis. ;)  So the last point is well taken.

Do Something, courtesy of Crooked Media, also has a bunch of resources with specific suggestions for actions.  Most very specifically are related to electing more Democrats and/or fighting Trump.  If those are your causes, check their links out.  (To be clear about my own biases: I am mostly aligned with those causes, but try to keep this blog less partisan and more focused on effective solutions to specific issues.)  I’ve bookmarked the Indivisible Guide to dive into more later.  The subtitle is “Former congressional staffers reveal best practices for making Congress listen” — it looks like it’s got a lot of broadly applicable advice for getting things done within the US political system.

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Talking to Congress (and getting them to listen)

I’m still reeling from the recent U.S. election, as I know many are.  But I already see lots of folks mobilizing to start communicating more with Congress.  So I wanted to pass on Former Congressional staff member Emily Ellsworth’s tips on communicating effectively with your Congress peeps.  A few key points:

  • Phone call > letter > email > Facebook or Twitter feedback
  • The most effective way to express your opinion to the staff is to call the state district office (rather than the D.C. office)
  • If you want to talk to your representative in person and have a back and forth discussion, go to a town hall meeting.  They’re usually sparsely attended and just the same faces; big potential impact if you bring friends.
  • A more specialized point: if you do any local advocacy work, invite staffers to your advocacy events.  They will enjoy attending, better understand the situation on the ground, and then treat you as a resource/expert to consult in the future.

If you happen to be in D.C. when Congress is in session, you can also meet with your representatives and senators in person (or in some cases their staffers), just by making an appointment.  Check the tips on how to be effective in such a meeting.

Edit: more specific hints on how such a phone call should go — and a sample script — below.

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Would a non-binding proposition to overturn Citizens United have any impact?

(And is that even something we should do?)

This year, California has a non-binding ballot initiative asking CA state lawmakers to do everything they can to overturn Citizens United via a constitutional amendment.  Many other states have had or currently have similar propositions on their ballot.  In trying to figure out how to vote on this strange advisory initiative, I considered these factors:

  1. What has the impact been of Citizens United?  (Is it all negative?)
  2. Is this proposition an effective way to try to overturn it?
  3. Are there other campaign finance reforms we should be focusing on instead?
  4. Should non-binding propositions be discouraged?

TL;DR: an amendment is not likely to be an effective approach for addressing the downsides of Citizens United, because amendments are way too hard to pass. It’s also difficult to craft well, and some organizations like the ACLU oppose such an amendment (others, like the L.A. Times, object to committing to an amendment without knowing the specifics). There are many other campaign finance reforms suggested that seem more plausible, and important. Additionally, this non-binding resolution seems unlikely to be all that effective at persuading CA lawmakers to shift much due to the current political situation.

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why are U.S. protest marches less effective than they used to be?

[Note: this post has a lower ratio of fact to “I think”/”someone on the internet thinks” than I would like.  Even more than usual, I’d love to know about more facts/research on this topic, if you can point me at any.]

I recently started working part time at UC Berkeley, where I often walk through Sproul Plaza.  Everyone at UC Berkeley talks about the protest culture of the school, and the protesters and protest organizers frequently gather in Sproul.  The other day, I got into a conversation there with an undergrad manning a table that said something like, “You’re radical and I like you!”

Me: What are you promoting?

Him: on March 4th we’re taking part in a march to protest the state of education in California.  We’re trying to get everyone to participate — get everyone at Berkeley to march off campus and into the downtown, but also everyone from the surrounding K-12 schools.

Me: What are you hoping to achieve with this protest march?

Him: Well, we have a lot of complaints… [he elaborates and hands me a pamphlet]

Me: Okay, but how do you hope the march will help address these issues?

Him: Well, there will be a lot of organizations involved.  People will get to see that they’re not alone in caring about this. It’s good to not be alone.

Me: So the march is an end in and of itself — a place to vent frustrations?

Him: Well, no.  We hope to change things.

Me: How?

This went on for a while before I took pity on him and left him alone.  I don’t think he was unusual in not knowing why exactly he was marching — but it got at an issue that I’ve been wondering about for a while, and have only been thinking about more now that I’m in Berkeley.  When and how do protest marches actually work?  It’s clear that they sometimes do have a large impact on society — Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington, the anti-Vietnam war protests, Gandhi’s march to the sea, and recent effective protests in places like Pakistan, Thailand, and arguably Iran (where the Green movement seems to be bringing about potential long-term social changes, even if the protested election results still stand) provide examples of how protest marches can aid social change.  Why haven’t we seen marches with comparable success in the U.S. recently?

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Activism and the worst-case scenario

Let’s say that an activist believes that a law (or collection of laws) needs changing.  Because the law exists, bad things happen that would not otherwise occur.  How should an activist raise awareness about the need to reform the law?  One popular strategy is to focus on the worse possible consequences of the law.  Say we’re arguing for universal health insurance.  Our goal is to make the case that things need changing.  Instead of highlighting the person who doesn’t go to the dentist for a few years, we bring up someone who goes bankrupt from medical bills or dies.  Two questions about this strategy come to mind.   First, is the worse possible outcome representative of the existing institution?  That is, is focusing on it reasonable?  Second, given the emotional make-up of the intended audience, is focusing on this worst outcome a good motivator for social change? I don’t have clear answers to these questions; mostly I just want to raise them and then discuss the blog post that inspired me to ask the questions in the first place.

The answer to the first question depends on how best to render moral judgment.  For instance, the political philosopher John Rawls suggests that we should assess economic policies by considering the people who gain the least from them.  The worst case is the case that determines the character of the policy as a whole.  A utilitarian, on the other hand, would look at the average outcome of the policy.  A strict egalitarian would care only that outcomes were equal along the dimension that she considered relevant.  Many other standards of judgment exist, though some of them would probably seem perverse to most people. 

The second question—the emotional question—is the one I found myself asking earlier this month when I read a post on a blog (  that addresses the interests of the transgendered community.  In the post, the author describes a transgendered woman who got into a car accident four years after she began her sex change.  While she was in a coma, the doctors and her parents decided to reverse her decision by giving her male hormones.  They justified their decision by arguing that restoring her to her original hormonal profile would maximize her chances for emerging from the coma.  However, her friends strongly believed that she would not have consented to this course of action had she been able to do so.  As friends, not family members, they had no power over her treatment.

I noticed various things about this post.  First of all, the outcome is, I believe, unjust, and a worst-case scenario from the point of view of transgendered people who want their autonomous decisions respected by the medical establishment.  In my opinion, the fact that it happened at all is an institutional failure.  Second, the story seemed to overwhelm some transgendered readers of the blog.  A lot of the comments expressed feelings of helplessness and exhaustion and suggested that reading about this worst-case scenario was not in any sense empowering or energizing.  In fact, the blog moderator wrote a second post warning that it, and other posts, could be disturbing to readers (  On the other hand, as I scrolled through the comments, later readers began to discuss legal changes/stopgaps that could prevent the situation from happening to other people.  Thanks to these readers of the post, there is now a website at that is gathering legal information useful to the transgendered community.

(Since I started this entry, the post in question became password protected for a whole other set of reasons.  You can read about it here:

I guess I will end with some questions.  In the situation that I just described, some community members seemed paralyzed and others energized by the worst-case scenario that was presented.  Can we say whether worst-case scenarios are motivating or paralyzing for activists in general?  If it depends, what does it depend on?

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Petitions: effective?

One of the first things I wanted to investigate when I was thinking about this blog was the effectiveness of petitions — particularly online petitions.  They just seem so useless to me.  And yet, a number of major non-profit organizations who generally seem to know what they’re doing sometimes ask me to sign online petitions.  Maybe there was something to them, after all.

I emailed a few non-profits to ask about the effectiveness of petitions as well as other forms of activism.  The answers that I got (which I’ll discuss more in future posts) did not address petitions specifically, and most of them said something along the lines of, “It’s hard to measure these things.”  I decided to do some of my own research — by which, for the moment, I mean “I used Google so you don’t have to.”

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