Shirley Brandie is a clean air activist from Ontario, Canada who works to educate the public and elected officials about the health risks of wood burning.
People concerned about wood burning keep emailing her for help, yet when she suggests they talk to their local council as a first step, they seem disappointed that she doesn’t have a “magic wand.” She wishes she did have that wand because, as she says, “their stories break my heart.”
Shirley asks The Shitty Activist, “How do you get people to speak up about the issues that are directly affecting their lives?”
Well, Shirley, there’s some good news and some bad news.
The bad news is that there is often a gap between people’s beliefs and their actions. People can believe in a particular cause with all of their heart, but that passion doesn’t always translate into taking concrete steps to achieve a specific goal.
It’s not that people don’t want to fix things—they probably want it as much as anything—it’s that they often don’t know how to go about doing so.
The truth is, a lot of activism involves constant re-creating of the wheel, with isolated activists around the world trying to come up with the best way to tackle a problem that has likely been dealt with dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of times before.
Because potential activists feel like they’re starting from scratch, they feel apprehensive, and are reluctant to get their feet wet.
However, if they’re given a simple blueprint to victory, set into a framework that unites them in solidarity with others already working for the same cause, they are much more likely to get involved—and win.
The good news is the issue Shirley works on—wood smoke pollution—is devising just such a framework. Folks concerned about wood burning have created an international coalition called Doctors and Scientists Against Wood Smoke Pollution, which is taking the wood smoke issue from local to national and international.
Now, when someone emails Shirley about wood smoke, she can tap them into the projects and discussions going on around North America. A potential activist can see what others have tried, what’s worked and what hasn’t, and—through their own efforts— add to the institutional knowledge of the cause.
Of course, this isn’t just useful to clean air advocates. Any movement looking to succeed might think about having local, national, and international components—even if informal ones—to tie into.