Thinking Outside the Box to Create Lasting Messages

Thinking Outside the Box to Create Lasting Messages

By John E. Peck, Executive Director of Family Farm Defenders

One of the sad ironies of the “information age” is that it can be tough to get one’s point across amidst all the other background noise. As a grassroots organizer for a dozen plus years, my best advice is to always think “outside the box” when it comes to effectively communicating your message. Issuing press releases, writing op-ed articles, and holding public forums should be basic skills in any activist’s toolkit. But there are other more unusual strategies out there. Let’s look at a few examples:

Reality Tours: People often won’t believe something unless they see it for themselves, so why not give them that opportunity? When we hosted a “Toxic Tour” of Superfund sites as part of Madison’s annual Earth Week celebration, the bus was literally packed with everyone from reporters and politicians to public health officials and real estate agents! Similarly, just last year Family Farm Defenders and Public Citizen co-hosted a delegation of farmers from seven countries in Europe and Latin America to see firsthand the impact of livestock confinement operations. We chartered a bus to visit several factory farms in northeastern Wisconsin, and at each stop were met by local activists to hear their stories. A videographer who tagged along has since produced a documentary of the whole experience. It is hard to comprehend how manure runoff can close beaches and drive-off tourists on Lake Michigan until you see and smell it firsthand.

Street Theater: Educational outreach can also be FUN, which is why I really enjoy doing street theater. Commonplace materials can be transformed into powerful messengers. For instance, an appliance box with a little cutting and painting can become a “sprawl monster” to symbolically consume agriculture at a local farmer’s market. Our “Santa’s Sweatshop,” complete with sewing machines, child workers, and paltry paychecks, has become a popular addition to Madison’s Fair Trade Holiday Fair each December. When consumers need a reminder about their right-to-know, I jump into a cow suit and have a “Mad Scientist” friend in a lab coat with a faker BGH syringe chase me around in front of a large grocery store! There is no need for a fancy script – just keep your dialogue ad-hoc and the skit engaging with plenty of room for audience participation. And be sure to have flyers and action alerts on hand to distribute to interested passersby.

Silent Agitators: These were made famous by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) almost a century ago when they would decorate a factory with black cats and wooden shoes to let the boss know the union was active. Basically, these are widely distributed, easily reproduced, recognizable images with a clear message attached. A hayrack with a piece of plywood parked alongside a busy road makes a great billboard. If you replicate this using a simple stencil, it will be the talk of the town! Children (and many grown-ups) love stickers, patches, and buttons with cool graphics and political comments – this is often the most popular corner of our Family Farm Defender booth at any community event. A picture is often worth a thousand words, so why not take advantage of this shorthand? Everyone knows what the American Gothic couple looks like, and that there should NOT be a ‘For Sale’ sign on their family farm!

This is just the tip of the iceberg. With a little brainstorming and creative energy, any group can come up with other unique communication methods that could become the hallmark of a successful grassroots campaign.



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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.