ACLU Activist FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

What is an "activist"?

Although there are many definitions around the word, we take "activist" to mean someone who is actively trying to improve the world by working on the issues that they care about. An activist can be from any race, gender, educational background or part of town. An activist is simply someone who cares enough to use his or her time and energy to work on an issue.

Why should I take actions?

When you take action you are showing your support for a better world. If you don't act, you are showing your acceptance of the status quo and all of its inequalities, restrictions, and problems.  America was created because people took actions that would free them from oppression. Throughout our history people have continued to take actions that would improve and strengthen the USA (through elimination of oppression, promotion of equality and defense of liberty). You too can help improve our society and eliminate injustice.  You can see the successes of active citizens and the ACLU in the Inspiration and Motivation section.

What actions have the most impact on Congress?

The impact of an action is often dependent on the Member of Congress. Elected officials care about their constituents' thoughts, so letters, phone calls and visits to this Member will help shape their policy.  If the Member cares about their image in the press, then letters to the editor and stories about their bad policies will give them reason to change.  

In general, the more time an action takes, the more attention the Member of Congress will pay. For example, a handwritten letter carries much more weight than an email.  And a personal visit to the Member's office carries more weight than a phone call.

Elected officials know that some actions (writing them a letter) are easier to take then others (coming to meet with them). They will judge your and others' committment to the issue by the type of action you undertake. If 50 people sent the Member of Congress handwritten letters, it would get his or her attention.  Please see "What do my actions accomplish" for more information.

Do elected officials read my faxes and emails?

Members of Congress do not normally read your faxes or emails personally, but their staff do and report constituent feedback to the Member. When an elected official's office receives mail from a consitutent it is logged and an intern or correspondence manager will reply (under the Member's signature). The correspondence manager should keep track of the constituent's concern (which issue you are writing in regards to) and at the end of the week usually provides the Member of Congress or their Chief of Staff with a report that details the constituents' concerns for the week. When they receive a large amount of feedback on a given issue, it may cause them to re-think their policies on a given topic.

On a more local level, elected officials often personally read and reply to the letters and emails they receive from their constituents.

How can I affect decisions in my community?

The vast majority of people are not active in their community. When you decide that you want to become active, you can lobby your elected represenatives and others ot make choices that are beneficial to society. You can also raise awareness on the issue by writing letters to the editor. You could even start your own newsletter or organization in order to promote positive change. You'll probably be surprised at how much of an impact you ca have if you put your mind to it, but don't be stopped by temporary setbacks.   Please see the "Action Checklist" for a list of actions you can take.

How can I meet other activists and work together?

ACLU affiliates are active in each state and hold frequent events and meetings (they also have mailing lists that you can join).  Other organizations might advertise their meetings in the classified section of local papers. You can also find other organizations by searching the web. Another option is checking out Yahoo Groups or and see if there is a meeting in your area. If there aren't, you can create your own announcement and see if there are other interested people in your community (there usually are).  Please see the Community section for more tips.

Where can I get training and develop skills?

There are number of ways for you to get trained (you can look at the list of training resources we've compiled). If you wish to hone or practice your skills, we recommend volunteering with ACLU affiliates. If the affiliate is unable to use your help, there are probably other organizations that could benefit from your skills.

Have activists ever made a difference?

If activists hadn't made a difference then we would still be living under monarchs, without the right to vote, and without any of the freedoms and civil liberties that we prize. India, United States, England and most of the other democracies in the world came about because people decided to become active and try to create a better world for themselves and their families. Sure, names like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. are famous, but you have to remember that they did not act alone; they were part of a larger movement that was made up of thousands of people who cared enough to get active.  You can see the Inspiration and Motivation section for more examples of how people have made a difference.

How can I avoid being overwhelmed?

Sometimes the complex issues, negative news and the public apathy can be very disheartening for an active individual. To avoid getting overwhelmed by these issues, there are a number of things that might help:

  • Instead of working on multiple issue, pick a single issue and work on that (this allows you to develop expertise and focus your energies instead of spreading yourself too thin).          
  • Find other people in your area who are working on the same issue and coordinate with them. This will help you learn from other people's experience and work together on the issues you care about.

Please also see the training section on Stress Management and Burnout Prevention.

What are my rights to protest and demonstrate?

Your rights to protest and demonstrate may vary depending on your local laws.  You could consult the ACLU's briefing paper on the Right to Protest.  We recommend getting legal advice before undertaking a protest or demonstration.  ACLU affiliates can often help or refer you to others in your community for assistance.

How can I support the ACLU?

You can support the ACLU by becoming a member, joining the ACLU Action Network, and the other actions listed on the Action Checklist.

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