STAND UP

A scientific, six-step plan to becoming an effective political activist in the age of Trump

When Donald Trump pulled off a stunning upset and became the president-elect of the United States, I knew I was ready for a fight. But like a lot of people, I wasn’t sure where to begin.

For the past three years, I’ve worked with educators using a method called “improvement science” to create lasting change in schools. The method has also been used to improve everything from health care to car manufacturing to project management. And I believe it can also give us a framework for political action in the age of Trump.

The beauty of improvement science is that it gives you a framework to do the following things:

  • Understand what change you want to make
  • See the full picture of what stands between you and your change
  • Remove the barriers to getting started
  • Support yourself as you learn your way into change

Here’s how to put this method to use:

1. Ask, “What does success look like to me?”

The first principle of improvement science is to be clear on what qualifies as a success. So the very first question I asked myself when I sat down to craft my post-Trump plan was, “If I’m going to utilize my very limited time and even more limited resources to do this, what am I hoping to accomplish in the next year? What would success look like to me?”

This step is often ignored in favor of jumping directly into the fray. But while quick and decisive action is honorable, it is much less likely to result in effective change than actions that are aligned towards a specific vision or goal.

I decided that for me, I would feel like I’d had success at the end of a year if I was much better informed about what my representatives were up to. I love the idea of being someone my senator or representative might call to get a citizen’s perspective. Most of all, I wanted to be someone who went beyond “talking the talk” of tolerance and opportunity and was actually actively engaged in creating it.

I am self-aware enough to know that in New Jersey, a state of nine million people, it isn’t very likely that I’ll ever be on Cory Booker’s speed dial. And yet I let that be my vision. The power of setting a clear aspirational vision isn’t about feasibility. The power of vision is that it keeps you motivated and helps you prioritize amongst your many options. If your vision motivates you and keeps you focused, it’s working for you. Don’t let others tell you that you’ve set your sights too high.

2. Ask, “What are all the things that I could I do?”

The second principle of improvement science is to develop an explicit theory of improvement. What do you think it would take to move from where you are today to realizing the vision articulated in the first step? Getting possible steps out on the table helps you to evaluate them more objectively. This is partly a brainstorming activity; don’t try to be “sensible” just yet. Here’s a short list of the ideas I came up with, in order from truly crazy to pretty mundane:

  • I could start a nonprofit watchdog group to help citizens be more aware of their representatives’ actions (crazy mainly in that I already have three jobs)
  • I could go through a community organizing bootcamp and try to organize my neighbors to join me in monitoring legislation
  • I could micromanage my senators and representatives, calling them every week to express my opinion on current issues and encouraging them to speak out
  • I could find and sign online petitions

The list goes on, but you get the idea. Whatever comes to mind that feels even remotely actionable should be written down. After you’ve generated your list, take a look at it. What feels both high impact and somewhat accessible? Pick one.

3. Start somewhere—anywhere

This is where things get real. It’s time to take on one of these potential things that you could do and get started doing it.

When faced with the sheer number of possibilities we could take to create action, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and wind up paralyzed. So it may make sense to start small and choose the thing that feels the most accessible. Action breeds more action, so whatever gets you going is worthwhile.

As I was working on this article, writer Emily Ellsworth had a series of tweets go viral about how important it is to call your elected officials. Since making those calls was already on my list, I decided to give it a shot.

4. Think about what might stop you from following through

Probably the most misunderstood aspect of creating lasting change is the belief that, once we know what we should do, we will automatically follow through. If this were true, everyone would exercise regularly and follow a sensible budget. We know, however, that this is not the case. Every single change, no matter how small, is hard. Human beings are entrenched in their desire to do what is familiar, and really dig in their heels against change when they have a “competing commitment,” such as an unspoken worry.

That is why it is so important to acknowledge and address what you are worried about when you first make your plan of action. I had a number of concerns about calling my elected officials, but most of all I was worried that it wouldn’t actually make a difference. What impact can one voice have?

I decided to get a more informed perspective before I made my first call. I reached out to two congressional staffers, one who works for a senator in the Northeast (speaking anonymously), and Emily Ellsworth, who has worked for two congressmen in Utah. I asked both of them, “Is calling in worth the time? Does it really make a difference?”

Both staffers stressed that constituents who call their elected officials contribute to a larger picture that includes all the calls, petitions, and town hall meetings. Collectively, these combine to represent the concerns of the people, which elected officials know that they must listen to. “Your strength is in your numbers,” the senatorial staffer said.

Your voice is particularly important if you come from the political center, they said. “We hear from the far left and the far right, but we rarely hear from the vast majority of people in the middle,” Ellsworth said. And when the vast majority of centrists don’t speak up, congressmen wind up catering to the interests of loud, organized fringe voters.

“The Tea Party showed us in Utah what happens when you do organize and call,” Ellsworth said. “When you are organized and call and show up to town halls, it’s your voice and your perspective that gets addressed. They [the elected officials] know who’s watching.” In the end, both staffers agreed—calling in, writing to representatives and attending meetings really does make a difference.

5. Lower the stakes and expect to fail

One of the best things about having the framework of improvement science in place when you are trying something new is that you expect your first time to be kind of terrible. You just know that you’ll make rookie mistakes, and you’re ready to roll with them. There is absolutely no expectation that you’ll get it right the first time. The method insists that you get started so that you can collect the information that will make you more effective at the fastest rate possible.

With my concerns assuaged, it was time to actually make some calls. I steeled myself, dialed the first number… and hung up partway through. I was nervous! I didn’t want to look like an idiot, and I really wasn’t sure what I would say if the staffer who picked up asked me questions.

But then I took a deep breath, picked up the phone, and made the call. A staffer answered the phone and I asked her in an awkward tone whether my representative had released a statement against Steve Bannon. She said, sounding a little annoyed, “Yes, his statement is on the website.” I asked where, found it on the website, and suggested that he feature it more prominently. The staffer thanked me and we hung up.

The whole thing took less than one minute. It was not an amazing experience. I did not feel high on the elixir of democracy, but I did feel that I had made my voice heard. If that’s what it takes to be a voice of the people, I can do that again.

6. Optimize through action, and prepare to succeed faster than you expected

Next week, I will call again, and I’ll do better. I’ll be less awkward, and I’ll know that the woman who answers the phone is a little cranky. Over time I’ll find ways to win her over, I’m sure—maybe by looking at the representative’s website before calling. This is not rocket science, and I expect to have the kinks worked out in no time.

That’s the other great thing about using improvement science to help make a change. Just as you assume that you’ll land on your face the first time, you know that by taking action and analyzing how things go, you’ll become amazingly proficient before you know it. It was true when I learned to run, when I learned to budget, and when I learned to create visuals for my website. It will be true when it comes to activism as well. I will learn to be an effective voice in my government, because my country depends on it.

Follow Amanda on Twitter @aj_crowell and visit her website, Powerful Peony. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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