Date Published 28 Jun 2021
Read Time 30 minutes

S1.E5: Can digital activism create enduring change?

Words by Kosta Lucas
Season (1) / Episode (5)

Can digital activism create enduring change?

Undesign S1E5 is available on all major podcast platforms.

On this episode of Undesign, we discuss digital activism with Emmy Suzuki Harris. Emmy is the Asia Regional Director for the Change.org Foundation, and has been with Change.org for over 10 years. She personally helped to launch Change.org in Japan, after her work on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.
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Transcript: Introduction

Hello everyone, and welcome to Undesign. I’m your host, Kosta.

Thank you so much for joining me on this mammoth task to untangle the world’s problems and redesign new futures.

I know firsthand we all have so much we can contribute to these challenges, so listen in and see where you fit into the solution as we go on to undesign the concept of digital activism and online petitions.

At this point, it’s almost become a cliche to comment on the effect COVID-19 has had on many aspects of our lives, from travel to mental health. And we can acknowledge that, yes, 2020 was a big one.

But one area which has seen an increase in user activity that’s worth talking about is digital activism. That is, an increase in the use of our everyday digital communication technologies like the internet, smartphones, and social media to support broader efforts for civic and social progress.

According to Change.org, the online petitions platform, there’s been an unprecedented increase in civic engagement around the world since the pandemic began. Change.org alone reported more than 400 million users in 2020, with more than 3 million signatures recorded each week.

On the one hand, it makes sense to see such an increase in online activism. The emotional conditions and the human rights implications of pandemic-related measures and the inequality such measures can exacerbate seem like a perfect recipe for equity and justice-seeking behavior.

But in the sea of content that exists on social media, you could be forgiven for seeing one of those positions and continuing to scroll. There are just so many social issues to care about and so many things to do. What good is a petition, right? Do they actually achieve their goals?

On today’s episode of Undesign, we are joined by Emmy Suzuki Harris. Emmy is the Asia Regional Director for the Change.org Foundation, the philanthropic initiative of Change.org, and has been with the organization for over eight years. She was previously the Campaign Director in Japan, and has also worked as a senior strategist at Purpose, a global social impact consultancy.

We dive into some of the questions that she and her team spend every day trying better to understand, like what makes a campaign successful? What are the fears and concerns that campaigners have to reckon with? How do we even know if petitions even work? And what are the other benefits of digital participation in social change?

Emmy gives us a raw, candid, and reflective take on these questions, making it very clear that there is no silver bullet that leads to enduring change. However, Emmy’s perspective is one which is also rich with beautiful anecdotes about the campaigns that have led to real change for people all over the world. So what are those variables that make these efforts worthwhile, and how can we extend our impact?

Transcript: Conversation

KOSTA: Hi, Emmy. How are you doing?

EMMY: I’m well. How are you?

KOSTA: Good. Good. Thank you so much for joining us today. Where are you calling in from?

EMMY: I am calling in from Tokyo, Japan, where my younger daughter has a fever and is upstairs, and the COVID numbers have been increasing daily.

KOSTA: Oh, my goodness. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today about a topic that I think we’ve seen a lot more of in the current circumstances. It’s probably a topic that you know very well, considering what you do, which is digital activism.

My first question, just to set the scene, is how would you define digital activism to someone that hasn’t really heard the concept before?

EMMY: Totally. I was thinking about this, because I knew that this was our topic. But it’s strange, because the activism that I’ve been involved in has never not been digital.

I cut my teeth on politics in the Obama campaign in 2008. It started with social media, and MyBO and all these things. I feel like that’s the first presidential campaign, at least, where those tools really blew up.

Then subsequently, I joined Change where obviously online petitions are the tool that we offer, but I suppose it’s activism that leverages all the beauty and power of the internet, which in and of itself is such a tool of democratic expression in its best form.

KOSTA: Wow. It’s been a while since I’ve heard anyone describe anything to do with the internet as beautiful. [laughs]

EMMY: [laughs] Maybe I’m a bit nostalgic for when the internet was a little bit more beautiful. But I still believe it’s there. It’s been warped a little bit by commercial interests.

But I like to think that it is a tool that really changes the game. It changes the game entirely, especially for activists.

The moments that make me cry in my job are definitely moments where you see people using it as a tool for good to make their voices heard.

KOSTA: Actually, that seems like a good place to start from. Can you speak on that a little bit, in terms of the powerful ways that you’ve seen activism harnessed in digital spaces? What are some of the beautiful things that you’ve seen?

Just to start off with a bit of hope and optimism. I think that’s a lovely way to start, because we’re going to get to the challenges soon enough.

EMMY: Totally, totally. Gosh, so many. But a recent one where I was like, “Oh, that’s so wonderful” is… I launched Change.org in Japan, and anyone who’s been to Japan or knows anything about Japanese culture knows that raising one’s voice is not necessarily something that comes naturally to your average Japanese person. It’s just a culture that really prioritizes homogeneity and being the same and not rocking the boat, in every fiber of its cultural makeup.

So getting Change to start in Japan was really quite difficult. It took a good number of years to help people to get to a place where they were comfortable with it. But now we see so many more campaigns. And I think the ones that I love the most are when you see a marginalized population in Japan… First, I think they connect online, which I think is the most powerful thing. Instead of being isolated in your own town or city, you realize, “Wow, there’s actually people out there who are experiencing the same thing as me.” Then, from there, they coalesce around an identity and then decide, “Now is the time to raise our voice and make the system change on our behalf.”

I was reading a memoir by one of our staff in Team Japan recently. His name is Mameta-san [Mameta Endo], and he’s a transgender activist. He’s been a transgender activist since he was about 15 years old. They do this annual, very cool event around Transgender Visibility Day, which is an international event. But they had to be really careful about the tactic that they used to raise their voice at the beginning. He was describing it in this book.

The first time he did it, he literally just posted to, I think it was Mixi at the time, because that was like the local Japanese social network. He was connected to like a bunch of people in the LGBT space. And he was like, “I’m going to stand on a street corner in Tokyo, have a megaphone, and I will read out all the messages you tell me for the day.”

It just became this tiny little viral thing, right? Hundreds of messages on this Facebook thread, because obviously he has lots of friends in the community. For hours that day, he and his friends were there, reading out these messages, recording it, putting it back on YouTube. Even that was really powerful. In the book, he described seeing a high school student, just watching from afar, and then giving him this handwritten note of something that he or she wanted Mameta-san just to read. It was like, “Thank you for doing this, because it’s the first time that I’ve ever felt included. I always felt like I was alone on this.”

That’s not a campaign. That’s not a petition. It’s just a moment where, because people can connect and share their stories, they were able to claim space in a public arena that wasn’t there before.

Since then, every year, they’ve done it. It’s actually spread across the country. On that day, many people are just reading these messages out to raise visibility about the fact that transgender people exist in society. It’s such a small step, and yet also such a big step.

So I was reading that [memoir] and I was like, chills. And hopefully, in the future, they will start campaigning more and start challenging the way that we exclude transgender people from various institutions here. But it starts with something like that, which I think is really profound and important.

KOSTA: That’s beautiful. And actually hearing you talk about that, it sounds like a metaphor for organizations like Change, right? Where they are this platform that boosts the voices and opinions of other people on particular topics. Your colleague took on that role of message amplifier.

EMMY: Absolutely. Before Change.org got to Japan, he was the petition platform almost. [laughs]

KOSTA: He was Change.org for that moment.

EMMY: Totally. He was like, “I will be the messenger”.

KOSTA: That’s beautiful. I guess, then, in that case, I don’t know if it’s almost too early to jump into some of the challenges. But I guess we’re talking about this because, given the world lockdown for at least a year… I was reading the pandemic report that Change.org Foundation released regarding the spike in online activity in petitioning.

EMMY: Last year was insane on that front.

KOSTA: Yeah. What was that like from your end to see such a spike in activity? And how do you measure the impact? That’s the next question, I guess. But tell us what the last year has been like in the digital activism space for you guys.

EMMY: I think the first caveat I’ll say is, it’s not like there was a universal trend anywhere.

I think there were countries — like in Japan, for example — where the lockdown situation  led to huge numbers. I think we had double the number of petitions from the year before to last year. And new segments of people, especially young people, taking to Change.org to raise their voice on a variety of issues, both “open my school” to “close my school” to lots of different things.

I think what was really interesting about it was, previously it was sometimes a little bit hard to get decision-makers to respond to a purely digital petition format. In countries where decision-makers are a little bit more old school, maybe not used to dealing with online voices as much, you have to take the petition and then physically deliver it to the Office of the MP or the cabinet member, etc. And that’s something that often people are puzzled by. They’re like, “Oh, I have to go that far to do it?” But because you’re trying to plug into this system that is very much flesh and blood, buildings, and paper (in the case of Japanese bureaucracy), printing it and taking it to the DM (the decision-makers, we call them) was a core part of that experience.

But last year, suddenly that was a dangerous thing to do, right? It was like, we can’t actually physically go and deliver things, especially in the early days when people didn’t know that much. I think there was a lot of fear on both sides. At the same time, there was a lot of pressure on decision-makers to be seen as responsive to public needs in real time.

So we saw a record number of campaigns getting some form of traction very quickly, which is quite rare in a conservative and slow-moving country like Japan.

On the flip side, there were countries where there wasn’t actually a huge increase. My support arena in Change.org includes countries like Thailand and Indonesia. India saw a huge spike. Less so in Thailand and Indonesia, possibly because the Thailand government’s response to the pandemic was actually quite strong, at least in the early stages.

They locked down very quickly, and did a bunch of economic boosting. Compared to the rest of the world, let’s say, people were feeling really good about the Thai government’s response, and they even got, I think, lauded by the WHO later on.

So it really differs by country, but I would say there was this physical imperative to shift online that really drove a lot of activity for a lot of countries, including Japan. We saw big spikes in South Africa, lots of countries in Europe and Latin America and North America.

KOSTA: So, just on that comment around perceptions of the Thai government’s strong response — in Australia, we’re more on that boat, I would say.

EMMY: Totally. Australia’s been really on top of it, is my impression.

KOSTA: Particularly where we’ve been, in Western Australia, it’s more or less been business as usual, compared to the rest of the world. We’re very fortunate.

But I guess, from your view, was there a correlation between jurisdictions and nations that had particular responses to the COVID pandemic that saw an increase and those that didn’t? For example, was the uptake in places like Thailand and Australia… Was Australia in that…

EMMY: That’s a great question. I actually don’t remember what happened in Australia. I just remember thinking, “Wow, Australia feels like they are really on top of their response.” A very strict lockdown, a desire to get numbers all the way down to zero so that you’re really controlling it. And I think someone was telling me that that now there’s no mask mandate or anything in Australia, or something like that.

But I think that kind of early response — it’s also easier to do if you’re surrounded by water and borders are not as open. It’s more challenging to do that in a situation like in Europe. But I’m sure that it had an impact.

KOSTA: Yes.

EMMY: You see, especially in Europe in the US, tons and tons and tons of petitions on how to respond, from various populations that were deeply affected by the pandemic. Lots of activity last year, especially once things locked down.

KOSTA: One campaign example that comes to mind that I briefly read about was Tonia Merz’s campaign for UBI (universal basic income) in Germany.

EMMY: Yes, interesting.

KOSTA: Yeah, I thought that was a very interesting example, essentially considered a more successful campaign on that front. Are you able to talk to the aspects of that sort of campaign that you think made that a bit more effective or successful?

EMMY: I’m not as familiar with that campaign specifically, but I thought what was really smart about it was using a moment of extreme economic uncertainty to make an argument for something like that, and in a moment where everybody and their mom is online and occupying online spaces. If I remember correctly, they were doing really coordinated efforts around Twitter and other… It was basically the public square arena, now that people were basically confined to digital spaces. And it was a really coordinated effort.

I’m sorry, beyond that, I don’t have too much detail. But yeah, I was really impressed that they were able to get so much traction on an issue that quite frankly, in most of the countries that I support, is a non-starter as of now. So definitely Germany is leading the way on that front.

KOSTA: Right. That makes me want to zoom out now again, just out of the current context and looking at digital activism practice more generally. Are there any clear elements that make some campaigns more successful than others?

EMMY: That’s a key question that I feel like Change.org has tried to… We put our lens on that all the time, in the hopes of trying to crack that and get that recipe and formula to more people. And I think we have some inkling, a lot of which is not obviously original to Change.org. I feel like Change.org’s roots come from online organizing, especially in the US.

It’s things like having a very concrete and specific (what we call) “ask” around the thing that you’re trying to change. Having a responsive and accessible decision-maker is another key part of it. And then also being clear about who your constituency is.

Rather than trying to get everybody in the population to agree with you, what you’re trying to do is find something that is clear, narrow, and graspable.

Then I think the other element that maybe is a little bit more Change.org–like is that we really think that personal stories go a long way to humanizing the issues that are being campaigned on. Which is why, on the site, if you’re starting a petition, actually in the guidance that you’re offered, it says, “Try to speak personally. Talk about your story. Who do you know that this issue has affected?” There’s a lot of studies showing that when people consume stories, they’re really consuming them through the details that are being described.

I think the biggest mistake that I see amongst petition-starters is that they sometimes go too big, so they aim their petition at the president or the Prime Minister. And it’s not impossible to reach those people, but it is very, very difficult.

So it’s like trying to think about, when we do our training sessions for campaigners, we think of it as a triangle in which there are many small triangles. Your big triangle might be, say like in Mameta-san’s case, full legal equality for transgender people in every aspect of life so that they can do the things that they want to do. But you can’t get it all at once. In classic campaigner style, you got to go for one small triangle within that larger pyramid.

From a tech perspective, we’re trying to help people in that “Create a petition” flow to think about that and be strategic. But I think honestly, it is hard to do, even for a professional campaigner to think through what that might be. And I think that’s another reason why the secret to success changes — not just the tech, but combining that with really solid support from real humans who know how this stuff works so that everybody can have access to that tool set.

KOSTA: That’s actually been a recurring theme amongst a lot of the conversations we’ve had so far, in terms of this interplay between online and offline dynamics. Which brings me to the heart of this conversation, which is, how do we know that digital activism works?

There’s a lot of cynicism towards visible activist activity. Some people call it virtue signaling. Other people will get upset around activism — sorry, clicktivism or slacktivism.

I’ve got two quotes here that I think sum up the competing positions. One’s from a journalist in The Guardian, and they wrote that,

“Clicktivism is to activism as McDonald’s is to a slow-cooked meal. It may look like food, but the life-giving nutrients are long gone.”

So that’s one very cynical take.

On the other hand, there was some research that came out around how activism is deployed in the US context. And it said,

“One of the biggest misconceptions is that it doesn’t do anything. The second is that it somehow displaces or replaces offline activism. We know that both of these are not true.”

So you’ve got these two big competing schools of thought. Where do you…?

EMMY: I think both can coexist. It depends on the campaign that you’re looking at, to be honest. There are campaigns that probably could be labeled “clicktivism”, where it’s more about people feeling better about themselves in the moment and not really about achieving substantial offline impact — in whatever form that may be, whether it’s a new narrative, or occupying space, or actually achieving, at the end of the day, changes in policy or the way that big institutions in particular treat people. So I feel like, absolutely, there are lots of campaigns like that.

Simultaneously, I think that to say all online activist activity, say all petitions on Change.org, are just clicktivism is a massive disservice to all of the hard work that happens on behalf of hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of petition-starters.

I think the petition-starters we see succeed are the ones who understand this though. They understand that a petition is only a tool. It is not the end game. A petition is really, when you peel the surface back at a technology level, it’s a database of people who are your supporters. Then you really have to put on your organizer hat. It’s like, “Okay, so how am I going to deploy these people who agree with this issue in the most effective way to create the change that they want to see in the world?”

I think that ultimately, in most of the countries where we operate, I would say it is rare that it doesn’t have an offline component — whether that’s reaching a decision-maker offline, or doing some form of manifestation of that sentiment in an offline space. I think it’s hard to have a real impact in the world doing it entirely digitally, although I’ve seen so much creativity around that over the past year, given the constraints that people are facing. But, yeah, I feel like connecting it there.

And that, I think, is a failure on the part of the Change.org site right now, because I think we could be better at helping people to understand that. Coming to Change.org is step one of a longer journey. But I think it’s hard, because we also want people to start the petition, so we don’t want to make it seem too hard, because then it gets intimidating. So it’s a fine balance that we’re trying to strike.

So I think both can be true. Is that okay as an answer to competing schools of thought? [laughs]

KOSTA: I think it’s great. I’ll ask you the hard questions, and then you can give me the hard answer.

EMMY: Totally, totally, yeah. It’s my classic half-Japanese, half-American identity take. It’s like, both can be true. [laughs]

KOSTA: Look, in a post-truth world, so to speak, anything can be true.

EMMY: There you go. Oh my God, terrifying.

KOSTA: No, no, I think that’s actually a very sobering answer. It might be unsatisfying for some to just be like, “How do we know where this actually leads to? What’s the point of investing this time in it?” when really it’s about, “How committed are you to the conversation in the first place? What does this campaign, or engagement with this campaign actually represent for you?”

So I guess my question is then, okay, there’s a level of personal responsibility that I think comes with standing up for a social cause, right? If we are using our platforms to talk about these issues, or to sign a petition and get other people to sign, that signals to people that you are committed in some way, right?

In reality, we can actually see how far that activism actually translates into the offline circumstances. Is there an argument to be made that that’s still not necessarily a bad thing — if people are supporting something, even if the rest of their offline activity is not so clear?

I’m not talking about outwardly contradictory examples, where people do one thing and completely do the opposite.  And there’s that fine balance between performative activism, being seen to be an activist, but also just being like, “Actually, I’m just going to make my position clear on something.” What do you think are the other benefits of civic participation in a digital space like that?

EMMY: That’s such an interesting question. And I feel like it’s one that we think about a lot, especially for the Asian countries that we support. (I feel like all my examples are from Asia, because that’s where I’ve been for the past eight years.)

But it’s really hard. Often in Asian cultures, there is an active disincentive to express your political opinion. Maybe it’s not even political. Maybe it’s just like your opinion. Here’s a classic — a team meeting where the manager asked for questions and it’s silent, because it hasn’t been set up in a way that people feel comfortable giving their opinion.

That’s certainly true in the East Asian cultures that we’ve dealt with. Very true in Thailand and Indonesia, slightly less true in India. The dynamics are different there, so I don’t want to paint it too broadly. But I would say there are a lot of cultures out there where even expressing your opinion is actually a very, truly revolutionary act.

My country director in Thailand, I think she really articulates this well, and I wish she were here. She can express it much better than I do. But they’re in a country that’s tough to raise your voice in. There are real consequences to, say, criticizing the current political system. You could be thrown in jail. People have been thrown in jail for posting a BBC article that was then later dubbed as being critical of the King. It’s really dicey. In that context, the meaning of 5,000 petition signatures on a Change.org campaign, or 10,000 — how do you even weigh that or compare that to a country where freedom of speech is guaranteed, and you can say anything about anyone, and no one’s ever going to threaten your life or your family?

I think, in that regard, it really depends on the context. And for that person, even signing a petition can be really huge. Sometimes there’s some tension within Change.org, because sometimes it’s hard to get folks who are operating from a more privileged context to understand, yeah, that’s a big deal and you gotta start somewhere.

KOSTA: That’s a really big elephant in the room, at least for me anyway. As soon as I asked that question, I realized, “Well, I come from a context here in Australia that, at the most, you might be socially sanctioned, generally speaking.” Obviously, that is going to be different from community to community, from context to context. But by and large, free speech, whatever that means, is something that is prized here. Vocal political participation is generally at a good standard here.

So it’s good to remind ourselves that we can’t be too quick to assume that everyone’s activism at the same level looks the same way or that someone with the biggest intent is not necessarily going to change the world in one go. We’re starting from very different starting points.

EMMY: Totally. I would say actually, even in countries where it’s fairly privileged, the act of raising your voice still incurs lots of costs.

I remember in the UK, there were a series of Change.org campaigns that were related to removing… I think it was called “Remove Page Three”, where there’s a scantily clad model in a tabloid or something in the UK. The young feminists were saying, “That’s not cool. It’s not what I want to look at when I read the news.” It’s just not the bar we should be holding our mass media to, let’s put it that way.

There was an internal discussion at Change and support mechanisms introduced for the people who were working on those campaigns, because the blowback from the online sphere towards these women for even saying these things was so intense — trolling, tracking down street addresses, making active threats. And that’s in the UK.

We’ve had risks and safety issues for many of our staff across Asia, and I’m sure it’s true in many of the other more dicey environments that we’re working in. So I don’t know. I think it takes a lot.

It takes a lot to be the petition-starter, and then in some contexts, even to be the signer. There’s a real price to be paid.

KOSTA: Like you say, safety would be a big concern and a big incentive or disincentive, depending on what is available to protect someone. Change.org or other digital campaign platforms — can you make any guarantees or provide any safeguards that allow people to feel safe, to enter the civic discussion, in a way that they can at least try and protect themselves a bit better?

EMMY: Totally. That’s a great question. I actually don’t know if I have a good answer.

The most recent pressure, at least in the region that I support at Change.org, is coming from increasingly authoritarian tendencies in governments who want to be able to demand a social media platform’s user data about specific campaigns. Say, for example, in India recently. They rolled out a new regulation where every significant social media platform has to have staff in the country who are named, who will face jail time if content is not removed quickly enough, or user data is not given over quickly enough.

We have excellent lawyers who are always advising us on issues that come up like this. It wouldn’t be the first time that governments demand this kind of thing. We actively resist it. The only time that we ever hand over that kind of data is if there’s like a court order in the country that is relevant for that petition.

But it’s not an easy thing, because I think a lot of the risks that people face are not even within the Change.org platform. On Change.org, user’s data may be safe, but as soon as you go on Twitter and you’re actively tweeting about a petition, you might face an onslaught of hate. Even staff at Change.org face a lot of hate for just being part of the organization. So it’s hard. I wish I had a better answer. It’s an area that actively is a strategic area of research this year, to figure out what we’re going to do. So please, if you interview anyone who has the answer to that, I want to meet them. [laughs]

KOSTA: Yeah, sure. We’ve spoken to some other very cool people that maybe will give you some sparks of imagination there too.

EMMY: Totally, yeah.

KOSTA: But, Emmy, in the event that Change.org itself may not be able to give the answer to this… If I were to give you a magic wand, to just remove one obstacle that you feel gets in the way of a lot of the progress, what would you use it to fix and why?

EMMY: Man, that’s a hard one.

KOSTA: With a lot of power, I think there’s a lot of responsibility.

EMMY: There are many things I wish I could do. I can’t do just one! That’s so hard.

KOSTA: [laughs] Yeah, just one. If you just had to think, I want to just move this one out of the way, because it will make all this other stuff a bit easier…

EMMY: Honestly, I feel like the changes that I would want to seek, especially in the region that I support, are not technical. Yes, of course, I wish it was easier to reach people on the channels that we use to reach them so campaigns could get more traction, yada, yada, yada. I wish decision-makers would be more responsive. But really the thing that kills campaigns before they even get birthed into the world is fear of being ostracized, for being that person who speaks out.

I’ve spoken to so many petition-starters who, their hands were shaking when they started a petition on Change.org. Or they really thought about it, for months and months or a year, to get to the point where they could work up the courage to do it. Or they started as an organization so that they can be anonymous in starting the campaign. So they can get the word out about it, but not necessarily have to be the front person.

KOSTA: Front and center, yeah.

EMMY: There’s so much energy put into… You’re rocking the boat, but not rocking it so much that you incur such large personal costs that it becomes untenable for the individual. Because, as you know, on Change.org it’s not activists who are generally using the site. It’s usually everyday people who are campaigning on things that are near and dear to their hearts, but they’re not professional activists. They’re not getting paid to do this stuff. If it impacts their livelihood, that’s a real problem.

My country director in Japan and I have often discussed this.

We just wish there was a more welcoming environment for differing voices. If I could raise a magic wand to just remove those barriers for people, that would just make all the difference.

In a lot of these places, so many people, they have smartphones, they have access to the internet, but there’s more to it than that. More of a psychological barrier that keeps them from being able to say what they should be saying,

KOSTA: That’s really consistent with some of the other… We’ve spoken to a few people in this conversation series that work in similar spaces that straddle the online and offline worlds, and how they interact with one another.

When we have this part of the conversation with them, they too have said something to the effect of “Well, the digital world doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and a lot of our offline lives lead us to participate in the way that we do in the online world.” So it’s more about removing the barriers or the obstacles that prohibit us from maximizing the benefits or exploiting the benefits that technology can afford us.

EMMY: One of the things that comes to mind when you’re talking about that is this program that we have continued to do for the past three years in India, which is called She Creates Change. It was originally conceived because we looked at the data on the Change.org India site, and there was a profound gender gap in the usage of the site. In women versus men, I think it was majority men, which is not true, actually, of most of the other countries that we operate in. It’s more balanced.

The world knows that India’s gender gap is huge, obviously, in the offline world. But we were shocked by that, because we were like, “But isn’t… Wait a second, what? What are we doing here if we’re amplifying that?”

So we dug a bit deeper. And it turned out that a lot of the quote-unquote “women’s rights–related campaigns” were started by men, but with more of a “we need to protect our women” type language. Quite patriarchal. Not to ding those campaigns. They don’t come from a bad place. But I think the best of Change.org’s model is really when people speak for themselves about the things that they’re looking for. So we’re like, “Well, what can we do about this?” And we felt like there was a limit to what we could do digitally, alone.

So we found some partner organizations, and we architected a training program that trains 30 or 50 women every year. Before COVID, it used to be an offline training program — six days in a retreat-type space where women are connecting with each other and effectively forming a community of changemakers that will support one another as they go on their campaign journeys coming out of that time. And it just makes such a difference.

But the curriculum is not focused on… There’s maybe one section on “How to start a Change.org petition”, and it goes through the technicalities of starting a petition. But the emphasis is really on figuring out, what is your purpose? What is going to help you be more autonomous in the way that you think about the world? What are the barriers that you’re facing? What are the fears and people who may be holding you back?

That leads to this really rich discussion and also really deep relationships between these women, which then transfers online when they’re no longer together, in effectively a support group.

As you can imagine, being a woman who’s trying to campaign for change in a country with as strong a gender gap as India is really hard.

So we’ve seen excellent campaigns from that group. They’re having real policy impacts, but I don’t think they would have happened if we had approached those people individually. What they needed was to see themselves in other people and get all of the gooey, emotional human side of stuff supported. And then you reach a point where you’re like, “Okay, I’m ready to raise my voice, and I can handle the tough stuff that’s going to come as a result of being that leader.”

KOSTA: Right. So then part of that campaigner capacity that you’re trying to build is resilience?

EMMY: Absolutely, absolutely.

KOSTA: To the inevitable challenges that come with fighting for any sort of injustice.

EMMY: Totally. Resilience, and also that real support system. A support system from people who get you and know where you’re trying to go. A lot of the stories that I heard when I first went to a couple programs that were on the ground there is, these women want to say something, but they’re not surrounded by family members or partners who want them to do those things.

It’s like, “I want to speak out about animal rights”, “I want to speak out about my kid’s school and the bathrooms there being horrendous”, or “I want to do this, and it would be amazing”. And their families will be like, “Don’t be the one to rock the boat. That’s not a woman’s role.”

They’re effectively isolated in their home environment, and we were able to knit them together into something that makes them greater than the sum of their parts.

KOSTA: On that point of making campaigning and participation more accessible or equitable across the board — how do you do that across different jurisdictions with very different needs and very different barriers?

EMMY: Yeah, how do you do that, Kosta? [laughs]

KOSTA: [laughs] Conversation for another time, perhaps.

EMMY: No, no. It’s not an easy question to answer. My answer is that you push as much power and decision-making to local teams as possible.

I, as a half-Japanese, half-American gal in Tokyo, am not going to know what the needs are for an Indian woman based in Bangalore. In fact, maybe even our team doesn’t know, but they’re certainly better equipped to answer than I am.

So the answer really is to be as close to the user as possible. Be always listening, always learning.

Even with She Creates Change, it’s been through six iterations now. We’re starting the next one next month. They’re doing it entirely online, because of the pandemic. Each “learning lab”, we call them, has changed and evolved significantly as a result of feedback from the participants and the results that we were seeing.

So I think it really takes this extreme degree of humility, that you actually probably don’t know the answer, and then design it in an ongoing way with the people that you’re trying to support. But yeah, I think that’s really hard to do. The needs are very different, and there are needs in every single country, in order to make access equitable. I don’t think we’re there by a longshot yet. I think everybody would be like, it’s not enough, what we’re doing now.

KOSTA: Sure. Not to softball this one too much, but I was just thinking… I’ve had a look around on the Change.org Foundation resources and stuff, and that seems to me to be a step in that direction of equipping people with the skills necessary to undergo digital campaigns and stuff.

EMMY: Totally.

KOSTA: Is that basically what its purpose is, the platform like that? Is that a response to the needs that have arisen through the work, or is that something Change has arrived at for a different reason?

EMMY: Totally.

KOSTA: For me, I’m thinking the Change.org Foundation exists to equip people with these certain skills and insights, because this is stuff that seems to be missing in current citizen-led digital campaigning. Is that a fair understanding of that genesis?

EMMY: Totally. No, I think that’s right. For a long time, literally in every country, we’d be like, “If we could just pull some of the content and knowledge and best practices from the brains of our campaigners, and impart them in an inspiring way to more people, then certainly the world would be a better place, because we would have more folks thinking in this way about how to influence power structures and systems.”

But it’s sometimes hard, when what you’re trying to do is get people to use the site more. The reality is, She Creates Change is very time-intensive, very labor-intensive. And, yeah, it results in more campaigns, but the link is a bit tenuous. I feel like, within the organization, there wasn’t always room. And, I say this very honestly, we didn’t have the resources necessarily to be able to do that at a wide scale.

So I think what the [Change.org] Foundation opened up for us as a possibility is going to funders and going to other partners to say, “We know that when, say, women or Korean immigrants living in Japan or transgender folks in Brazil… We know that there is a need here, but just giving them access to the site is not enough. We have this recipe, this toolkit of ways that we can help people to connect, form a community, start to think more like campaigners. Would you be willing to partner with us in order to execute on that program in this country directed at that particular community?”

That’s what we’re trying to do more of. Obviously it’s a very different model from the platform-oriented model. I think they complement each other nicely, but I think the foundation side is still nascent in developing what we could do there.

KOSTA: Yeah, right. That’s really interesting. What about storytelling capacity? Because I get the impression that storytelling is a really important part of any effective digital activism.

EMMY: Totally.

KOSTA: What supports do you think could exist more there? Do platforms like Change.org offer support in basic storytelling practice and all that sort of stuff? What role do you think that plays?

EMMY: I think it’s critical. I think it’s so critical.

A petition effectively is a story, when you think about it. But most people don’t think about it that way, which is a problem.

I think in many places, they think a petition has to be rigid and formal and bureaucratic, and there’s a proper way to do it. There is. In a lot of countries, a legal petition has a certain format.

But I think when you take something like a Change.org petition, it’s really a mechanism for telling a story — hopefully your story — about what is broken and then calling on your community to help you make that change.

How a petition is written is do or die, when it comes to whether it will gain traction; which is why when you start a petition on Change.org, it’s so focused on different elements that we know will work. It’s the personal story aspect, it’s the visual aspect with the image that you’re using. I think increasingly we want to be able to support people with telling stories on other mediums besides just the written word. But even up until now, I feel like changing how a petition is written can really change its perception.

So I think it’s a really important part of what we do. I’ll be honest, I do think that there’s room for us to grow on that front too, in terms of helping more people with that. Hopefully we can get more petitioners to get that advice from experts so they can reach —

KOSTA: That’s really interesting. Again, talking about common themes across the different conversations — the idea of story being central to how we communicate the impact and the importance of these issues, the resonance just cannot be understated. Because really it’s a way for us to form a relationship with these issues that ensure that we’re committed.

EMMY: But I think you can be really… like, not what people expect, though, if I may say so.

KOSTA: Right. Okay, please.

EMMY: I feel like a lot of decision-starters that I’ve spoken to, they come from a very intellectual place, because usually they’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the problem before they even reach us.

But it’s not enough to make an intellectual argument. In order to get people to sign, in order to get people to join you, I think you have to be vulnerable, if I may say so, and show that you’re human, that you need other humans to help you.

KOSTA: I love that.

EMMY: Those are the campaigns that really take off and speak to people. There’s one campaign that I love that is just near and dear to my heart, which is called #KuToo.

In Japan, it was started a couple of years ago. It was started by a woman who was working at a funeral services company. In Japanese funerals, you obviously wear black. It’s very formal. So all the staff were wearing black, but their shoes also had to be black. But there was a rule in the handbook that the women had to wear heels. Not too high of a heel, but still a heel, while the men could wear flat shoes. She had this moment — she described it in the petition so vividly.

In Japan, you don’t wear your shoes inside. So she was stepping up into an office or something. As she straightened her shoes, and then saw her male colleagues’ shoes were not perfectly [straight] like this, which is what you’re supposed to do in Japan. Everything is very like that. So she corrected that.

And then she just had a moment where she was like, “If I could wear shoes like that, I would be so much more comfortable during the day.” She had been suffering from blisters and pain, because of the shoes that she was being asked to wear. They walk a lot in this job.

I think she tweeted that night, “Someday I would like to start a movement or a campaign that allows women in formal settings in Japan to not have to wear heels.” And who caught that tweet? No one but Mametasan from Team Japan, whom I mentioned at the beginning. He was like, “You gotta start that campaign.” He DMed her on Twitter, and that’s where that campaign was born.

Such a visual moment, right? If you’re a Japanese person, you know what you do to make the shoes be clean in the door space. And I was like, “Oh, yeah, I totally could understand that.” That led to 20 to 25,000 signatures on her campaign.

She managed to get the Prime Minister to respond to a question in the Japanese Diet about this issue. It was actually such a hilarious moment, because he was being questioned by the head of the Communist Party — which, if you can imagine, the head of the Conservative Party and head of the Communist Party do not always see eye to eye on policy issues. He asked the question (it was Prime Minister Abe at the time). He said, “I do not believe that women should be asked to wear anything that is different from their male counterparts if they’re in the same role.” And the Communist Party member looked a little bit stunned and was, “Abe-san, this might be the first time that you and I agree on anything.” Then there was a round of applause in the Diet as a result of that.

All that from Ishikawa-san [Yumi Ishikawa] deciding to tweet about seeing her heels next to non-heeled shoes for her dude counterparts.

KOSTA: That’s great. It’s such an amazing example, because there’s a clear story, a very clear context, a very measurable outcome, a very clear decision-maker, right?

EMMY: Absolutely.

KOSTA: And also, it’s something that is in furtherance of a bigger goal, even if it’s not necessarily changing the status quo immediately.

EMMY: Totally. Even just starting the conversation on something like that was really huge. Then what happened was, the media picked up on that story, and so they started interrogating companies where there is a uniform and whether it’s really necessary for them to be wearing heels. The example that came up again and again, was… cabin attendants? In Japanese, we call them CAs. Flight attendants, I guess, in English.

KOSTA: Oh, flight attendants, yeah!

EMMY: Sorry about that. Flight attendants for Japan Airways and ANA, who have to wear heels — even the airport staff have to wear heels, and they’re running around the airport. Is that even safe?

It ignited a conversation about it. As far as I can tell, they haven’t changed the policy yet. But even having it be a discussion is a step forward. And her campaign still isn’t done, so let’s see where it goes. But yeah, really impactful.

KOSTA: Emmy, I’m conscious of your time, and we’re approaching the tail end. So I wanted to wrap things up with you. Maybe with just some advice or messages or just perspectives you would offer to people, like just the everyday person listening to this.

I think of two types of people — there’s the person that wants to be a better campaigner and use their online space a bit more effectively, and there’s also the people that are cynical towards this sort of stuff. Do you have much you would say to either of those sorts of people about what this all means for them, and what you think they could do to take that step in this direction?

EMMY: Yeah. For the person who wants to do more, there is so much that one can do. But I would also be strategic and pick the few things that really matter to you most, and go deeper on them.

Rather than signing… I mean, don’t not sign those 20 petitions. But maybe the petition-starter for one of the petitions that you signed really needs help. Maybe they need help organizing an event to be able to reach their decision-maker. Maybe they need help creating a video that tells the story about stuff.

Don’t just end it with signing, because signing is just the first step of a very long road. The goal that the petition-starter is trying to reach is not just collecting signatures on the petition.

To everyone out there who maybe isn’t ready to start their own campaign, just be a collaborator to someone who’s already done it. That, in of itself, is such a huge boost to that person, because they need a team around them to really take it forwards.

To the people who are cynics, I would just say, “Keep your cynicism to yourself.” Maybe that’s not the right thing to say. But I guess what I really dislike is armchair criticism of people who are trying to make a difference.

It happens a lot in Japan actually, where people make very intellectual arguments, or they’re like, “But what about this, that, and the other thing?” They want to be perceived as knowing more, or being the person who understands it all. And I’m like, “Would I rather hang out with a person who’s pretending to understand it all, or the person who, even if they don’t know 100% of the answer, is trying to change it for the better?”

It’s going to be amateur, and it’s not going to be perfect. These are everyday people just trying to make it work. They’re learning along the way. Just have some compassion and empathy for that.

KOSTA: Maybe that’s the challenge you set yourselves — well, that we ask people to set themselves.

EMMY: You don’t know their full story. Don’t judge them just based on the very small slice of what you’re seeing, because you never know the depth of someone’s story.

KOSTA: On that note, in terms of setting that challenge of looking at other people compassionately, and that reminder that generally wanting to change society for the better, regardless of how we do it — generally that’s a better place to start than not.

EMMY: Totally.

KOSTA: The digital world is a facilitator of a longer ongoing discussion. That’s a great note to end on.

Emmy, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate the discussion, the vulnerability, the richness of the wins and challenges that you shared with us. If people are interested in hearing more about you or the work that you’re involved in, where can they find you?

EMMY: They can find me on LinkedIn, but I’m not sure how interesting I am. [laughs]

KOSTA: That’s fine, that’s fine. [laughs]

EMMY: To be honest with you, I think we’re posting insights from the Change.org Foundation’s work regularly on to our blog, on the Change Foundation website. Then also, just follow those campaigns that you’re keen on in your country.

I think the key really is not just to sign, but to read the updates that come from the campaigners, because oftentimes people say, “I signed a petition, then I never found out what happened.” And a lot of people are posting those updates. I know it’s easy to get lost in your inbox, so don’t let go right after signing. Try to follow the full arc, and maybe take one more step to get involved.

KOSTA: That’s awesome. Great, Emmy. Again, thank you so much for your time, and I’m sure we’ll check in again really soon.

EMMY: Thank you.

KOSTA: All right, take care.

KOSTA: You’ve been listening to Undesign, a series of conversations about the big issues that matter to all of us. Undesign is made possible by the wonderful team at DrawHistory. If you want to learn more about each guest or each topic, we have curated a suite of resources and reflections for you on our Undesign page at www.drawhistory.com.

Thank you to the talented Jimmy Linville for editing and mixing our audio. Special thank you to our guests for joining us and showing us how important we all are in redesigning our world’s futures. And last but not least, a huge thank you to you, our dear listeners, for joining us on this journey of discovery and hope. The future needs you.

Make sure you stay on the journey with us by subscribing to Undesign on Apple, Spotify, and wherever else podcasts are available.

Your Host

Kosta Lucas

Head of Community Practice, DrawHistory
Guests

Emmy Suzuki Harris

Asia Regional Director, Change.org Foundation
Emmy Suzuki Harris Asia Regional Director, Change.org Foundation

"Don't just end with signing, because signing is just the first step of a very long road. The goal that the petition-starter is trying to reach is not just collecting signatures on the petition."

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