Laying the Groundwork, Changing the World

March 21, 2011

The closing plenary of our 50th anniversary conference was packed with activists who were treated to a bit of organizational history by two Amnesty International veterans, Ellen Dorsey and Paul Hoffman. Ellen told the hundreds of predominantly young activists in the ballroom that she joined Amnesty International as a teenager 30 years ago “because I couldn’t learn about the world in my classes in the way that Amnesty would teach me about the world,” she said. “Amnesty has given back every step of the way and invested in me.”

When Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner took the stage, Dorsey seized the opportunity to ask him: “Will you please tell President Obama to close Guantánamo?” Her question brought a raucous cheer from the audience, and several hundred people rose to their feet. When the audience finally sat down, Posner, the former executive director of Human Rights First, said, “I will and have and will continue to tell anyone I can find in the administration that we have to take our word seriously. The challenge is that we are confronted by the political reality in this country. We hear all the time from people on the other side but don’t hear enough from people telling us to close Guantánamo now.” Amnesty International Secretary-General Salil Shetty reminded us that in order for Posner and other like-minded officials within the Obama administration to have influence, they need the backing of grassroots pressure from activists like us.

That message—that real change must come from the bottom up—has been the central theme of this conference. Human rights defenders from Mexico and China to Zimbabwe testified as to how letters, faxes, emails and phone calls from Amnesty activists have saved their lives.

For Hamzah Latif, a 23-year-old student activist from the University of Michigan, Dearborn, this idea was driven home when Amnesty USA Executive Director Larry Cox—in a voice choked with emotion, given his lifetime of dedication to anti-death penalty work—ticked off the list of states that have abolished the death penalty, most recently Illinois.

“To know that it meant so much to everybody in the room—that’s when I realized this is where I need to be,” said Latif, who on Saturday received the Ladis Kristof fellowship, which will allow him to spend eight weeks training with an Amnesty field organizer in our western regional office. “The fact that we can all feel the emotion and the relief and sense of accomplishment for the same goal of abolishing the death penalty—this is how social movements work. You achieve smaller victories, and they create a domino effect.”

Although I spent most of the conference doing back-to-back interviews with human rights defenders, I heard speaker after speaker in the plenary and panel sessions—many of them lions in the global human rights community—echo the theme that real change can only be achieved by methodical, brick-by-brick organizing. They pointed out that when pundits spoke of Egypt’s “Facebook Revolution,” they overlooked years, sometimes decades, of groundwork laid by grassroots activists and civil society groups. They advised us that social media tools are only useful once activists have laid the foundation and created true buy-in.

Latif, who attended several sessions in which activists worked closely with staff to hone their nuts-and-bolts organizing skills, said he was eager to bring the energy of the conference, as well as new information and strategies back home to his Dearborn student group, which has been recognized as Student Group of the Midwest region for four years running. He assured me that activists are leaving the conference with both a clear sense of the importance of grassroots organizing and concrete instructions to guide them for the next several months.