by Codi Norred
In the final weeks of July earlier this year, over one hundred advocates from around the world attended a three-day residential Summer School in Dublin, Ireland to explore effective campaigning strategies for creating social change. The conference itself consisted of workshops and panels, the participants of which were heavily involved in the Marriage Equality Referendum that took place in Ireland in May 2015. As a part of an exchange from the United States, I was fortunate enough to accompany three additional colleagues as a delegate for the Social Change Initiative located in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It became immediately clear after speaking with just a handful of delegates, that the room was filled with diverse expertise from around the globe. Those in attendance were involved in grassroots campaigns in the UK, The Republic of Ireland, the United States, South Africa, Greece, France, Italy, Spain, Australia, and Croatia. Their focuses were just as diverse: public health, marriage equality, refugee and migration rights, community development, and the list goes on. Though the lessons of the Campaigning for Change program were mostly drawn for the experience of those involved in achieving marriage equality in the Republic of Ireland, their lessons informed practitioners involved in the most pressing social movements of our time.
The benefit of reflecting on the marriage equality movement in the Republic of Ireland is, quite plainly, to see what worked. The campaign itself functioned best as a grassroots movement. While political leaders were supportive of marriage equality, the necessary votes were gained through canvassing neighborhoods and making personal phone calls to relatives and friends. In many counties, every single door in every neighborhood was canvassed, an impossibility in many larger countries. However, everyone involved in the campaign reiterated that the key to the movement’s success was not necessarily how the advocacy manifested itself, but where. The fight for Marriage Equality in Ireland did not originate in a statehouse, or a campaign speech from a politician. Citizens initiated the fight for marriage equality. Trusted faces, neighbors, news anchors, drag queens, and other public figures that either identified as a member of the LGBTQ community or as an ally began to speak out in their communities, building support and ultimately winning the referendum. Again, as a note, each campaign must be tailored specifically for its context. The campaign for marriage equality in Ireland should not be used as a blueprint to be lifted and directly applied in another context. Each country has particularities unique to its constitution, and values unique to its population. However, the universal manifested in the marriage equality campaign in Ireland is that in order to successfully create social change, there must be those who are willing to take critical risks. A campaign requires a grassroots base, for individuals to leverage their relationships, friends, and families to pay attention to a cause, as well as public figures, reporters, actors, pastors, business owners, and others to speak in support of social change. A campaign is most influential and successful when ordinary citizens become united around a cause in conjunction with public figures and politicians.
Obviously this idea can and has been applied to campaigning efforts in many fields around the world, however, given my social location as an American and my time in Northern Ireland, I find it important to mention the fight for marriage equality in both places. After many decades of work on the part of advocates in the United States, marriage equality was established as a federal law in June of 2015. Again, as established by Evan Wolfson and Thalia Zepatos of the Freedom to Marry Campaign, USA and those involved in the campaign in Ireland, the combination of grassroots campaigning and the support of public leaders are pivotal. Turning an eye to Northern Ireland, the only country in the UK without marriage equality and one of the few in Western Europe, who will be the public figures that will continue leading these conversations? While there are organizations involved in bringing about marriage equality in Northern Ireland, there are far too few public voices creating the space for these conversations to occur. Local politicians, clergy, business owners, and public servants have an obligation to the citizens of Northern Ireland to initiate constructive conversation around LGBTQ rights in hopes of moving toward a vote for marriage equality. The same is also true of the many other countries worldwide struggling to gain marriage equality, and those struggling for equal rights for LGBTQ couples after marriage equality has been won. The success of effective social change depends on the ability of advocates and activists to recruit at a grassroots level, to inspire ordinary citizens and trusted public voices to speak out. For marriage equality, for the rights of refugees and migrants, for racial justice, environmental sustainability, for peace in divided societies: all of this demands not only our attention, but our voices.
Codi Norred is a student at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He visited Northern Ireland during the summer of 2016, and spent some time working with The Social Change Initiative as an intern. During this time he attended the Campaigning for Change Summer School in County Dublin, and produced this blog post to share his experience with other activists and campaigners.