Cooperation Between Individuals and Leaders

Standard 4.8: Cooperation Between Individuals and Leaders

Explain the importance of individuals working cooperatively with their elected leaders. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T4.8]

FOCUS QUESTION: How can Everyday People Communicate Effectively With Their Political Leaders?

Save Freedom Speech

"Save Freedom Speech” by Norman Rockwell (created between 1941 and 1945)
Public Domain

The idea that a single individual can contact their elected senator or representative to influence and change public policy is part of how many people think American government should work. The Constitution’s First Amendment includes the right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The image of a highly motivated, civic-minded person making a difference (like the speaker in Norman Rockwell’s famous Freedom of Speech painting) is deeply ingrained in popular culture.  

The reality of an individual citizen being able to contact elected leaders is quite different. Members of Congress receive enormous amounts of correspondence every day, particularly about hot-button political issues. In 2016, the Senate received more than 6.4 million letters. In 2017, New York Senator Chuck Schumer’s office reported receiving as many as 1.5 million phone calls a day. Much of this correspondence comes from advocacy groups engaging in mass communications.

Do elected leaders really listen to and respond to the everyday people who contact them or do people need other ways to make their voices heard by elected leaders? The modules for this topic examine both how citizens, young and old, can influence their elected representatives by engaging in movements for change.

1. INVESTIGATE: Contacting Congress

Once Congress installed its first telephone switchboard in 1898, people started calling their elected representatives and they have not stopped since, observed Kathryn Schulz (2017) in The New Yorker magazine. In today’s world of social media and mass communication, people not only call, they write, email, tweet, fax, post on representative's social media pages, send videos, and otherwise try to influence their elected representatives.

Schulz distinguishes between how members of Congress think about constituent services and constituent demands. Elected representatives, she notes, are more likely to help solve a particular problem (a constituent service) than change their vote on a politically contentious issue (a constituent demand).

Most educators agree that learning how to contact one’s elected leaders is a core skill for citizens interested in expressing ideas and promoting change in our democratic society. There are many ways to do so, from writing letters to sending emails to meeting face-to-face. The Union of Concerned Scientists believes that phone communications are an effective way to contact and influence elected officials (How to Have a Productive Phone Call with Your Legislator's Office).

Suggested Learning Activities

Online Resources for Contacting Congress

2. UNCOVER: Youth Activism for Change

On August 28, 2019, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, a Swedish activist, arrived in New York City to attend a United Nations summit on the climate crisis. She had sailed to the United States on a zero-carbon, solar-powered yacht, refusing to fly because airplanes use so much fossil fuel. She had risen to international prominence by starting a series of school strikes called Fridays for Future to raise awareness for the need for urgent action to save the planet. More than 100,000 schoolchildren have joined those strikes (Climate Change Activist Greta Thunberg, 16, Arrives in New York After Sailing Across the Atlantic).

In August 2018, outside the Swedish parliament building, Greta Thunberg started a school strike for the climate. Her sign reads, “Skolstrejk för klimatet,” meaning, “school strike for climate.”
Image posted on Wikimedia Commons by Anders Hellberg is licensed under CC BY SA 4.0

Decades earlier, in 1960, six-year-old Ruby Bridges of New Orleans, Louisiana became the first African American student to integrate into a formerly all-White elementary school in the American South. Four federal marshals escorted her to class every day past crowds of White protestors.

US Marshal Escorting Ruby Bridges
"US Marshals with Young Ruby Bridges on School Steps" | Public Domain)

She was the only student in her class - white families had withdrawn their children from the school. She ate lunch alone. Her teacher, Barbara Henry, originally from Boston, Massachusetts, sometimes played with her at recess. She never missed a day of school all year long. Her courageous actions were celebrated in Norman Rockwell’s famous 1963 painting “The Problem We All Live With.” Watch Freedom's Legacy, a video where Ruby Bridges reflects on her life and activism in 2019.

Greta Thunberg and Ruby Bridges are just two recent and prominent examples of young people taking bold and impactful steps to promote political change and social justice by seeking to influence elected officials. There are many other less-well known examples:

There are many more occasions of youth activism and civic action throughout United States history, though most remain hidden histories and untold stories: the Lowell Mill Girls, the March of the Mill Children, the Newsboys Strike, the Little Rock Nine, the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, and more. All these occasions of youth activism demonstrate how young people (elementary, middle, high school, and college-age) can exercise power and agency in community and political life. Youth have the power to create change, sometimes individually or locally, and sometimes on national and international scales.

Suggested Learning Activities

  • Make a Video
    • Design a video to influence an elected official's opinion about a local, national, or global issue.
  • Write & Present a Speech
    • Write a two-minute speech about the changes you want to see happen in society and how might you go about making them happen.  
      • Examples of student presentations can be found at Project Soapbox and on its Vimeo channel.
    • Present your speech in-person or record it on video and send it to an elected official. 
  • Create a Youth Activism in History Digital Poster
    • Choose one of the following events or individual change-makers for your poster; information is available at Youth Activists and Change Makers in History
      • The Lowell Mill Girls
      • Teenage Soldiers in the Civil War
      • The March of the Mill Children
      • Newsboys Strike of 1899
      • Shirtwaist Makers Strike of 1909
      • The American Youth Congress
      • Port Chicago Mutiny and the Port Chicago 50
      • Mendez v. Westminster
      • Barbara Rose Johns and the Morton School Strike
      • The Little Rock Nine
      • The Greensboro Four
      • Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee
      • Birmingham Children's Crusade
      • Tinker v. Des Moines
      • Students for a Democratic Society
      • Berkeley Free Speech Movement
      • East LA Walkouts/Chicano Blowouts

Online Resources for Youth Activism

3. ENGAGE: Would You Join a Consumer Boycott or Buycott to Promote Change?

Given the difficulties of contacting members of Congress, many people consider consumer boycotts and buycotts to be more effective in promoting change than contacting elected representatives.

A boycott is an ongoing decision NOT to purchase goods or services from a specific individual or company. A buycott works in the opposite way. It is an ongoing action TO purchase goods and services from a specific individual or company.  

South African Goods Boycott Sign 1986

South African Goods Boycott Sign, 1986
by  Djembayz is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

For example, a coffee drinker might decide to stop purchasing coffee from one store in protest over that store’s actions or policies (boycott) while also deciding to get coffee from only a fair trade store (buycott), even if it meant spending more time and/or money to do so.

Boycotts have a long and compelling history. Rosa Parks’ brave actions launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955; Cesar Chavez and the National Farm Workers organized a national grape boycott in the 1960s. In the 1980s, the United States and other nations in the world boycotted South Africa for its apartheid system of racial segregation. Boycotts by professional and collegiate sports teams helped in the 2017 repeal of a North Carolina law dictating that transgender people must use a particular bathroom.

In 2020, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in 2020 and ongoing racist postings on social media by white suprematist groups, Civil rights organizations including the NAACP, Color of Change, and the Anti-Defamation League urged advertisers to boycott Facebook till the company adopts more stringent measures to block hate speech on the site (Civil Rights Organizations Want Advertisers to Dump Facebook). Beginning in late June, hundreds of major companies including Verizon, Ben & Jerry's, Patagonia, Starbucks and Coca-Cola announced they were pausing advertising on Facebook to protest hate speech and misinformation on the site.

To further extend the approach, commentator Eric Alterman (2020,p. 8) writing in The Nation, has suggested users boycott the ads on Facebook by refusing to click on them. Facebook's business model is based on getting users to visit advertisers' websites; the data generated by those visits enable companies to more precisely target potential customes, or in the case of politically-minded groups, potential followers.

Another boycott campaign is the #GrabYourWallet Alliance that focuses on getting people to stop doing business with companies associated with Donald Trump, his family or the Trump Organization. Companies including Papa John’s, Uber, United Airlines, Target, Starbucks, New Balance and Chick-Fil-a have faced recent consumer boycotts. In 2019, conservative groups called for a boycott of Dick’s Sporting Goods after the retailer decided to stop selling guns in many stores nationwide. GrabYourWallet added a listing of companies engaging in questionable business practices during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, buycotts may be emerging as an even more widely favored change strategy for citizen activists (Battle of the Wallets: The Changing Landscape of Consumer Activism). There is research that shows consumers are willing to pay the extra costs associated with not buying a product from one company if they perceive that company was engaged in misdeeds and exploitative behaviors (Hahn, 2018). Rewarding another company by only buying their products because that company is “doing the right thing” is an extension of this type of thinking.

Suggested Learning Activities

  • State Your View: Boycott or Buycott
    • Would you join a consumer boycott or buycott?
    • If so, what would you boycott or buycott and why?
  • Compare and Contrast  
    • Are boycotts or buycotts more effective in achieving goals and promoting change?
    • The Ethical Consumer website based in the United Kingdom lists current boycotts along with ethical ratings for more than 10,000 companies.

Online Resources for Boycotts and Buycotts

Standard 4.8 Conclusion

The United States has a representative form of democracy. Citizens vote to decide who will represent them at every level of government. Once an election is over, however, voters typically find themselves far removed and unable to contact the individuals they elected to represent them. INVESTIGATE looked at strategies citizens can use to go about contacting Congress. UNCOVER explored modern day and historical examples of youth activism for change. ENGAGE asked whether consumer boycotts and buycotts are an effective way for people to express their preferences for goods, services, and social and economic change.