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PCDN Interview with Emilia Gutierrez, Campaign Manager, Human Rights Team, Change.org

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    Craig Zelizer
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    Ms. Emilia Gutierrez joined Change.org in 2011 as a Campaign Manager working to develop and implement successful online campaigns centered around critical human rights issues.  As a Campaign Manager, Emiliaprovides strategic advice, media outreach, and online promotion to multiple campaigns.  Before coming to Change.org, Emilia was a Field Organizer for Amnesty International USA.  As a Field Organizer, Emilia was responsible for organizing and campaigning work within the Mid-Atlantic region.  Emilia recruited and trained grassroots leaders, led numerous trainings and workshops, and developed campaign strategy at a state level.  Emilia has also worked as a political organizer for campaigns including Obama for America and Pleitz for Congress.

    I had the pleasure of interviewing Ms. Gutierrez last week.  I knew Ms. Gutierrez from her time working at Amnesty International, where she advocated and pursued amazing work for human rights.  It was really interesting to learn about her work at Change.org and how different campaign issues are leveraged and supported.
    “Change.org is a social action platform that empowers anyone, anywhere to start, join, and win campaigns to change the world.”  Click here to visit Change.org

    1. What is the philosophy behind change.org?

    I would say, you know it’s hard to pinpoint the exact time, but I think it’s been around for about 3 to 4 years and its gone through different evolutions.  But Change.org, the idea is that it is open platform where anyone anywhere can go to start a campaign for a social justice issue that is  important individually, to their community or to the world. It’s very straightforward and it’s important to make the distinction that change.org isn’t an advocacy organization so Change.org itself doesn’t take positions on petitions, it doesn’t make recommendations, it doesn’t promote different types of issues.  But the idea is that it is really just a space where people can go and have the tools available to create their own change.  So it’s very much rooted in openness and empowerment.

    2. So you touched a little bit on this in your previous answer, but what sort of campaigns support and how our campaigns decided upon?

    I guess it would be good to clarify support and I guess what I would do is kind of put that into two different camps. So, one is that it’s a free site anyone can use it, there’s no charge, there’s no censorship, so it’s really open to anyone who wants to start whatever type of petition.  There are over 15,000 petitions created on the site every month-that’s an increase from three months ago when it was 10,000 so you see more and more people using the site.  You also see more and more diversity in the types of petitions that are created so you will see everything from you know save my local library, to you know something really silly, to something really progressive, to something really conservative.  So I would say but if there’s any issue that you can name, I bet I could find petition on it and I think the idea was definitely created around social justice but you see it for all sorts of things and you do see petitions created for really as I mentioned conservative campaigns and conservative issues and then also for very liberal campaigns.  So that kind of about who can use the site and what’s available.  We don’t censor anything unless it incites hate or violence so we very very very rarely will actually take a petition down from the site and we’ll usually work with the petition creators try to get it to a point where it doesn’t incite violence and its not hateful, but that’s the only time you will see campaigns taken down.  I work on our organizing team which identifies different campaigns to lend specific support on, like additional support and that support includes sending it out to our members over e-mail, like in an action alerts, posting it on our own facebook and twitter page, and then also we help with press outreach.  So for those types of campaigns we have a lot of it is directed to the different organizing teams.  We look into campaigns that have different criteria.  One, is this going to  be widely resonating to our membership.  We know our membership pretty well and we can judge pretty accurately what they’ll take action on and what they won’t.  So we want to send petitions that we think will interest them and that they’ll care about.  So that goes into the criteria.  Second, is it winnable?  There are so many campaigns started on the site that are really tough and I would say that makes it really hard to make a judgment call on because its hard to gauge what is winnable and what is not, but to the best of our ability, we like to chose campaigns that are, that we think can be achieved through popular support.  And then the last, is we really try to promote personal narratives.  So you know any time an individual petition is started over a group, that makes it a little more compelling because we are able to provide an individual with support that they wouldn’t have otherwise.

    3. What makes a campaign successful?

    I think the most successful campaigns that we’ve seen are ones that are, as I mentioned that are based on the same criteria-that are broadly appealing, that our membership really resonates with and that are campaigns that we’re winning.  You know I think that one of the things that is really helpful about Change.org versus different organizations out there, different organizations that I worked with is the template that we use clearly asks you to kind of define a goal.  So if you go on to the site you’ll see the template and its who are you asking, and what are you asking them to do and why are you asking them to do that.  So with that kind of simple framework, it really gets the creator to think strategically about who is the best person to ask and what am I asking for.  So of course there are campaigns started on the site that are like two people in the world asking them to create world peace and things like that, but a successful campaign has a clear target, has a clear goal and because of it, it can be easily won and you can define that.

    4. What are some examples of successful campaigns?

    Some examples of what I would consider successful campaigns are-we had a group come to Change.org last September called Fundacion Causana and they were located in Tito, Ecuador.  They were an LGBT rights group that worked in coalition with about three or four other groups in Tito.  They for many years had been working to combat the problem of ex-gay torture clinics that existed throughout the country and what these clinics were, is these were clinics operating in secret, they often posed as drug rehabilitation centers and they claimed to cure being gay.  They claimed that you could send your kids there, you know send your friends and that they would quote unquote cure them of being gay as if it were a disease.  The reality is that what they became were centers of torture.  So there were reports of women and men being contained in cells for days without food or water, reports of people being tortured and abused, reports of sexual abuses, you know really, really horrendous things.  So this group had been campaigning on this issue through an traditional methods for many, many years.  I mean they were the experts, they were in touch with survivors, they were doing everything they could, except for online campaigning.  So they came to the site, at the end of last year  around November and they started a petition.  I worked closely with the group to try to get it additional support.  We sent an e-mail to our members, we did press releases and long story short we saw hundreds of thousands of people sign on to the petition, we saw widespread news coverage and that international public pressure on the Ecuadorian government to respond in a way that they had never responded before.  So with all that pressure, they responded to Fundacion Causana, they brought Fundacion Causana into their fold, into the Ministry of Health, and developed a plan to correct and close these torture clinics.  They started implementing raids and closing down the clinics.  They created a toll free hotline, and they actually most notably hired one of Fundacion Causana’s director, a former director to be the new ministry of health in the government.  So that is one really clear cut example where we saw how this issue had been going on for a long time, there had been different tactics and I think the online campaign you know, didn’t solve the problem, but it helped tip the scales to create a win.

    4. In what countries do most petitions originate?

    Right now, not surprisingly, the majority of the petitions are created within the US.  I would say second to that is Western Europe.  One thing that’s really cool, that’s happened since the beginning of the year is that we’ve begun opening offices all over the world.  So, we have offices in a lot of parts of the world where, you know,  you don’t see a lot of traditional online organizing groups, so we have offices in Cambodia, in Thailand.  We’re opening up an office in Argentina, in Brazil.  We just opened up an office in Tokyo, in Indonesia-there are so many that I have to keep thinking because they are added every day.  And then in Europe, we have Germany, France, the UK.  Let’s see here, we’re opening an office in Italy, let’s see here, I have the list in front of me.  So we’re looking at hiring, we’re trying to open up offices in Colombia, we have an office in the Philippines, we’re hiring in Russia, South Africa, and South Korea.

    5. What is your role as a human rights campaign manager and what human rights issues have been addressed through petitions on Change.org?

    My role as a campaign manager for the human rights team is kind of what I had talked about before which is to take a look at all the petitions that are created on our site and to assess whether I think they will you know resonate with our members and be successful, if I identify a campaign that fits that criteria, I reach out and try work directly with the petition creator, to you know, create higher visibility for the campaign, like I mentioned before, put in an action alert for emails, press work, etc.  So my job is to identify those campaigns and then work with the petition creators to help with.

    6. You gave me one example of a successful campaign that originated in Ecuador, but can you talk about other campaigns that have originated in countries outside the US and what countries has this included?

    Sure, let me try to think real quick.  Ok, we had a campaign last year that was started by a group of women in Saudi Arabia called Saudi women for driving.  It was a coalition of women-Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive, and they wanted to change that.  So kind of similar to the Ecuador example that I mentioned, they had been working on this issue for quite awhile, they held events on the ground, protests, etc.  But they took to online organizing and this campaign was targeted at bringing international attention to the situation.  So they started a campaign calling for Hillary Clinton to speak out against the ban against Saudi women driving and you know at first we didn’t think they’d have success–the US and Saudi Arabia have close ties, and Hillary Clinton before that had never spoken out against it, but, with the petition, we were able to raise almost 100,000 signatures on the campaign and Hillary Clinton responded and made a statement and officially, denounced the ban on Saudi women driving.

    7. Do you have any examples from Africa or Europe that you can think of off the top of your head? 

    There are so many, let’s see.  Ok, Africa or Europe.  Let me see here.  Hold on.  Okay, so in Africa we had a campaign started in March of last year.  It was started by a group of South African women and they asked the government to quote unquote fight corrective rape.  So, prior to the campaign the South African parliament knew that corrective rape was a really big issue, and similar to Ecuador, this is raping women lesbians to quote unquote, to try to turn them straight.  So obviously a very violent campaign, you know, it was very, very grotesque what was happening in South Africa.  It was a huge issue in South Africa and you know the parliament in South Africa kind of washed their hands of it and didn’t want to take any responsibility.  But after this campaign there were over 170,000 people from over 175 countries who signed the campaign and right away the South African government agreed to launch a national task team to end corrective rape.

    That’s really great.  This is really inspiring.

    Yeah, it is.  It’s really, really exciting.  You know there are so many, so I can you know, we can keep talking.  Another thing you could do is if you go on the site, there’s a victory tab and you can look through all the victories that have taken place.

     

    9. Late last year, there was a petition revolving around the sale of tear gas to the Egyptian military by a company based in the U.S.  What was the outcome of this petition and have any other petitions attempted to address any aspect of the instability across the MENA region?

    I believe that the petition was successful, I’m trying to remember, I wasn’t intimately involved.  If you want to send me the actual petition, I can follow-up and see exactly what happened.  But my hunch is that it was successful.  Have there been other petitions that have addressed instability across the Middle East?  There absolutely have, we’ve seen a number of petitions on Syria especially, but you see petitions across the Middle East and North Africa all the time.

    10. Are there any that come to mind at this point?

    Well one that you remember, which is that we started campaign asking Janet Napolitano to grant temporary protective status to Syrians living here in the U.S. That was a big one.  We also had a campaign targeting Turkey and asking them to impose sanctions on Syria.  We have multiple, multiple campaigns, calling on Russia and China’s ambassadors to sign on to with the UN and to do their part to stop violence in Syria.  Let’s see here, what else?  We have had a petition started by UN ambassadors’ wives calling on Asma Assad to make a statement condemning the violence in Syria.  That was not successful, but that was pretty cool because we had UN ambassadors’ wives who started it, started a very public campaign.  I could probably go on and on.  I can send you a list or you can kind of search on our site if you just search Syria or the Middle East, whatever you want to look for.

    11. Late last year, myself and Darakshan Raja worked on a petition addressing Islamophobia with respect to Lowe’s removal of ads during the TV show, “All-American Muslim.”  Why in your opinion was this campaign important and what do you think were some of the challenges with this petition in general particularly related to the issue of Islamophobia? 

    So of course I remember the campaign.  It was so great to work with you and Darakshan.  I think that that campaign was incredibly important because you saw a big U.S. corporation, Lowe’s bow to pressure from an extremely Islamophobic and also small and also incredibly conservative group with just a few amount of members.  So I think that is was really shocking to see that.  I think it was really incredible to see TLC stand up for “All American Muslim” and you saw a number of other groups who decided to increase their business with TLC and increase their ad space on TLC’s show “All American Muslim.”  I think it started an incredible conversation around Islamophobia within U.S. culture.  You saw not only Change.org petitions, but MoveOn, and SignON, and you know more and more groups that I’m sure that you’re familiar with made statements in regard to the campaign and you did see a coalition come together to deliver signatures to Lowe’s headquarters in North Carolina.  So I think it was incredibly important for public conversation and awareness.  I think it set a precedent and I think that you won’t see companies drop advertisement because a show portrays Muslims on TV, I mean, that just seems so crazy and I don’t think we’ll see that again.  Let’s see here, what were some of the challenges?  I think to be honest, I think this fit our model really well and I’m surprised that we didn’t get more comment from Lowe’s.  I’m surprised that Lowe’s didn’t apologize, I’m surprised Lowe’s didn’t reverse their decision.  Usually, when you see that much public pressure, at one company, especially a company that has such wide resonating brand recognition, you see them, you know, take action, apologize and respond.  I’m actually really surprised.  I don’t really know what challenges there were.  I think it fit our model well, I think that the challenge was working with the company that you know, clearly didn’t have a problem taking, you know, all this national shaming, and not responding to it.  So I think you know Lowe’s in particular was a challenge, it might have been very different if it were a different company that we were targeting.

     

    12. Does Change.org work on campaigns that revolve around peace and conflict resolution?  If so, can you give some examples of some campaigns? 

    So again, Change.org doesn’t necessarily work on any campaigns, but are there petitions that revolve around peace and conflict resolution on the site?  Absolutely.  I’m trying to think off the top of my head if there are any that Change has worked on.  We have worked on different campaigns with, implementing transitions for Burma and what that looks like and the U.S. role in doing so.  I can’t think of other examples, but I can search the site and let you, and we can work together to find some.

    13. How does Change.org help ensure the safety of people who start a petition or campaign who are living in a country with a more repressive political regime?

    I think that this is definitely one of the challenges that we face.  Because Change.org is open platform and it’s not an advocacy organization, we don’t take responsibility for you know people who start campaigns on our site.  So really someone has to, on their own, you know decide that they feel comfortable in the space to do that.  If we ever identify someone who has started a campaign and then is facing you know threats at home, I think that we would do our best to protect the anonymity of the petition creator.  One of the features on the site, is you provide as much or as little information on you, so the ones in definitely on the individual.  So if an individual wanted to use you know a pseudonym or something like that, that would certainly be available to them.  Also I think that with online organizing, there is a bit of protection because, its not in person-you’re not physically showing up to an embassy or a protest, you know its all online.  But again, Change.org as an entity, its really just a platform, so it wouldn’t necessarily take a position-the ones would definitely be on the individual.

    14. How can Change.org empower individual changemakers?

    The idea in and of itself is an empowerment tool.  The idea is that we create the space, we create the tools for everyday people to take action.  So I think in contrast with large NGO’s and advocacy groups, you know, there is definitely an emphasis on pushing power down and out.  The idea is that somebody who wouldn’t consider themselves an activist, who’s never quote unquote taken action or quote unquote organized, would be able to do this because it’s simple and it’s easy.  So I think the tool in and of itself-the idea is that it empowers changemakers and especially unlikely changemakers.

    15. Can you describe the Change.org process-I know you’ve mentioned a couple different facets of that process and then how are the campaigns or petition targets determined?  I know you spoke a little bit about that as well.  And then the last part is how petition go from being just a petition to becoming a campaign-and I know you also kind of touched on that, so this question just brings it all together.

    Sure, so I use petition and campaign interchangeably, they are really one in the same, so there really isn’t a moment when it goes from a petition to a campaign, within our framework, they’re the same thing.  Again, this is really a tool for anyone to use so when you ask how are the campaigns/petition targets determined, it’s really up to the person that’s starting the campaign, I mean it’s usually just a simple thing of who is the petition maker, who would have the ability to do what we’re asking to do, so, pretty straightforward.  And then the Change.org process, is pretty basic-anyone can go online to Change.org and fill out the really simple template which is you know, what are you asking to do, who has the power to do it, and why do you want to see this done and then literally press click, start, and your campaign is up on our site.  In terms of how I do my work, the process is, I go through all the really great petitions that are started on our site and look for criteria of, is this widely resonating to our membership, and does it seem like it’s possible to win and those campaigns I reach out and try to provide additional organizing support through media and through our email tool.

    16. And in terms of determining what is resonating with the membership, do you do that based on past petitions they’ve signed or how do you sort of keep track of what their interests are?
    We have over 10 million members which is really large and it grows every day.  So we’re actually able to do quite a bit of data tracking and we’re able to see this amount of members took action on a campaign that was targeted towards the women’s rights in South America, you know.  So we’re able to kind of get very specific and we’re able to look at who has taken action in the past, why, or what have they taken action on, and kind of use that as a guide for what we think our members will be likely to care about.

    17.What advice can you give to someone who wants to start a campaign?  What resources are typically needed to launch a successful campaign?  Are there are any costs associated with creating campaigns on Change.org? 

    Sure, so let’s see here, to answer your last question, there are not any costs associated with creating campaigns on Change.org.  Its free, you just go to the site.  More resources are typically needed, you see a really wide range.  The number one resource is an individual who cares about the issue and wants to do something about it and on a really basic level, that’s all you need to do.  I think it’s really helpful if you have allies and you have research, and you have ways of engaging people on the ground.  But it terms of starting an online petition, you don’t need any resources and I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s such an accessible tool.  The advice I would give to someone who wants to start a campaign is to really think through who would be able to make change on this issue a, and b, the reason online petitions generally work is that, because of public outcry and large public pressure, the target is responsive.  So if it’s a target that will respond to that type of pressure.  Other than that, the advice that I would give is you know network online, make sure that people know about your campaign, and if it’s something that’s personal to you, be sure to include why you are personally related to the issue.

     

    18. What is the Change.org business model and how do you measure impact? 

    Our business model is that we promote our service to non-governmental organizations, and non-profits, which is if they want to for a fee, they can pay to have a petition that they are promoting, kind of highlighted prominently on our site.  So on our website, you might see a petition that’s a sponsored campaign and that means that someone like Amnesty International or Green Peace has paid to have that prominent space.  We measure our impact by how quickly and how much our membership is growing.  So if we’re seeing more and more members come to the site, we see that as having impact and we also see-measure impact by the amount of victories that we are able to win each day, each month, each year.  So how far resonating is our impact, how many people is it creating change for, and will this have lasting meaningful change.

    19. What skills and knowledge does Change.org seek in potential employees they might hire?

    As far as the skills they look for, they look for people who can think out of the box and think creatively.  The ability to stay focused and maintain endurance when you’re working on a campaign that you think is maybe not attainable.  And then lastly, someone who really cares passionately about creating change in the world, but by doing it by empowering every day people to take action.

     

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