So you’re inundated with requests to sign petitions. Are any of them worth paying attention to?
Petitions can serve both practical and symbolic means and outcomes. Their effectiveness is difficult to measure in a vacuum; rather, petitions are most impactful when aligned with other actions.
For many individuals, petitions can be an entry point for activism on issues such as racial justice. I’ve found this to be true for me during the past several months.
I’ve learned many specifics about key racial justice needs just by reading an online petition in advance of signing it. Often, this experience has led to me digging more deeply into the need and taking other actions such as donating to nonprofits doing effective work, communicating with elected officials, reading books on the topic, writing blogs, and spreading awareness on social media.
Reasons to Sign
A petition can corral and motivate a support base of people, who care enough about an issue to take action and sign their name to it. The organization or individual who created the petition can then guide their supporters through next steps toward their ultimate goals (usually involving some specific policy changes).
Here’s some overall reasons to sign petitions on a frequent basis:
- A petition can show decision-makers the level of public support for an issue. Petitions don’t always need a huge signature turnout to grab a public official’s attention.
- Petitions can be the basis to start conversations that change how people think.
- Petitions can take the role of an informal poll — it can show a business that its customers want them to take action or do something different. Businesses especially are very sensitive to the conversations that people are having about their brand, and a petition and the campaign around it can be a way of having those conversations.
- Events organized around a petition can be the basis for a media story that increases public pressure on decision-makers.
- Petitions can still be powerful in their symbolic nature, defining a moment and representing a groundswell of feeling that can’t be ignored.
Before You Sign
Fear of the unknown or catastrophizing are often barriers to taking a stand on an important issue: “Will my family or friends get mad at me?” “What will happen if my employer finds out I signed a petition?” “Will I be targeted for scams, ID fraud, or physical violence or vandalism if I sign a petition?”
Often, such fears are stoked by rumors, misinformation, peer pressure, personal anxiety, and even implicit bias. There’s no simple, one-size-fits-all panacea for those who are reluctant to sign their name to something.
There are, however, some simple steps you can take to ensure you’re not wasting your time when signing a petition:
- Research who’s behind the petitions if it’s not obvious.
- Use established journalism and nonprofit sites to cross-check any facts and figures cited by the petition,
- Identify the petition’s intended recipient. Determine whether the recipient holds decision-making power that’s relevant to the issue at hand.
- Read the fine print to clearly understand the petition’s specific ask.
- Pay attention to your instincts. If something feels off, it’s probably off — don’t sign it.
- Check to see if the petition site is transparent about its privacy policies. A great example of this can be found at Change.org: https://www.change.org/policies/privacy
After You Sign
After you’ve signed a petition, strive to keep the “story” of the petition top of mind. What emotional connection drew you toward signing this particular petition?
Next, consider the additional actions you could take to build on your signature. If you don’t have time to become actively involved with nonprofits or grassroots campaigns, you can consider donating money or using your social media networks to encourage others to sign the petition.
Perhaps one of the most important thing you can do is cultivate relationships with real people who are especially impacted by the issue you’re petitioning.
This will be easier for some more than others, since most of us tend to live, work, and socialize in “separate spaces,” often having little meaningful contact with those of different races and socioeconomic statuses. It takes ongoing effort, investment, skill building, and trust building to truly get to know persons who suffer in ways that you do not.
Petition Sites to Bookmark and Keep Handy
Finally, these are the petition sites I check and use regularly concerning racial justice issues: