Do Conservation Rallies Really Work?

Photo: By Ron Sutherland. Students rally for the red wolf at UNC.

UNC students and members of the Wild Will Coalition held a rally for red wolves on campus Wednesday, and three times we heard the question, “So what does this rally do?”

It’s a good question. Clearly activism can easily fall into the trap of doing something, but not necessarily doing something effective. The mistake is particularly apparent with tactics like rallies, vigils, or social media campaigns. But the red wolf campaigners are currently using two of those tactics, so we must ask: are we being effective? Here are a few reasons that the answer is “yes”:

1. In-person events keep organizers connected. Any political action, whether by a small group or a series of small groups, is sustained by a core of highly dedicated people who commit more time and effort than more casual participants. But it’s difficult to sustain the core if the organizers never have fun or meet each other in person.

2. Rallies attract potential core-members. Activists sometimes judge the success of rallies by the number of people who show up, but attendance is only one measure of success. True, it increases the chances that the media will take it up and it ensures that at least some people are hearing your message. But even a rally of just a few people can cause a big ruckus or reach a large audience. At the UNC rally, we had captive student audiences on the steps of the university library and a central area called “the Pit.” As a result, we got a list of a few emails and at least three people who will probably be more active in future events—a much higher return than usual.

3. Rallies attract media attention. For instance, one of Earth First!’s early publicity stunts was rolling a piece of plastic down Glen Canyon Dam to make it appear as though the dam had cracked. Only about 70 people attended the nearby rally, but it made major news and attracted government attention. And at the UNC rally, because of our press release and our work in contacting local newspapers, we may have contributed to at least three different articles about the red wolf debate. This is extremely important for organizations who, when they go before the US Fish and Wildlife Service, will need evidence that the public cares about the issue. Read the articles below:

4. Rallies connect a community that may need to respond later. Rallies are what is called a “preliminary tactic,” a method that tests the organizer’s ability to put on major events later, or, with frequent rallies, a way to build momentum for stronger tactics. In this case, the rally was important in identifying students dedicated enough to the red wolf issue to attend the rally or give us their email address. So if the US Fish and Wildlife Service does decide to end the red wolf recovery program, and if we decide to respond, we have a stronger base for that response. We will also use some of these connections we gained to increase attendance at our forthcoming letter-writing night.

5. In-person events are the key to successful online activism. People tend to think that a strong social media presence is something that can be created solely through online methods. This is wrong. Most social media campaigns succeed because the organizers supplement them with real-life events or items. For example, we and other conservationists are using the rallies to contribute to the thunderclap social media campaign for the red wolf.

In other words, rallies can’t ever be the whole picture, but they’re not nearly as useless as they may seem to radical conservationists, who must realize that sometimes moderate tactics, though not as exciting, are critical for successful nature conservation. Anyone interested in these strategic questions may want to check out the resources below:

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