Earlier this year I was asked to give a super workshop at the NAAFA convention following up on the Georgia Billboard Project. I decided to use the talk to discuss ways that we can get people interested and involved in fat activism projects. If you have trouble with the audio, you can read the transcription below (thanks to the amazing Julianne who did the transcription).
If you’re in the San Jose area this Sunday, I’ll be giving a talk about options for health, happiness, and high self-esteem that honor the body you have now at Center for Creative Living at 1460 Koll Cir, San Jose, CA 95112 on Sunday, 1/27 from 1:00 to 3:00, cost is $20.
Harvey Milk is one of my great life heroes. My name is Ragen Chastain and I am here to recruit you. I am here to recruit you to fat activism and to leadership of fat activism. Some of you are already doing it and some of you don’t know that you are fat activist leaders yet. And I am here to help you.
They asked me to talk about the Georgia Billboard project, and I will. The project that in 8 days raised $21,000 to put up a media campaign in Georgia to counter a horrible anti-fat child-focused media campaign. What I realized when I started to think about the project and its success, was that what made it successful are the things that make everything successful. In my background I’ve consulted for Fortune 100 Companies. I’ve been a turn-around CEO for a multi-million dollar corporate conglomerate. I’ve been a part of a team that turned 200,000 votes in two weeks to win the No on 9 Campaign in Portland.
All of these things are built on really successful principles. So, I wanted to talk about that today so that when you go out if you become interested in leading fat activism and running your own projects – and I hope that you will – you will have all of the tools that you need.
There are many things that successful activism and activist organizations are built on. Leadership, People, Empowerment, and Fundamentals.
Let’s talk about Leadership and what really happened in Georgia. I can take almost no credit for this project. It wasn’t even my idea. I blogged about the campaign in Georgia by Children’s Healthcare in Atlanta. Well-Rounded Mama said “I wish we could have our own billboard.” I was like, “I wish we could have our own billboard, too.” So I posted on my blog and said, “Would you guys like to have our own billboard?” And they said, “Yes!” More of Me to Love came online and said we could have $5,000 and, “What do you want to do?” And we talked about it and we decided to do a matching grant, like a challenge grant, to get people involved. The Big, Fat Money Bomb was Shannon Russell’s idea – that we were going to do it all on one day. Get tons of publicity and then everybody donate today to get momentum going. Allen at Ad Out was our billboard representative. He called me one day and said, “I just spent a bunch of time reading about this project and I’m so excited!” Originally, we wanted to get one billboard and it was going to be $10,000. We ended up getting six billboards and ten bus shelters and it was $21,000. Allen made that happen for us. Allen was amazing. He was just some dude that I found on the internet who rep’d a billboard company. It was amazing. Marilyn Wann came on board and allowed us to use her “I Stand” project for the bus shelters and sponsored the project. Sabrina Wilson and Elizabeth Tamny were our Graphic Design Gurus. They came in and Sabrina did the original design for the billboard and Elizabeth did all of the” I Stand”s to spec in like 24 hours because we found out they weren’t going to look good. She was a hero. We had a thousand donors. We had tens of thousands of participants. Almost none of it was me.
The way that it works is this – this is my favorite quote about leadership – “With the best of leaders when the work is done, the people will say, “we have done it ourselves.” If you are leading a project, it is 100% not about you, your ego, or credit. Right? It’s about empowering people. This isn’t about making people believe that your ideas were their ideas. That’s not what it means. It means that when you leave, the people are empowered to go on without you. They don’t need you. You’ve empowered them. You’ve given them a gift by showing them their value – which they came to you already having. People come to you valuable, people come to you amazing, people come to you talented. But they don’t always know it. And it’s criminal, as a leader, to not show them, to not help them discover that, to not give them the option.
Proper leadership recruits and empowers group members. It makes people want to act. It makes people do things that maybe they thought they couldn’t do. It makes people excited. It makes people want to be involved.
Proper leadership identifies and develops new leaders. Always looking for the next person. Who’s next? Who’s after me? Who can I recruit? Who can I get to help? Who else is there? There are leaders everywhere and it’s our job, if we are coordinating projects – we have the opportunity to identify those people. And what a tragedy to not do that.
Proper leadership seeks out and elevates people who are smarter and better. Everybody on that list I just mentioned is smarter and better than me. At least at what they do and probably many things. Maybe all things. That’s my job as a leader. If you think you are the smartest, best person in your organization you are failing as a leader. You are actively failing. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. People who know other things. People that are better than you at what they do. That’s power. That’s how we gain momentum.
Credit kills campaigns. This was a sign in the first campaign office I ever worked in. I am sure you guys have heard the saying, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if nobody cares who gets the credit.” It’s amazing what you can’t accomplish if someone does care who gets the credit. There is no room for credit in revolution. We don’t have room, we don’t have time. There’s no room for ego. We’ve got to get in a boat and we’ve got to row. And that’s how it goes. We are rowing that way. If you are also rowing that way, we welcome you in the boat. If you want to lead a team in the boat, that’s amazing. How can we help you and empower you to do that?
What happened in Georgia? The Georgia Campaign had 3 sponsors, had 1,010 donations, had tens of thousands of people who got the word out – and our policy was: “Everybody In!” We encouraged people to ask how they could help and when they asked, we gave them something to do. And that included people who had no money; that included people who had no internet; that included people who did not want to come out as fat activists in any way, shape, or form. We found a way for them to help – for them to make this their project. For them to become involved and want to become more involved and to take that next step. This is so important. Getting people involved. Showing them their value. Showing them that, maybe you don’t have money but you are valuable to this movement – you have something to give. We want to encourage that. It’s incredibly important.
I want to give an example of that. The NAAFA-LA chapter [now the Size Diversity Task Force] who are here in their red. Hi everybody. They spent this year fundraising, all year long, so that every single member of their chapter who wanted to come to Convention came to Convention. And that’s why they are more than a third of the people in this room. They got it done. And they empowered everybody to do it. Everybody was involved. Whether they were putting glitter on candles to sell or donating clothes for the Big, Fat Flea Market. Every single person got to be involved and got to feel valued. And here we all are. That’s amazing. That is activism! That’s how it works! And, people, understand – I was so inspired by this chapter that I changed where I lived! I want to be part of a community. I want to be involved with people like that. People who get it done. People who say, “Whatever your talent is, wherever you’re at, whatever you don’t have, we’ll make up for that. We can do that. We’re a group. You don’t have to be everything. Nobody can do everything but everybody can do something. Everybody who wants to.” And, I believe it’s our jobs to say, “What do you want to do? What are you good at? Let me help you. Let’s try some things.” Whatever it takes to get people involved and motivated and interested.
Because we are at a point in our activism where we want to tell the world, “This is what we want. This is what we deserve.” But, meanwhile, we have to turn around to our community of fat people, some of whom don’t identify as a part of the community at all, and say, “No, seriously. This is what you deserve.” So we’ve got this weird thing where we get it, we’re here, like we’ve got this gift of having discovered Health at Every Size and Size Acceptance. And that’s such a precious gift, we can’t hold onto that.
I get between 150-200 emails every day from people who read my blog. People who tell me their marriages are falling apart. People who tell me they are ready to commit suicide. People are suffering. People are dying. Every day, people are stigmatized, oppressed, and disenfranchised. And it is criminal, that we have discovered this, not to tell them about it – not to give them the option. I’m not about telling people how to live. Do whatever you want. You are the boss of your underpants. I’m the boss of mine. And there is no Underpants Overlord – and that’s how it goes. But if you want to get your underpants in the boat, I want you to know about the boat! There are people who don’t know that there is an option besides hating themselves. They don’t know! And that’s on us, because we know. We have got to tell people that. And we’ve got to get them involved and motivated and make them feel welcome and make them feel able and capable and smart – because they are – they don’t know it because the whole world tells them that they’re not.
So how did it work in the Georgia Campaign? Volunteer recruitment and management are the most important part of activism. No civil rights movement has ever succeeded because six people wanted to do something. Momentum of hundreds of people becomes a movement when they decide they have had enough. I’m ready to pick up a brick and throw it. There are consequences and I don’t care. “Risk is the currency of Revolution.” We have to take risks. So, getting people on board, giving them a way to get in – even if they aren’t all the way there. It’s not, “If they are not with us, they are against us.” It’s, “If they are not actively against us, maybe they’re with us. What can we do and how can we get them involved?”
Again, nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something. In fat activism, this is particularly important. We are told, as fat people, every day, from every direction, that we are worthless – that we are valueless – that we are lazy – and this just doesn’t count and it won’t count until we get thin. So, as leaders and fat activists, it is criminally negligent to perpetuate that. To make people feel that they are anything less than valuable and amazing. It is criminally negligent and to do it for the sake of your own ego is worse. We’ve got to start being active and getting people involved and getting them on board and letting them know that they are valuable. It’s one of the most important things we can do for fat activism.
Good volunteer management empowers. Again, you’re giving people the opportunity to find out something about themselves – to try something and fail spectacularly, and that’s okay, and that’s going to happen. Better to try and fail spectacularly and find somebody who wants to try again than to say, “No, I’ll just do it myself because I’m gonna do it better. It’s just too much of a pain to get you involved and teach you how. It’s too much of a pain. I don’t have time.” Better to get people involved. Even if they fail at their first shot.
Good volunteer management respects. Respects people’s time, respects people’s talent, respects people’s ideas. They are not going to come on board unless they know they are valuable. Good volunteer management uncovers value. Again, they come to you valuable, but they sometimes they don’t know it. And that is horrible. And that is something we can do something about!
Fundamentals. This is the last little bit I’ll talk about. So what happened in Georgia? We had clear goals. We had follow-through. We gave constant updates. We gave opportunities for input as well. Sabrina Wilson was a hero because she developed the billboard, that then thousands of people voted that they wanted to be the billboard for the campaign. She’s not just a hero for that. She’s a hero because she got on a phone call with six people and we made the billboard better together. She didn’t say, “This is my idea and it is perfect as it is and 4,000 people voted for it so it’s what we’re doing.” She said, “Who wants to help? How can I make it better? How can I get involved? How can I get other people involved?” Better, smarter people than me. Because that’s how we win, that’s when we’re powerful.
Transparency. We were clear the whole time. People could look at our financials and bank reports at any time. We were extremely clear about where we were.
Good organizations and campaigns respect people’s time. They begin and end meetings on time. They respect the amount of time people say they can put into the organization and give them something that matches that amount of time. They have good follow-through. They help people all the way through. Is that difficult? Yeah, sometimes it really is. Is it frustrating? I have a friend who says he can’t watch his kids clean the kitchen. Because it’s just too painful and he just can’t sit there and watch it. But they’ll never learn to clean the kitchen if he doesn’t let them try. So, try – feedback. Try – feedback. All the way through until they are kitchen cleaning experts. That’s the deal. That’s what leaders do.
Good organizations give opportunities for input and ideas from the group at every possible opportunity. Anytime they can get feedback and input and involve that and involve people and their ideas – they do it. Again, because we are a baby activist movement and people need to know that they are valuable and they’re welcome and there is a place for them for more than their money. We never want to make people think they are only valuable for what they can donate to our cause. Right? 1,000 people donated, but it took tens of thousands of people to get that done. And those people are just as, if not more, valuable than the people who were able to make a contribution. Because they got more people involved. Now 10,000 people consider themselves fat activists. There’s a really cool study where they went around with a picture of a really big, ugly billboard and they said, “Would you put this in your yard?” It was about community beautification. And 98% of the people said, “No, I will not do that.” Obviously. Except for one neighborhood where almost 80% of people agreed to put a big, ugly billboard in their yard. And the reason why is because two weeks previous, someone had come around and asked them to put a little sticker in their window that said that they believe in community beautification. And what they learned is that that tiny act changed the way people felt about themselves. They became people who cared about community beautification. Enough that they would put that billboard in their yard to talk about beautifying their community. It’s a little seed and it grows so fast. Because it changes how people see themselves, who they believe themselves to be. And that’s powerful.
Good organizations are transparent about their membership, their financials, their goals and projects. If you are leading a project and it turns into a bigger thing that’s going to go on for years and years and into an organization, it is time to call elections. There is no place for oligarchy in revolution. If you are a leader you want to be a leader because people ask you to be a leader. They said, “You’re the one. I pick you. I raise my hand. I want you out in front.” And if that happens to you and you become that person, it’s your job to find the next people and grow them – not to hold onto that leadership and hope that the people never, ever say that they don’t want you. You’ve already been chosen. Your time is there, it’s great, now it’s time to integrate new leadership. All the time.
So with the best of leaders, when the work is done, the fatties will know we have done it ourselves. They want a war on obesity? We will give them a war! And we will do it by empowering ourselves one at a time. By showing people that they are valuable and they deserve love and respect and that they can demand it. And so can we. We deserve the activist committee that will win. And we can create it for ourselves.
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I do size acceptance activism full time. A lot what I do, like answering over 4,000 e-mails from readers each month, giving talks to groups who can’t afford to pay, and running projects like the Georgia Billboard Campaign etc. is unpaid, so I created a membership program so that people who read the blog and feel they get value out of it and want to support the work I do can become members for ten bucks a month To make that even cooler, I’ve now added a component called “DancesWithFat Deals” which are special deals to my members from size positive merchants. Once you are a member I send out an e-mail once a month with the various deals and how to redeem them – your contact info always stays completely private.