When I interviewed Naomi Wolf via phone, it was less than a week before the terrible events in Charlottesville rocked our nation. We were already looking for ways to use our platform to become more informed and involved citizens, and when Naomi agreed to an interview we jumped at the opportunity. It’s not every day we get to speak with a former advisor to Bill Clinton and Al Gore, not to mention author of eight books (including the modern feminist classic The Beauty Myth.) For those of us who don’t work in government, it’s easy to feel completely helpless during a non-election year. Watching the deeply unsettling events of 2017 unfold, it’s tempting to wonder: do we have any power at all in between elections? According to Naomi we do. Read on to discover why writing your representative is probably a complete waste of time, how to find information about issues you care about, and why sharing your opinions on Facebook and Twitter might not be screaming into the void after all.
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Our generation seems to have a bad habit of getting super involved right around the time of the presidential election, then falling asleep for about 3.5 years. The Women’s March left us feeling inspired to stay connected to the causes we care about, but many of us haven’t really known what steps to take next. Are there specific things we can be doing in 2017?
Naomi: So, this is true. But actually from the perspective of recent history, you guys are pretty good. There’ve been a number of generations since the high point of the 60’s and 70’s that have been really inert, compared with millennials. Now I find that people in their 20’s are incredibly willing to engage and really thinking very politically wherever they are on the spectrum and they care about activism.
But you’re right that… I wouldn’t say they lose steam, I would say that there aren’t a lot of obvious venues and kind of support systems in place for sustained action. The beautiful thing about the 60’s and 70’s was that there was no internet, so people had to go to meetings and put out mimeographed newsletters, and protest and march, and be in real life together.
Having said that, there’s been a lot of attacks on those traditional ways of organizing. For instance, protest, as you know, has been really under sustained fire in America in the last few years. Police are more militarized, I think the Black Lives Matter Movement is such a good example — you take your life in your hands, in some places, especially if you’re a person of color protesting. The way that the founding documents guarantee, everyone has a right to do it.
I wouldn’t put the blame on millennials, but this is why I’m so passionate about Daily Clout and other forms of civic technology, civic tech, which is this new burgeoning thing being created.
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What is Daily Clout?
Naomi: Daily Clout is a project I co-founded — and it’s definitely aimed at millennials — that explains bills to them. We started in America but our intent is to be global. It’s a platform that explains bills in a way that anyone can understand with kind of fun, easy graphics, but also gives people a digital tool to mobilize online and in real time, moving through social media, share and comment on bills, tweet thumbs up, thumbs down. It lets representatives basically not have anywhere to hide.
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So, even though no national elections are happening in 2017 (not even senate or house elections), these very important bills are being proposed and dealt with all the time. Why is it so hard to find out about bills and what they really mean?
Naomi: When I first started developing Bill Cam (our search tool), the only alternative was something called “Thomas”. It was a government website — and it was just federal — and it took so long to load that people had to send their interns there for hours, just to download a single bill. Whereas if you were in Congress, you got the super fast version. But even then you couldn’t share it, right? It’s a PDF, you can’t do much with that. It’s just stuck there, all you can do is stare at it. Now that’s one layer of “not findable.” Plus, who knew? No one told me growing up, “If you want to find out where a bill is, look in Thomas.” It’s so obscure. Then in addition, bills are deliberately written in language that no one can understand. Like, they’re written on purpose to obscure what’s in them.
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Why is that?
Naomi: Because often, millions or billions of dollars is being transmitted from one entity to another and they don’t want you to know who’s getting it or where it’s going. Or resources are being transmitted or federal lands are being opened up to mining or to exploitation. It’s coded in language so difficult that no one can get through them, including officials who say that they don’t even know how to read their own bills. Which is why lobbyists write them. So that’s where, again Daily Clout has really solved a problem because we’ve trained these brilliant young millennials and really anyone can do this with a little bit of training. That’s part of why we chose 19 year olds and 20 year olds and 21 year olds.
With a little bit of practice, these people can read the bills and explain what they are and what they actually say. So every week we need to do a newsletter and also a blog take bills that are written in a very difficult language and just say, “This is what it means. This is the bottom line.” What we hope and believe (and we’re seeing) is the more people who read our blogs and then look at the bill, the more they’ll learn. It’s not that difficult to actually read what’s in the bill and it helps that they look at page six. By sharing them in that wonderful crowd sourcing of knowledge, people, we’re finding really demystify these bills.
That’s great. I like the term “crowd sourcing.” I think it really describes the power that you’re harnessing on Daily Clout.
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So let’s get down to communicating with our representatives. How effective (really) is writing or calling them? What about signing petitions?
Naomi: Basically it’s not effective at all. There are a lot of sites now (and they’re very well intentioned) and all they do is petition. The system is set up right now so that elected officials, they really have a fire wall that keeps them from ever coming in direct contact with those calls and those emails. I mean interns — they’re making notes — but they’re not nuanced. You can’t say, “I hate this clause of the bill, but I like this other clause of the bill.” It’s very crude and easily dismissed.
Basically, if you’re on the left your elected official on the left takes you for granted. If you’re on the right, your elected official on the right takes you for granted. Both sides really only pay attention to the opinions of in-between voters. So where are you going to go, if you’re not an in-between voter? You’re stuck. So that’s the system.
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So if you have a strong opinion about a bill, what’s the best way to get your voice actually heard?
Naomi: I think we should pay a lot of attention to this combination of giving people digital tools to really create an agenda that’s powerful, not just, like, yelling at a TV ad or bitching on Huffington Post or whatever. Give people tools to really do something digitally but also follow up with real life gatherings. That’s really why we created created this tool, Bill Cam.
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What, in a nutshell, is Bill Cam?
Naomi: It’s like Google for legislation. You just type in your issue, as I mentioned, like sexual harassment for instance, or sexual assaults on campus, and you’ll get all state and federal bills related to that issue. Then you can choose one and cut and paste the code in your blog or news article, and it’ll pop open to the actual live bill in your article. You can then share it through social media.
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How is sharing an opinion on social media more effective than writing or calling your representative?
Naomi: I’ll give you an example: Angelique is a sophomore going into junior year at NYU and she’s written on Daily Clout about a bill being presented in Michigan. This particular bill is about female genital mutilation, which is a problem there. Michigan is the newest state to officially ban it and the bill said, “Doctors, parents and others involved in female genital mutilation in Michigan will face up to 15 years in prison.” That’s a very newsworthy bill. But you would never know about it, if it weren’t for this 19 year old writing about it and sharing it online.
Now everyone can see this bill. Then if they like the bill, they can share a link to her blog post with the bill through social media. Or they can tweet the bill sponsor and the bill rep and their own representative. Now, the bill sponsor is getting even a few dozen public tweets saying, “Right on, I love this bill.”
It really moves the dial because it’s public. It doesn’t matter if you do email in private. Nobody knows.
You can mail a letter or send an email, but you’re only one person or one of 5 million… but in public, they’re getting all these tweets, all this recognition, their communication director is saying “Awesome, look at all these tweets you’re getting for this great bill on female genital mutilation.” Again, it also kind of solves a problem about money in politics. Right now our system is corrupted by all the money that elected officials have to raise, despite restrictions in a handful of states.
If social media is shining a light on the good stuff they’re doing or shaming them for the bad stuff they’re doing, really it kind of cancels out the need for those TDFs. It has a side effect, kind of cleaning up the influence of money in politics. So Angelique is going to post it tomorrow and we’re going to tweet the bill sponsor and Angelique’s representative and the communications director of this Michigan representative who introduced this bill. Search elected officials who responded to a Bill Cam article. The response comes down to two hours, so anyone can be Angelique. Anyone can do this now with the technology.
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It sounds like what you’re doing with Daily Cloud and Bill Cam is making that information more accessible. Then allowing people to interpret it for themselves — starting a public conversation about what these bills really mean.
Naomi: I mean you just summed it up beautifully. I want to give you a compliment to you, which is that we can do our part but you’re really doing your part. Because it’s also really going to take media websites, platforms aimed at millennials to raise these answers and to ask these questions.
Right. That’s exciting because I feel like our generation’s power is so much online — that’s where we are all day. If we can create a way to harness that energy into actual change and involvement that could really be something.
Naomi: I totally agree. You guys are so powerful. Respectfully, you’re just not that well organized… yet. A lot of establishment intention is to not allow an easy transformation of how to organize, how to run a meeting or how to create social change from one generation to the next. So you guys are kind of having to re-invent the wheel in a way. But you’re all so powerful and you’re all so digital that when you combine digital tools with real life young people’s energy and passion you’re going to be unstoppable.
Thank you, Naomi, for sharing your inspiring ideas and experience with us. We’ll see you on online… we’ve got work to do.
A Rhodes Scholar and former advisor to Clinton and Gore campaigns, and author of eight NYT nonfiction bestsellers, Naomi Wolf has been creating globally valuable news and opinion content for digital media and for publishers for 28 years.