When I was 19, I gave a short speech to the Iowa House Judiciary Committee about my experience growing up with same-sex parents. I had no idea the speech would be recorded or that a video of it would become YouTube’s most-watched political video of the year. I had no idea it would transform me, literally overnight, into a poster child for the “normality” of families headed by same-sex couples in our state, giving me the opportunity to advocate for other families like mine who were facing exclusion. I had no idea it would eventually lead me to advocating for LGBTQ inclusion in the Boy Scouts of America.
Over the past two weeks, I have been simultaneously inspired and heartbroken by the response of the teen survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. When 16-year old Emma Gonzalez cried, “We call BS!” in a Florida rally aimed at strengthening gun control laws, I felt her power — the outspoken students have inspired junior high and high school students in my own community in Iowa, with more than 250 students walking out of class just last week. At the same time, nobody, especially kids, should have to spend their time for grieving and recovery thinking about politics.
As someone who organized as a young person around a controversial issue, I recognize some similarities between the Parkland teens and the movement I was part of six years ago. Of course, there are huge differences between gun safety reform and ending LGBTQ discrimination in the Boy Scouts. But there are unique challenges having to do with organizing as a young person that I have lived through. Some of what I learned through trial and error might help them.
About a year and a half after my speech went viral, I launched the organization Scouts for Equality. I had earned my Eagle Scout rank in 2007 and loved my time in the Boy Scouts, in part because my local units had never had a problem with my parents. But I also knew that in many other communities, families like mine would not have been welcome and that their policy banning LGBTQ members had to change. Further, when I was growing up, the Boy Scouts taught me that if I saw something wrong, I had a responsibility to do something about, and thus, Scouts for Equality was born.
Along the way, we were told over and over again that we’d never succeed. Yet in less than five years, we won a near-total victory — the Boy Scouts ended their ban on gay youth in 2013, then their ban on gay adults in 2015, and their ban on transgender participants in 2017. It wasn’t easy, but we learned an important lesson: to persevere even when the conventional wisdom is that your goal is a pipe dream.
Because of the leadership from the Parkland survivors, junior high and high school students all over this nation have a newfound platform of their own. Young activists should not be afraid to use the power they have. Speak up, and the adults and media in your community will listen.
Maintaining momentum is the hard part.
Realize that you’re going to be in this fight for the long haul.
When Scouts for Equality launched, we knew it would be a multi-year campaign. And barely six weeks after we started the group, the Boy Scouts came out and doubled down on their ban. It was a gut punch, threatening to derail us before we even had the chance to really get off the ground.
But we were not going to give up.
The key to staying disciplined is to focus on what you can control. Keep clear goals in mind and keep your eye on what you want, not on the obstacles. If you let go of the aspects of the debate that you can’t control, you may find that you have more power than you think.
An important step is to think critically about why the status quo is the way it is and figure out who has the power to change it. This is absolutely vital but often overlooked. We took note that the Boy Scouts’ most important asset was their brand, which gave them access to corporate donors — even though those donors had rules against giving to organizations that discriminated. That was a tension we used to our advantage.
For gun safety, the people with the power to change our laws are politicians who can vote to reform gun safety laws and keep us safe. Politicians respond to one thing more than anything else: reelection. If you want to change their minds, change their reelection odds.
Passion is incredibly important, but the National Rifle Association isn’t successful only because of passion. The group is incredibly organized, it represents a highly concentrated interest (i.e., gun owners and manufacturers), and it can mobilize political activists. The money it gives to political candidates matters, but it is only one part of the organization’s recipe for success. Above all, the NRA is able to create political consequences — partly by running attack ads that fire up its members to come out to the polls. Simply put: passion and organization are the key ingredients to change.
Another lesson: It’s okay — in fact, it’s crucial — to ask for help. We worked with important allies like Change.org, GLAAD, and the Human Rights Campaign, all of whom helped to amplify our message. Then we teamed up with Jeremy Bird, the national field director for Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, to build out a field team and put the needed local pressure on the Boy Scouts: city by city and council by council.
One thing I learned from Bird was the importance of organizing with heart and sharing personal stories. With Scouts for Equality, I had one story I told over and over again on TV, in newspapers, and in online news stories: my own experience growing up in the Boy Scouts with gay parents, how my parents were great leaders, and that they shouldn’t have had to hide who they were in order to be involved. Short and simple and effective.
As activists, your stories and your experiences will affect people. Take some time to write out your thoughts. Have a 90-second pitch on why you care about gun safety. What is your story? And you don’t have to have survived an attack to have a story about how gun violence affects you and your community.
Talk about why you care about this issue, share stories about why your classmates care about this issue, talk about why this matters now.
I learned early in my life that when young people are willing to stand up and speak with conviction, adults will listen, even though — and frankly, especially because — they are young.
If you don’t do this work, nobody else will
When you have meetings, make decisions about what you are doing next. Making decisions is making progress. Take careful notes. Never finish a meeting without scheduling the next one. When you’re getting stuff done, break it down into individual actions. When you finish one action, your question should be, “What is my next action?”
This next recommendation is for young men in particular: Be careful about talking over women in meetings. You probably do it reflexively and without thinking about it. I certainly did until I was called out on it by a dear friend and colleague. I’m still not perfect at it today. Be aware of it!
Effective communication is a huge part of getting stuff done. Talking on the phone tends to be much more effective than texting or emailing, especially if the matter is time-sensitive. Avoid conference calls if you can, but use them if you have to. If your team gets large enough, set up a Slack channel or other communication and team management service.
Momentum is everything. Keep moving forward. Some of the things you will want to do will probably cost some money. Pick one person to handle the money you raise and spend. Ask people to pitch in. It doesn’t have to be much. Get adult help if you want or need it. Do not do bake sales or car washes to raise money. Fundraisers will almost certainly not be a productive use of your time at this stage.
Ask people to give directly. Remember that if you don’t ask them to give, they probably won’t — you are actually doing them a favor by giving them an important chance to make a difference in supporting your work. When I was raising money for Scouts for Equality, I was always surprised by how many people thanked me after I asked them for their financial support. They felt like they were joining our team.
You won’t need that much money, at least not at first. Don’t let it be a barrier either for your group or for people who want to be a part of it. For the moment, nobody should draw a salary or stipend, barring exceptional circumstances. If you get to a point where people do need to be compensated for their time, be as transparent and honest as you possibly can.
My final piece of advice to any young organizer is maybe the most important: If you don’t do this work, nobody else will. The only way out of this mess is to work our way through it — what’s in the way is the way.
There are incredible organizers and leaders in the trenches doing this work every day, and they need your help. Our team at Scouts for Equality knew we had a chance of succeeding where others had failed, and we knew that their work made our success possible. Learn from those who came before you, join with your friends and allies, and roll up your sleeves. They’ll tell you it’s impossible until the day you win.
Zacharia Wahls is an Eagle Scout, a co-founder of Scouts for Equality, and the author of the best-selling book My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family. He is a candidate for the Iowa Senate.