Petitioning for change?with a click of a mouse

Posted: July 09, 2012

The kids at Sun Valley Elementary School in San Rafael, Calif., love Crayola markers.

But not long ago, as they were using the markers for an art project — about the environment, as it happened — they had a disconcerting realization. The markers can't be recycled.

So the students decided to do something about that. They posted a petition on the social media site, Change.org, urging Easton-based Crayola to "make your mark" by setting up a recycling program.

They also posted what has to be one of the cutest videos going.

Olivia, Kyle, Sophie, Austin, Hannah, Eli and others — with earnest expressions or loopy grins and missing front teeth — chime in with sage thoughts. Such as: "“Hey, Crayola, I learned how to do math. You could learn how to recycle your markers."

As of last week, more than 79,000 people had "signed" the online petition.

Is this the new activism, the latest way to change the world? With the click of a mouse, can you really make your voice heard? Is the internet the way to turn your daily values into something more?

Change.org was founded in 2007 by Californian Ben Rattray, now 32. He wanted to empower people.

Five years later, the site boasts 15 million "users" — people who have voted — and every month, roughly 15,000 petitions are launched.

When someone signs a petition, an automated letter goes to the "target." If the signer adds a personal comment, it is sent as well, adding an oomph that most petitions lack.

The site focuses on petitions by individuals or small groups, such as grade school classes, but makes its money by hosting petitions of organizations that pay Change.org to feature them.

Before, the ability to generate and disseminate such petitions "was reserved for national organization that had the money to pay for software and programming," said Robert Spiegel, executive director of the north Jersey environmental group, Edison Wetlands Association, which has used the site. "Now, Change.org has made it possible for a single person to start a campaign."

The petitions come in all sorts of categories, from human rights to gay rights, criminal justice to economic justice. And, of course, the environment.

Not long ago, 12-year-old Abby Goldberg, who had been studying plastic bags for a school project, petitioned Illinois Gov. Quinn to veto a bill making it illegal for towns to pass plastic bag bans.

Goldberg had started a school project to get a local ban on single-use plastic bags. "My friends and I were making great progress," she wrote on the site, "until the oil and chemical industry pulled a dirty trick to kill my campaign."

More than 150,000 signatures later, the governor met with Goldberg last week, although no word yet on what he plans to do.

Earlier this year, a group of Massachusetts fourth-graders demanded that Universal Studios heighten the environmental message in movie marketing materials for "The Lorax." More than 57,000 signatures later, their wish came true, although Universal said the change had already been in the works.

The petitions aren't all by kids, of course. Go to the site, and you can support a petition asking President Obama to put solar panels back on the White House, or one seeking to stop a plan to release genetically-modified mosquitoes in the Florida Keys.

Lisa Riggiola of Pompton Lakes in Passaic County N.J. posted a petition asking the president to add a local site to the Superfund list. It had 10,620 signatures as of last week.

But, as is the case with any petition, how well-informed are the people signing it, or even presenting it?

This issue came up in the battle over the beef product sometimes known as "pink slime." Bettina Siegel, a mom from Houston, Tex., put up a petition asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop buying the product — ammonia-treated beef — for school lunches. Some 258,874 signatures later, the USDA announced it would offer school districts a choice.

Change.org slapped a "victory" label on the petition, but David B. Schmidt, president and CEO of the International Food Information Council, huffed to the Chicago Tribune that "something is seriously of out kilter … when safe food products and proven technologies can be torpedoed by sensationalist, misleading, yet entertaining social media campaigns."

There was plenty of outrage over pink slime outside Bettina Siegel's petition, so it's hard to say what role an on-line petition played in the "victory." And who's to say what finally tips any balance?

But those who like Change.org and its ilk — such as www.avaaz.org — say the sites have plenty of value aside from whether the campaign is victorious.

Some refer to online petitions as a kind of "gateway “ to activism. Once people vote online, perhaps they'll be inspired to learn more about the issue and make a phone call or attend a meeting.

Change.org's Rattray says his company is in the business of “amplifying. We're trying to change the balance of power between individuals and large organizations," he has said.

But, in the Crayola case, while the kids have generated media attention, the company has not yet responded, said Lane Wilson, who has two children in the program.

Nor did the company return my calls. But a company spokeswoman told the Associated Press that the company doesn't have "the facilites or a process" for such a program.

Signatures keep mounting, however. Not long ago, the Pennsylvania Resources Council put information about the petition into one of its newsletters, urging members to sign.

The Center for Biological Diversity uses Change.org as a complement to its other scientific and legal advocacy on endangered species issues. Its latest pstition urges protection for the dwarf seahorse, and as of last week, 100,580 people had signed.

There's value in demonstrating public support, ” said Center spokesman Mike Stark. "It used to be done in town hall meetings, stacks of letters of phone calls. This is simply another way to channel those voices and broadcast them to those who are making decisions."

"GreenSpace" appears every other week, alternating with Art Carey's "Well Being" column. Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147, sbauers@phillynews.com or @sbauers on Twitter. Visit her blog at www.philly.com/greenspace.

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