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The Myth of the Brandless Advocate

Written Tuesday, Jan 26, 2021.

It was a cold winter day in 2014. I was in my first year of undergraduate studies. That year, I got interested in environmental issues and wanted to start a club called "Students' Climate Action Network", which would work on increasing climate literacy in the student body. It later became "Climate Impact Network" for short. I remember being out campaigning that winter day: I was canvassing on the streets near UofT, getting people to pledge to take action on climate and to sign up for my club's mailing list. Long story short, it was hard. Most people said they weren't interested and some just pretended not to see me. One person was really rude and dismissed me with a wave of his hand, like I was a pest. A long day of fatigue and restlessness already had me on edge, and after being treated like that, it really was too much to handle. I burst into tears right on the street, and bewildered pedestrians just stared at me and walked on by. It definitely is a day that I'll never forget.

Since then, I have graduated and received my Bachelor's degree. I then went on to complete my Master's and am currently doing my Doctorate studies, both at UofT. Now, due to my expertise and accreditations, I am invited to give talks on waste reduction, plastic pollution, and sustainability. And lots people come to my talks and respect the things I have to say. It really is in stark contrast to how I was treated so many years ago on the street.

This story demonstrates two important principles of human psychology: first and foremost, people trust those that are branded well - scientists, PhDs, doctors, professors, etc. Whatever information you give them about your certifications, accreditations, education... people gleam information from that; the better you brand yourself, the more people trust you. I remember hearing about the story of a world-famous violinist, Joshua Bell, who went undercover and performed at a subway station. He is a properly famous musician - so you can probably imagine the beauty of his music - but out of the more than a thousand people that walked by, only seven stopped to listen for any length of time. SEVEN PEOPLE. And this was a world-class renowned musician! So it really shows how our accreditations and branding have an effect on people.

Secondly, people don't like being told what to do. People don't want to receive unsolicited calls or listen to unsolicited campaign messages, especially the ones that don't align with their beliefs or interests. But then the next day, some of them end up signing up anyways - on their own time, of their own will. Think of it this way: if you tell them what to do, instead of letting them decide for themselves, you're taking away that opportunity... and it's kind of like stepping on their ego. And it's much worse if your beliefs don't align with theirs - people might get angry over this. This is why it is so hard to campaign outside of the climate circle (what we activists like to call the problem of "preaching to the converted"). Of course, it's much easier to talk to people in 2021 than 2013, since climate literacy and awareness has been steadily increasing. But nonetheless, there is still a lot of work to be done. Now you might ask me: if you don't want to get them mad, then how DO you reach out to the unconverted? Well, luckily there is a thing called "motivational interviewing". It's kind of like what I described previously - instead of telling people the answer, you let them reach the conclusion for themselves that climate change is a serious issue. How this works is that a motivational interviewer ask a series of questions that makes the person think deeply about the issue; the nature of these questions is intended to guide them through their thoughts and feelings and helps them to find their own motivation for change without you actually telling them to change (pretty cool, eh?).

So this brings me back to my story: the bottom line is that a person is far more likely to listen to a PhD student at an event they signed up for than some random stranger on the street who approaches them without their consent. This is the reality advocates have to work with. Since this is the case, I believe that people who do have the privilege of attracting attention and educating people have the responsibility of reaching out to people and providing valuable information that can help us to improve our society. Yes this is starting to sound like Spiderman - "with great power comes great responsibility!" - and it probably is supposed to. But this doesn't mean that you shouldn't try to campaign; if you're really passionate about a cause, there is always something you can do to get involved. (Maybe not canvass in the streets like me, unless that is your calling... after all, sometimes it works - take Greta Thunberg for instance! Perseverance can pay off...) We've all got to start somewhere :).

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