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Palestinian Activists Hone Advocacy Skills

By Grace Bradley
USINFO Special Correspondent

Palestinian Activists Hone Advocacy Skills

Palestinians traditionally value education as the way forward, so it is not surprising that the West Bank has dozens of articulate, home-grown advocacy groups. But even the most seasoned civic activists constantly seek new strategies to communicate their message.

Recently, the U.S. Consulate General invited an experienced U.S. activist to work with local advocacy groups on communicating their message through the media as part of the United States' continuing support for democratic development in the Palestinian Territories.

Tarek Rizk, a garrulous American with Egyptian roots, is the associate director of the Global Interdependence Initiative at the Washington-based Aspen Institute. At his workshops in Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah, he discussed ideas with Palestinian activists on choosing the target audience and ensuring their message is noticed.

Rizk's diverse background in advocating for global peace, nuclear disarmament, public health, the environment and gun violence prevention gave him shared concerns with many of the workshop participants, who came from a network of Palestinian youth organizations that promote nonviolence, leadership, civic responsibility and volunteer work. They were eager to test-run some of his strategic new media tools for advocacy, public information and outreach.

"We need to learn how to be more innovative and effective," said Manal Hilaneh, who took copious notes during a training seminar for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Ideas included text message campaigns aimed at teenagers, social networking through the Web site Facebook, recruiting rural volunteers by inviting inspirational speakers to remote villages and reaching donors with hopeful messages that spotlight successes instead of desperate victims.

Participants used role-play exercises to focus their campaigning tactics and benefited from Rizk's critique. "Everyone is sick of politics; there's political paralysis," he observed. "Speak to ordinary life events instead. People will respond."

Rizk cautioned the group about some typical pitfalls that plague activists.

"There's the curse of knowledge. You cannot reel off a 10-minute monologue about your pet cause and assume everyone knows the basic issues. Stick to one big idea," he said. "Avoid jargon and keep it simple. Exercise restraint with statistics, and just use one that really matters or you'll put people to sleep. Do the unexpected and learn from your mistakes."

Unconventional or humorous public affairs campaigns have the best chance of success, he said, and deft timing is critical. He warned against missing opportunities.

For the final session of the NGO training, 10 media representatives joined the activists to discuss better cooperation. Meeting the press proved tense for some of the activists who felt ignored or even slighted in the past by some prominent media.

"Self-censorship happens in the media, who will simply shun some topics," Rizk explained. "Here, they are also subject to pressures from social taboos and factions. Some journalists have personal agendas. It is not easy."

In a separate daylong session, Rizk worked with 15 young political leaders on designing political campaigns and conveying messages through the media. Samer Salameh, 38, participated from the Palestinian Council for Young Political leaders.

"Anyone between ages 25-40 is considered a young leader in our patriarchal society," he explained. "We still are making our way, as it can take a while for the second generation."

Rizk's three-hour workshop inspired Salameh to call for a community social action group on human rights. "We started with local radio and newspaper spots, but also made special posters and flyers for the villages where we need volunteers," Salameh said. "Getting them to work for no pay is our biggest challenge."


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