Lessons for Activists

While We Were Sleeping
David Hemenway is Professor of Health Policy at the Harvard
School of Public Health, Director of the Harvard Injury Control
Research Center, and Director of the Harvard Youth Violence Prevention
Center. His previous books include Private Guns, Public Health. Hemenway is also the author of While We Were Sleeping: Success Stories in Injury and Violence Prevention, which was published by UC Press in March 2009. In his blog entry below, Hemenway discusses how activists can help pave the way for new policies.


Lessons for Activists

By: David Hemenway

I gave a talk in the James Marsh Professor-at-Large lecture series at the University of Vermont this year, discussing “While We Were Sleeping: Success Stories in Injury and Violence Prevention.”  A woman in the audience—whose passion is promoting breast feeding (La Leche)—asked if I could briefly summarize some of the lessons learned from the book for successful activism. Here are a half-dozen:

1) First, and most important, is that a determined individual can make a difference, can change the world for the better.  That is the principal lesson of the book.

2) Second, it won’t be easy.  It is amazing that for virtually every success in the book, there was determined opposition.  Perhaps someone should write a book on the “anti-heroes” who fought so hard to prevent the elimination of phossy jaw to child workers or eye injuries to child hockey players.  The lesson for activists is to never tire of protesting.

3) A third lesson is to try to find committed leaders, or high-profile people, to push for the change.  Suicide prevention in the Air Force was successful because the chief of staff decided it was a high priority; goalies in hockey began wearing protective facemasks because the greatest goalie of them all led the way.

4) A fourth lesson is to focus on vulnerable populations. Many of the success stories involve protecting children—from motor vehicle injuries, scalds, fires, electrocution, poisoning and falls. It is much harder to “blame the victim” when the victim is under 5 years old.   
 
5) A fifth lesson is to involve as many groups as possible to support the effort.  Many of the major successes—reducing youth homicide in Boston, reducing pedestrian injuries in the Netherlands, lowering the child injury rate in Sweden—were due to many individuals and agencies acting together in a shared mission.

6) A sixth lesson is to get good data.  Data are critical for gaining the support of the media, the public and politicians; for helping to determine the optimal initiatives; and for evaluating those initiatives.  

Of these six lessons, I believe the most important is Lesson #2.  It always takes longer than you hope, so you should never give up hope.  In the words of the bastardized Latin version of the Harvard fight song: “Illegitimi non carborundum,” or “don’t let the bastards grind you down.”