New Internationalist

Rax Interview with David Babbs

In July, New Internationalist published The Rax Active Citizenship Toolkit. It is aimed primarily at teachers and students of Citizenship Studies in UK schools but in fact it can be used by anyone seeking to engage more actively in the world around them.The Toolkit is a landmark in textbook innovation, graphic style, approach to content and attitudes to learning. It also contains exclusive interviews with a range of voices, from popstars and politicians to young active citizens. Over the coming weeks we will be posting the full text of the Rax interviews.

David Babbs is the Executive Director of the online campaigning site 38 Degrees. The site has been praised throughout the mainstream and alternative media for being a campaigning organization led by the people and for the people. The Rax team caught up with David in January 2010. 

What is the basic background to how your project came about?

The founders of 38 Degrees all believe in one key thing: that people power can make a difference here in the UK. Some of us have previous experience of that in the UK, others in America with the Obama campaign or in Australia with a very exciting organisation there called Get Up. We know that there are thousands and thousands of people out there who care about the environment, about poverty, about human rights - our future. We want to make it easy and exciting for all those people who care to come together to make a difference.

What successes have you had?

When we work together, we're powerful. Thousands of us contacted our MPs when Gordon Brown proposed to hold the Iraq Inquiry in secret - within a few days, he changed his mind and accepted it had to be public. After 10,000 of us contacted parliament on the same day about climate change, the Cabinet Minister in charge, Ed Miliband, agreed to answer our questions direct over the phone and over 1,000 of us dialed in.

What would be your three top tips to young Active Citizens who would like to set up their own similar sites for their own campaigns?

1. Keep it simple and don't reinvent the wheel - check what's there already and see if you can use that. For example maybe 38 Degrees might be able to host your campaign on their site? Maybe a Facebook-based site would do the job? Who's had good ideas you can you copy? The less energy you have to spend building your web site, the more time you've got to spend getting loads of people involved in your campaign.

2. Make getting people involved a priority. Give people ways of getting involved which are quick and easy. Make sure you can explain quickly how them getting involved will make a difference, and explain it every time you ask someone to do something. Keep them updated with the impact they've had, and say thank you.

3. Pick your targets carefully. People power is most effective when it's focused - ideally when one person is feeling the pressure from thousands of people. Make sure you're targeting the person/people who hold the real power to change things for your campaign, don't dilute your impact by trying to target too many people at once.

What affect do you think 21st Century technology will have on the process of democracy in the future?

It's too early to say really! But clearly it's easier for lots of people to get involved and work together on big issues than it's ever been before, and that can only be a good thing. There'll be more and more opportunities to do things like campaigning and voting online. But there'll still be an important role for campaigning offline - talking to each other, working with people in your local area, your family, school or workplace.

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