6 January 2011
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.
At the age of 16, Laurie Pycroft saw an animal rights protest outside a building site where a new medical research unit was going to be built in 2006. He and two friends ran across and made their own protest in support of animals being used for scientific research and a new campaign was born, Pro-Test. The Rax team interviewed Laurie in 2010.
What were the main steps you took to setting up your campaign?
The first step was an impromptu demonstration consisting of myself, two friends and a hastily scrawled placard. We spent the day standing opposite an animal rights march being shouted at while we quietly supported the construction of the new animal research laboratory in Oxford. The campaign really got going when I recorded the events of the day on my blog and, following a massively positive response, constructed a website to get the message out. I was quickly contacted by a small group of Oxford University students interested in helping me out with my proposed campaign. I met with them and we formed a committee through which we organised our first full-scale march which drew nearly a thousand individuals onto the streets in support of biomedical research.
What were the difficulties you came up against? Particularly because of your age?
There were undoubtedly many difficulties, but my age was rarely one of them. If anything, it probably helped raise our profile by adding an extra "hook" to interest the media. Occasionally our opponents would make an issue of my age, accusing me of being naive or inexperienced, but I would simply ask them to stick to the facts under discussion rather than engaging in petty name-calling. We did have some trouble actually organising the demonstration in the limited time I had allowed, but the single greatest challenge was probably the threat posed by the more extreme elements of the animal rights movement. For quite some time, we had to be rather cautious due to unpleasant e-mails and phone calls, but luckily they turned out to be idle threats.
What advice would you give young campaigners today?
Do your research. Ensure that your point of view is well reasoned, evidence-based and backed up by people who know what they're talking about. Once you're sure that you're on the right side of a debate, and that it's an issue you care deeply about, don't let anyone talk you out of pushing forward with it. Early on in the Pro-Test campaign, we were advised by the police that it would be a good idea to shut down and not demonstrate due to the danger posed by extreme animal rights campaigners. Obviously, we ignored that advice, and doing so was one of the best decisions I've ever made.
How did you manage to get press coverage?
Our main tool for generating media interest was the Internet. I linked the original website to various forums and e-mailed it to the newsdesk of various national newspapers, and coverage grew very quickly from there. A major factor in Pro-Test's press coverage was the fact that we had an existing newsworthy issue to base our campaign around - the Oxford animal lab that was under construction. The media seems much more likely to report on something if they can tie it in with a story they've already reported on.
In what ways is 21st Century important for campaigning?
Online communication is, I believe, fostering a renaissance in political activism. It's easier than ever to attract like-minded people and make your voices heard. A massive variety of tools for publicising your message exists, many of which were inconceivable even a decade ago: Facebook pages, YouTube, blogging. All these services mean that there's no excuse not to actively engage with the issues you think are important.
What kind of work did you do to inform yourself of the key issues in your campaign?
Before founding Pro-Test, I was already reasonably well informed regarding animal based research and biomedical research in general, but it's a subject which requires massive scientific knowledge so I had to spend a lot of time reading journals and articles on the subject. Probably most valuable, however, was actually visiting laboratories engaged in animal research and speaking with the scientists and technicians involved, which allowed me insight into the realities of an animal lab - an insight which ran contrary to the view of these labs purported by anti-vivisectionists.
How did you go about researching and getting all the facts together?
For scientific papers, PubMed has been invaluable as it enables easy searching of a huge database of biomedical literature. I also had a large degree of assistance from scientists and students involved in the area who helped gather relevant evidence for use in debates.
What tips would you give young campaigners in this crucial stage of 'critical thinking and enquiry'?
Be thorough in your research, and be sure to carefully evaluate where your evidence is coming from. The Internet provides unprecidented access to information, and tools like Wikipedia can be wonderful ways of discovering new knowledge, but always be skeptical of where the information is coming from. A website selling homeopathy products, for example, is unlikely to be the best place to find objective, unbiased analysis of the efficacy of alternative medicines.
Did you ever use experts to back up your cause or inform your cause?
Expert advice is an essential part of running a good campaign and I rely heavily on the knowledge of those better informed than me. Quite a few members of the Pro-Test committee are professional scientists, and it wouldn't have been possible to maintain our credibility without them. Of course, it's important to take advice from a variety of experts in order to get a wider view of the issue so that one can decide upon a well-reasoned course of action.
What tips would you give young people to how to be a good advocate for their campaign?
The best tips I can offer are to ensure that you are well informed about the view you're advocating (and the ones you're arguing against), and to develop a degree of public speaking skill. You'll want to dispel the notion of your being a naive, uninformed kid, so present yourself as being cogent and knowledgeable about your chosen subject. Remember that pretending to be knowledgeable is never as good as actually having the knowledge, so try to read around your issue as much as possible. Also, don't be afraid to ask for help from established groups who are working on similar issues to yours - they can be tremendously useful in providing information and advice.