Helping people to voice their opinions amidst the clutter of everyday life.
Thursday, December 23, 1999
Think about what you can accomplish in 20 minutes. Get through the lunchtime line at the post office. Weed a square foot of your back yard. Make a stir-fry.
Imagine using that paltry amount of time helping to shape public policy in Monterey County and throughout the country. If you care about the world but think you''re too busy to make a difference, get to know a group called 20/20 Vision.
Watching daily life grow increasingly harried for the typical Californian, and inspired by his own activism with peace organizations, David Watkins took it upon himself to create "a busy person''s action list."
That was more than a decade ago. Ever since, Watkins has been dishing out information about the environment, poverty, war, civil rights, labor, health care, education--just about any political and social issue a person could care about--to help 20/20''s members use their precious free time to get (and eventually stay) involved with the democracy.
"Learning about the 20/20 Vision effort was like a proverbial light bulb," says Watkins, of Carmel. In June 1989, he and a friend, Jacquelyn Smith, founded the 17th Congressional District chapter of the national organization, mailing out their first of--so far--more than 100 "action cards" to subscribers.
20/20 Vision''s strategy is so simple, it''s a wonder that everybody who is even remotely interested in politics isn''t a member.
Volunteers research key issues that require immediate attention of the citizenry, say, fighting a new dam that could disrupt a sensitive ecosystem, supporting swift enforcement of pesticide restrictions, or urging Congress to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Each month, volunteers mail out a postcard that includes a summary of a particular issue, why it''s important for members to get involved with it, and which decision-makers should receive a letter outlining their concerns. The group''s members love it. "I can exert my voice and express my political values without having to do all the work myself," says local subscriber David Leek.
"We hold no meetings, send no junk mail, and we won''t call you during dinner," Watkins says. "We just ask for 20 minutes a month to write a letter, $20 a year to subscribe, and a vision for a better tomorrow."
Keeping it Real
20/20 operates on the belief that a personal letter is still the most effective way to communicate with leaders. While Barbara Boxer or Diane Feinstein might hear from up to 20,000 people a week, Watkins explains that "a huge chunk is mass-generated e-mail and faxes, many from non-constituents. We cut through that with a personal message.
"Joining 20/20 Vision is like an on-ramp to democracy," he says. "We look for the average busy person, and we make it easy for them to communicate their views."
20/20''s claim to fame is its incredibly high rate of subscriber follow-through. With 60-70 percent of national and local subscribers taking some action on a monthly basis--whether a letter, e-mail, fax, or phone call--the organization''s brilliantly simple model of 20-minute activism is working.
"I follow through every month because it''s so easy," says local subscriber Arlen Grossman. "Since most Americans don''t get involved, those who do have magnified voices. When I act, I become the voice of many people, and I know at least once a month I am doing something useful."
Despite the affordability and ease of the 20/20 model, the local chapter claims a membership of only 140 people, down somewhat from years past. While local subscribers are a loyal bunch, with at least 50 heralding back to day one, Watkins--like any political organizer--would like to reach more people.
"It''s not that the community is becoming less active," he says. "We voted down the Carmel River Dam and the Hatton Canyon Freeway, something no one dreamed would happen five years ago. Consciousness is evolving."
In fact, the group''s California chapters take the lead in setting consciousness trends, says 20/20 Executive Director Jim Wyerman. "The Monterey Peninsula group is more actively involved than others in meeting the needs of subscribers," Wyerman said from his Washington, D.C. office. "And California has a reputation for leading the nation in some areas, particularly in environmental issues like auto emissions."
Recent successes claimed by the local 20/20 chapter include the reelection of Sen. Boxer and the further tightening of California''s auto-emission standards. Meanwhile, frustrating defeats include attempts to halt the expansion of NATO and convince the U.S. to join the international campaign to ban landmines.
But participatory democracy itself--creating an environment in which people engage in their political system--is 20/20''s big-picture goal. For the 10,000 subscribers nationwide, 20/20 brings that participation within reach.
"In my dreams I am an activist," says subscriber Leek, his children''s voices jostling in the background, "but my real life doesn''t allow me to do that. 20/20 at least gets me started. It keeps me connected."
For more information on 20/20 Vision, call 625-2020, send an e-mail to email@example.com, or visit www.2020vision.org.