I wrote this for students in a class I taught, “Environmentalism for Activists,” at the New School for Social Research in 1999. One of the requirements of the class was that the students had to write to local newspapers at least once every two weeks. After seeing their initial letters it became clear that they needed some sort of guide to how to hone them to make their letters more effective and to better convey their sharp and politically charged views.

A number of those students went on to work on radical newspapers like the NY-based IndyPendent. One went to Mexico to report on the revolution spurred by the Zapatistas. Others continue to organize grassroots efforts against genetic engineering and pesticides, and with the Industrial Workers of the World which is unionizing Starbucks workers.

I still get letters from my students — now, my comrades! — about their efforts around decentralized alternative energy, shutting down nuclear power plants and weapons, anti-war activities and their involvement in projects organizing against mountaintop removal and the tearing down of forests.

In other words, it was a great class filled with great and inspiring students! Thank you, all!


1) Clearly define the opponent, enemy, policy or argument you’re challenging. Paint the picture, draw the reader in with specific images.

2) Always retain the moral ascendancy. This allows you to take the offensive. Here’s how:

Mitchel Cohen in Managua, 1984. Photo by Tony Savino.

a) establish your own credibility, sincerity, concern. Extend that to include the entire audience or com­munity to whom you are speaking or writing. One way — concisely tell your own story so that your motives and where you are coming from are clear, listeners do not feel threatened by you and in fact can identify with you and what you are saying.

b) protest the injustice inherent in a policy or action, such as military aid to Indonesia, the bombing of innocent people in Afghanistan, the state’s support for Monsanto and refusal to even label genetically en­gin­eered foods that you and your audience all eat, or the City’s attempt to implant a waste transfer sta­tion in a residential or ecologically sensitive area.

c) Note that the other side sometimes tries to do this too. Jimmy Carter tries to hide being a mouth­piece for Monsanto and making profits for investors by couching genetic engineering in terms of “feed­ing the world.” How to deal with this effectively?

i) Use humor, satire and ridicule. But,

ii) do not “call names,” exaggerate, ascribe personal motivations or what’s in their head, or falsely characterize the opposition — doing so risks losing the moral ascendancy, which is more impor­tant to hold onto than short-term benefit. This is a tricky balancing act between satire (good) and snottyness (bad). See below.

3) Once an injustice is established, reframe the argument. Don’t unconsciously accept or be boxed into their language or definitions: People aren’t “homeless,” they’re made homeless; Is the crop really “Weed resis­tant,” or is it “herbicide saturated”? Are people with breast cancer “Genetically predisposed”, or are they subjected to a toxic environment? Was Saddam Hussein really “Worse than Hitler” (thus obscuring or minimizing the crimes of the Nazis) or was he a “CIA-installed ally” acting at the behest of the U.S.?

4) Debunk their experts (and, sometimes, the need for experts). How? Beforehand, make a list of the ways to do this for each issue (for instance: show their biases, hidden investments, lies, additional evidence they’re concealing, their behind-the-scenes funders, their previous actions, etc.). Spell it out — it’s never self-evident, although a picture of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein in 1983 goes a long way to exposing their lies and undermining their credibility. And be specific in every one of your charges; never say “some” scientist said this, or “they” are doing that, etc. or you will sound paranoid and lose credibility. It adds to your own credibility to be specific and to correctly attribute whatever you are claiming.

5) Establish the complicity of a local institution with the unjust policy you are protesting. (Could be a university, government, corporation, bank, court, police, military, CIA, etc.) Demand that the institution you are challenging recognize and take a stand against its own complicity with the specific injustice, even though (and especially if) you are convinced that it won’t. Find and expose the linkups, the interlocks, to pressure local institutions to disassociate from or to stop assisting in any way that odious or unjust policy. This is not simply for research purposes but to enable people to undertake specific actions on their own.

6) Put a face on the enemy. There are always people behind such institutions (although it’s hard to believe that a real person would actually do such unjust things) – members of boards of trustees or directors, investors, bureaucrats, university officials. In general (but not always) we’re not out to convince the enemy that he or she is wrong — this is not a rational argument with them (unlike the way it is with each other); we’re trying to FORCE them to change their position whether they like it or not by building a force sufficiently powerful to exact a price from them (and one that they do not want to pay) for refusing to change their position. Speak or write towards building this force, not to rationally trying to convince the enemy. Think of tactics you can use to accomplish this and whether they are appropriate for the issue at hand (picketing the Board of Directors at their homes, leafletting profes­sors’ classes if they have military contracts, for example) — think outside the box!

7) Make the enemy the object of ridicule and scorn so that no one wants to be associated with them. Quote from their own words. (Henry Kissinger’s quotes are usually very good for this sort of thing: “To give food to people just because they are starving is a pretty weak reason.” Or this from Lyndon John­son: “Without sufficient air power America is a bound and throttled giant, impotent and easy prey for any yellow dwarf with a pocketknife.”) The point: Most people immediately try to disassociate them­selves from such a quote or person — even their own supporters! Satirize their hidden assumptions – without coming across as crass or malicious! Sometimes a pie in the face does this better than arguing. Be careful, though, not to ridicule those who are not really the enemy but who just have a different opinion.

8) Punch with the best instincts of people, not at them. Don’t moralize against those you are trying to influence. Abolish the word “should” (and the condescending tone embedded in it); talk as “we” rather than “you” (as in “You should feel differ­ently than you do”) when addressing your friends and supporters. Get rid of the sense that you’re lecturing others, and turn it into a sense of “how do we move forward together.”

9) Give examples of what positive things the institution should be doing instead. We know that these institutions won’t act in the way we’d like, but delineate them anyway to show those we’re trying to convince how things could be different if the target changed course and did the right thing (which you are advocating) or was truly a democratic institution run by the people. This allows us to make connections, to show how the particular issue is a hidden dimension of other and more systemic issues.

10) Always give others on your side credit, don’t hoard it for yourself. Share knowledge! And at the same time, don’t stretch the truth. Don’t exaggerate, however tempting it may be to embellish your point. Show where people can get more information. Always provide a contact number. Respect the work of others. Give example of the specific actions they have taken. Inspire commitment and creativity.

11) Once complicity is established, resist in an organized, disciplined manner. Take direct action against the institu­tion. It’s most effective when resistance exposes to all the institutional hypocrisy, the double-standards that invariably come about as a result of the institution’s complicity with injustice. (Think: What do we mean by “organized manner”? Why is that important? This does not mean “rigidity” or too many rules!)

12) Once you’ve established your own base, link up with others, without compromising principles. Com­promise on tactics, not principles. Watch out for those who try to establish coalitions on the basis of “low­est common denominator.” At the same time, balance that against the importance of not being sec­tarian.

13) Respect the intelligence of those with whom you’re trying to communicate. People change by changing them­selves, not by you (or anyone) changing them. We can help facilitate that, but it takes an active effort on the part of a person, not a passive flip-flop. (If people can be talked into holding a position, they can just as readily be talked out of it.) People change by actively participating in struggles that change conditions around them. This enables them to experience the world (and their own lives) in a different way. It enables them to learn new things on their own. It is the job of organizers to change the condi­tions (in all the ways cited above) through which people can take action and experience (and not necessarily “see”) the world in a different way. This is what allows them to join movements and to change themselves, at the same time.

Mitchel Cohen
Red Balloon Collective & Brooklyn Greens / Green Party


11 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS, or TrackBack to 'TIPS: HOW TO RAISE ISSUES & WRITE EFFECTIVE LETTERS & FLYERS'.

  • Barry says:


    Great advice.

    Two quibbles… Thanks for the list of 13 things we should do, including no shoulds.

    Listening to ham radio recently I heard a steady stream of name-calling and only blaming the faces/skins in the news. No comments above the level of Rush. It is so depressing.

    If one’s goal is to promote public understanding of the world writing “should” not try to put faces on problems, because too many people are already blinded by so many faces standing up front and hiding the system. Is that a tactic? Blame and purge?

    Always paint the human faces as very small parts of the inhuman non-system. Expose the system. Paint it nude.


  • Paul Corell says:

    Dear Mitch,

    The “how to write an effective flier” tips are very informative. I hope to take heed of these recommendations not only in writing fliers, but in daily political dealings with others.

    It’s almost like poetry for the activist’s soul.

    ¡Hasta la victoria siempre!-Paul (from Bklyn)

  • David Haines says:

    Hey Mitch!

    I’m very impressed with your strategies described in the message “How to Write Effective Political Letters and Flyers”. Our group will be applying these in the next few weeks to issues involving healthcare – as we discussed last time you and I talked.

    I’m glad to see you’re still in the fight. Stand fast! The world will be a much less interesting place when you retire.

    Cheers! – Your old adversary/comrade – Dave
    David Haines, Ph.D.
    Faculty of Pharmacy
    Health Science Center
    University of Debrecen
    Nagyerdei krt. 98
    4032-Debrecen Hungary
    TEL: +36-52-326-946 (res)
    TEL: +36-70-258-5607 (mobile) (July 2009)
    TEL: +36-52-255-586 (office July 2009)


    This is full of very good tips and suggestions and well worth reading for those of us working aginst incompetent and irresponsible cloudbuster proliferation. I can see several ways to improve my presentations on the subject and plan to incorporate them into my efforts in the future.

    Thanks, Mitchel!

    Check out my blog. And let me know if you have any suggestions on how to make it more effective.

    Prevent Atmosphere Abuse! Fight Cloudbuster Proliferation!
    Join The Society For Atmospheric Self-Regulation

    Sign up for the mailing list at

  • Dennis King says:

    This is a brilliant advice piece. In reading it, I feel kind of overwhelmed by how many things have to be taken into consideration in writing a leaflet, press release, even a blog posting. I doubt I’ll be able to keep all these things in mind at the same time–maybe a checklist? But I’ll try to follow SOME of them. Only thing I’ll NEVER learn to do is keep things short. Alas.

    • Marcia Blodgett says:

      Dennis, did I teach you at Highland High School in the 1970’s? If you love Neil Young and sound like him too then…WOW.

  • ELLEN OSUNA says:

    Thanks!!!! Great, solid, advice there. You rock.

    Blessings for beating the frackers,

  • Jim West says:

    Thanks again for your experience, Mitch. A bit of humor, and be prepared. “Enemies” are often the best critics, practice arenas.

  • JOE SMITH says:

    Mitchel, et al;

    Think about it…this post is a treasure. We all need to take heed of this and use it effectively. Terrific post Mitchel and thank-you. The Leonard Cohen quote is quite appropriate, as well. Any relation to the great Poet-Laureate Mr. Leonard Cohen?

    Thanks again for the terrific resource. Now let’s all go rage against the machine!

    My very best regards,
    Joey Smith

    Via libertyundergroundtalk

  • Marcia Blodgett says:

    Where are the student activists? I don’t see any in New Jersey.

  • Bernard White says:

    Saul Alinsky and Antonio Gramsci would be upset if they knew that you were stealing their ideas and pretending that they are your own.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *