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So Change It: A Guide For High School Youth Activists

Copyright © 2008, Advocates for Youth and Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (CHAMP). Non-commercial reproduction is encouraged provided appropriate credit is given.

Advocates for Youth
2000 M Street NW, Suite 750
Washington, DC 20036

Advocates for Youth is dedicated to creating programs and advocating for policies that help young people make informed and responsible decisions about their reproductive and sexual health. Advocates provides information, training, and strategic assistance to youth-serving organizations, policy makers, youth activists, and the media in the United States and the developing world.

Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (CHAMP)
32 Broadway, Suite 1801
New York, NY 10004

The Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (CHAMP) is a national initiative building a powerful community- based movement bridging HIV/AIDS, human rights, and struggles for social and economic justice. In an era in which HIV rates are rising and prevention efforts are under concerted attack, CHAMP mobilizes people living with HIV, community activists, youth, researchers, academics and policy advocates in our country, and links them with allies around the world.

Advocates for Youth and CHAMP are grateful to the New York City AIDS Fund, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and the Sonya Staff Foundation for supporting this project. This document was principally researched and written by Kayley Harrington and Sarah Howell with assistance from Sarah Audelo, Caeden Dempsey, James Learned, Maria Fiesta, Magali Romero, Sonny Suchdev, and Kim Sue.


A Guide for High School Youth Activists

Why Organizing?

Do you want to make a difference? Are you tired of teachers and administrators not listening to you? Not respecting you and your peers? Ignoring your rights?

No one can be better than you at changing your world. This Guide can help you and your peers change your world for the better. Yeah! You read that right. With a little effort on your part, this Guide can help you change the world, beginning in your own school.

Here, you’ll find practical tips and advice on organizing to create change. You’ll find:

  • Advice on how to plan and run a campaign, starting by setting your goal;
  • A strategic step-by-step process to ensure that you use your energy and assets wisely and usefully; and
  • Concrete tips on starting a group, recruiting new members, and using the media. The advice and tips are based on the experiences of youth activists around the nation. And you can adapt the advice and tips to fit your situation and your goal.

To help you, you will also find a story running throughout the Guide, describing the efforts of Jackie, a fictional student at Somewhere High School, USA. Hopefully, Jackie’s efforts and experiences will give you a look at what you might expect as you organize and advocate to accomplish your goal in your community.

Jackie’s story focuses on getting comprehensive sex education in her school, and the Guide is written to reflect the same goal. But the Guide’s advice and tips can help no matter what your goal is for your school or community. You could be working for:

  • Increased HIV education and testing, counseling, and treatment services;
  • School condom availability;
  • Equal and fair treatment for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth;
  • An end to racial/ethnic unfairness;
  • Improved confidential health services for low income youth; or, of course,
  • Comprehensive sex education.

The Guide can work equally well, regardless of the cause that fires you up.

Why the Guide?

CHAMP and Advocates for Youth believe that young people have a right to be involved in creating the policies and programs that affect their health and their future. Advocates and CHAMP also believe in youth’s ability to change the world, beginning right in your own neighborhood. Finally, CHAMP and Advocates believe that youth have the right to honest and complete sex education, HIV prevention education, and comprehensive, confidential reproductive and sexual health services, including condoms.

You and your peers are key players in the fight for these rights. This Guide has been written to provide you – the high school activist and organizer – with tools to create change in your school, your community, and your world. You know that, too often, youth are pushed aside and ignored while others who have a huge impact on young people make decisions. You can use this Guide to ensure that your voice and your peers’ voices are heard!

Remember, too, that help is out there for you. There are organizations that can answer your questions and talk you through the organizing process. Advocates for Youth and the Community HIV/AIDS Mobilzation Project (CHAMP) are two such organizations. You  can find their contact information further above.

Thanks and good luck!

– The staff of Advocates for Youth and CHAMP.

What is Organizing?

Often, organizing can mean something like straightening out your desk. But here, organizing means building power as a group in order to create positive change in your lives.

Everyone has power inside her/himself – power to make decisions, to act, to think, to create. But this guide is not about that kind of power either. It’s about power as the ability to create change outside of ourselves. Some people are born to power, like having wealth or politically powerful families. Sometimes, people achieve power when they acquire political office or amass a fortune. Yet, most people – who don’t have much power individually – can build collective power. Collective power is the power that a group has by working together as one.

Here, power is the ability to make things happen, and organizing is the process by which you build collective power.

Organizing can be hard work. That’s why you need a strategy. That means making a plan, including setting short-term and intermediate objectives in order to meet your long-term goal. A strategy also means identifying allies, resources, and effective tactics. A little later, this Guide will walk you through all the steps to build an effective strategy.

You might think that, if your cause is right, winning will be easy. You might think that, if enough people are on your side, you will win. Unfortunately, that’s not always the way it works. Organizing is about figuring out what you really need in order to win change. That could mean that you need votes or influence with someone in a position of power. Or it could mean building support to disrupt ‘business as usual’. Organizing means identifying what you need and then figuring out how you can make it happen.

Here’s the Story:

Jackie goes to Somewhere High School (SHS). The school has an average track record on sex education and HIV prevention education. In other words, students get one lesson on HIV prevention and one lesson on sex education each year. So naturally, they don’t get an opportunity to learn much about sexual health or HIV prevention. In fact, students don’t learn about contraceptives to prevent unintended pregnancy. They don’t learn that condoms – when used consistently and correctly – are highly effective in preventing HIV.

Jackie’s mom is a nurse at a local clinic. She’s made sure that Jackie knows about birth control and also about safer sex and condom use. Because they don’t learn about these topics at school, Jackie’s friends sometimes ask her questions about HIV and unwanted pregnancy, and how to stay safe. At one point, Jackie asked the principal at SHS for permission to hand out birth control pamphlets and condoms during lunch hour. The principal said no.

Then, Jackie learned that one of her best friends was pregnant. Jackie was outraged that her friends and classmates didn’t know how to protect themselves. So Jackie talked to them about getting together to convince the principal to approve comprehensive sex education and HIV prevention education in the school. But Jackie knew that they would need a plan.

First Things First – Set One Main Goal

You may be concerned about more than one issue. For example, you may want to focus on making condoms available AND on students’ need for accurate, complete information about a whole range of sexual health issues AND on homophobia or racism. They’re all really important issues. But to succeed, you need to focus on just one goal at a time.

Organizing to address one issue isn’t easy; but achieving one main goal is ‘do-able’. Trying to achieve more than one major goal at the same time is probably about as easy as getting a high school diploma, a college degree, and IT certification all at one time. So pick your goal and then get set to do the work that has to be done to achieve that goal!

Remember, this Guide uses the example of organizing to get comprehensive sex education in one high school. Your goal could be different, but the steps to effective organizing are the same.

Do Your Research (Your Homework)

As you begin thinking about a campaign in your school, think about the questions you already have and the questions other people will have. There are many questions that you might need answers to before you can decide how to organize most effectively. For example, if your school doesn’t have comprehensive sex education, you need to know why. Before you do the research, you might think that there will be just one reason. But you might be surprised at the complicated and entangled reasons that things are the way they are.

For example, you might think, at the start, that the school doesn’t have comprehensive sex education because the principal doesn’t want it. Research might show you that:

  • The state’s policy on sex education is vague and unhelpful;
  • The school district gets ‘free’ money to offer abstinence-only education;
  • Several members of the school board believe the myth that teaching kids about sex encourages them to have sex; and
  • The faculty committee in charge of approving curricula compromises by pretty much avoiding the whole issue of sex education.

You see … it might not be so simple. But knowledge is power. When you know what’s really going on behind the scenes, you can use that information to build a powerful and effective campaign. What do you need to do? Ask the right questions to get the information you need. Go to the right people to get the answers. Then, put your answers to good use.

Ask the Right Questions

Depending on your goal, the specific questions you will want to ask could vary a lot. Here are some examples of questions that you might want to ask as you investigate what’s up at your school and in your school district regarding sex education.

  • Does the high school teach sex education? If so, does the curriculum provide accurate and complete information about condoms and other contraceptives?
  • If the high school doesn’t offer comprehensive sex education, why not?
  • Who made the decision about the type of sex education the high school students get? How did that person or those people arrive at that decision?
  • Have parents and students had opportunities to speak to youth’s need for comprehensive sex education?
  • Who has the power to authorize and implement comprehensive sex education curricula in the local schools?
  • Is there a school district policy on sex education? If yes, is it being followed? If not, why not?
  • Does the state have a policy on sex education and/or HIV prevention education? If yes, is it being followed? If not, why not?
  • Do other schools in the district, city, or county offer comprehensive sex education?
  • Does the principal have the power to implement comprehensive sex education?
  • Where does the principal stand regarding comprehensive sex education?
  • Does the school board need to approve comprehensive sex education?
  • Who on the school board is in favor of comprehensive sex education? Who opposes it?
  • What does scientific research say about effective sex education? What kind of sex education is effective and what kind is not effective?

Go to the Right People to Get Answers

Getting all your questions answered may not be easy. But it isn’t impossible, either.

  • Talk to people who may have information about your issue. Begin with your parents, your friends’ parents, the school nurse, the health education teacher.
  • Then talk with staff at a community organization that works on reproductive health issues and/or HIV and AIDS. You might be surprised at how much staff knows about various community efforts to promote or derail comprehensive sex education in your school and your community.
  • Ask the reference librarian at your local public library to help you find: 1) state mandates on sex education; 2) relevant minutes from previous school board meetings; and 3) approved sex education curricula taught in schools around the district and the state. These should all be a matter of public record, and a research librarian can help you find them.
  • If some schools in your school district offer comprehensive sex education, talk with an administrator or the sex education teacher at those schools. Ask about the process that faculty and staff went through to get approval and to begin using the curriculum. Again, you may be surprised at how similar or how different the processes can be.
  • Attend a few meetings of your school board. These meetings are usually open to the public. Go as an observer. When you feel comfortable to do so, sign up to ask questions during the time for public comments. After the meeting, introduce yourself to members.
  • If you run into roadblocks, ask Advocates for Youth or CHAMP to help you find the information you need.

Put Your Answers to Good Use

In the end, you need to understand the bottom line: the one reason or the most important reasons why your school doesn’t offer comprehensive sex education. Once you know this, you can plan what to do about it.

For example, maybe the only real problem is that the principal doesn’t believe in sex education. So you’ll need to get the school board to enforce the state’s mandate on sex education. Then the faculty curriculum committee can implement a comprehensive sex education curriculum despite the principal’s beliefs. Or perhaps members of the school board worry about community opposition. So part of your campaign will need to demonstrate community support for comprehensive sex education.

Whatever the situation is, if you’ve done your homework, you know what you’re facing and what you need to do. Now, you can start planning your campaign.

Build a Group: Get Started, Run Meetings, and Make Decisions Start a Student Group

So, you and a few of your friends or classmates are excited about getting comprehensive sex education at your school. A great way to get more students interested in the issue and to make the issue more visible at school is to begin a student group. But you might not know exactly how to start a student organization or club. Here are some tips:

1. Talk to those in the know. Ask those who are members of a student club or organization how it got started. Ask the faculty advisor how the club got started. And ask a school administrator to tell you about the rules and regulations for student organizations and what you need to start a new one.

2. Don’t go it alone. Look around. Are others also interested in your issue? Maybe there’s already an activist group that you could join or work with. Natural allies could include peer health educators, a gay-straight alliance, a service club, and/or a student political group.

3. Write a mission statement. This is where you identify the “what, why, and how” of your work. Your mission statement should be simple, direct, and honest. It should make sense to the members of your group, other students, teachers and administrators, parents, and other people in your community.

When you’re putting together a mission statement, make sure it tells:

  • Who you are;
  • What you stand for;
  • What you do; and
  • How you do it.

See what Jackie and Wallace wrote on the next page for a clear example of a mission statement.

4. Create structure. Together, decide on the structure of your group.

  • How many leadership positions do you need?
  • What roles will members fill?
  • When, how often, and where will you meet?
  • How long will the meetings last?
  • How will you make the meetings enjoyable enough that new members will join and current members will keep coming?

5. Set your strategy with short-term and intermediate objectives in order to reach your long-term goal. As a group, talk about and agree on the problems you face and the objectives you need to achieve to gain your ultimate goal. In other words, the path to achieving your ultimate goal (comprehensive sex education in your high school) is made up of smaller, more easily achieved short-term and intermediate objectives. You can use the Strategy Chart, explained in the next section, to map your strategy and objectives. The timeline clearly identifies each objective by how quickly you expect to achieve it.

Starting a Student Group

Jackie and her friend, Wallace, decided to form an activist club with the goal of getting comprehensive sex education in their high school. They knew that other students were doing the same thing in schools around the country. They went to the vice principal’s office and got a list of requirements for starting a student group. To start a club, they had to have a written mission statement and a faculty sponsor.

First, Jackie and Wallace wrote a mission statement. The Sex Education Club is a group of concerned students working to make Somewhere High School a place where youth receive complete information about sexual health issues, including contraception and condoms. We believe that it is SHS’s responsibility to provide this education because school is where students are supposed to learn what they need to know to have a successful and healthy future. Knowing how to protect yourself from pregnancy and from sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, is very important.

Jackie knew that Ms Jackson, the English teacher, might be supportive because she had written an opinion piece on HIV/AIDS that appeared in the local newspaper. Then her classes had discussed the HIV epidemic. Ms Jackson read their mission statement, asked a few questions, and agreed to be the faculty sponsor for their club.

Recruit Members

Take these three easy steps to recruit members for your group: STEP ONE. Be prepared and go broad.

Be prepared: Write a rap so you’re ready with what you’ll say when you meet with other students. A rap is a short speech that tells about your cause and sparks interest in others. Write your rap in five parts:

1. Introduction – Give your name, the name of your group, and say briefly why you’re there. I’m Jackie, with the Sex Education Club, and I’m here to talk about a difficult issue in our school.

2. The Problem – Explain the issue you’re working on and why. Try asking one or two questions to start a conversation about the issue. For example: Did you know that at least one in ten girls gets pregnant sometime during her teen years – without wanting to be pregnant?

3. Agitate – Ask how this problem affects students at this high school? This is the most important part of the rap. You want to agitate. You do this by asking questions and sharing information. For example, if your school teaches abstinence-only (or offers no sex education), ask how students feel about censorship – especially when it can affect their own health and future!

4. Solution – Now you want to take that energy away from the problem. You want students to begin to focus their energy on a solution. You can do this by explaining how the problem can be solved. For example, We need to change the school’s policy. Accurate, honest, complete education about sexual health is a basic human right. It’s our human right!

5. The Ask – Ask people to get involved. Be ready with something each person can do right then – like signing a postcard or petition; writing a letter; or agreeing to help out at your next event. Collect contact information and pass out flyers about your next event or meeting.

Example rap:

Hi, my name is _________. I’m here to talk to you about ___________, a campaign I’m working on to change our school’s sex education policy.

Did you know that our school censors sex education? We don’t learn about condoms or contraception – and that’s censorship! We need information about protection. All that our health teachers are allowed to say is “just don’t do it.” It’s not the teachers’ fault, but it doesn’t help us either.

One half of all new HIV infections occur among people under age 25. And the United States has the highest rates of teen pregnancy, birth, and abortion of any industrialized nation. We deserve better! We deserve the information we need to protect our sexual health and our futures!

I’m with a group of concerned students. We’re working to change the way our school approaches sex education. We want information about contraception and condoms to be included in our sex education. With your help, we can change school policy.

Will you help? Are you interested in joining the campaign?

Go broad:

Okay, now that you know what you’re going to say, find other students. Here are some easy ways to find and engage interested students:

  • Start by posting a sign-up list. Get as many students as you can to sign up. Anyone who is even just a little bit interested might get more interested and involved as she/he finds out more about your issue. Make sure each person who signs up gives an email address and/or cell number or other contact information. After all, having a name isn’t very helpful if you can’t get in touch with that person later.
  • Look for existing clubs and groups at your school where students are likely to have an interest in your issue. Peer health educators, for example, could be powerful allies. Teen parents might not have a lot of time, but they can speak dramatically and personally to the importance of knowing about and having access to contraception. So once you identify these groups, ask if you can attend a meeting and talk about your campaign. Then you can get contact information for anyone interested in helping your campaign.
  • Get permission to go into classes and talk about your issue. Make sure that the teacher will allow you to pass around your sign-up sheet. And if you have a free period, use the time to visit classes.
  • Get permission to set up a table during the lunch hour. Choose a place where you can interact with lots of students – like the quad or near the cafeteria door. Hand out flyers, talk about your campaign, answer questions, and get interested students’ contact information.

STEP TWO. Narrow down your search.

Send an email to everyone who signed up. Call anyone who didn’t give you an email address. Tell everyone more about your issue and what your group hopes to accomplish. Ask teens who are really interested to tell you what they might want to do.

Invite everyone to an event. Be sure to have something that will draw people in – like free food or a movie. Some people who won’t respond to your email may still be interested in learning more about your group and your campaign. You don’t want to lose the name of anyone who is even mildly interested. But at this point, you’re really trying to identify those people who will take an active role in the campaign. You need to know who will really pitch in and work with you.

STEP THREE. Hold A Meeting.

Make a list of all the students who replied to your original email or responded positively when you called them. Invite them to a meeting at school – after class or during lunch hour. Offer a tentative date and time, and see how many can attend. If many students can’t attend at that time, try another time or day. You want as many of the interested students as possible to be there. You want the meeting to be successful and to generate even more enthusiasm and energy. So it’s important that just about everyone is there who’s strongly interested in your issue.

Things to Think about When Starting Your Group

There are some practical things to tink about when starting your activist group.

  • Think about how big the group should be. Too large a group may not work well, but too small a group may not get the work done at all. Remember that you need some workers and many more people who are supporters. Supporters are the people who will sign petitions, for example, or show up at events. These people may not be members of your group, but they can be allies who support your campaign. See further above to learn about identifying allies.
  • Be practical. It may be best, for example, for all members of the group to be students in your own school. If your goal is to change sex education in your high school, then the members of your group should probably all attend that school. And if they’re all students at the same high school, you’ll find it much easier to organize meetings and events.
  • Make sure all the members work together to create a unified mission statement for the group or at least agree with the mission statement that’s already been created. It’s difficult to win victories if you disagree about your purpose.
  • Make sure that all the members feel strongly about your goal, whether it’s comprehensive sex education, condom availability, an end to homophobia, or whatever. If members aren’t really interested, they’ll get bored quickly and might abandon your campaign unless victory comes very quickly and easily. You want members who will stay the course, even when victory doesn’t come so quickly or easily.

Building a Base of Support

Jackie and Wallace made posters advertising the first meeting of the Sex Education Club. They hung the posters everywhere they could. They also wore buttons that said “Ask me about the Club!” Anyone who asked learned what the club hoped to accomplish. Jackie and Wallace also went to other student groups, including the Gay-Straight Alliance, the Key Club, Student Government, and the Spirit Club. They talked about the Sex Education Club and invited students to come to the first meeting. They also handed out flyers and made an announcement by email, encouraging students to come. Fifteen people showed up! That was a great start for their first meeting!

Plan Your Meetings.

At some point, with or without the student group, you’ll need to organize a meeting to discuss your issue with others. Remember that a meeting can be fun as well as effective. Here are some things you might want to consider when planning a meeting:

Decide timing and location. During the day, when are students most likely to come to a meeting? During lunch? After school? Where can you meet at the school? Or would students feel more comfortable talking openly and honestly about the issue if you met someplace outside of school?

Decide how often you’ll meet. When your group is first starting, hold a few widely publicized meetings to attract new members. At each of these meetings, you and the members of the group will need to be able to discuss the issue and answer others’ questions. You can also let people know where you are in your campaign. Tell them what you’ve accomplished so far and what your next steps will be. Find out who might be interested in helping with those next steps. Make the meetings fun, too, with food or a movie.

After a month or two, develop a consistent meeting schedule and location. You can meet every week, every two weeks, or every month. It will depend on how much you have to discuss and what your group is doing. But don’t make the mistake of meeting more often than necessary or of meeting so infrequently that people forget your group exists. Whatever your group decides, try to stick to that schedule for at least a few months so people know what to expect.

Make an agenda. One of the most important parts to having an effective meeting is having a written agenda – a list of the things you’ll discuss. Think of the agenda as your roadmap for the meeting. When all the items for the agenda are listed out, group them by type (announcements, discussions, and proposals) or by topic (fundraising, the campaign, special events). Create the agenda in advance and distribute it (via email) early enough that members can suggest additions or changes. Finally, post the agenda in a place where everyone at the meeting can see it. Write it on a chalkboard or post it on big piece of paper on the wall.

Appoint someone to be the facilitator. She/he will run the meeting, taking the group through the agenda. The facilitator should also suggest or determine the amount of time to spend on each item or group of items. Members should be able to discuss each item or raise questions as needed. At the same time, the facilitator may need to ask everyone to be flexible. For example, if an important item took an extra amount of time to discuss, the agenda may need to be adjusted, and some items may need to be tabled until the next meeting. Or the facilitator may need to limit discussion, for example, with each person speaking only once on an item and/or for no more than one minute.

Fun Stuff! Icebreakers, get-to-know- you games, giveaways, and other activities are an easy way to make people feel comfortable and to keep a meeting lively. For ideas on icebreakers and activities, visit: www.wilderdom.com/games/Icebreakers.html

Important roles for any meeting! As well as a facilitator, always appoint a note-taker and, perhaps, a timekeeper. The note-taker will keep track of the main points of the meeting:

  • Who attended;
  • Action steps agreed upon; and
  • Who commits to doing different tasks.

Sometimes it’s helpful to have a separate timekeeper as well, who will help the facilitator keep to the time allotted on the agenda. Or, if necessary, the timekeeper can keep track of how long each person speaks and advise when that person’s time is up.

Portions of this were adapted from DMZ: A Guide to Taking Your School back from the Military (War Resisters League, 2006)

The First Meeting

Jackie and Wallace asked Ms. Jackson if they could hold the first meeting in her classroom after school. The night before, they made cookies for students who would attend the meeting. They decided that Jackie would facilitate.

They also made an agenda:

Introductions and icebreaker – 20 minutes
What is the Sex Education Club? – 5 minutes
Brainstorm Goals – 20 minutes Next Steps – 20 minutes
Schedule the Next Meeting – 5 minutes


A facilitator is more than someone who runs a meeting. She/he maintains the energy of the meeting, ensures that everyone gets a chance to speak, leads the process of coming to decisions, and helps members keep on track with discussions and ideas.

Tips for facilitators

1. You have to turn a bunch of individuals into a cohesive group.

  • Set a positive tone of respect for each member of the group.
  • At the first meeting, lead the group to set its own ground rules for that meeting and all future meetings. Doing this helps to develop an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect.
  • Watch for power imbalances. Point out these imbalances and work to ease them. For example, if mostly the men or the older students are speaking, point that out. Then be sure to recognize those who haven’t spoken, giving them a chance to say how they feel about the topic.
  • Be flexible with the agenda. It’s a roadmap – it isn’t set in stone. You can deviate from it as much as necessary to accomplish the goals of the meeting.
  • Remember that good listening includes watching for non-verbal cues, such as body language. If members have their arms crossed tightly or have turned away from whoever is speaking, it may mean that they don’t want to hear what’s being said. If people look bored, they probably are! Tactfully address these issues as they seem to arise. “Some of you look like you don’t want to hear this. What’s going on?”
  • Immediately challenge speech that demeans or insults anyone, but without attacking the person who made the remark. “We’ve agreed that we’ll respect others, whether we like their position or not. Let’s stick to the ground rules.” Or, “This is an inclusive group. We respect every student at our high school. And we’re working to ensure a better future for everyone.”

2. Work to achieve equal participation by everyone attending the meeting.

  • Small group discussion allows participants to share their perspectives when they might be unwilling to do so in a larger meeting. If people seem reluctant to talk about an issue, suggest that everyone break into smaller groups to discuss different aspects of the issue. Then one member of each group can report back to the larger group.
  • If only a few people are talking, consider using a ‘go-around’. Say that each person will be asked to speak in turn. No one may talk twice and anyone may “pass” if she/he doesn’t want to speak.
  • It’s great to pause. Ask people who haven’t spoken to say what they’re thinking. Sometimes, people need time to assemble their thoughts. They may be grateful for an invitation to talk. And don’t hesitate to step in when the same people have spoken several times on the same issue. Just say that it’s time to give others a chance to speak.

3. Describe and document the group’s work.

  • Toward the end of the meeting, summarize key points, especially where people were in agreement.
  • If the group can’t agree on a decision, ask a couple of people to do a little research and report back at the next meeting. Assign different sides of the issue to different people. Then suggest that the group move on to other topics.
  • When issues come up that aren’t on the agenda or that can’t be resolved at present, write them on a “parking lot” sheet. These items can be brought up at the next meeting. Or people can follow up with research on the items and report their results at a later meeting.
  • Take breaks during a long meeting. Also use an occasional energizing activity. Without breaks, participants’ energy will flag and they may lose interest in the discussion, the issue, and/or the meeting.

4. Decide who should facilitate.

  • Rotate the responsibility of facilitating the meetings. This way, the responsibility is shared. Over time, everyone will develop leadership skills. Moreover, everyone will understand that it isn’t always easy to facilitate a meeting. Finally, this can help to keep a few natural leaders or those most active in the group from dominating everything that the group does.

Portions of this were adapted from: BRIDGE: A Popular Education Resource for Immigrant and Refugee Community Organizers (National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, 2004) and from Education for Changing Unions (Burke, et al., 2002)

Make Decisions as a Group.

The group should decide how it will make decisions. In fact, the decision-making process should be in place before you’re faced with hard choices. Deciding the decision-making process is important. Everyone in the group should have a say in decisions that affect the group. But you don’t want a situation in which one or two people can keep the group from accomplishing anything or from making decisions at all. The two most common ways that activist groups make decisions are by consensus or by majority rules.


Consensus means general harmony or concord. It means that everyone agrees to a decision. That is, the group discusses a proposal, listens to each person’s concerns and suggestions, makes any necessary changes to the proposal in order to incorporate everyone’s concerns, and then agrees to that proposal.

If your group chooses to reach decisions by consensus, it means that everyone also agrees that even one person can block the decision and/or require the proposal to be altered before the group can move forward with the idea. For example, if one person feels that abstinence should be emphasized before birth control methods, including condoms, then your group will need to alter its plan to list abstinence equally and before other methods to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Consensus can make your group’s decisions stronger because everyone is a part of the final decision. At the same time, consensus can create problems because the objections or concerns of one person can delay decisions, alter strategies, and change actions. Even minor decisions can become time-consuming if a long discussion must occur before you reach consensus. As a result, some groups decide on a consensus- minus-one model. With this model, no single individual has veto power over the group’s decisions. Yet the decisions still reflect your group as a whole.

For more info and ideas on consensus decision- making, visit: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consensus_decision- making

Majority Rules

Another often-used option is ‘majority rules’. This is the way that most democratic governments work. Majority rule means that more than half the group at the meeting can approve a proposal. When someone brings a proposal to the group, everyone present discusses it. Members can offer modifications that must also be approved by a majority before the main proposal is put to the vote.

After discussion and modifications, if any, the group votes on the proposal. If half plus one of those attending vote yes, then the proposal is accepted. If half plus one of those attending vote no, then the proposal is not accepted.

In abiding by a majority vote, most groups agree that half plus one of the group is all that is necessary to obtain a majority. To avoid problems, at the same time, groups also usually set a minimum number of members that must be present and eligible to vote before any proposal can be accepted (or rejected). For small groups, such a minimum is usually one more than half the members. For large groups, the minimum may be as few as 20 or 30 percent of the members. This way, one or two members can’t meet secretly and pass a proposal that they know the rest of your group wouldn’t approve.

A majority vote can be quicker to achieve than consensus. At the same time, the approved proposal may not reflect the opinion of everyone in the group. Sometimes, people who lose a vote may be upset, particularly if the outcome was very important to them. So it’s important that your group structures majority voting so as to allow time for discussion. You want people to

be able to raise their concerns and speak their opinions. So long as people feel that they have been heard respectfully, they’re usually willing to go along with the decision of the majority.

For more info and ideas, visit: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Majority.

Combining Consensus and Majority Votes

Sometimes, groups choose a mix of both consensus and majority rules. They want consensus whenever possible. But if it becomes clear that consensus is impossible, they agree to put decisions to a vote with majority ruling. No matter what your group decides, be sure that everyone knows how the group makes its decisions. And make sure the group follows the decision process it has agreed on.

Portions of this were adapted from DMZ: A Guide to Taking Your School back from the Military (War Resisters League, 2006)

Create a Strategy

The strategy chart is a highly useful tool for building a campaign. It will help you identify how to get what you want. In the context of organizing, a strategy is different from a plan. That’s because strategy is about power and relationships. For example, if your group is putting on a social event, you don’t need a strategy. You just need a plan. But if you want the school board to change its policy on sex education, you need a strategy for that.

The chart asks questions that you need to answer in order to plan how to win your campaign. The chart has five columns. Each column addresses one aspect of organizing and allows you to think concretely about what you need to do. That way, the chart allows your group to understand how you can best move your campaign forward. After the example (below), chapters follow that explain the Strategy Chart in more detail.

The resources section has a blank chart that you can use to chart your campaign. Here is the sample strategy chart, already filled in for you as if for a comprehensive sex education campaign.

The chart asks questions that you need to answer in order to plan how to win your campaign. The chartrt has five columns. Each column addresses one aspect of organizing and allows you to think concretely about what you need to do. That way, the chart allows your group to understand how you can best move your campaign forward. After the example (below), chapters follow that explain the Strategy Chart in more detail. The resources section has a blank chart that you can use to chart your campaign. Here is the sample strategy chart, already filled in for you as if for a comprehensive sex education campaign.

Identify What You Want: Set Your Objectives

The first column of the Strategy Chart looks at your objectives. Think about what you want to achieve. Setting objectives means thinking about what you are asking for. Depending on what you’re asking for, they can be shortterm or intermediate objectives (or even longterm objectives, if necessary). For example, your ultimate long-term goal is to achieve comprehensive sex education in your high school. In the meantime, your short-term objectives might include meeting with the principal, attending school board meetings, and hosting a forum to educate students and parents about comprehensive sex education. Your intermediate objectives might include making a presentation to the faculty curriculum committee and to the school board.

Intermediate Objectives are what you want to achieve during your campaign. These might include convincing at least some of the school board members to support comprehensive sex education, running a media education campaign, and getting supporters and allies to advocate vocally for comprehensive sex education in your high school.

Long Term Objectives might be necessary if you have to intensify your campaign. For example, you might need to reassess where things are and then pressure the school board to authorize research into the most effective sex education curricula for your school district. This would put your campaign into a longer timeframe than you originally expected because the research would have to be done and presented before the board would even consider approving the use of any particular curriculum.

Short-Term Objectives are what you want to achieve in the near future. These should be things that will help you reach both your intermediate objectives and your long-term goal. They could include recruiting members, getting your campaign up and running, and identifying allies.

Your Long-Term Goal is the purpose that your entire campaign focuses on. For example, achieving comprehensive sex education in your high school, for all students in all grades.

How to Choose Objectives

Looking at objectives as short-term and intermediate (as well as long-term, if necessary) will let you break your larger vision down into smaller, more manageable, and more easily achieved steps. Think about what you want to achieve through your campaign. The long-term goal of the campaign is what you ultimately want to see happen. The objectives are the steps you must take to achieve that long-term goal.

In other words, you need to identify the more immediate actions and achievements that will lead to the long-term goal. If you pursue the right objectives, they can bring your long-term goal to fulfillment. For example, the more parents and faculty that support comprehensive sex education, the more likely the school board is to approve it. The more supportive the student body and their parents are, the easier it will be for the principal and faculty to implement comprehensive sex education in the high school.

Setting Objectives

Jackie and Wallace’s group decided that their long-term goal would be honest and medically accurate sexual health information – including information on abstinence, birth control methods, and condoms – for all students at Somewhere High School.

Their intermediate objectives would include:

  1. approval by the school board;
  2. adoption of an appropriate curriculum by the faculty committee; and
  3. implementation of the curriculum in health classes next year.

Their short-term objectives would include:

  1. meeting with the principal and school board to discuss students’ need for comprehensive sex education;
  2. meeting with the faculty curriculum committee to propose consideration of a comprehensive sex education curriculum; and
  3. getting two local media outlets to cover their campaign.

Finally, the group made a list of activities and tactics that would help them reach their objectives:

  1. build the group’s membership up to 25 students;
  2. identify two teachers and at least three parents who support the issue;
  3. circulate a petition and collect 250 signatures in support of comprehensive sex education; and
  4. collect information and statistics showing that comprehensive sex education reduces sexual risk behaviors and doesn’t encourage students to have sex.

Think About What You Already Have

The second column in the Strategy Charts asks you to think about your group. What strengths and weakness can you identify from the outset?Think about running a campaign. You need to look at the resources your organization already has as well as difficulties or barriers your group may encounter. List these strengths and weaknesses. Be specific. For example, maybe it’s just you and two other friends so far. One strength is your determination, and another is the trust you have for one another. One weakness is your numbers. How many people do you need working with you to make the campaign a success? Think about the roles and tasks that need to be fulfilled. How many people do you need to recruit?

You may feel a bit overwhelmed at this point. But you can break your assets and needs into three areas to make it simpler. List your resources, wants, and internal problems.

Resources are the specific resources you already have that will help you in the campaign. Your resources might include, for example; 10 volunteers, two computers, Internet access, and a faculty advisor who is an activist in her free time.

Wants are the things your organization can gain from running this campaign. For example, you might want experience that will help in future campaigns, 25 new volunteers, $500 cash to pay for campaign materials, and four new leaders.

Internal problems are internal issues that might keep your organization from achieving its goal. Internal problems could mean anything from having no money to having too few members to conflicts between members. Try to be honest about any internal problems that may be an issue and affect the success of your campaign or your organization. Remember, you can’t address (or fix) what you don’t acknowledge.

Sometimes, organizers confuse their campaign goal with organizational gains. Remember that a goal is what you win from someone else, such as getting comprehensive sex education in your school.

Organizational gains are things you achieve for your organization while working toward your goal. For example, you might see an increase in membership or gain a new fantastic Web site.

Personal gains are skills that each member achieves while working toward the organization’s goal. For example, members could gain leadership skills, media skills, and increased self-confidence.

Work with Others: Identify Allies and Build a Coalition

The third column in the Strategy Chart is all about working with others. Think about potential allies and potential opponents. Ask yourself: Who cares about this issue? Who might have a stake in this issue? List the names that occur to you. Now divide them into three categories: constituents, allies, and opponents.

Constituents are the people who are directly affected by the issue. They’re important people to involve with your group and in your campaign. For the campaign that this guide considers, the constituents are the students who attend Somewhere High School.

Allies are the people who support your campaign but aren’t members of your group. Allies could include supportive teachers and parents, among others.

Opponents are the people or organizations who will actively oppose your campaign. Don’t waste time writing down everyone who may oppose your campaign in any way. Just note those who may actively oppose your campaign.

Don’t waste your time or energy fighting with opponents. It can be too easy to get sidetracked by these people. Responding to misinformation can be important, but you need to focus most of your time and energy on your targets. They are the people who can give you what you want.


After you have formed a solid group of committed students and have identified the group’s goals, focus on strengthening your group. This might mean getting more members. But it can also mean finding and reaching out to people who aren’t members but will support your issue. These are your allies. Allies can either be individuals, such as teachers, or groups, like school clubs that work on related issues. You can also find allies outside school. Such allies might include: 1) community organizations that focus on education, health, and/ or young people; 2) local businesses; 3) parents and parent associations; and 4) faith communities, among others.

You don’t have to have adult allies, but they can strengthen your group or campaign because they have experience, resources, and contacts. Adults who are willing to share their experience, resources, and contacts with you are valuable allies for your campaign and your organization.

Potential allies for any group working to bring comprehensive sex education into local high schools might include community health organizations, local Planned Parenthood affiliates, HIV and AIDS service organizations, education associations, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender organizations, progressive faith communities, and local youth groups. If you have another goal, consider a wide range of community-based organizations that work with or for young people.

Tips for Successful Outreach to Allies

Allies are a great potential resource for help and support with your group’s events and goals. Once you’ve identified potential allies, begin by reaching out to them for help. Remember the rap you created when forming your student group? Change some of the words and use the rap again to reach out to potential allies!

Appeal to the common ground that you share. People won’t get involved in a campaign just because you want them to do so. Usually, people get involved when the problem affects them personally, they’re already committed to the same or a similar issue, or they want to work with others who share their beliefs and interests. This is also true for organizations. Approach your potential allies with an appeal to common ground. Talk about how your issue affects them and their issue(s).

Talk about actions and events, not about meetings. When contacting allies, always request action, not attendance at a meeting. Bring up actions that people or groups can take immediately. For example, ask that allies attend a rally, write a letter to the editor or to a member of the school board, or co-sponsor an event. Recruiting for events or for specific work, like tabling, is far more effective than asking people to attend a meeting. If you do want an ally to attend a meeting, ask her/him to speak out on a specific point or topic – not just to sit and listen.

Attend other groups’ events. Show your interest in your ally and her/his concerns. The best way to form allies is to create real partnerships. Show that the ally can count on you and your group. Prove it by attending and even helping at the ally’s next event.


If several organizations and groups support your issue, think about forming a coalition – a group of organizations that share a common goal. Each member of the coalition offers something different, such as resources, access to individuals in power, experience, or new perspectives. Working together, the coalition may be a lot stronger than individual groups. As such, the coalition could have a better chance of attaining your goal. On the other hand, sometimes a strong member organization begins to pull the coalition in a direction that your own group wouldn’t support. Or member organizations may fail to fulfill their commitments, causing resentment and weakening the coalition. Building a successful coalition isn’t easy, but it can be worthwhile.

Principles for Coalition Building

1. Identify like-minded groups. Make a list of potentially supportive groups or organizations.

2. Be strategic. Don’t assume the coalition will come together naturally. Important issues include whom to ask, how you ask, and the order in which you ask. Some groups won’t join unless they are asked first. Some simply can’t work together, and you can’t enroll both. Take into account your group’s own goals and your need for a diverse, representative coalition.

3. Choose a unifying strategy. To get others invested, develop the strategy collectively. Work together for a strategy that makes sense for every member organization. Collectively identify tactics that every member of the coalition will support.

4. Understand and respect each member group’s self-interest. Groups may join because of the opportunity to work toward a common goal and/or to reinforce the group’s own objectives, membership, and interests. Learn about the groups you approach. How would participation in this coalition strengthen that organization? Organizations may question whether it makes sense to join a coalition, so be sensitive to their needs and priorities. Ask if the issue affects the group’s membership and if it makes sense to be involved.

Identify Campaign Targets

The fourth column in the Strategy Chart offers you a chance to think through and identify your targets. A target is the person or people who can give you what you want. Your target is always a decision-maker. Ask, what does the campaign want to change? Who can make that change? Your campaign target is that person or people. Remember that a campaign can have more than one target.

Your target is not your enemy. You can have a good relationship with your target. In fact, you can be more effective when you maintain a good relationship with your target than if you are hostile to your target. For example, your target might be three members of the board of education. One supports comprehensive sex education yet resists requiring it. Two board members don’t know much about sex education but are more comfortable with the concept of abstinence-only. You want to change their opinions. You also want them to act on what they’ve learned from you. You don’t want to antagonize them.

Determining a Target

The important thing to remember is that the target is always an individual or individuals and never an organization or institution. For example, your target may be a specific member of the Board of Education. Your target is not the Board of Education.

Why is this? Individuals are far easier to move than any institution. Any board of education, for example, will have fixed policies and ways of doing business. The board, as a rule, will resist changing its fixed policies and ways of doing business. But each member has her/his own interests, aspirations, likes, and dislikes. So you can appeal to the member’s own interests, hopefully moving her/him to action.


Members of the Sex Education Club did a little investigating. They discovered that another high school in Somewhere Town offered comprehensive sex education. Wallace and another Club member visited that school one day and talked to the sex education teacher. He said that, in Somewhere Town, the school board leaves it up to the principal to decide what type of sex education a school will offer.

So the Sex Education Club knew that Principal Matthews would be its campaign target because he is the person who can make the decision the Club wants.

Pick Effective Tactics

The final column in the Strategy Chart focuses on the most enjoyable and creative part of organizing. It’s all about picking your tactics. Tactics are the particular methods you choose to get someone (your target) to give you what you want (your goal). Don’t pick your tactics until you create an overall strategy. Although picking tactics is the most fun part of the plan, you need to fill in this column last to be sure that your tactics fit into your overall strategy and help you achieve your objectives and your goal.

For example, part of your strategy could be putting pressure on your principal to request that the school board permit comprehensive sex education to be taught in your high school. Your tactics could include meeting with the principal and presenting him with a petition signed by students, parents, and teachers. Your tactics might change as you work toward your goal, but your goal and strategy will remain the same.

Tactics should:

  • Make sense to your members and supporters. Don’t do something that your group members disapprove of or don’t want to be a part of.
  • Be flexible and creative. When developing your tactics, be imaginative. You don’t have to settle for typical tactics, such as rallies and marches, although these tactics are fine and can be very effective. Learn from what has been done successfully in the past. And don’t be afraid to try something new to your community, like a T-shirt campaign or a day of silence.
  • Build follow-up into your tactics. How often have you done something and later wondered what it accomplished? Each step you take in your campaign should set up the next step. For example, a petition drive should lead to a press release and media campaign, then to a meeting with school officials.

Consider the following questions when picking your tactics:

  • Who are you trying to influence with this tactic? How will it influence your target? Is it likely to move your target in the direction you want?
  • What kind of power are you bringing to the situation? Do you have a large group of people on your side? A powerful ally? How are you using the power you’ve amassed?
  • How are you following through? How will this tactic build toward your next step?

For your tactics to have long-range impact, your group should have clear answers to these questions. For example, consider whether your rally is meant to influence the public or the administration? Will a petition send a strong message to your principal? How many signatures would make such a petition effective? Asking practical questions will help you think clearly about the tactics that will work best for you.

Don’t forget that follow-up is especially important. Are you demanding a meeting and setting a deadline or just making some noise and walking away? What will you do if the principal or other target doesn’t respond as you intend?

Generally, campaigns go through several phases. First, you meet with your target and politely request what you want. If this doesn’t work (and often it doesn’t), you try action and education. When you can demonstrate power, you move to negotiations. If that doesn’t work, then you may need to regroup and intensify your campaign.

1. Ask nicely. First ask to meet with the people (your targets) who can make the change you want. Sometimes, you may be surprised when they agree to give you what you want. However, this doesn’t often happen. Perhaps you can’t meet with your target. Or you meet and your request is denied. So be prepared to move to the next step.

2. Educate and act. These go together naturally. As you educate people about the issue, you also work to get them to take action right then. For example, you might hold a rally, passing out information and also asking the people who are there to sign a petition while a speaker presents the issue clearly and effectively. Similarly, a public forum is an opportunity to educate and to get others to take action. A letter to the editor in the campus paper educates, while coordinating a letter writing campaign encourages others to act. Remember to focus on actions that will ultimately affect your target.

3. Negotiate: After your campaign has demonstrated its strength, your target may be more willing to negotiate. At this point, you may win. Or,

4. You’ll need to intensify the campaign. If the negotiations fail to get you what you want, experiment with different tactics and keep up the heat on your target. For example, your campaign might intensify by asking students and parents to write letters to local newspapers, and finally by escalating to a rally and press conference outside the school on parent-teacher conference day.

This section was adapted from the Student Environmental Action Coalition’s Organizing Guide (www.seac.org).

Suggestions for Tactics

Here are just a few tactics you could consider for a campaign in your high school.

  • Pass out Flyers to raise awareness in your school. From the flyers, your classmates can learn what sex education can be.
  • Ask to meet with the principal. When you have a united group of students who are interested in the issue, you can ask to meet with the principal to express your concerns. Before you go into the meeting, be clear about what you want. For example, do you want the principal to:
    • Approve a different sex education curriculum,
    • Instruct the faculty curriculum committee to investigate several curricula,
    • Ask the school board for permission to offer comprehensive sex education, or
    • Something else?

If you ask for nothing or something that the principal has no authority to grant, you’ve wasted everyone’s time and energy.

  • Organize a sex education week in your school. Get as many students as possible to participate. Students can:
    • Survey area pharmacies to see how easy it is to get condoms;
    • Share where confidential HIV testing is available in your community;
    • Distribute contact information for the nearest Planned Parenthood clinic;
    • Survey students to see how much they know about preventing HIV infection and unintended pregnancy.

Then, document students’ experiences as they worked on the ‘sex education week’ and share the results with local news media, including your school newspaper. You can also use the survey as background information for other tactics.

  • Circulate a petition. A petition is an easy way to show your target that a lot of people support your campaign demand(s). When you’ve gathered enough petition signatures, make sure you invite the media to the event when you present your petition to your target. [See ‘Work with Media,’ further down]
  • If your principal won’t listen, learn the name of her/his supervisor and ask to meet with the supervisor. The principal’s supervisor may be the head of the school district, the superintendent, the chair of the school board, or even the mayor. But you can be sure that every school principal answers to someone else. Ultimately, the responsibility to keep students safe lies with your city’s government.
  • Hold a rally or community forum. Team up with a local organization, such as an AIDS service, family planning, or reproductive rights organization, to plan a demonstration outside of the school or outside your targeted decision maker’s office. The rally or community forum should show that you have strong community support for your demands. This is also a great way to get media attention.
  • Talk to the media. Talk to reporters. Get your story told in local newspapers or on local television or radio stations. Put pressure on people in charge by working with the media. [See ‘Work with Media,’ further down]


The Sex Education Club decided on several tactics.

  • Members would hand out flowers about the Club and a short fact sheet about sexual education. They planned to do this at a concert where lots of students would be, as well as at several after-school community events.
  • Club members also contacted a local organization that works with people living with HIV to help gather research. Two club members did Internet research and found scientific information showing that comprehensive sex education reduces sexual risk-taking behaviors and doesn’t promote sex.
  • The Club asked parents and local organizations for donations in order to buy and distribute Sex Education Club T-shirts and to provide free pizza at the meetings.
  • Two Club members had an interview with a reporter for the student newspaper. As a result, the newspaper printed an article about the work of the Club.
  • Jackie and Wallace drafted a formal letter requesting a meeting with Principal Matthews.

Consider the Consequences. Know Your Rights

Today, as in the past, adults in power often silence the voices of young people. When picking your tactics, make sure everyone in your group knows the possible consequences of speaking out. The U.S. Supreme Court said that students do not “shed the constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate” (Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District). Although federal law sets the minimum standard for students’ free speech, every state also sets its own standards. Moreover, every school enforces these standards differently. So you need to know – before you begin – what is and what is not allowed at your school.

Go directly to the administration at your school to ask about what is and isn’t allowed in terms of tactics. Contact the state’s department of education to learn what the state education code says about students’ rights. You can also contact your local American Civil Liberties Union office (www.aclu.org). Don’t be afraid. Just be aware!

Although laws vary from state to state, you and most high school students have the right to:

  • Hand out flyers.
  • Express views in the school newspaper.
  • Circulate petitions.
  • Conduct polls and surveys.
  • Set up informational tables.
  • Organize clubs and sponsor events.
  • Post notices and posters on school bulletin boards.
  • Organize a peaceful rally or demonstration.
  • Wear buttons, badges, or patches with messages on them.

This section was adapted from DMZ: A Guide to Taking Your School back from the Military (War Resisters League, 2006)

Work with the Media

During your campaign, media coverage is an important way to pressure your target into action. Maybe you worry that working with the media will be difficult, if not impossible. It’s okay … don’t worry. Working with the media isn’t hard!

Think of it this way – a reporter’s job is to report the news. Moreover, people are always interested in hearing about young people in their community. And what you’re doing is news. Your campaign is news! So you’re actually helping the reporters by giving them something to cover that will interest their audience.

So how do you actually work with the media? You can write letters to the editor. You can submit an op-ed (an opinion article that appears opposite the editorial page). You can write a press release about your event. And you can give interviews. There are other things you could do as well, but this Guide focuses on these four things.

You can do each of these things, both with your school’s own media (newspaper, website, or radio station) and also with the local media in your community. But you can start most easily with the media in your school, especially your school newspaper. With coverage in the school newspaper, you’ll have a chance to learn how the students and faculty react to your issue. And you can practice your media skills and hone your message before you take your issue to the local media and your community.

1. Writing a Letter to the Editor

Letters to the editor that get published always respond specifically to a published article or opinion piece or to current news reported in that paper. Here are the five C’S to keep in mind when composing a letter to the editor. Keep it:

  • Current – Write and submit your letter immediately after the news or opinion piece you’re responding to is published. Don’t wait more than one day after the publication of the article to write a letter to the editor. Responding the same day is best!
  • Concise – Keep the letter short (under 250 words) and on point. Many newspapers have a word limit for letters. Make sure you know the limit and stick to it.
  • Controversial – Questioning another person’s position is good. Attacking another person is not!
  • Contagious – Encourage others to write letters as well.
  • Contact Information – Finally, include your name, mailing address, phone number(s), and email address. The newspaper may need to verify who you are or it may want more information before it will publish your letter.

See the example to the editor [further down]

2. Writing an Op-Ed

“Op-ed” means opposite the editorial page. An op-ed is an opinion piece submitted by someone who is not on the newspaper’s staff. Newspapers publish an op-ed at the discretion of the editors. To be published, your op-ed must stand out from other pieces that have been submitted for possible publication. Here are some tips for writing an effective op-ed.

  • Your op-ed must be no longer than 700-750 words, typewritten and double-spaced. Be sure to check the newspaper’s limit.
  • Remember, shorter is better! Sentences should be short and punchy. (10 or 11 words maximum).
  • Address only one main point in the op-ed. Keep focused on your message.
  • For an effective structure, the content should include the following:

The attention grabber – Start with an effective attention-getting sentence:

Use humor and make connections directly back to the issue.
Talk about people. Tell a story about yourself and others to help the reader identify with your subject.
Keep it current. Talk about something specific that happened recently concerning the issue you’re discussing.

The body of the op-ed – After the opener, immediately and clearly state the issue and where you stand. This means writing one or two paragraphs that support your main point. This section should include:

Statistics – but not too many numbers;
Quotes – from authorities, including the position of agencies that are in favor of your goal;
Analogies – that connect ideas; and/or
A case study – that makes the issue concrete and understandable.

The conclusion – Briefly sum up your point. You want to make sure that it hasn’t been lost or forgotten. Your conclusion should echo and reinforce  the point you made in the beginning.

The goodbye zinger! – This is a counterpart to the attention grabber and uses the same approach to hammer home the message.

  • Finally, avoid jargon or technical phrases. Be sure that all names are spelled correctly and check that all your quotations are accurate.

Submitting an op-ed

  • You may be able to bring your op-ed to the school newspaper by hand. But you’ll have to submit it via email or fax to local papers. Call first to find out how the editors prefer to recieve your op-ed.
  • Follow up with a phone call to ensure that the paper has recieved your op-ed. At this time, you can also provide additional information, if needed.
  • Be sure to include the name of your school, your day and evening phone numbers, and your email address.

See the example of an op-ed [further down]

3. Writing a Press Release

You send a press release to the media when you want to announce an activity or respond to an issue of concern. A press release gives the press your brief version of the story. In particular, you want to make sure that the release has an attention-grabbing headline and a powerful lead paragraph. Often, that is all the reporter or editor has time to read. So you have a very short opportunity to get the reporter’s attention.

Remember, the lead should contain the five W’s: who, what, when, where, and why.

Guidelines for Writing a Press Release

  • Put the name and phone number of a contact person in the top right corner.
  • Write ‘For Immediate Release’ in the top left corner, or if absolutely necessary, indicate the date the information can be released.
  • Write the release as you want the story to appear in the next day’s paper.
  • Use a powerful headline that summarizes the story in a few words
  • Include all the essential information (the five W’s) in your first paragraph.
  • Remain objective. Use direct quotes for value statements, especially attention grabbing quotes from a key person in your organization.
  • Keep your press release to one page.
  • Keep your sentences and paragraphs short. Keep them at less than 12 words to a sentence and less than six sentences to a paragraph.
  • Describe your organization in one sentence in the last paragraph.
  • Use full names and titles the first time you mention them. Thereafter use last names only.
  • End the release with -30- or the ### (press etiquette that signifies the end of the release.)

See the example press reference [further down]

4. Giving an Interview

When your local newspaper, magazine, and/or TV station learns what you’re doing, the media may want interviews with you. Giving interviews is one of the most important ways you can bring attention to your campaign. Here are some tips about how to discuss your campaign in an interview.

  • Have three key points. Always go into an event or interview with three key points that relate to your main message. Then make those points (no matter what questions the reporter asks!)
  • Bridge to your key message. If a reporter’s question seems off topic, bring it back around to what you want to say. For example, you might bridge by saying, “That’s an interesting question. However I think the real issue is…”
  • Be concise. Give answers that are 10 to 15 seconds in length. Always speak in complete sentences. Speaking in complete, short sentences means reporters won’t need to edit your statement and what you say is less likely to be incorrectly quoted or taken out of context.
  • Do not lie. If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t make something up. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure.” Always offer to find the answer. Then be sure to get back to the reporter before her/his deadline.
  • Be ready for tough questions. Prepare your answers in advance and practice making your point. Try practicing with another group or ally.
  • Listen to the question carefully. If you don’t understand the question, ask the reporter to clarify.

So, Are You Ready to Act?

We hope that the Guide has helped you by explaining some of the key elements involved in POWERFUL and EFFECTIVE youth activism. Reading the Guide and sharing it with your friends is just the first step. Now is when the fun part really begins. It’s time to put your ideas and the skills you’ve learned into action!

Advocates For Youth and CHAMP are here to support you in your efforts to fight for comprehensive sex education (or HIV prevention education, condom availability, an end to homophobia, or whatever your issue) in your school. Please keep in touch with CHAMP and Advocates about how things are going in your school and whether this guide is helpful to you. Advocates and CHAMP, as well as many other organizations, are here as resources for you. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help. (See the Resources section immediately below).

Remember, you aren’t alone! In fact, you’re part of a national and international movement fighting for comprehensive sex education, condom availability, effective HIV prevention, and an end to homophobia.

Good luck!

Youth Activist Network Manager
Advocates For Youth
2000 M St, NW Suite 750
Washington, DC 20036
Ph: 202.419.3420

Director of Programs
32 Broadway, Suite 1801
New York, NY 10004
Ph: 212.937.7955

Check Out These Online Resources

Advocates for Youth’s Collected Resources on Comprehensive Sex Education
www.advocatesforyouth.org/sexeducation.htm – Advocates offers a collection of fact sheets, press statements, and reports on sex education.

Go Ask Alice
www.goaskalice.columbia.edu – Columbia University’s Health Education Program site has questions and answers on all kinds of relationship, sexuality, and sexual health issues.

HIV InSite
hivinsite.ucsf.edu – Developed by University of California at San Francisco, Center for HIV Information, this site is an excellent source for comprehensive, in-depth information on HIV and AIDS.

I Wanna Know
www.iwannaknow.org – From the American Social Health Association, this site offers information on sexually transmitted infections, sexual health, and how to deal with peer pressure.

It’s Your (Sex) Life
www.itsyoursexlife.com – From the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, this site provides reliable, objective sexual health information for young adults.

RH Reality Check
www.rhrealitycheck.org – RH Reality Check is an online community publication serving individuals and organizations committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Scenarios USA
www.scenariosusa.com – This site allows you to watch films written by and for teens. The films address important topics, such as relationships, communication skills, and sexual identity, teen pregnancy, and HIV/AIDS.

Sex Etc.
www.sexetc.org – This Web site by and for teens helps youth stay sexually healthy and avoid disease and unwanted pregnancy.

Stories of Youth Activists
www.amplifyyourvoice.org – From Advocates for Youth, these are the personal stories of other youth who are activists like you.

Planned Parenthood Teens
http://www.plannedparenthood.org/teens – From Planned Parenthood, this site offers great information on your body, how to avoid or refuse sex if you don’t want it, safter sex, referrals to local clinics, and lots of other useful materials.

Samples to Guide Your Efforts

The next few pages offer:

  • Strategy chart for you to use in planning your own campaign
  • Sample survey on sex education
  • Sample petition to use in creating your own petition
  • Example of a letter to the editor
  • Example of an op-ed
  • Example of a press release

Petition for Comprehensive Sex Education: Let’s Talk About Sex

Every hour of every day in the United States, two teens contract HIV. In fact, over 50 percent of new HIV infections occur among people under age 25. Moreover, this year alone, one out of four sexually active teens will contract a sexually transmitted infection (STI), and one out of five sexually active teenage girls will become pregnant. These statistics are simply unacceptable.

We, the undersigned students, believe that youth are entitled to comprehensive sex education for credit, offering accurate information about our sexual and reproductive health in grades 9-12.

Respect our right to information about our health. Require that comprehensive sex education be taught in __________ High School in grades 9-12.

Signature Name: __________ Print: ___________ Email Address (optional): __________
Grade: _____ Phone #: __________

Strategy Chart: Comprehensive Sex Education At Somewhere High School

Survey: Let’s Talk About Sex Education

Please do not write your name anywhere on this survey. We want the results to be entirely anonymous and confidential.

Age: _____ Grade: _____ Gender: _____

Sexual Orientation (optional): _____ Race (optional): _____

1. Have you ever participated in a sex education class?

_____ YES _____ NO

If yes, in what grade?

If yes, check the topics you learned about:

_____ Abstinence _____ Sexual orientation _____ Contraception

_____ STIs _____ Refusal skills _____ Communication

_____ Condoms _____ HIV _____ Pregnancy

_____ Relationships

2. Do you think you would benefit from taking a comprehensive sex education course?

_____ YES _____ NO

If yes, how would you benefit?

If no, why not?

3. What does “using protection” mean to you? [Check all that apply.]

_____ Using a condom _____ Using birth control pills _____ Using vaginal film or other barrier methods

_____ “Outercourse” _____ Other (please tell us what that is)

4. What four body fluids transmit HIV?


5. Name three sexually transmitted infections.


6. Name three ways to protect yourself against unplanned pregnancy.


7. Can you get a sexually transmitted disease from oral sex?

_____ YES _____ NO

8. Can a woman get pregnant the first time she has sex?

_____ YES _____ NO

Adapted from a survey created by students from the Cesar Chavez High School for Public Policy in Washington, DC.

Sample Letter to the Editor

To the Editor,

Friday’s article, “Sex Encouraged with Comprehensive Education,” questioned the effect of comprehensive sex education on sexual activity. Many people worry that giving youth accurate information about sexual health will encourage them to have sex, but this isn’t so.

Studies have proven that those of us who receive comprehensive sex education are more likely to delay sexual activity and to use contraceptives when we do become sexually active. Even the Surgeon General has declared that it is “imperative and clear that [youth need] accurate information about contraceptives.” Yet, our high schools only offer ineffective and inaccurate abstinence-only programs.

Our schools need to implement sex education that includes information about both abstinence and contraception.


(Your Name)
(Your Affiliation)
(Your Contact Information)

Sample Op-ED

Information is Power

Last week, our high school commemorated World AIDS Day. While most of our attention on AIDS these days is focused on what is happening in Africa, it’s important to realize that AIDS is still a threat right here in the United States, even in places like our town. And still, after all this time, every hour of every day, two young people in this country are infected with HIV.

I became an HIV/AIDS and sexual health peer educator when I was 14 because I wanted to make sure my friends and peers would know how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV (the virus that causes AIDS). Of course, abstinence is the safest way to protect ourselves. But let’s face facts. A lot of teenagers do have sex while still in high school or when they start college or get their first job after high school. In fact, nationally, 70 percent of young people have had sex by the time they are 18!

I don’t think we have a good sex education program here in our high schools. It’s important that teenagers have all the facts they need to keep themselves safe from unwanted pregnancy and STIs, including HIV. More and more high schools across the country are teaching “abstinence-only-until-marriage” education. What exactly does that mean? Here, we do not have comprehensive sex education. We are taught that abstinence is the only method of protection against STIs and unwanted pregnancy. “Abstinence-only” education only discusses abstinence and denies young people honest and accurate information about contraceptive options. Abstinence-only programs often give false information, like exaggerating condom failure rates, saying that you can get AIDS from sweat and tears, and teaching stereotyped gender roles and intolerance for gay and lesbian youth.

In this age of HIV and AIDS, it is irresponsible to censor vital information about how to safeguard sexual and reproductive health. We all have a responsibility to make sure that young people get all the facts.

Tara Dhingra wrote this op-ed when she was a senior at Ludlowe High School in Fairfield, CT.

Sample Press Release

February 4, 2008

Marcela Howell (202) 419-3420

Will This President Never Learn?

Another Budget – Another Increase to Ineffective Abstinence-Only Programs

Washington, DC (Monday, February 4, 2008) – Today, President Bush submitted his FY 2009 budget which includes $204 million in funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, including a massive $27.7 million increase to Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE). The budget also includes $50 million for the Title V abstinence-only program which was scheduled to lapse in 2007 and another $13 million for the Adolescent Family Life Act.

“Enough is enough,” said James Wagoner, President of Advocates for Youth. “These abstinenceonly- until-marriage programs have failed to meet simple standards of effectiveness. Allocating another $204 million for FY 2009 is further proof that this President cares more about conservative ideology than sound science.”

Over the last ten years, a number of reports should have sent clear signals to the President and Congress that funding abstinence-only-until-marriage programs was wrong. In 2000, the Institute of Medicine stated that the abstinence-only policy was “poor fiscal and public health policy” and recommended that the programs be stopped. In 2006, the Society for Adolescent Medicine (SAM) called the programs “scientifically and ethically flawed” and found that the “efficacy of abstinenceonly interventions may approach zero.” That same year, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) admonished Health and Human Services for its lack of oversight in ensuring that these programs provided “medically accurate information about condom effectiveness.” And early last year, the long-awaited government-mandated study on the Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage programs conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. showed these programs did not impact teen behavior.

Additionally, governors from sixteen states, as diverse as, California, Maine, New Jersey, Montana and Wisconsin, have now rejected Title V federal funding for abstinence-only programs.

“President Bush continues to ignore these studies and the wishes of governors across the country,” added Wagoner. “It’s time that Congress sent a clear and unambiguous message – – our government should not be in the business of funding programs that don’t work.”

To date, over $1.5 billion has been spent in federal funding for ineffective abstinence-only-untilmarriage programs.


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