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Lessons learned from a successful human rights campaign
January 18, 2017

What if you created a human rights organization that was so successful that you disbanded it because it achieved its goal? That was exactly the case for Evan Wolfson and his organization Freedom to Marry, which campaigned for the right of same-sex marriage in the United States.

For Wolfson, the campaign was a struggle that lasted decades and often seemed defined more by its setbacks than its successes. But the long effort that ended with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage taught him valuable lessons that he said can be applied to any group’s struggle for equality.

“We succeeded with many stumbles and missed opportunities along the way. It certainly wasn’t perfect. But we did pretty well on what I call ‘the ladder of clarity,’ and I believe that other causes, other campaigns and other movements would do well to look at this ladder of clarity and see what they can improve,” Wolfson said.

What is the “ladder of clarity”?

Wolfson explained the system as being like a four-rung ladder where you should always “start with where you want to go.”

  • Clarity of goal: First, decide what you want to accomplish. What would “winning” mean to you and to others? Make sure it is a focused goal, because you can’t fight every battle at once.
  • Clarity of strategy: Second, determine what it will take to win. What is the pathway? How will you achieve your goal?
  • Clarity of vehicles: Third, determine what you will need to carry out your strategy. What partnerships and efforts do you need to focus on? What resources and how much?
  • Clarity of action: Finally, decide on what you need people to do. How are you getting them engaged? Is there a clear call to action?

Wolfson created Freedom to Marry in 2003, drawing on his many years of work and activism for marriage equality. It streamlined the struggle into a defined campaign by shepherding various movements to a shared goal: win the freedom for same-sex couples to marry in the United States. In this case, winning meant that either Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court (most likely the court) would bring about a national resolution.

“When I talk about what are the elements of our success, what do we need in order to win, my usual list is we needed four things. Number 1, we needed the Constitution. We needed the commitment under law to equality and freedom and dignity and the whole system of rule of law and free expression that enabled us to work and push for change in the system. But at the same time the Constitution … doesn’t enforce itself. You still need to do the work. And so we needed three other things in addition to that. … We needed a movement, we needed a strategy, and we needed a campaign,” Wolfson said.

Between 2003 and 2015 the movement took in many organizations, methods, players and other resources to get the job done. But, going up the ladder of clarity, there was a strategy, and driving that strategy was the campaign, keeping its eyes on the ultimate goal and all the components working together.

They were “looking at the goal, looking at the strategy, looking at what others were doing and helping them do their part. And where there were gaps, figuring out how to fill them,” he said.

More battles were lost than won. In 2004, 13 U.S. states approved ballot measures that pre-emptively banned same-sex marriage. But that same year, Massachusetts legalized it, and for the campaign it was a breakthrough.

After 2004, Wolfson wrote a speech called “The scary work of winning.” He argued that having a victory, like in Massachusetts, significantly helps the campaign overcome its losses in other states. Further, he argued that where Freedom to Marry could not win, it could at least lose in ways to make it stronger by “losing forward, by having clarity of goal, clarity of strategy and knowing how to take the ripple effect of the loss and turn it into the power we would need for the next battle.”

Alongside the path to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide, Freedom to Marry’s messaging helped to attract support from outside the LGBT community, and popular support grew from 27 percent in 1996 to 63 percent in 2015. The organization accomplished this by carefully targeting its audience.

“You have to figure out who you are trying to reach, what is the best way to help them — those particular people — understand the shared values and the personal stakes and the reasons why they should move in support. Through a combination of making the right case with the right stories in the right frequency over the right amount of time with the right messengers in the right drumbeat you’re able to move more and more people,” Wolfson said.

After the 2015 Supreme Court ruling, Wolfson ended the Freedom to Marry campaign. Though the struggle for LGBT rights in the United States continues in other areas, the campaign had achieved its stated goal. Wolfson said he ended the campaign also because he wants to share its lessons with other movements, causes and countries. Its website has become a resource hub with materials that can be taken and adapted.

“It’s only later after you’ve won that everything looks like some inevitable triumph. But during the battle, before you know you’ve won, this is what it feels like,” he said.

The views and opinions expressed here belong to the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of the YALI Network or the U.S. government.