Guerilla Campaign

Rallying the troops for a cause


In the war to change hearts and open minds, the anti-smoking warriors are taking the battle into the trenches.

Rather than relying on flashy mass-market ad campaigns paid for by omnipresent organizations headquartered somewhere on the other side of the world, nonprofits are taking their messages straight to the people.

It's a grass-roots approach that's all about going back to basics, building support from the ground up, and making an issue matter in the lives of average citizens. And it's a tactic that's quickly seeing results.

"One person or organization can only reach so deeply into the community," said Katie Whittier, community organizer for the Coalition for a Healthy Idaho.

Whittier is part of the Smokefree Boise campaign, a group of health-related organizations and individuals pushing to ban smoking in Boise bars.

The group is working around a basic divide-and-conquer strategy, breaking into sub-groups that are spreading the message through the community with events, small gatherings, and even just conversations among friends.

It started with the core group, but as volunteers expressed interest, Whittier was quick to give them some responsibility.

"Titles are free," she said. "[They] give others responsibility and make them feel empowered."

It's also a way to strengthen leadership in the organization and guarantee its future survival.

"[Founders] could walk away and it would still go on," said Adrean Casper, director of government affairs for the American Heart Association in Boise, and a member of Smokefree Boise. "It's something that has its own gas."

The subgroups and committees are designed to appeal to specific interests or backgrounds, giving volunteers a group they can relate to. So far, these include groups for young professionals, students, ex-smokers, physicians, women, Democrats, Republicans, bar owners, bouncers, bartenders and even North End residents.

The approach has caught on quickly. In the first month and a half of its existence, Smokefree Boise has attracted roughly 200 volunteers. The interest came so quickly, group leaders had to step back and reorganize.

"Local groups are the face of the campaign," Whittier said. "It gives people an array of ways to get involved."

Whittier learned this bottom-up campaign style while working on presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama's Idaho campaign. It was the first time she had ever used the grass-roots approach, and its effectiveness caught her by surprise.

When the idea for community-based groups was explained to her, Whittier wasn't convinced. In fact, she mockingly called them "special-interest hobby groups so we could scrapbook together."

But after she saw the response from the community, she said she realized they were a place for people to fit.

She translated her experience into the Smokefree Boise campaign, but it's indicative of a larger national shift, most visibly seen in the political campaigns.

"We're in a time when people are more engaged politically than they have been, and there's energy that needs to be channeled," she said. "It's a crazy primary season and people are more aware of it. There's energy to be put somewhere."

It's the same active involvement Ferd Schlapper, executive director of Health, Wellness and Counseling Services at Boise State, has seen in his own effort to cut back on public smoking.

"There's a great passion around this type of an issue," he said. "What we're finding, really, as you tap into these different groups, is a groundswell of support."

Officials at Boise State have been discussing the possibility of a smokefree campus since 1988, taking incremental steps.

A few years ago, though, organizers were asked to come up with a comprehensive plan, rather than doing things piecemeal.

But rather than surprising everyone with a campus-wide edict, organizers took the idea to the four constituent groups at the school to first build support and gauge acceptance.

Student government, the faculty senate, the professional staff association and the association of classified employees each had the chance to review the proposal, as well as the research supporting it. The groups presented the information and the proposal to their individual members and each passed formal resolutions supporting the effort to eventually make the entire campus smoke-free.

Schlapper and his group polled the various campus populations throughout the process and found that the majority of both students and employees supported the rights of nonsmokers over the rights of smokers.

"We have to build this groundswell of support," Schlapper said. "[In politics] a 60/40 vote is considered a landslide. We're getting 80 to 90 percent of people in support. We want to be able to show this to the policymakers.

"[We're] able to demonstrate the broad support. It's not one or two zealous people trying to push through something," he said.

With support in place, the plan is being edited by the university policy group and will be unveiled within the next week. Students and employees will be given further chance to comment on the recommendation before it goes to the administrative council. If everything goes as planned, the policy could be in place by the fall of 2009.

Schlapper said the key is to bring the issue down to a level accessible to most people and to show how it benefits them to be more involved in making the policies that affect their daily lives.

The process has become vastly simpler thanks to technology, especially the Internet. "It's more of a direct pipeline from the constituent to the politician to tell them about what you think," he said. "It's a clear demonstration of desires."

While Schlapper said lobbyists will always have the ears of those in power, it's hard to ignore the will of the people when an overwhelming majority of constituents is taking the time to talk about one issue.

"It's getting back to fundamentals," he said.

Whittier said the grass-roots approach also makes it harder for outside interests to influence Idaho policy.

"Statewide laws are easy targets," she said. "On a local level, it's too spread out. The support is there."

Whittier believes Boise is just the place for ground-level campaigns, thanks in large part to residents' willingness to get involved.

And once they've stepped up, the key to keeping them involved is to find ways to use their specific talents or interests.

"Whatever they can bring to the table is exactly what we want," she said.