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How can I write my own human rights alert? A MindFreedom "How To"!

Here are frequently asked questions and tips about how you can create a basic brief alert about human rights or alternatives for yourself or someone else. Unfortunately, nonprofit human rights organizations -- including MindFreedom International -- do not have the resources to research, interview and write up all the alerts that deserve to be publicized. In the Internet age, we are each our own media! A simple alert is an easy way to network with others. Your alert may lead to a larger campaign and could help win a victory of human rights. [updated Dec. 2011]


You may also want to read a helpful FAQ called "I have important news to get out -- how can I?" by clicking here.


Ring that Alarm Bell!

 

Why should I try to create an alert?


Do you have a human rights issue to communicate?

Do you want to tell people about an alternative to the traditional mental health system, or find a particular resource?

Our social change is all about empowerment and self-determination. We have some suggestions about how you can take steps to get out the word.

Resources are low in our field. That means you often need to create an alert yourself.

In a way, it is easy: It's your "letter to the world" about a specific injustice, with a specific action.

However, we have found that many smart, passionate, dedicated people have trouble actually creating their "letter to the world" for any number of reasons. 

Remember: Like ringing an alarm bell during a disaster, the first and most important thing is to RING THE ALARM BELL! So, often any alert is better than no alert. 

These tips are meant to give you support to create an effective alert, that will lead to many people speaking out, and networking to assist. 

 

But can't MindFreedom do an alert for me?

 

MindFreedom does issue many alerts about human rights and alternatives to thousands of people. At times those alerts have gotten results. However, we do not have the staff to be able to research and write all the alerts that ought to be written.

You and/or your family and friends may want to consider issuing even a simple, brief, public introductory alert. 

While MindFreedom cannot guarantee we will publicize all alerts we receive, it makes publicizing your situation much easier.

 

Does issuing a public alert always make sense?


No. Sometimes issuing a public alert does not make sense. For instance, perhaps you are involved in legal negotiations behind the scenes, and a public alert could jeopardize that. Perhaps a public alert might actually harm someone's human rights or a valued ally may lose a job. Also, there is always the risk run by anyone who goes public about fraud and abuse.

But at other times, a public alert makes a lot of sense, and the risk is well worth it. Our social change movement may not have the resources to hire a huge legal team, but we do have people power.

The individual who is the focus of the alert ought to make the difficult decision about issuing a public alert. Make the decision carefully.

 

But can an alert ever really work, and is an alert ever really enough?

 

We've seen a number of successes with MindFreedom human rights alerts over the past two decades, though of course there is absolutely no guarantee. 

So yes, one can easily feel hopeless even when many people are helping you to peacefully pressure an official. But consider Amnesty International as a model. AI has shown that with massive public attention, sometimes there are changes even on an international level. 

 

A lot of the people who speak out about their human rights violations also need far more than an alert to stay free of the mental health system. Many are also in need of a wider and complex range of choices, much of which is often not available in our society, that tends to fund psychiatric drugs. 

Individuals putting out alerts may also need - among other things - peer support, housing, detox services, counseling, stable income, a chance to tell their story, and a way to address the trauma they've gone through at the hands of the mental health system. 

As we said already, human rights alert is just 'ringing the alarm bell.' 

But sometimes that is important. 

A human rights alert is not social work or detailed peer advocacy. Consider an "Amnesty International" alert. When you make the sometimes difficult decision about who you wish the public to pressure, try NOT to create a laundry list of, say, half a dozen low-level service providers, advocacy services, etc. 

This is activism, not social work, as important as that social work may be.

Try instead to pick one central individual who may be responsive to significant public pressure, such as an elected official whose job even in a corrupt system may actually rely on voters. 

Why pick just one? You can always add secondary people to contact, but try to emphasize a priority, or you may lose a lot of the public. 

 

Do I need to be an expert to write an alert?

 

Absolutely not!

A basic e-mail alert is very easy to do. Simple is often better.

While there's no one recipe for an alert. 

But here are three parts to a basic alert:

  1. A newsy intro. Just like a news story, start off the alert with the most important basic facts. Keep in mind readers may be totally new to this case and this field. And remember most people today are busy. On the Internet, people read just a few paragraphs. 
  2. Primary action you want people to take. Pick one easy thing people can do, together, and give accurate contact info for that decision-maker. We always encourage people to stay civil, because even one person violating our peace guideline can harm a whole campaign. We also give a sample message, and add that their own words are best. 
  3. More information: Here's where you can list some additional facts, or a chronology, etc., for those who are very interested and want to read more. 

At the very least, a simple alert allows you to quickly inform concerned people about the basic details of a situation, rather than repeat the story over and over by phone. 

With an alert concerned people can easily "blip" each other via the Internet to network resources. While there is no guarantee, amazing results have occurred when people network with each other. And who knows, such an alert may lead into a major campaign.

It is the 21st century, and everyone is now "our own media." Oppression mutes people. You can un-mute the mute button!

 

Where can I see samples of successful alerts?

 

For decades, MindFreedom International has e-mailed out alerts to tens of thousands of people, sometimes resulting in the ending of forced electroshock, forced drugging, or at public attention to an injustice in the mental health system.

You can browse through these alerts in an "archive" of the MindFreedom News (some alerts are for events, but others are for human rights activism), click here:

http://lists.mindfreedom.org/pipermail/mindfreedom-news_lists.mindfreedom.org/

The Ray Campaign has a good example of about 22 alerts that were e-mailed out to thousand to successfully stop the forced electroshock of Ray Sandford, see the alerts and background on this one-year campaign here:

http://www.mindfreedom.org/ray

Or how about studying how larger organizations send out human rights alerts? You can browse through dozens of Amnesty International web-alert campaigns here:

http://www.amnesty.org/en/campaigns

 

 

How do I get my news out via the MindFreedom news e-mail lists?


MindFreedom has a number of one-way news lists for the public and members. Some have thousands on them. All of the MindFreedom news lists are moderated. No one outside the office can directly send out to the list. If you have an item you'd like to submit, feel free to e-mail it to news@mindfreedom.org. Anyone is welcome to submit an item, and we'll do our best, but no guarantees that all items we receive can get out, due to the sheer volume of news we are receiving. As a coalition, however, it's especially helpful when a sponsor or affiliate submits the item.

 

Do I need to be a computer expert to get out an alert?


No!

It is best to start with a plain text e-mail alert, where the alert is in the content of your e-mail.

While there is a time and place for 'attached files,' or 'html e-mail,' or blogs, etc., it is best to start with a plain text e-mail. In fact, many people delete all unsolicited attached files they receive.

You can always do 'fancier' methods later, but start with basic plain e-mail.

 

Can I write an alert for someone else?

 

Often because of circumstances, a person experiencing human rights violations cannot write an alert. He or she relies on someone else to write the actual alert. It does help if possible to be able to actually quote at least some words or sentences from the individual who is being championed.

Important: Please be sure to get the permission, participation and approval of the individual you are issuing an alert for to the greatest extent possible. Be sure to let he or she know it's nearly impossible to issue a "private" alert publicly. Once a public alert is issued, his or her name could be very public, and searchable by Google and other search engines for years afterwards. Many of our members when threatened with a human rights violation would want the whole world to know no matter what, but some people prefer privacy. Reflecting the values of empowerment find out the wishes of the individual for whom you are issuing an alert.

 

Top 10 tips for a basic e-mail human rights alert:

 

 

  1. Sum it up! Start by **BRIEFLY** summing up your situation: who, what, where, when, why, how. Think like a journalist, and remember your reader may be new to this. What is the campaign's main goal? If you can't sum up the primary goal of the campaign in a sentence it may be difficult to communicate clearly to hundreds or thousands of people.
  2. Write like a newspaper reporter: Grab people's attention at the top with the most important sentences. Include and double check important facts, such as dates, ages, locations. If you have a chronology in your alert - that is, a list of events by date - do not necessarily start the top of the alert with that chronology. Like in a news article, the first few sentences ought to sum up the most important story right now.  What is your news? Use simple language almost anyone would understand. Add a headline! Then add your 'byline' (your name, so people know who wrote it). In the text, try to include an accurate "opinion" quote or two from key people, even yourself, using "quote marks," this helps humanize your alert. Please keep your alert civil, and do not use language that would insult an opponent. MFI tries to follow Martin Luther King nonviolence guidelines in selecting alerts to re-distribute.
  3. Encourage readers to network the alert publicly. If you do not include that encouragement early on, many people will assume they ought to keep what they receive from you private and confidential. Do not "address" the alert only to the MindFreedom office, or to only one individual. Remember, you are issuing an alert to the world!
  4. Keep it simple! Keep the initial alert to a page or so. Get it out as a plain text e-mail, first. You can always write more "updates" and "attached files" and "blogs" later! This first alert is not the place to write everything... or you will probably lose many readers. To start with, one simple clear alert with the basic info is needed. If you have a complicated campaign you can add a fact sheet and/or timeline to supplement your basic alert.
  5. Write for everyone. Write so that someone brand new to your situation will understand it. For instance, never ever use abbreviations and assume someone else knows what it means! Do not assume your reader has special knowledge. Some readers may not understand technical words without an explanation. Think like a journalist, because you are one!
  6. Make it readable. For instance, we know you may be very upset, but please do not just write one huge enormous paragraph, or use lots and lots of ALL CAPITAL WORDS. On the Internet, people tend to break up larger paragraphs into smaller paragraphs. Use upper and lower case, and not just all caps.
  7. Include human interest. At the very least try to include the age and occupation of the individual. Important: If possible, offering a clear digital photo of the face of the individual you are advocating on behalf of can make a huge difference for those publicizing your alert via the web. If you have the time and space include a quote or statement about the true feelings that an individual or loved one is experiencing. You can write the alert factually, but insert strong feelings and opinions by quoting people involved, in "quote marks." Try to add a few personal detail to paint a picture and tell a story.
  8. Call for one simple action. For example, some alerts include the web contact information for the State or Provincial Governor. It's easier if readers can act via e-mail or the web. Lots of people speaking out adds up. Deciding what action readers ought to take can be challenging. If you must you can also list secondary actions for the very interested. But pick one main action everyone who cares can do. If possible include your contact info so people can get more information. Anonymous alerts can be hard to do, though not impossible. MindFreedom seeks to follow Martin Luther King, Jr.'s nonviolence guidelines, and asks those taking action to be civil when they speak out.
  9. Thoroughly double check every fact! All reporters make mistakes, but amateurs can make some real doozies! Be sure to proof all facts, contact and other data you are sending out in any alert. It's especially common to make a mistake on a phone or fax number, or an e-mail or web address. Absolutely be sure to try out any e-mail addresses, web sites, phone numbers, etc., first! If your error is sent to, say, 10,000 people, and you need to retract and correct something, that can really complicate, slow-down or even derail a campaign. Errors negatively impact people's participation in future campaigns. Have a friend check spelling and grammar to make your alert professional.
  10. Then broadcast it! Now get out your e-mail alert in as many ways as you can! If you do not have access to e-mail, ask a friend, colleague or volunteer to write up your alert and e-mail it out. Especially if you are a MindFreedom member, e-mail it to MindFreedom. If you are part of the MindFreedom Shield program be sure to say so. While there are no guarantee of results, the MindFreedom office tries to review all alerts we receive, especially from members. An easy way to start is one of MindFreedom's member-only e-mail lists such as MindFreedom-USA for alerts in United States, and MindFreedom-Global for alerts internationally.

 

To sum up, here are the top three most effective nonviolent weapons in a human rights  alert:

  1. Clarity.
  2. Clarity.
  3. Clarity.


The most unclear thing is invisibility. 

So get to it! Silence is, in a way, complicity with the human rights violation.

So even if you are very inexperienced at writing alerts, make sure you actually RING THAT ALARM BELL!

There's always a first time!

 

More advanced alerts:

 

Want to see how the other pro's put out alerts? Here's what's been called a 'treasure trove' of e-mail alerts for environmental and human rights causes, so you can study the format, length and language:

http://fairsay.com/labs/actionarchive/all/archive_folder_contents

For extra impact, try to get your alert onto the web yourself. This may seem beyond many people's ability. But it is now fairly easy to create a free blog or Facebook page or web site about your loved one's issues. This lets you add updates, and it also lets you add photos.

Once you have created your own web presence you only need to get out a web address so that people can quickly read about the situation, see the latest photo, network with others, and get updates. Key words in your alert such as the name of an institution you may be dealing with become "searchable" by search engines. There are a lot of tools now. For instance, by picking a unique Twitter 'hashmark' tag, you can also help people track the latest updates via 'Tweets.'

It is also possible to now add video fairly easy to YouTube, and include the web address to that, so that people can view video snippets.

You are your own media! 

Break the silence!

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Mary Ann Ebert - New York State Activist

Mary Ann Ebert of Mental Patients Liberation Alliance of Syracuse helped found MindFreedom International's Support Coalition and provided early technical assistance to get it off the ground. Mary Ann has worked for decades to support human rights and alternatives of people in the mental health system. (Photo by Tom Olin.)
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