The home page of Change.org announces that it is “The world’s platform for change” and indeed it has 181 million users spread over every country on Earth. While roughly 21,000 of its petitions have been successful (as of 2019) one should consider that 30,000 petitions are launched on the site each month. Some unsuccessful petitions are just bad ideas of course but others are worthwhile efforts that suffer from bad writing and presentation.
Whether a petition on Change.org acquires enough signatures to succeed or not depends largely on the strength of the essay that accompanies it. Circulated primarily through social media, these essays must be persuasive but also brief. A few short paragraphs must convince readers of a problem's significance, the petitioner's authenticity, the reader's agency, and the petition as a remedy for the problem.
In this assignment, students write a call to action in the style of a Change.org essay that tries to convince readers to take concrete action to solve a problem. While every essay on Change.org wants readers to sign a petition, students may ask their readers to do any concrete, specific thing they think will help.
The thesis = an ask of the reader
The thesis of a call to action is its ask of the reader. What single concrete, specific, and realistic thing can a regular person do that will make a real, tangible difference? Everything in the essay should support this thesis — the ask.
The goals of the essay are "educate, engage, and empower" but the biggest mistake students make is to approach their essay as if it were an expository essay or term paper and spend most of their time educating the reader about the problem, as if the reader needed to be convinced the problem was real. That kind of education on the topic does not support the ask.
Instead, students must anticipate the reader’s objections, doubts, questions, skepticism, concerns et cetera about the ask and address those issues. That is how to educate the reader in a way that supports a call to action’s thesis. Ignore the reader’s objections and an author risks offending them. Authors must anticipate and address reader concerns by providing them with the kind of information they need to say yes to the ask.
To engage and empower the reader, authors need to convince the reader that the problem can be solved. Argue convincingly that change is possible via the thing the essay wants the reader to do, and that the reader is essential — that change is not possible without the reader.
The call to action should:
Have students find sample essays
If you the instructor provide sample calls to action, students will assume you want their essays to look like the samples. You will end up with a dozen poor imitations of your samples. Rather than provide examples, have students search through Change.org themselves, find 2-3 essays they thought were particularly good or bad and then as a class review them and discuss their features. In other words, let students discover on their own the contours of the genre. That said, here is one exemplary essay: "Shut Down the Canidrome, the World's Deadliest Greyhound Racetrack."
The question of citations
Calls to action do not contain MLA in-text citations or bibliographies but still cite sources with hyperlinks. However, clicking on every hyperlink in every essay is time consuming for you the instructor, so it is a good idea to require students to include a works cited page.
Of all the essays I assigned, my students thought this would be the easiest (shorter = easier, right?) but it turned out to be the hardest. The PDF above includes a long list of advice and notes for students. It is a deceptively difficult assignment but most of the problems students have with this essay come from a single source: believing that education alone = persuasion.
1. Students think their purpose is to educate the reader, not engage and empower them
After years of writing formulaic expository essays in high school, my students thought persuasion was simply a matter of having the correct information and explaining it clearly. They had a "just the facts" attitude to argumentation and did not perceive a difference between expository and persuasive writing. I had to work hard to break them of those habits and convince them their purpose in a call to action is to engage and empower readers, to prove to readers that they are essential to solving a problem.
a. Students explain the problem
I saw many first drafts that were explanations of a problem, as if readers were completely ignorant of the issue. Students wrote as if they needed to convince the reader that the problem existed, rather than convince the reader they could and should help solve the problem. Defensive students argued their goal was to "raise awareness" but that is neither concrete nor specific. I asked these students what they wanted the reader to do with that awareness and to make that their ask.
b. Students explain the problem is very, very bad
To be successful a call to action must focus on the positive, on the change the author wants to see. However some of my students took a doom and gloom approach, as if readers needed convincing the problem was very serious.
c. Students explain multiple solutions
Some students provided a list of things readers could do as if they were writing a fluff magazine article with a title like "Ten Things You Can Do Around the House to Help the Environment." That approach implies readers are simply not aware of solutions, but if they were they would take action immediately without additional persuasion.
The ask should be a single, concrete, specific, and realistic thing a reader could do and everything in the essay should support the author's claim about that thing's efficacy. There is not enough room in a call to action to support multiple claims (multiple asks).