April 07, 2010

From left, Julie Segal, Richard Heinzl, Cristóbal Joshua Alex and April Pedersen.

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By Julia Ferrante

LEWISBURG, Pa. — The first time Cristobal Joshua Alex tried to organize a protest, as a college student in Texas, he had a cause, a sign and a slogan. But he was missing one critical element for bringing about change.

"I literally was the only one who showed, up," Alex recalled. "I learned a powerful lesson (about activism): You need a base."

Alex, program officer for the Open Society Institute's Democracy and Power Fund, was part of a panel of experts discussing "Leadership, Change and the Impact of Individuals" in Trout Auditorium on Tuesday night in the final event of the Bucknell Forum series, "Global Leadership: Questions for the 21st Century."

Alex manages the fund's civic engagement portfolio, works with underrepresented communities and addresses democracy and social justice issues. The panel also included Dr. Richard Heinzl, who founded the Canada chapter of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning humanitarian organization, Doctors Without Borders; April Pedersen, the executive director and co-founder of DemocracyInAction; and moderator Julie Segal, founder of Civic Action Strategies, an advocacy group that works with grassroots activists, lawmakers and various organizations throughout the world.

Online advocacy
The panelists discussed their own successes and failures. Each noted that they were at first idealistic but soon learned ways to convince others to join their causes, whether through the Internet or in face-to-face meetings.

Pedersen discovered the power of the Internet while working for the now-defunct Policy.com after college. She began posting accounts of her organization's efforts in what today would be called a blog and realized people were reading and responding. 

"I realized there was a need to have access to sophisticated technology that allowed people to organize donors," she said. "The Internet's real revolution is the power it puts in the hands of the people who traditionally stood outside the process. It gives ordinary citizens the ability to effectively campaign around social and political issues."

In 2003, she founded DemocracyInAction, which helps organizations share their missions and resources for social change with the help of technology. Pedersen also is a founder and principle of Wired For Change, a mission-oriented company providing online engagement tools to political campaigns, political action committees and state Democratic parties

Inspired by others
After graduating from medical school in Canada, Heinzl traveled to Kenya and Uganda to learn about health care in some of the poorest areas of the world. There, he met fellow physicians working for Doctors Without Borders, providing health care to those who otherwise would not have access. He was inspired to start a chapter of the organization in Canada, and soon hundreds of others followed suit.

"We had no money for advertising, so we got the media to cover us," Heinzl said, noting that the media was interested in a young group of medical students dedicating their practice to people in developing countries.

Heinzl, who has been named one of the "Hundred People Who Make a Difference in Canada," and was among those listed in a Report on Business' "Top 40 Under 40," also stressed the need to get buy-in from local communities and to learn about their beliefs and values.

"We made this mistake a lot where we think we know better," he said. "There is always a reason (why a community acts in certain ways). There may be something they are not telling you."

Building relationships
Segal, who worked in Kosovo directing civic participation and democracy development programs for U.S. and European organizations before starting Civic Strategies, said change begins with building relationships, talking to people and effectively communicating the mission and message of a cause.

"There is a lot of relationship development and groundwork to be done in the community," she said. "Find the like-minded people in the community. Who is your best messenger?"

Bucknell Forum
The Bucknell Forum: "Global Leadership: Questions for the 21st Century" national speakers series focused on major issues at the forefront of today's discourse. Launched in spring 2009, it has featured renowned leaders, scholars and commentators who have examined these issues from multi-disciplinary perspectives and a diversity of viewpoints to provide a model for civil discourse.

The next Bucknell Forum series, "Creativity: Beyond the Box," will begin this fall. Speakers and details on the new series will be announced later this spring.

Contact: Division of Communications

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