When I lived in San Francisco, the closest post office to my apartment was on Stockton Street in Chinatown. Although I lived only a couple of blocks away from Chinatown, in many ways it was very different from my own neighborhood. That’s one of the great things about San Francisco — the unique feels of each of the neighborhoods. I used to walk down Clay Street and on my way to post my mail, as I got closer to Chinatown, I could feel the energy swell. I could smell the food and Chinese herbs, see ladies carrying whole chickens, and hear the local economy buzzing.
A couple of years ago, my friend Claire threw a Chinese New Year party at her apartment in Russian Hill. Claire had recently come back from a work assignment in Hong Kong and during her time there, she picked up a certain je ne sais quoi in her flair for making Chinese food. It was delicious.
Chinese New Year and The Year of The Rabbit begin today and I’ve been thinking of that party at Claire’s. It was a fun gathering of smart and interesting people and I thoroughly enjoyed the company as well as the food. California is home to over 1.1 million Chinese Americans and San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest and largest in North America. I’ve been wondering how many in this group knew about human rights abuses and the current situation in China? I think that if they didn’t know, talking about it a venue at a venue like Claire’s New Year party would encourage some of them to become more interested, aware, involved. Food is a great motivator for action. I know I’m motivated to do just about anything with a tummy full of good food.
I mention this because I received a google alert on Tuesday with the headline: ”Pencil-Equipped Chopsticks Address Human Rights In China”. I was very intrigued so I clicked on the story which was brief and dated January 31, 2011. It said: ”Amnesty International partnered with Saatchi & Saatchi recently in a creative attempt to raise awareness about human rights violations. The campaign placed hybrid chopsticks / pencils into Chinese restaurants to inspire people to start writing about the state of human rights in China.” Well, that sounds like a creative idea, I thought to myself.
I wanted to learn more. I discovered that the text on the chopstick pencils was :
1. Tuck under thumb and hold tightly.
2. Write the Chinese government to help end torture.
3. Don’t let human rights violations by the Chinese government give China a bad name.
4. Take further action at amnesty.org/china
So I did a little more research and found that other websites, including some in the advertising industry, were posting the same information that Amnesty International was involved in an ”on-going campaign” to distribute these chopsticks.
I was very excited about this grassroots effort and wanted to know more: Where did Amnesty International deliver these chopsticks? What was the concept behind the campaign? What was the reaction of the restaurants and their patrons? How effective was the campaign? Are there plans to expand this type of hands-on approach?
I called Amnesty’s media office at the International Secretariat. They knew nothing about the campaign but were very nice and directly me to Suzanne Trimel, the U.S. Media Director for the organization. Ms. Trimel was very surprised to hear about this campaign and didn’t know anything about it. I sent her the photos to see if that might jog someone’s memory. She got back to me right away and said that it was very interesting but that ”No one at AIUSA that is directly involved in China work knows anything about this.” She promised to get to the bottom of it and came back to me not long after stating that ”This was a proposal from Sattchi & Saatchi that AI never used. It was years ago.”
Too bad. Because it was a really good idea.
I have made numerous attempts to reach Saatchi’s Art Director for the ad campaign (the Copywriter and Creative Director no longer work for the agency) and have been unsuccessful. I would have really liked to talk to someone about their thoughts behind the concept and the reasons the campaign was rejected by Amnesty.
As I think about the human rights movement, there are a couple of things I know for sure. Not everyone trolls the internet like me looking for news and developments about human rights. It’s part of my job. Not everyone knows about worthwhile organizations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Freedom House. Not everyone can regularly go to events and sign petitions and write letters to their elected officials. But it doesn’t mean they wouldn’t act if they knew what they could do.
People are busy. They have jobs and kids to pick up at school and dogs to walk. But everybody eats. People have an enormous capacity for compassion. And compassion and a sense of injustice are two of the most inspiring – and effective – calls to action that I can imagine. Just think of how many people went to help Hurricane Katrina victims. When people can do something, they often will. But it is our job – and I would argue, the job of human rights organizations – to make it easier for new people to become involved in their issues. To make it easier for people to act. To make it more approachable.
And what better way to engage people and raise awareness about such a critical issue than by doing it in a way that meets them where they are? At a restaurant on Stockton Street or wherever they may be enjoying delicious Chinese food.
Happy New Year.
ps – The New York Times World page has just picked up this chopsticks/pencils story that is unfortunately not true.