Signing up for change is turning minds and a profit

Omotayo Richmond moved from Long Island in New York to Jacksonville in Florida 12 years ago and the move had been a happy one. Except for one thing.

Omotayo Richmond moved from Long Island in New York to Jacksonville in Florida 12 years ago and the move had been a happy one. Except for one thing.

His daughter is now at high-school age and Richmond objects to enrolling her at the local school, Nathan Bedford Forrest High School. It's not so much that it isn't a good school, but it's named after a slave trader turned Confederate general, who made himself infamous during the Civil War for a massacre of surrendered black and white Union troops before becoming the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Adding insult to the injury of many of the school's community - which is about 60 per cent black - it has not always been named after the general. The name was bestowed on the school in 1959 at the prompting of the United Daughters of the Confederacy as the group prepared to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Florida joining the Confederacy, and in response to the movement to desegregate schools.

Over the years, there have been other moves to have the name changed, most recently in 2007, when after protests, the school's board voted against the change by seven votes to five, each vote cast along racial lines.

But today, many are confident the name will finally change, and the board has agreed to take another vote in December or January. The board is responding to a campaign led by Richmond. Speaking from his home in Florida, Richmond explains he has an advantage that previous advocates did not - access to online tools, in particular the social-activist website change.org.

Sitting in change.org's office in Washington, the company's founder, Ben Rattray, is talking about the company's rapid global expansion and his staggering goals for its future. Rattray founded change.org in 2007 as a 26-year-old graduate of Stanford and the London School of Economics. He speaks at a dizzyingly fast pace, with just a hint of a rising inflection. He appears to be a young man who is smart and energetic beyond reasonable bounds, utterly liberated from self-doubt.

"If we do our jobs," he says, "we will empower more people than any other organisation in all of history to mobilise for social change. And it is not because I am extraordinary, it is because we live in a time and a place when it is uniquely possible to happen."

Rattray likens this period, in which social media is expanding, to the years in the late 19th century that saw the creation of a new class of billionaire as a result of the industrial revolution. Speaking of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, he says: "Zucker's not actually, like, this unique brilliant person who could have done this at any point in time. He happens to be a smart guy who lives at a time when it is possible to build a social-media platform that attracts a billion people."

When change.org was founded, it was conceived as a non-profit social network for activists, and it included a tool for creating petitions. It has now evolved into a for-profit enterprise that focuses entirely on petitions. Individuals are offered free access but groups are charged. Like any social platform, the site also charges for advertising.

It is, Rattray insists, agnostic when it comes to the petitions' content, though in browsing through the site, it is clear that many progressive battles have been fought and won using change.org petitions.

One of the campaigns Rattray cites as a favourite was launched in 2012 by 24-year-old Indian woman Laxmi Aggarwal, who started a petition to regulate acid sales in India after a spate of acid "honour" attacks. In July this year, the government said it would act, and Aggarwal - herself the victim of an acid attack - attributed the success to change.org.

Other victories include a petition that attracted 170,000 endorsements, convincing the South African government to act on the so-called "corrective rape" of lesbians in shanty towns; Gatorade's decision to remove an allegedly dangerous ingredient from its recipe; and convincing a fast-food company to opt for more environmentally friendly packaging. Change.org can claim some credit for focusing American attention on the decision of Florida police not to arrest or charge George Zimmerman over the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and it almost certainly pressured the Bank of America to drop $5 monthly account-keeping fees for people with low balances.

The common theme among successful petitions, says Rattray, is not that they appear to spring from the political left, but that they are very specific. In India, the goal was not to have the government seek to change the role of women in society, but to license the sale of acid and have buyers show ID. Activists did not seek to have consumer regulation changed in the US, but to have companies change their behaviour. And Omotayo Richmond did not want Florida to change the laws on how schools were named, he just didn't want his daughter going to a school named after a Klan hero.

Rattray believes this careful targeting is central to most social-change movements, noting that the movement that led Lyndon Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act had been spurred by Rosa Park's refusal to move to the back of a segregated bus a decade earlier.

When Richmond launched his petition, one of change.org's 22 campaign staff soon identified it as a potential driver of traffic. They stepped in to help him refine the petition's wording and promote it on the site and across other social media. It was a change.org staffer who advised him to name the petition the eye-catching "KKK High School". He believes this finessing helped him attract attention and support, in mass emails and a related Facebook campaign.

The school district said the online campaign had nothing to do with its decision to reconsider the name, but Richmond points out that as soon as he had gathered 50,000 signatures, local media began following the story, and when the first public meeting was held, it was covered by several TV stations. At the time of writing, the campaign had attracted 161,559 signatures. (Another petition calling on the school board to retain the name to "prevent reverse racism" has 500 signatures.)

Rattray says he has considered the criticism that change.org could be abused by bullies. Indeed, one petition on the site calls for change.org to delete itself on the grounds that: "Some of us are offended by your reckless enabling of control freaks to start social-justice lynch mobs whenever they see something that even remotely bothers them. It's wrong. It's disgusting. You should be ashamed of yourself."

The petitioner, Adrian Alonso, continues: "I hereby demand, in the name of the self-righteous masses of America, that you delete your website, "change.org", from the World Wide Web. Forever."

But like many digital natives, Rattray has an unshakeable faith in the virtue of the unfettered flow of information. To counter the critics, change.org last month introduced a new function called "Decision Makers", which makes it easier for the targets of campaigns to respond to petitioners.

"I think a world in which people can free-flow express their opinions and have the capacity for public communication is really powerful," he says.

"I will say that I do think it's the case that people who are being petitioned should be able to respond to those. Give them the capacity, then it's a war of ideas."

The company has also been criticised for allegedly misleading users with its .org suffix, which tends to signal non-profit status.

While change.org may no longer be a non-profit site, Rattray says it retains a sense of mission. "There are no companies that are value-neutral. You value information if you're Google, you value the flow of information if you're Twitter, you value personal connections if you're Facebook.

"We value empowerment. We are an empowerment company. We firmly believe the world is a better place when people are empowered and in control of their own lives."

His aim, he says, is nothing less than changing the relationship between governments and citizens around the world.

"The goal is basically democratising democracy; the goal is basically creating a world in which the policies of government and the actions of companies reflect public interest, not private interests," he says.

Rattray envisages a near future in which, "instead of feeling accountable every two or four or six years, every single day [politicians] are going to be getting petitions and will have to respond because their own constituents are going to be mobilising online".

As grandiose as Rattray's vision is, the company's growth and reach is extraordinary. It now has 180 staff in 18 countries and hosts about 25,000 petitions a month. According to reports, its revenue last year was more than $US15 million ($16 million).

Meanwhile, a group of US congress people, including the arch-conservative Paul Ryan, have signed up to better communicate with constituents.

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