Community leaders come in many types. Let me focus on one type: the activist whose work is that of changing minds. I recently ran across a great example of one of these mind-changing activists, Fran Lee.
Who? Perhaps you know Lee’s legacy: New York City’s pooper-scooper law. The law, passed in 1978, requires dog owners to pick up their pet’s waste (at first, people did so with a long-handled contraption known as a “pooper-scooper”). Today, many cities have laws requiring owners to pick up their pets’ waste, but this was a radical—even laughable—notion in the 1970s. I know. I lived in New York in the early 1970s when the only instructions for pet owners were signs that said “curb your dog.” That meant steering them to the curb to relieve themselves, so the street sweepers could dispose of it. (Many missed those instructions, as I quickly learned.)
Enter Fran Lee, a white-haired consumer activist, one-time actress, occasional TV consumer reporter and longtime community scold, who died at age 99 on Feb. 13, 2010. As the New York Times said in its obituary, her passion was health and safety issues. Her son said she collected medical journals that doctors threw out, so she could read up on things like “spider bites, ticks, all sorts of diseases.”
And that’s what got her interested in dog waste, her obit says.
At the behest of a New York doctor, Ms. Lee took up the cause of dog waste. In the early ’70s she founded Children Before Dogs, a group whose aim was the elimination of all such waste from city streets. As she explained often in interviews, Toxocara canis, a tiny roundworm found in dog feces, poses health risks, especially to children. At its most severe, it can cause blindness.
Who could have imagined that, in five or six years’ time, Fran Lee could change so many minds about a problem so commonplace that most people just shrugged and watched their step? How did she do it? Let me suggest some ways: By doing her homework (all those medical journals), vividly portraying the problem (blindness! in children!), commanding attention (she knew the media and she knew how to perform in front of cameras). But most of Lee’s success, I would bet, was simple persistence.
And here’s where I’ll offer a theory of how minds are changed: the drip-drip-drip theory. People give up familiar ways of thinking reluctantly, and if you want people to change their minds, you need to be in their faces constantly, reminding them of the problem (drip), pointing to the facts (drip), demanding action (drip). If you’re good at it and a little lucky, at last the mental dam breaks, and people make the shift from one position (what can you do?) to another (dog owners ought to clean up after their pets!).
And that’s where people like Fran Lee come in. She didn’t mind being a pain, which all good activists must be (the Times described her as “a force of nature, simultaneously encapsulating Ralph Nader, a favorite Jewish grandmother and a foghorn”). And she had a passion for unlikely causes that, by sheer persistence, she could make others’ causes as well.
Photo by mag3737 licensed under Creative Commons.