“We need to unlock everyone’s disrupting power.” An interview with Kajal Odera

March 6, 2020  | 

Kajal Odera ran campaigns for Youth Parliament, Crisis and Macmillan before joining Change.org – an online petition website with over 240 million users worldwide. She became the UK Executive Director in 2017. Kajal will be one of our ‘unleashed’ speakers at Stronger Things on 12 March.

What’s the big idea behind Change.org?
Our mission is for everyone to be able to create change. When we began we really disturbed the power dynamic of parliament, and also shook up the campaigning industry. It was the first time ordinary people had campaigning tools that were effective: they could be as loud as a Chief Executive and have the same decision-making power. You didn’t have to be part of an elite group. You could be a teenager in your bedroom.

We get hundreds of petitions started every day. Now I’m also looking at who’s prevented from taking part – who begins a petition but doesn’t activate it. My view is that you should lower the barriers to engaging with politics as much as possible – making it as simple and easy as you can. We need to unlock everyone’s disrupting power.

Does its success tell us something about the times we are living in?
When I was growing up I experienced a lot of racism. What helped me was finding a community of other people who were speaking out about issues. The internet has accelerated power through activism – so now your voice can be heard across the county, across the globe, and you can gather supporters you’d never have met before. This has the most powerful impact on marginalised communities – women, people of colour, people with disabilities. The institutions we’ve created have so many barriers to entry that it’s been traditionally been hard for these groups to be heard, but once these barriers are taken away these marginalised groups are really effective online.

Does the sheer number of petitions out there lessen their power?
I’m not seeing the weakening of petitions, we’re still seeing 11 petitions succeed in their goal every week in the Uk– whether this is to achieve national, local or organisational change. Every hour we see a petition win globally.

People’s campaigns mainly fail because they stop pushing; because they don’t have enough confidence in what to do next. I think we’re bad at telling people how to get their voice heard. That’s why I wrote my book [Do Something: Activism for Everyone]. There are tricks and tips we’ve got in the industry about how to achieve change, but we don’t democratise them. I want people to understand that you don’t have to be a special person to be an activist – you just need tenacity and determination and a belief in something.

Do movements like this have a special value for women?
Even though more men start more campaigns, women win more. I think this is because women are instinctively better storytellers and are more willing and able to be vulnerable. Really great campaigning is about communicating in a compassionate way; helping supporters and decision makers to believe and care. Women under 35 also tend to have strong networks, which is very helpful.

Many campaigns have had a direct effect on women’s lives, for example Laura Coryton’s Tampon Tax petition succeeded in 2016 when the UK Government agreed to end the sexist 5% ‘luxury’ tax placed on period products. Soon after this, the government claimed they could not end tampon tax due to EU regulation. So now we’re leaving the EU, Laura has reopened the petition to remind the government of its promise.

Does being a woman influence your work?
I think my style of leadership is very open – I’m led by my heart and my head. That ability to be empathetic and compassionate, even when making difficult decisions – is important. You won’t achieve anything if the team doesn’t feel bonded and united by a sense of empathy. Being a women of colour has really influenced what I do. It’s why I went into campaigning in the first place – because I felt marginalised. This experience has helped me to connect to petition starters; anyone who’s the underdog I feel like a strong sense of comradery with.

Does local government have a role in these change movements?
Massively, especially at a time when there’s a question of whether global politics is working for people, and at the same time society is becoming more individualistic. As a response, people want community around them.

Local government is in an amazingly privileged position to listen to local communities and to shape what communities look like. Actually a dream alternative job for me would be to run a local council. I’ve been lucky to work with local authorities doing amazing, innovative things, and I’d love to be part of making that happen.

What does ‘community power’ mean to you?
Community is very important to me. The reason for a protest isn’t necessarily to see a victory because of that protest – part of the reason you go is to build the community up. So many times, I’ve got back from a protest glowing. I’ve spent the day surrounded by compassionate strangers fighting for something outside themselves. In these times, this is more and more important.

Kajal will be speaking at the Stronger Things event on 12 March. To add your name to the wait list click here.