A Simple Checklist Inspires a New Kind of Activism

A weekly newsletter created by a rookie Portland activist is moving people to action by prioritizing under-the-radar issues over big headline grabbers.
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“She offered concrete action steps to take and she did it in a way that was so human … and so welcoming to a wide swath of people.”

Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images.

What do a podcaster from Portland, an actor on the CBS drama Criminal Minds and a retired lawyer in central Iowa have in common?

“She offered concrete action steps to take and she did it in a way that was so human.”

They’ve all become activists of sorts in the last year, staking out a corner of their otherwise busy lives to regularly make calls, write letters and perform a range of other actions in support of democracy and equality.

What’s driving them is a simple weekly checklist compiled by another newbie activist: Salem, Oregon, writer Jen Hofmann.

Hofmann started Americans of Conscience Action Checklist a year ago as a resource for friends struggling to make sense of the wave of post-election petitions on social media. In those days of outrage and confusion—between near-daily rallies and protests—her checklist became a menu of actions for people seeking to push back against divisive rhetoric and extremism flooding the country.

Hofmann spends 20 to 30 hours a week creating the list on a volunteer basis and over time has hit on a winning formula of well-researched, hype-free, values-based suggestions, along with a recommended reading list and a blend of positive news.

“Jen’s checklist came along at a time when people were trying to figure out how best to respond,” says Asha Dornfest, the Portland podcaster and author who uses it as a key resource for a women’s activism Facebook group she runs. “She offered concrete action steps to take and she did it in a way that was so human … and so welcoming to a wide swath of people.”

A year in, as the resistance landscape continues to shift—with new projects joining the movement as others lose steam and fall off—Hofmann’s project continues to carve out an important niche.

“We underestimate how slowly change happens, especially in democracy.”

Posted each Sunday, it prioritizes the important over the urgent, and under-the-radar but critical issues over what’s grabbing the big headlines. Key issues range from healthcare access to immigrant justice and voting rights to the Republican tax plan. While most of what Hofmann includes on the list is political, some is decidedly not: like promoting a fundraising campaign for America’s classrooms.

“I look for things that have to do with democracy getting stronger,” she says.

Her checklist also has an “acts of gratitude” section to encourage readers to recognize good deeds, such as a recent “thank you” to French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel for their steadfast commitment on climate change. She listed the European leaders’ mailing addresses.

What the checklist doesn’t include is noteworthy, too: name-calling and scary hype. Instead, Hofmann peppers it with something you seldom find in resistance paraphernalia: reminders to celebrate victories and practice self-care.

“We underestimate how slowly change happens, especially in democracy,” says Hofmann, who makes sure to get out in the Oregon woods every week after compiling the checklist. “To keep that endurance, we really need to focus on self-care.”

No one’s been more surprised at the checklist’s reach than Hofmann herself, who had little to no activism cred before last year. What she did have, however, was serious organization chops and experience with research and social media.

Subscriptions hover around 70,000.

She posted the first edition in a simple Google doc on her website and sent a link by email to about 25 people. It was shared more than 1,600 times on Facebook. By the Women’s March, on the day after the inauguration, 7,000 people across the country were subscribing to it. Now subscriptions hover around 70,000.

Hofmann has heard from couples who use her list as a date-night event—activism served up with a glass of wine. One reader was inspired to start a political book club. And a Mar-a-Lago neighbor of Donald Trump has used the checklist to fuel activism among her neighbors and as a quick go-to list for herself.

Calvin’s List, an eco-action checklist, is modeled after Hofmann’s. And her list has gotten shoutouts from both moderate Republicans and celebrities: Kirsten Vangsness, who stars in the CBS drama series Criminal Minds as FBI analyst Penelope Garcia, is a faithful reader, sometimes sharing it with her 618,000 Twitter followers. “Jen acknowledges everyone’s humanity and focuses on condemning actions not people,” Vangsness notes.

Here are other ways Hofmann’s checklist is motivating people:

Slogging for change in swing states

Many of Hofmann’s subscribers are part-time activists. Not Kurt Hatcher. Before the 2016 election, the 33-year-old worked as an environmental sustainability manager at the University of Dayton in Ohio. When his state swung to Trump, Hatcher left his job to resist full time. As a leader in the Dayton Indivisibility for All (DIFA) group and precinct captain for the Montgomery County Democratic party, he spends his days on the often-tedious work of advancing progressive issues.

And while he relies on other sites for local resources, Hofmann’s list has been his top resource on many national issues, such as immigration. “Jen put immigration on my radar,” he says. “She created call scripts that made sense, and included links that allowed me to learn more.” When a local family, threatened with deportation, contacted DIFA seeking help, Hatcher says, his group was ready to connect them with local sources—all because of Hofmann. “Jen is our force multiplier. She enables us to do so much more than we could on our own.”

Several states away, in central Iowa, a retired lawyer named Bev Clark describes how Hofmann’s checklist has gotten her more engaged. Every Sunday night when it lands in her email, she prints it out and marks it up with actions she plans to pursue. “It serves as a blueprint; I don’t have to scratch my head all week about what to do.”

Clark—who lives on a farm and is a gun owner—makes calls, posts actions in a private activism Facebook group and meets with politicians.

She is a faithful follower of the acts of gratitude section on the list. “I wrote a thank-you note to George W. Bush about that speech that he gave. I told my husband “Can you believe this?’”

Showing love to a Dreamer

“Nestor is a 27-year-old Dreamer who has been at Stewart Detention Center in Georgia for nine months.”

That’s how Hofmann’s May 21 checklist message about Nestor Avila began. A graduate of Appalachian State University who was raised in North Carolina, Avila had been detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2016.

In a tragic subplot, he later sustained a foot injury when a truck crashed into the ICE van that was transporting him. During his detention, Avila battled depression as he struggled with physical recovery. When Hofmann read about efforts by a group called Project South to expose conditions inside two ICE detention centers, she reached out to see how she could amplify the organization’s work. Alerted to Avila’s plight, she encouraged her readers to send notes of healing and inspiration.

The postcards flooded in. Avila hung them around his cell and, when he had his release hearing, took the cards with him as emotional support.

“Quite simply, they gave me hope,” Avila wrote in an email. He was released in July and is living back in North Carolina. “I saw them as my own window to the real world.”

Fueling weekly-action groups

After the election, a Davis, California high school journalism teacher named Kelly Wilkerson toyed with the idea of starting an action list for people in her community. Instead, she found Hofmann’s and used it to launch her “Thursday group.” Every Thursday afternoon, eight to 10 people show up at her house for 1.5 hours to write letters, make calls, and make a difference.

Wilkerson provides a list of suggested actions along with paper, pens, stamps, and postcards—and they get to work. She modifies Hofmann’s list to add local items, but maintains the format of connecting each action to a greater value.

“I really, really like the way she organizes it, by values we all share,” Wilkerson says. “That’s a bit of a lodestar for me.”

The result? In a year in which many such meet-ups have faded, hers remains rock-solid. She ticks off two ingredients to success: No snacks (“I had to keep it sustainable for myself”) and absolute predictability. When Wilkerson is away on vacation, she has a friend run the group.

Highlighting under-the-radar issues

About a week after Hurricane Irma tore a path of destruction in Florida, a Miami-based nonprofit called Women’s Emergency Network (WEN) that focuses on abortion access for low-income women and girls, started receiving a small stream of donations from new sources. Curious about what was behind it, program director Rebeca Ramos reached out to the new donors to ask. It turned out that in one of her checklists, Hofmann had mentioned WEN, along with other groups helping safeguard access to reproductive care for women in hurricane-swept regions.

“We were delighted, in particular because they came from new donors, which is not very usual in our line of business,” Ramos says. “We also appreciated her raising awareness on important needs which are not at the forefront of people’s minds in the wake of hurricanes or other natural disasters.”

“The sign of maturing activism is to choose.”

It is precisely why Hofmann mentioned WEN. While similar lists and resistance efforts respond to the big news stories of the day, she says, “there are a lot of [deserving] groups that that don’t get mainstream visibility.”

Though Hofmann’s year-long activism project is successful by standard markers, she is contemplating change as she looks ahead.

“I took a step back and realized I can’t do this well if I don’t change my strategy,” she says. “The list has grown in response to the wide range of issues that I’ve covered. But the general consensus that I hear is that people are tired.”

With input from readers, she wants to figure out ways to make her project more sustainable and better reflect her values. Step one is to focus more deeply on fewer issues, including justice for asylum-seekers, voting access and equality.

“The sign of maturing activism is to choose,” she wrote in a one-year anniversary blog post recently.

Also in the works is a nascent project to catalyze “olive branch” conversations between conservatives and progressives in the search for common ground.

“For me, it’s one of many answers to the polarization problem in our country,” Hofmann says. “How can we have meaningful conversations with people who aren’t obvious allies? That’s the direction I want to go in: more heart and more simplicity.”