Participants at the North Carolina advocacy day, from top right: Christyna Reagan, Wendy Hawkins, Pam Diamond, Dennis Berwyn, Heather Russell, Paul Dayer, Kim Brand. Photos: Stephanie Reagan, courtesy of Wendy Hawkins, Zach Diamond, Debbie Winterbauer, courtesy of Heather Russell, courtesy of Paul Dayer, courtesy of Kim Brand

This year, Audubon North Carolina’s advocacy work looked a little different. Instead of flooding the halls of North Carolina’s capitol building, bird advocates, college students, and volunteers clicked on Zoom links and filled virtual meeting rooms. They replaced pamphlets with slide decks and notebooks and pens with computers and tablets. This is what adapted advocacy looks like in the midst of a global pandemic.

On June 24, Audubon North Carolina and nearly 100 dedicated advocates tuned in from all parts of the state for Virtual Advocacy Day. People met with lawmakers from their couches, home offices, backyards, kitchens, and cars. The enthusiasm of advocates was palpable through the screens as they shared Audubon North Carolina’s conservation priorities and their love of birds with elected officials. But how did these advocates (virtually) get here?

Since their pandemic-related office closure on March 19, Audubon North Carolina staff had to completely re-envision what an advocacy day could look like, and do it quickly. Kim Brand, engagement director for Audubon North Carolina, says she and her colleagues had to ‘put the pedal to the metal’ to make it happen.

Audubon North Carolina hosted seventeen virtual events and trainings, implemented new digital strategies like ‘birdy office hours,’ and increased their email audiences. Though Brand was definitely suprised at the event’s ability to capture and convey the enthusiasm of a typical advocacy day, she expected nothing less from an immensely powerful and united flock.

“Our advocates are a shining example of that energy,” says Brand. “Even though they could not be in the same room or gather on the same Capitol lawn, they made sure to make their voices heard.”

On Advocacy Day, during a series of twenty-seven virtual meetings, attendees talked with their senators and representatives about Audubon North Carolina’s top policy priorities: Growing the state’s conservation trust funds, supporting a cleaner energy future for birds and people, and finding solutions to the heirs’ property problem. Advocates also recorded twenty personalized messages for senators and representatives who could not attend virtual meetings. Brand and the Audubon’s national campaigns team devised this strategy—usually when a legislator can’t meet with advocates, one leaves a written note—just a few days before the event.

For Wake Audubon board member Mary Abrams, virtual Advocacy Day showed how Audubon is “leading from the front” and using the challenges of staying at home and social distancing as opportunities to reach people where they are. Though this advocacy day looked a lot different than past years, Abrams found the digital efforts especially rewarding due to all the obstacles the group overcame.

“Audubon is the vanguard for virtual advocacy. When we did not have a video meeting with a specific lawmaker, we conducted calls, recorded messages, and wrote emails. We persevered,” says Abrams. “Because of the technology and online tools, we were able to bring in more people who have been previously deterred by travel. This has proven to be a more effective way to connect when we cannot be together.”

Abrams’ sentiments were shared by advocacy day first-timer, Megan Damico. An environmental health sciences PhD candidate and avid birdwatcher, Damico says her ultimate goal is to pursue a career in science policy so that she can use her expertise to help inform lawmakers. She got her first glimpse at that line of work during virtual Advocacy Day.

“When you find your people and passion you just know it,” says Damico. “That is how I felt at virtual Advocacy Day. Audubon brought people together to use their voices in a non-conventional way—and it worked! Given the successes we saw, I believe virtual advocacy must be a pillar for all future social and environmental movements.”

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