Chapter-Building Strategy 1: Focusing on Principles, Not Labels

Beginning this March, YAL will post a weekly strategy tip to help your YAL chapter more effectively spread the liberty message on your campus.  These tips will range from practical advice for executing successful events or encouraging more disciplined leadership skills to philosophical pieces to help you better spread the philosophy of liberty.

We’d love to get feedback from from you about the helpfulness of these tips, especially from chapter leaders with anecdotal evidence supporting similar or alternative techniques that may benefit the national YAL chapter network.  Please send any correspondence to Josh Jackson, Southeastern Regional Director, at josh[dot]jackson[at]yaliberty[dot]org.

Be “Forward Thinking”

Diving head-first into chapter activism can be risky business.  Sometimes you only get one chance before your efforts leave a permanent impression on your student body.  To make the most of our passion to promote the ideas of liberty on our campuses, we must be “forward thinking” or “strategic” in how we communicate with people unfamiliar to our ideas and with those who may already hold negative associations with the principles that we advocate.

Effective leaders within a YAL chapter should always be conscious of how the group will be presented at large, especially when recruiting new members and when interfacing with the student body.  Specifically, the chapter’s leadership should be demonstrating to the other members how to represent YAL in an appropriate, accessible, and effective manner. 

Using Labels

A good place to begin is to identify the best way to describe YAL’s political philosophy. Know that if you immediately or consistently use a particularly well-known phrase or label to describe the liberty philosophy, you run the risk of being judged before you have a chance to explain what liberty means or why you believe in it. 

The fact is that when asked to define any political philosophy, especially “libertarianism,” you will receive as many different answers as people you interview. 

Top-Down versus Bottom-Up

Using previously established labels is much easier, but it’s a “top-down” approach to explaining your beliefs, allowing people to more immediately associate certain policy positions with your group that may be misunderstood. 

Since the philosophy of YAL is less-mainstream and represents an alternative to what people have previously been exposed to politically, a “bottom-up” approach should be encouraged where one builds on the explanation of the philosophy and then extends that toward (and provides justification for) particular policy positions.

The bottom-up approach allows liberty activists to look for avenues to connect with people on various issues, because everyone wants the government to stay out of some part of their lives.  Find out what those issues are, explain fundamentally why you agree, and ask people to consider extending those beliefs to other areas of government intervention as well.

Focusing on Principles

If someone directly asks if your group is [libertarian/conservative/liberal/etc.] feel free to acknowledge that your group could be described as many things including libertarian, classically liberal, traditionally conservative, or Constitutionalist.  This may confuse them, but it provides an excellent opportunity for you to engage in a discussion about what you believe and not what you call yourself.  Inform them that regardless of how individuals in your group may describe themselves, the ultimate purpose of YAL is to pursue less government and more freedom through activism and education.  Where the pursuit ends may vary among your members.

Some groups therefore choose to say that they are “liberty-minded” or that they take a “principled position of liberty” on issues related to the government when provoked by someone to provide a simple description of their political ideology. 

Avoid the “A” Word

Avoid at all costs using any label that begins with “anarch-.”  Regardless of what specifically “less government” means to individual members, realize that the “A” word is incredibly incendiary and debating with someone its true definition, or how such a system could realistically work, yields an unnecessary obstacle to your message. 

Remember that our system of government is currently so far from any form of “limited government” that arguing about “how limited” it should be is purely an academic exercise and, if it exists at all, such conversation should be reserved for your book clubs and discussion forums.  These topics should never be discussed around non-members.

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