Creative Coalitions: A Handbook for Change

Case Study: Aiming High Means you Can’t be Afraid to Fail: The Story of the Life Jackets…

There are times when big ideas are needed to shift the politics. To force action, you’ll need to pull off campaign tactics that take you outside of your comfort zone. Here’s an example of where Crisis Action ventured into the unknown, aimed for something way beyond what we’d ever done before – and we failed. And we’ll also explain why we don’t regret trying.

The G20 group of the leaders of the world’s largest industrialised countries was meeting in Antalya, Turkey, not far from the Syrian border, but the Syria conflict was barely going to feature on the meeting’s agenda. The absurdity of this was shocking: war was raging mere miles away from the conference venue; Turkey was hosting over one million refugees. Avoiding the Syria crisis and the regional refugee crisis was clearly a deliberate decision – one that would need bold action to reverse.

Our answer was… life jackets. Many of the Syrians and others who made the dangerous bid for safety in Europe had life jackets for the journey, life jackets they discarded when they landed in Greece and Italy. We set out to team up with a Syrian artist, provide him with some of these life jackets, each of them with their own poignant story, and create an art installation in Antalya that would grab the media’s attention and confront the G20 with the human cost of Syria crisis. (The life jacket idea itself was later proved to be really powerful: other groups secured widespread media coverage over the next year later with a similar idea in Greece, London, and New York.)

The first stage went well – a Syrian artist had a fantastic concept for the installation. Then things got trickier. To collect the life jackets, one team member had to travel from Beirut to Istanbul to Thessaloniki to Lesbos in a couple of days of delays and cancellations. Life jackets secured and in a suitcase, he was ready to head to Antalya. But the Turkish government had tightened their restrictions on any campaign activity. Venue after venue was refusing to host the installation. And then the events company we were working with were given a police escort to the airport.

The bottom had fallen out of the plan.

There’s plenty we learnt from this. Yet here’s why we thought it was worthwhile trying – and sharing with you.

  • The impact we were aiming for was worth taking risks for: it had high potential pay-off at G20 and beyond.
  • The opportunity cost wasn’t huge: even in hindsight it was not clear what the team time and energy could have been used for more effectively at that moment.
  • Aiming high paid enormous dividends in team morale: pushing the boundaries of what’s considered possible has a lasting impact. The team will continue to aim high.