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6 Activist Tips from the Woman Leading the Barilla Protest

This January, right after Maryland legalized gay marriage, Beth Allen and her partner of more than 20 years finally wed. The couple lives outside of Washington, D.C., and has two kids. So hearing homophobic comments from the president of Barilla Pasta — pasta that routinely found its way onto her family’s dinner table — was deeply upsetting.

“I’d read about Guido Barilla’s comments, and they made me very angry because he was so dismissive,” she told MoveOn. “Not just that he said that he wouldn’t show a gay family in his advertising, but that if gay people don’t like it, they can just not buy the pasta. That seemed like a challenge. So I started the petition to help spread the word about what he’d said and encourage other people to join me in boycotting Barilla.”

Within a few days, she got 139, 000 people to join her campaign.

We asked Beth what advice she would give to other activists who want launch their own campaigns. Here’s what she had to say:

1. Use online tools

“Starting with online activism is super-easy with tools like the MoveOn petition tool,” Allen says. “I was able to get that petition up and running in literally 10 minutes or less.”

2. Be strategic about who you target and what you say

“Think really carefully about the target of your petition and what you’re asking,” Allen advises. “One mistake I see is choosing someone who’s too distant. [New activists] may be upset about something locally but direct the petition to the president. Target your petition to people who may not get a lot of petitions, because sometimes they’re more open to being persuaded.”

3. Make it personal

“People really respond to personal stories,” says Allen. “So I made sure to say that I’m part of a gay family, my son eats a lot of pasta — that helps people really relate.”

4. Plan next steps

Allen wasn’t done after simply starting the petition. She came up with a plan to go to local grocery stores and ask managers not to stock Barilla pasta. “That also is from my experience as a labor activist, thinking about who can have influence on decision-makers. By addressing the supply source, we could have a bigger impact,” she says.

5. Tap into the cultural zeitgeist

When asked how she managed to get a whopping 139,000 signatures on the petition, Allen says, “The issue was in the news, so it was timely. People had heard about it from other places, so when they got my email, it wasn’t the first time they’d heard about it; they had some education on the issue.”

6. Know who your supporters are

“I think one of the things Barilla didn’t realize when he made his comments is that it’s not just about gay families — it’s about friends and family members and supporters of gay families, and that’s 10 or 20 times more people than he realized,” Allen says. “I don’t think he understood what broad support gay families have. There’s a huge base of people who are ready and eager to be supportive on this issue, and I think it really hit a nerve with folks and helped propel the petition forward.”

Ideally, Allen hopes Barilla will create an ad featuring a gay family. If nothing else, the controversy is sending a message to companies that homophobia is unacceptable. Way to go, Beth!