Take It From a Former Prisoner of Conscience, Small Actions Have Huge Impacts

by Ann Burroughs

Amnesty International was founded on the idea that even the smallest actions, like writing a letter, can make a huge difference

There is no denying that these are anxious times. Certainly that’s true here in the United States, where protests have recently become commonplace in the streets of our cities and the plains of our prairie, and where the transition from the Obama to the Trump administration has us facing an uncertain future while an untested president begins to build his administration.

It can all seem so overwhelming to those who want to help, but don’t know where to start. It’s a feeling I knew all too well growing up in South Africa under apartheid. I stood with other activists against state-sanctioned segregation, and we did indeed pay the consequences. I was jailed without charges.

But what made a world of difference to me during my months of detention was something that may at first seem so small. One by one, letters started arriving to the prison. Some started coming to my family as well. All of them sending messages of support.

There were other letters, too. Letters to the South African government decrying the persecution of those who would oppose apartheid. Letters to prime ministers and presidents all over the world urging them to stand up to the National Party regime in South Africa and let them know that its oppression would no longer be tolerated.

The letters were few at first, but then there were hundreds. After several months, I was freed. One small voice added to another, and dozens added to dozens, hundreds to hundreds, until it became too loud to ignore.

And behind each letter was one person. A person who perhaps doubted that their letter would make a difference. A person who maybe almost didn’t bother, because what good would it do? A person who perhaps had never taken an action for human rights in their life, but felt moved to act. A person not unlike anybody living in the world today, 30 years on, facing new challenges but feeling the same doubts long after the apartheid era of South Africa has been relegated to a cautionary tale in the history books.

It was a letter in support of prisoners of conscience that served as the cornerstone of the founding of Amnesty International over 55 years ago. Even now in the electronic age, ordinary people writing letters is a signature tactic for us, and the basis of our annual Write for Rights campaign.

And the beauty of this small act is that it works. Not just for me. But for people like Phyoe Phyoe Aung, a student jailed in Myanmar or organizing peaceful protests, who walked free after hundreds of thousands wrote on her behalf. Or Albert Woodfox, who served an appalling 43 years in solitary confinement in a Louisiana prison, but went home on his 69th birthday thanks to an outpouring of support.

It is easy to be cynical in times like these. And although activists like myself have devoted our lives to fighting injustice, we all started somewhere. Something spoke to our hearts, and compelled us to act. The challenges that we face now are daunting, to be sure. But I urge everyone to follow the impulses compelling them to do something, because the biggest victories often start with the smallest of steps.

It’s can be as easy as picking up a pen.

Ann Burroughs is the Board Chair of Amnesty International USA. She is a lifelong human rights advocate who was imprisoned in her native South Africa as a result of her anti-apartheid activism.