Melody Calvert was humiliated when boutique clerks weight-shamed her. Kari Wagner-Peck was horrified when a national columnist repeatedly used "retard" in his columns. Each took to her blog — and what happened next will restore your faith in, well, a boutique owner and a columnist.
Photo credit: Melody Calvert

We've all seen it happen the wrong way: a bitter, obscenity-riddled rant that goes viral but ultimately falls flat in effecting real change. Now take a look at how two women followed a different tactic. They wrote eloquently and rationally, while still injecting emotion. Their blog posts brought about real change.

But this article isn't about the rants or the apologies; it's about how these two women wrote passionately, effectively and rationally to garner a positive response. In this day and age of slash-and-burn blogging, here's a how-to for pursuing change professionally without losing your passion.

Wagner-Peck's story

Kari Wagner-Peck

Photo credit: Kari Wagner-Peck

Kari Wagner-Peck has a child with Down syndrome and, as often happens with such parents, she has a refined sensitivity for the R-word ("retard" or "retarded"). By sensitivity, I mean a gut wrenching desire to pummel someone and then curl up in a corner and cry.

While her resume is filled with examples of heavy-duty advocacy, she says today, her advocacy efforts focus on two goals: her son and her blog, which she started in 2009. "From the beginning, the intention of the blog was to create 'narrative that was advocacy'. … Storytelling is advocacy and it is social change. I use stories to change the way people see children with [Down syndrome]."

A fan of author Chuck Klosterman, Wagner-Peck says she "loved his writing until I came across some very ugly and offensive statements he had written about people with cognitive disabilities. … In each case the R-word was used as a punch line."

Ironically, Klosterman had just been named the ethicist for The New York Times. Wagner-Peck was incredulous. She carefully researched his writing and looked for anyone who had addressed these statements.

"I found nothing, which was shocking," she remembers. "I realized I had made a discovery and it seemed it was up to me to address something that was so clearly beyond the pale. It was so awful I couldn't do otherwise."

In her open letter, posted on her blog, Wagner-Peck boiled her emotions down to one direct question: "Is it ethical to contribute to the denigration of the vulnerable?"

"My intention with my letter to Mr. Klosterman was only to elicit an answer. I was not looking for banning, burning, boycotting or firing. I wanted to know what he thought of the R-word," Wagner-Peck wrote several days later.

"I got my answer. His response is beyond anything I could have imagined."

Calvert's story

Melody Calvert

Photo credit: Melody Calvert

Melody Calvert doesn’t consider herself an advocate. "I'm just passionate about what I care about, especially when it's right in my face," she says. She began blogging "in the early days of LiveJournal," she explains. "Diary-blogging, with a platform of friends and followers."

While shopping near her hometown, Calvert was drawn to a boutique and a dress in its window, which she thought would be perfect for her sister. Her experience with the boutique's employees sent Calvert home in tears, feeling humiliated and less than.

Later, Calvert crafted an open letter she posted on her blog. "I'm 28, I am happily married to a wonderful man, we have two beautiful children, and we own our home. I typically wear jeans and T-shirts (in 2X) with sandals almost every day, and I am far from having a couture style. Your associates made it clear I wasn't supposed to be there."

Calvert wasn't expecting a response; she just wanted to be heard. "I honestly just wrote the blog post as an open letter to say, 'I was in your store, I experienced something I'd like no one to ever experience again, this is why it was wrong, and I hope you are able to do something to make sure no one ever experiences this in one of your stores again.'"

Unexpected responses

Wagner-Peck heard from Klosterman within days. "I have spent the last two days trying to figure out a way to properly address the issue you have raised on your website. I’ve slowly concluded the best way is to just be as straightforward as possible: I was wrong. You are right."

After inviting Wagner-Peck to share his response on her blog, Klosterman wrote: "I would also like to donate $25,000 to whatever charity you feel is most critical in improving the lives of people with cognitive disabilities … I have done something bad, so help me do something good."Melody Calvert

Within 24 hours of Calvert's open letter, the boutique owner had tweeted her, requesting contact information. After a phone call with the owner, Calvert wrote, "Mr. Ha was appalled at the behavior of his employees, and profusely apologized. He was empathetic to the discrimination I received, and made leaps and bounds to remedy the situation I experienced."

Good PR? Perhaps. But customer complaints are waged via social media every day, and often retailers must pick and choose which complaints to address.

So, what was the difference? How did Wagner-Peck and Calvert cut through the clutter to make their voices heard and, best of all, garner positive responses from their targets?

Photo credit: Melody Calvert

Strategy versus rants riddled with emotion

In both cases, the writers took a step back and did their homework. "I gave myself a couple days to really reel in my emotions," Calvert shares, "and when I was ready, I wrote the way I'd want to be talked to."

Her rationale? "If I want people to hear me, I have to be calm and rational, while relating to them. Think about how someone changes your mind... does it happen by yelling and cursing at you? Does it happen by being passively aggressive towards you? Or does it happen when someone is calmly talking to you, relating to you, and being open with you? Chances are, it's the last one."

Calvert's dos and don'ts

  • Be personable
  • Be honest
  • Be yourself
  • Don't be belligerent
  • Don't sling accusations
  • Do not lie

"We live in an age where it's easy to fly off the handle to get what you want, because no one wants bad publicity," Calvert points out. "It's so easy to point a finger and say, 'No! You're wrong!' But it's so much better to hold a hand and say, 'Let me show you how we can do better, together.'"

"I am glad I had the courage to say something," Calvert wrote on her blog.

Wagner-Peck approached the situation analytically. "I knew from the onset I wanted it to be objective, journalistic, non-emotional."Keri's son

She also didn't rely on hitting "publish" to ensure her words met their target. "Once I published [the open letter] on my blog, I was able to quickly garner support via social media. I had help."

For Wagner-Peck, success came in multiple ways: "He responded, which is unheard of with 'open letter' advocacy; … he apologized; and … he donated money."

Wagner-Peck acknowledges, "If I had attacked him, it would have been a whole other letter. I also didn't try to convince him to believe or write otherwise. I didn't leave wiggle room for some discussion on freedom of speech. I wanted an answer to that question. I was not interested in his thoughts beyond that. I wanted to control the narrative."

Photo credit: Kari Wagner-Peck

Tone? "How I talk in my living room"

Like Calvert, Wagner-Peck knew striking the right tone was critical. "I used the same tone in my letter to Klosterman that I would use with basically anyone I had a heated disagreement with. How I talk in my living room for me is the same in the world. I don't like to be yelled at or criticized. I don't respond very well to that. Who does?"

Wagner-Peck's dos and don'ts

  • "Find your authentic voice."
  • "Be community minded. Recently … someone described the disability community … as a 'circular firing squad.' There is enough common ground for community building. Cohesion is one of our only hopes for true change."
  • "Be entertaining. This sounds weird but … that's what people want. This doesn't mean jokey or fluff; it means good writing. It means be interesting."
  • "Get published off your blog," she says, pointing to the influence of other social media platforms and websites always looking for good content. "If I had known how easy it was I would have gotten over any insecurities to get my words out there long before I did," she says.

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