What a Million Moms Might Mean to You

Caitlin Johnson
May 7, 2000

It sounds like the start to a bad joke: How do you get a million moms on the Mall?

But instead of a punch line, many people are looking for an answer. The upcoming Million Mom March against gun violence is expected to draw between 150,000 and 300,000 people and has been covered by Time Magazine, Newsweek, CNN, the New York Times and major newspapers and television networks across the country—an incredible media triumph by the standards of most grassroots organizations.

We talked to several MMMarch organizers about why they think this idea has so captured public interest. The bottom line? Passion, organization and little thing called the Internet.

"I've never done this before." That's what most of the organizers said. After all, how many of us have coordinated a major march on Washington? But it just goes to show: whether you're a seasoned advocate or just a concerned citizen with more passion than experience—like Donna Dees-Thomases the mother of the Million Mom March—you can make a difference.

First, Get Online, Fast!
Most of the organizers of the Million Mom March credit two key things: the timeliness of the message, and the internet. It's that simple.

"The Internet has so dramatically changed communication and organizing," says organizer Tina Johnstone, who's founder and New York regional director of the Bell Campaign, a national group committed to preventing gun death and injury and supporting victims of gun trauma. "It's mind-boggling that I can talk to people all over the place, that they can spread stories, exchange information. It's facilitated this sort of explosion." Every time the initiative was covered, organizers say, e-mail would come pouring in.

Begun in the basements of roughly 30 mom's houses, organizers eventually amassed a national network of "state coordinators" who recruited the local coordinators responsible for spreading the word and enlisting volunteers. The Internet and e-mail helped determine the organization structure (a virtual phone-tree), say organizers, and made it possible to go from local to national and back again, in a matter of minutes.

"Ours is a message that really resonates, and has brought people together despite differences in backgrounds, class, region," says Vicki King, a march organizer from Maryland.

Good, easy Web sites also help people get informed and stay focused on your message. And you can launch a Web site for free by visiting Geocities or other services, and use volunteers or local high school students to update and maintain it. But be sure content is closely monitored and well thought-out. The Million Mom March site, for example, provides clear, credible information on the issues and outlines ways to get involved.

Think Big. Then, Clarify Your Goal.
So you're passionate about something. Think deeper. What can you do to make changes? Donna Dees-Thomases chose to approach the problem of gun violence through legislation. In conceiving the idea for a march, she writes on the official MMMarch Web site, "Many mothers, like myself, didn't know the Brady Bill from the Brady Bunch ... we [needed] to learn more -- fast." So they got educated, and came up with clear policy goals: background checks and "cooling off" periods for handgun purchasers; licensing of handgun owners and registration of all handguns; and manufacturer-provided safety locks for all handguns.

Don't be afraid to aim high, but be ready to define clear objectives. "We came up with a true blueprint for how to prevent [gun violence]. It's powerful, clear and makes it easy to see that it can be done. Through federal legislation, Congress can do these things. We tell them how," says Tina Johnstone.

Target Your Audience.
Once you've identified your message, figure out who's likely to listen. For Vicki King and the other initial organizers, the target was clear: "We all watch the news, we see children getting shot in school or at home. Mothers are affected, and mothers are ready to take a stand." Mothers who have lost children to gun violence, or whose communities have been touched by it, were especially receptive and eager to reach out to others with the message.

Once you've picked your audience, work it. Think about how to reach different groups. "Many of the mothers [initially involved] come from states like New York and DC with good gun laws," says Johnstone. It seemed they might be harder to enlist. "But we made a case that even here people are being shot with guns supplied by states without good laws. We're all affected. Mothers know that Congress can do something to fix this problem."

You've Got to "Build Crowd."
In a recent newsletter, Dees-Thomases says, "If there's one piece of advice I can give you it's 'BUILD CROWD.'" The organizers agree: you simply must network. Think about who you can you enlist to help you. Start small: talking to friends, neighbors, people in the grocery store and the 7-11, but don't stop there. Get the word out.

No doubt about it, Donna Dees-Thomases has a public relations savvy: she's worked on Capitol Hill and as associate director of communications for CBS News, and now does part-time public relations work with CBS Entertainment. But don't let that fool you: many of the moms who helped bring this together and to the attention of the media in their communities don't have resumes like that. And they say that getting the word out and bringing people together is what counts.

Don't be afraid to learn "on the job"....

Learn from the Mistakes—and Successes—of Others
Check out other groups working in the area. Whether or not you support their message, what are they doing? What kind of impact does it have? Can you co-opt their methods (or, in some cases, avoid them)?

"Part of what we saw as missing in gun violence prevention was a real grass-roots effort," says Johnstone. "The real grassroots group out there on the issue was the NRA. It's not that they have money, they're strong because they're in every community, speaking out. They're the voice of gun policy."

So the Million Mom committee took that strategy for themselves, and reached out to communities—both real and virtual—they spoke to specific community problems, giving people background about policy and the march's goals. "In every case," says Johnstone, "the NRA was right there, yelling at our organizers and at moms. We used e-mail and outreach to yell back with our message."

What's in a name? The Million Mom March is a deliberate choice, feeding off of the press given to past marches with similar names. It's important to pick names that the media likes. Names that have a ring. Avoid vulgar interpretations. The NRA's initial response to the Million Mom March was a group of women calling themselves "Moms 4 Guns." The name flopped, for obvious reasons—they're now the Second Amendment Sisters. Don't make the same mistake.

Acknowledge Your Good Work
Celebrate successes, even small ones! It boosts morale and adds fuel to the group. The Million Mom March gives out "Mom's Apple Pie Awards" celebrating those who's work furthers the cause—generally those outside the March itself, but not always. Tina Johnstone was honored with an Apple Pie award delivered, as all of them are, in a ceremony and with a certificate praising her as a "champion of the right to live free of gun trauma, a right as American as apple pie." And with the note came a real apple pie!

This is a good time to mention that humor and light-heartedness can work for you, when it's appropriate. The MMMarch doesn't only award good behavior, they punish bad.

We hope these tips help you get inspired, get involved or give your group a boost!

Three in a Million  


So many people—mothers, fathers, students, neighbors—have come together to support this effort. We spoke with three national organizers for this article.


  • Tina Johnstone, who's founder and New York regional director of the Bell Campaign, a national group committed to preventing gun death and injury and supporting victims of gun trauma. She became an activist for gun legislation in 1992 when her husband was killed by a 16-year-old with a gun.


  • Vicki King is an organizer in Maryland. She's been involved with the March from the first month. "Seeing the Columbine footage really struck me. I saw the boy jumping out window and thought, 'he was just going to school today!' My son is a first grader and learning to read, and I had to hide the newspaper from him. I realized, I can't hide the world, I have to change it."


  • Monique Garcia is an activist and MMMarch coordinator in DC. She is one of many dedicated people who have devoted time and energy to bringing it all together.





Caitlin Johnson is staff writer at Connect for Kids.