From angst to activism
October 16, 2013
When Emanuel Sferios came across an ad for a protest against the death penalty, he was an angsty Florida teenager with a mohawk and little direction.
Two city buses later, he found the protest — and a new direction. There, Sferios met two members of the American Friends Service Committee, knowing nothing of the life-changing impact they would have on him.
"They were the first adults in my life who really treated me respectfully," Sferios said. "They asked me what I thought about things. I think I was 14, and they wanted to know my opinion. They were also the first gay people I had ever met. It just blew my mind."
The duo offered Sferios a ride home, stopping first at their office, where they offered peace and justice literature about current events, which at the time included the Cold War and arms race.
"I just sat in that office and read their stuff, and it was like, 'This is it,'" Sferios said. "It gave me an outlet for my angst, where I could very easily have gone down an unhappy road into drugs or whatever. Instead, I became an activist."
Sferios started a nonprofit in 1999 while in his late 20s and is currently part of a coalition of people who create and distribute Occucards — postcard-sized glossy cards with about 550 words about various political issues, from bank bailouts and corporate media to Monsanto and fracking.
The idea for the cards was derived from Sferios' nonprofit, dancesafe.org, which provided harm-reduction information services to drug users in night-club communities. Sferios worked with designer Jason Justice from justicedesign.com to distribute informational cards and used the same idea when he saw a need by protesters of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The first 10 cards were launched, along with the website, occucards.com, on March 1, 2012, with the idea to provide the Occupy movement with outreach literature and provide an answer to the various reasons why people were part of the protests.
Sferios and his team selected a cross section of issues that involve corporate control of the government and how politicians collude with the government, he said.
The cards were sold for 9 cents each and were very successful, Sferios said, adding people started buying them in bulk and handing them out.
"We quickly discovered it wasn't just for Occupy activists, but activists of all stripes all over the country," Sferios said. "We switched our branding a little bit … (We) used to say why we occupy, but we're much larger than that. We noticed the best sellers were the cards that had campaigns already existing around them."
These included corporate personhood and health care, among others.
The bestselling card has been No. 21, the Trans Pacific Partnership, Sferios said. It has sold 30,000 copies in the two months since its creation.
The cards are priced so no profit is made, Sferios said, adding everyone in the coalition is a volunteer.
Sferios is the primary writer and chooses most of the topics. The information he collects for each card takes time and research and is reviewed by up to 20 different people across the political spectrum, he said.
"One of our goals is to write the cards so they are palatable for the mainstream. We don't see ourselves as the radical leftist extreme," he said. "We are calling for a return to the rule of law … Our group is trying to educate people because we think that's the first crucial step."
The organization also offers solution cards, after feedback from people who wanted cards to be more than critiques.
"We put our first solution card on public banks to once again support a movement in existence," Sferios said.
The group also launched a transition series about sustainability and environmental issues. It plans to continue with more cards once Sferios is able to find time while balancing his full-time job and family.
"I go to the post office every day, at least five days a week, and I'm taking orders because we get that many," Sferios said. "It's work, packaging and shipping and collating and stacking."
The challenge of fitting in the message on a 4-inch-by-6-inch index card adds to the time-consuming process, Sferios said.
"I try to pick the most significant talking points and present them in an essay format that's powerful and inspiring and accessible to the mainstream, which is hard to do," Sferios said. "They can't be exhaustive, but lead people in the right direction. I always include websites people can go to get involved with the groups and find out more information, and the list of references is listed on our website since we couldn't fit in onto the cards."
Sferios has met a collective of individuals throughout his 25 years as an activist.
The collective includes Eliot Warren and Jennifer Susskind in Oakland, Lenore Holz and Tony Bountempo in New York and his wife, Tatiana Makovkin, here in Grass Valley.
More than 750,000 cards have been distributed.
"We're approaching the 1 million mark, and it's great," he said. "I'm glad to be able to be of service to the people who like the cards."
From his experience with the couple at the death penalty protest in Florida, Sferios has realized the potential everyone has to make an impact.
"As much as we as activists feel like we're not succeeding, that things are getting worse, everything you do has repercussions," Sferios said. "Every act that you make, good or bad, has repercussions that you don't know of. You may have touched people's lives or changed peoples lives and not even know we had. It all reverberates."
Visit occucards.com for information.
To contact Staff Writer Jennifer Terman, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4230.
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