Access Champions Take Action

How-To: An Audio Card Toolkit for Freeing the Vaccine

In past newsletter installments, we’ve talked about the creative idea one of our Seal squads had to send audio cards to targets instead of emails. An email is easy to delete. A beautiful audio card that literally speaks to you? Not so much.

The Seal 1 squad figured out how to make this easy audio card action work, and now, they want to share this resource with you: a toolkit, complete with an example video, on how to make your own card with a hidden audio device that will play your “Free The Vaccine” message.

Access Champions

Highlights from Week 8 Mission: How do you make an iconic image?

Learning from Iconic AIDS Activism

This week, team leads Steve, Merith, and Rebecca spoke with Avram Finklestein, the AIDS activist and designer who helped create the famous SILENCE = DEATH image shown above. He’s also the artist behind many other powerful images that have defined AIDS activism. Take a look!

Avram shared lessons learned from his work in AIDS activism, advice on capturing public attention, and ideas for how to do effective work as a collective. Our Lab members took this week to watch or listen to the conversation with Avram, and then began brainstorming their own images and text—keeping in mind three initial key principles: riffing on images already familiar to your audience, avoiding technical or political jargon, and using humor.

They also shared their own takeaways from the webinar with each other. Courtney Surmanek wrote:

Write it all down, and edit later (not during!). We’re all capable of incisive, creative thinking, we’re just not trained to think we are. Reminds me of “yes, and”, the basis of improv, which is what I use to describe the ethos I look for/want to help guide in collaboration.

And how amazing to hear that the infamous SILENCE = DEATH phrase emerged from a quick volley/brainstorm across a dinner table as opposed to a more intensive brainstorming session (or rather, perhaps after the intensive brainstorming session). What’s the online version of the dinner table?

I’ve REALLY love the online platform Icebreaker and want to explore it more to support the brainstorming phase.

Sofia Weiss-Goitandia was reminded of an action she had helped to create with her Friends of MSF group at the University of Cambridge called the No More Tears Challenge. In Sofia’s own words:

Listening to Avram speak about the importance of the opening sentence has reminded me of a campaign our Friends of MSF group created at the University of Cambridge, which I thought might provide some further inspiration. The ‘No More Tears’ challenge was created by our group in order to try and pressure Johnson and Johnson into lowering the price of their TB drug bedaquiline. Basically people have to film themselves eating a chilli whilst trying not to cry, and then it’s shared on social media. This piece of campaigning spread really quickly, and was picked up by the MSF access campaign. What I love about the ‘No More Tears’ tagline is that it’s taking J&J’s own catchphrase, and confronting it with them, which worked really well as an opening sentence.

WATCH: Collectivity and Communicating in Public Space

The webinar has inspired a lot of creativity from our lab members—and it’s simply too good not to share with you in full. You can watch the webinar below, and we’ve also provided a Table of Contents with timestamps to help you navigate to the content you need.

TimeTopic Link
00:00Intro 1
15:30Storytelling in Capitalism
24:55The Opening Sentence
28:13Critical Analysis
29:00Simple but not simplistic 1
36:45Working in Collectives
48:27Plan Campaigns
52:35Growing into your role
1:00:03Working in Public
1:06:35Tips for Collective Projects
1:11:08Q: Doubt the collective?
1:20:39Q: COVID conversations?

Action Updates

This post has been a longer one, but we still have a couple action updates from our Labs that you can’t miss! Some quick highlights for you, this time:

  • The Bisons have sent their first “Free The Vaccine” themed sleeping mask and box to Dr. Atul Malhotra, a pulmonologist specializing in sleep medicine. They’ve also created a Twitter account, so give them a follow!
  • With Avram’s lessons in mind, our Labs have already drafted some awesome images with which to reach out to their target scientists! Here are just a couple examples:
A draft poster by Fiona from the Seal team.
Some draft postcard ideas by Mahima and Elin from the Fox team.
  • After learning that Dolly Parton had donated $1 million to vaccine research at Vanderbilt University, the Zonkeys decided to build a campaign focused on Dr. Naji Abumrad, her friend and a scientist at the Vanderbilt Institute for Infection, Immunology, and Inflammation, in whose honor she made the donation. The Zonkeys have worked with Vanderbilt students to reach out to the university’s technology transfer office about the Open COVID Pledge, as well as Dr. Abumrad’s son Jad Abumrad, who is a host for RadioLab. They’ve asked him to share their message through a podcast episode. And they also have something super creative in the works, so stay tuned
Access Champions

Highlights from Week 7 Mission: What have we learned?

This week, as we approach the halfway mark of our campaign (more on that next week), we asked our participants to reflect on where they’re at and where they’d like support. We gave participants a list of campaign moments—like making contact with a target, or responding to another squad’s mission report—so they could evaluate their progress and feel proud of their involvement! We also asked them to provide some feedback for the project management team regarding what strategic exercises they’d like to do more of, or where they need help. And we had longtime student advocates with UAEM join our weekly webinar to present on the challenges they faced in getting universities to adopt policies supporting access to medicines, and let our participants know how they won. Meanwhile, our squads continued work on their actions, pushing for change and learning from each other. Here are a few highlights from this week:

The Bisons Dreamed Big

The Bisons’ new action came to Lab member Esh Garg in a dream. The Lab plans to create and send “Free The Vaccine” themed, hand-embroidered sleep masks to researchers, who can then take selfies with the masks to post to social media and show their support. Their first target is a scientist at UCSD who has been active on Twitter, is working on COVID-19 research, and specializes in sleep medicine! As you can probably tell, the action is based in part on the strategy of the Plants for COVID Research Champions action. And that’s amazing: our participants are learning from each other, building on each other’s work while adding new creative twists personalized to their targets. And they’re definitely applying lessons learned about positive activism, with an action that shows gratitude to researchers and taps into the importance of self-care during the pandemic.

A mock-up of how the sleep masks and their boxes will look!

The Wolverines Switched Things Up

Members of Wolverine are currently in conversations with universities across Canada—six universities, in fact! This week, they decided to do a target swap, with each member reaching out to one of the Wolverine targets they hadn’t been in personal contact with before. Each member reached out via a video message, Twitter, or the Plants for COVID Research Champions action.



Wolverine members made significant progress at McGill, meeting virtually with researcher Mark Weber, who plans to talk to the university’s senior leadership about the Open COVID Pledge this week. Karen Mossman of McMaster also responded positively for a second time, although without an update on McMaster’s position regarding the Open COVID Pledge. Regardless, the Wolverines’ progress this week feels like a response to the Seals’ question last week of how to turn attention into action: strategic follow-up. The “target swap” action allows a relatively small number of activists to increase pressure on a target by contacting them individually, and communicates that many members of the public are interested in seeing change.

The Bisons Got Animated

We’d like to highlight one more Bison squad this week! This team recently created a comic to send to a researcher at Indiana University (IU) who is working on a pediatric vaccine. The idea is to turn the comic into a template as well, so it can be modified for other researchers. The team has also successfully connected with other targets at IU, including law professor Fran Quigley, and the director of the IU Center for Bioethics; both were enthusiastic about the work Free The Vaccine is doing and interested in working together. This progress is so exciting, and raises the possibility of building a coalition of faculty within the university that can help put pressure on the relevant decision-makers.

As the squad emphasizes, the comic is creative, but also straightforward, simply laying out the team’s argument in visual form. Bison member Laura Holzman reflects in the Mission Report:

I’m intrigued that, so far, it appears we’ve had the most success from the most straightforward actions… I’d want to do some careful thinking about when a creative intervention is particularly valuable (and what kinds of creative actions are effective… although I realize so much of this is specific to the particular person/situation).

Again, we’re learning that the point of “creative” activism is to get out of the habit of actions that are boring and easily ignored—but that doesn’t have to mean making things difficult for ourselves, or creating a spectacle for the purpose of spectacle. It’s about getting our message across, and convincing the right people to make a change.

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Highlights from Week 5 Mission: Iterate and Steal

This week, we’d like to share some more highlights from our mission reports that showcase creative actions our Labs are planning—and how actions evolve as our squads reach their targets! Their mission this week was to iterate and steal: to repeat actions with new targets, and to borrow strategy and tactics from other Labs after reading their Mission Reports. In order to track their progress, Labs were asked to identify where they currently are on our Progress Map, and to decide where they can go next.

The Free the Vaccine progress map.
Access Champions

Highlights from Week 4 Mission: Distill and Mix

Last week, our Lab members continued to push themselves with creative tactics to get institutions to sign on to the Open COVID Pledge. This week, they focused on learning from each other, identifying what has worked in other Labs and applying those lessons to their own projects.

MISSION 4: Identify elements that are working in other labs and apply them to your own, launch your project, and write a mission report.

Why this mission? Because: 

  1. By identifying concrete insights from the other labs and brainstorming ways those elements could inform their strategy, participants are systematically learning from each other.
  2. By making sure they contact their target or identify a new one this week, the activists are creating effective and time-bound campaigns.
  3. By writing mission reports, participants are getting a chance to reflect on what they’ve learned and achieved, and communicating that to the rest of the group.
This week, we’d like to share some highlights from our mission reports that showcase what the Labs are working on and what they’re learning. 

Jaguarundi Makes Laughter a Tactic

The Jaguarundi Lab, which is targeting two different universities in Brazil, has also adjusted their strategy for each university to create two different approaches. In targeting UFPel, which has already committed to free and non-exclusive licensing, they wrote a funny email congratulating the university on this decision and inviting them to sign the Open COVID Pledge; they plan to make this ask again on a webinar organized jointly with the university, UAEM, and DNDi.

The collage sent to UFPEL, which made them laugh and left them open to further conversation about the Pledge.

In targeting UFMG, they circulated a petition (which now has 330 signatures) and made a play on an existing campaign to protect public universities in Brazil, adding a “no monopoly” message. They plan to deliver the message next week!

In the team’s mission report, Luciana Lopes writes that they learned

…we need to be patient, which can be really difficult. Although some initiatives don’t need a long time to be planned, some results may take some time to show up. But they will eventually. It’s a long process and every move is an important one.

Seal Plants the Seeds for Change

One of our Seal Labs has started a “Plants for COVID Research Champions” project, in which activists dedicate plants in honor of vaccine researchers as a positive way to get their attention before asking them to sign on to the Open COVID Pledge. 

Some of our plants dedicated so far!

Of the 8 researchers they have contacted so far, 5 have responded with thanks, three of them speaking positively about transparency and data sharing in that response. In their mission report, the Seals highlight what’s working: a strategy that gets scientists to respond, a simple action with movement building appeal, and a great energy level in their squad. While they initially struggled to communicate the idea to others, creating an infographic was an easy way to ensure that the action was clear enough for others to pick up on.

An infographic explaining how to participate in the action.

In the squad’s mission report, Sofia writes that

we have been lucky to have activists in our team with connections to the access to medicines field, but we’ve still wanted more information. We need sound research about the institutes, their research lines, and partner deals. We want to be accountable, particularly now we’re inviting others to join. We hope the UK UAEM can help with this, but would also love to tap into other activist networks.

Otter Starts an Access Rivalry

Continuing work on the trading card project we told you about in previous weeks, the Otter Lab chose 3 researchers to contact at each university—USC and UCLA—with their trading cards, and an invitation to sign on to the Open COVID Pledge and become access champions. This week, they completed and sent the cards! Take a look at some examples below.

The trading card sent to Gay Crooks.
The trading card sent to Pinghui Feng.

Saima Salam writes in the mission report that

commending people on the incredible COVID-19 research they are doing is always a positive way to handle a situation. Additionally, since we are providing them with customizable trading cards, it would provide an additional incentive for the researchers to hopefully sign the Open Covid Pledge. Not only are we reaching out to our top researchers but we are spreading the news through so many different outlets and as we know, starting a conversation about an issue is the first step to victory!

Before You Go

Check out this video from a Coyote member who wrote a clever parody of “What a Wonderful World,” targeting the University of Texas and AskBio. Take a listen and share it on social media if you can!

Access Champions

Highlights from Week 2 Mission: Set Your Targets

Last week, our Lab members got our message out to a wide audience using traditional media. This week, with the goal of getting institutions to sign on to the Open COVID Pledge, we shifted gears to highly targeted creative advocacy. 

MISSION 2: Get an institution to sign the Open COVID Pledge, using creative methods to reach people in power.

Why this mission? Because: 

  1. By finding a specific individual target who can make a decision as well, and brainstorming ways to reach and persuade them that are personalized to that target, participants get a great exercise in strategic thinking.
  2. By using creative strategies to get an institution to sign on, participants get to break away from stale methods like open letters and try something surprising and bold.
  3. By asking institutions to sign onto the Open COVID Pledge, participants are working together with existing advocacy efforts instead of reinventing the wheel.
Our Innovation Lab members blew us away with their teamwork, strategic thinking, and experimentation. Read on for four different stories that showcase some of the coolest and most creative thinking that came out of the Labs this week.

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