During my senior year of college, everything in my life changed. When I traveled home for winter break, my younger brother Nick told me something that took me entirely by surprise: that he was gay.
He then told me that the most difficult thing about being closeted was seeing good people refuse to stand up and speak out against LGBT discrimination all around him. People like me.
I’ve never felt so profoundly ashamed; I had been so focused on serving myself that I was blind to the struggles of my own brother, and as a result I failed him.
I’ve told this story many times since founding Change.org, but it’s always difficult to revisit; the memory of this still stings and my desire to make amends will never fade.
In response to this fateful conversation in college, I altered my life entirely: I veered off my long-planned path toward becoming an investment banker, and after a year of deep introspection started Change.org with the mission of empowering others to stand up and speak out on the issues they care about.
Today, Change.org is the largest social change platform in the world. We have more than 50 million users, and over 25,000 petitions are started on the site every month covering a diverse array of issues.
One of the issues that has been most popular on the site since our launch is gay rights and, on a personal level, I’ve been proud to see the wide variety of campaigns on this issue. One of those moments came last year when over 1.8 million people who signed petitions on Change.org played a role in convincing the Boy Scouts of America’s National Council to end the ban on gay youth.
However, as an open platform like Twitter and YouTube, we see petitions started on every conceivable issue from every possible perspective from people living in over 190 countries. And while the majority of petitions on Change.org aren’t especially controversial, given the diversity of perspectives of millions of people from wide ranging backgrounds and cultures, everyone will find some they personally, passionately disagree with. Including me.
People sometimes ask why we don’t remove petitions if we personally disagree with them. Our community guidelines make it clear that we remove petitions which use hate speech or incite violence. But this is quite rare, and we do not remove content just because it is offensive or controversial – even around something I care as much about as gay rights.
The reason we do not remove content we personally disagree with is that the power of Change.org comes from our openness. By not taking a position on specific issues or petitions, it means the true power of Change.org is in the hands of the millions of people who use the platform every day.
Our commitment to defending an open platform has not been easy or always popular, but it is central to the empowerment of our users. One of the reasons that so many campaigns win on Change.org is because we are not a political organization, and therefore our users can tell their own stories without being viewed through a partisan lens.
If we removed petitions based on our personal beliefs, we would be perceived as an advocacy group rather than a platform. The media and others would then dismiss petition creators as players backing our issue agenda, rather than the independent agents of change they are because of our openness.
Our openness gives our users credibility when dealing with the decision makers on the receiving end of their petitions. In the United States, we have Republican and Democratic elected officials who respond to our users directly - something many have been quite clear they would not do if Change.org was seen as either a progressive or conservative platform. A mayor, member of Congress, or CEO can trust that a petition on Change represents the voice of people from a great diversity of backgrounds, rather than one constituency or advocacy group.
At our heart, the reason we don’t remove petitions that might be offensive to many people isn’t because we don’t care; it’s because our ultimate service is the empowerment of our users. And removing petitions in a manner that some would consider partisan would undermine the power of all of our users to create the change they want to see.
The most effective response we’ve seen to controversial petitions on the site are not requests to remove them – they are counter-petitions that mobilize people against them.
A recent example of users challenging each others’ petitions from different ends of the same issue just came to a head this week. Last year we had a petition on our platform started by the Vietnamese American Federation of Southern California who wanted the Vietnamese American LGBT group to be excluded from the annual Vietnamese New Year festival in California. For 2014, the Viet Rainbow of Orange County also created a petition on Change.org, rallied support from a number of supporters at national LGBT organizations, and campaigned in their community. This past week, a decision made in November to exclude LGBT groups was overruled, and this year the Vietnamese American LGBT group will participate in the parade.
As a global platform with millions of users, it’s inevitable that we will have controversial petitions on the site that even I personally don’t like seeing. But the power we have is not in our ability to restrict speech; instead, it’s in our ability to provide an open platform for people to challenge each other. In the long run, that’s how the most change will happen.