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Beyond Valentines: Five Ways to Write Letters That Can Change the World

Join me in writing letters in support of clemency, letters to the editor, letters to people in prison, and more.

Part of the Series

On Valentine’s Day, in classrooms around the country, children are instructed to inscribe affectionate words on pink heart-shaped cards and deliver them to a prescribed group of people they know. Stores are filled with prewritten greeting cards designed for romantic partners. People in the U.S. send about 145 million Valentine’s cards annually. February 14 may be the most letter-writing-filled day of the year.

But what if we took Valentine’s Day as a reminder to write letters beyond personal valentines — letters that are a form of action? Let’s grab some discount chocolate (or not) and a pen (or a laptop) and put some words on paper that could prompt concrete change.

Here are a few suggestions to get us started. These are just a sampling of the many types of letters that can spur transformation; I hope they inspire us to collectively imagine more possibilities!

An illustration of a prisoner reading a letter from within a jail cell

1. Write Letters to People in Prison

One way to actively practice love is by writing to someone who is incarcerated. Prisons are built on principles of isolation, segregation and disconnection. By writing to someone inside, we defy those forces, simply by connecting.

Over the past two decades, I’ve had dozens of pen pals, including my own sister, who was incarcerated on and off for 14 years. These relationships have sparked my political writing and action, and have helped me support the writing and action of those inside. They’ve fostered mutual aid, offering opportunities for us to help each other. They’ve transformed my thinking and prompted years-long conversations.

Writing a letter to someone in prison also serves a pragmatic protective function: When a person receives mail, it signals to guards and other authority figures that they have people on the outside looking out for them. It also serves as emotional support for people inside, who are subjected to ongoing isolation and trauma, as Rev. Jason Lydon, founder of Black & Pink, a pen pal-based organization that supports LGBTQ and HIV-positive people in prison, told me years ago in an interview. He noted that for people inside, “having a reminder that you’re cared for and not forgotten — and part of a larger thing — can help you deal with the mental and emotional struggle that is the reality of being locked up.”

As Liberation Library, a collective that sends books to incarcerated youth and encourages letter-writing to people inside, states, “Letters are truly a lifeline for those in prison or jail.”

Here are some resources to find someone to write to:

  • Solitary Watch runs a Lifelines to Solitary program, connecting folks outside with people inside solitary confinement.
  • Black & Pink runs a nationwide pen pal program, matching LGBTQ+ people and people living with HIV/AIDS inside prisons with pen pals on the outside.
  • Survived & Punished’s Letter Writing Action Center provides addresses for incarcerated survivors of gender-based violence and resources on how to organize letter-writing events.
  • Sick of It! connects disabled people inside and outside of prison.
  • Mariame Kaba, founder and director of Project NIA, lists a number of letter-writing opportunities here. And Heather Mytelka, director of digital engagement and mobilization for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, provides an extensive pen-pal program list here.
An illustration of someone arm, sleeved in a version of the U.S. flag with the stars replaced by broken hearts, writing on a surface

2. Write Targeted Letters to Public Officials

Letters to elected officials can play a role in impacting policy and shifting lawmakers’ perceptions of what their “base” believes — even when they’re written by those of us who recognize the stark limits of electoral politics and tend to operate in more grassroots arenas. This applies to local, state and federal officials alike.

While copy-pasting a letter generated by an advocacy organization is certainly better than doing nothing at all, it’s worth it to take just a few more minutes to personalize the text to make the communication deeper and more effective. Another option is writing a letter as part of a coalition, with other people or organizations.

I asked Hassan El-Tayyab, legislative director for Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), what makes a letter to an elected official powerful. He emphasized that a personal or coalitional letter should always make a very specific request for action, and also acknowledge and answer the lawmaker’s potential concerns.

What if we took Valentine’s Day as a reminder to write letters beyond personal valentines — letters that are a form of action?

“Be clear in the text of the letter about what the problem is, how it impacts your community, what’s your proposed solution and what are your supporting details,” El-Tayyab said. “Be concise with your language and make sure to delete any words and sentences that are not essential to support your key arguments. Less is more!”

If you’re writing a letter by yourself, El-Tayyab suggests including your individual narrative in relation to the topic. “Make sure you are telling your story and bringing in your personal connection…. That can have a huge impact on how a policy maker understands the issue.”

A coalitional letter, meanwhile, can reflect large-scale support for an issue and also help with popular education.

Following up after sending a letter matters too, El-Tayyab says. It often makes sense to ask for a meeting with our representatives or officials after delivering a letter. Sending a copy of it to the press can also be a useful move, to maximize its impact and uplift its message in the public eye.

These tips don’t apply only to elected officials. We can use them for other authority figures we may be targeting; for example, we might write to university officials to pressure them to change a harmful policy, or to the management of a company to push them to recognize a union.

An illustration of a common ink pen breaking a prisoner's handcuffs

3. Write Letters in Support of Clemency

One form of letter that routinely changes lives is a note backing a person’s clemency petition. Clemency is a process through which a governor (at the state level) or president (at the federal level) can free people from incarceration. The practice includes both pardons — which change or eliminate a criminal conviction — and commutations, which shorten or alter a sentence, often resulting in someone being released from prison. Clemency, in either form, has the potential to radically transform someone’s future with the stroke of a pen. But whether that stroke of a pen happens is highly influenced by public input. And for a clemency petition, that input is conveyed through letters, which can be directly attached to a petition or sent straight to the governor or president.

Often, letters in support of clemency petitions are written by family members and friends, but petitions are palpably strengthened by letters from the wider community.

“Clemency is a political process, and so letters in support of a person’s release can be very helpful,” Rachel White-Domain, director of the Women & Survivors Project Illinois Prison Project, told me. White-Domain has filed many clemency petitions on behalf of incarcerated survivors of gender-based violence.

White-Domain emphasized that letters from people who officials might not expect to support clemency are especially useful; this includes “parents, people from the community affected [by the act for which the person is incarcerated], or people with lived or professional experience with victimization.” Other key letters may come from people who can commit to do something — however small — to help the person acclimate to society upon release, like pointing them toward resources, helping them create a resumé, assisting them in enrolling in courses or sending them encouragement.

In writing clemency letters, White-Domain says, avoid denying any harm the person may have caused or spelling out the nitty-gritty details of their case: “This is not the space to relitigate what happened.”

Clemency letters are an opportunity to go beyond a form letter and share empathy and experiences to make someone’s freedom more possible.

“Whatever you say, say it from the heart,” White-Domain said.

Many organizations regularly put out calls for clemency petition letters of support, as well as letters of support for mass clemencies that could free thousands of people at once. Sign up for the mailing lists of campaigns and groups like Survived and Punished, Illinois Prison Project, New Yorkers for Clemency and California Coalition for Women Prisoners, and follow them on social media. Write a letter to urge President Biden to commute the sentences of long-incarcerated people in federal prison, like Leonard Peltier, Roberta Bell, Michelle West, and many others.

An illustration of someone on their smartphone

4. Write Impactful Letters to the Editor

Shifting public narratives can also be a key part of political transformation. Letters to the editor — particularly those published in local newspapers — can help reach new audiences on pressing social justice issues. Groups like the Sunrise Movement have made publishing “letters to the editor in small-town papers” part of their coordinated campaign strategies, and the Debt Collective has held trainings on writing letters to the editor as part of its work to end student debt and push for free college. Letters to the editor are also read by policy makers, advocates, community organizers and media-makers who can amplify the letter’s message.

To write a letter to the editor, El-Tayyab suggests choosing a specific topic, then finding a relevant recent article in the publication you’re targeting. Reference that article in the letter. Issue a focused demand, showing what the problem is, how it is affecting people and how it should be addressed.

“Make a clear and concise argument with one or two facts,” El-Tayyab said.

Word counts for letters to the editor are often quite short; make sure to check the publication and ensure the letter stays under the limit.

If you’ve got a personal connection to the issue you’re writing about — and you’re comfortable sharing it — a letter to the editor is a good place to include it. “Don’t be afraid to tell your story and use your own voice,” El-Tayyab said.

For the best chance of publication, follow the newspaper’s guidelines exactly, including its instructions for where to send your letter, how to label the subject line, and whether to include an attachment or place the letter in the body of an email.

When our letters are published, we can use them to advocate further, sharing them on social media and sending them to decision makers, organizers, and other media. A letter to the editor can live — and spur action — far beyond its publication date.

An illustration of a hand holding out multiple heart valentines of different shapes and sizes

5. Write to Your Friends and Community

Relationships make change. A letter can be a potent force for connection, relationship-building and imagination-fueling. As Robyn Maynard told Truthout’s Kelly Hayes in a conversation about Rehearsals for Living, the book of letters Maynard coauthored with Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, “Letter writing as a form is something that can embody a very deeply feminist politic that is about thinking together, as opposed to thinking as ‘I.’ That is, I think contra-arrogant, at least in the way that we were trying to do it, where it really is about collectivizing what it means to think about freedom.”

A letter to a friend can be a chance to collectivize our political dreams, even as we are strengthening the relationships necessary to actualize those dreams.

Maynard also noted that letter-writing allows for “more openings than closings.” In letters to friends, we pose questions. We inquire. We open space, create space, make new answers possible.

In immediate terms, a letter to a friend or chosen family member is also a chance to strengthen your own support systems and check in on those you care about. Three years of pandemic have reinforced what has always been true: We need each other, and reaching out to fortify your existing relationships, through letters, can be a meaningful act of care and connection.

Plus: Letters last. As Kathy Zadrozny and Donovan Beeson, founders of the Letter Writers Alliance (2007-2020), have noted, “A letter is proof of history, an artifact of one’s life and community.”

The oldest surviving valentine was, incidentally, composed in prison (by a French duke locked up in the Tower of London) 608 years ago.

Who knows what meaning our letters will hold in the future, how long they will live?

So, although I’ve neglected to purchase that box of heart-shaped stationary, I’m setting aside some time today to take action through letter-writing. I hope you’ll join me.

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