Why I Love Bird-dogging (and you should too)

The presidential campaigns are an exciting time for many people. Some look forward to watching the debates or the excuse to talk politics at work, but my favorite part is bird-dogging. I got my first opportunity of this election recently at a small office opening party in New Hampshire for Bernie’s campaign. Bernie didn’t take any questions after he spoke in front of the crowd gathered, so in the hand-shake line, I asked the 5 second version of my question: “Will you commit to doubling funding for programs fighting global pandemics like PEPFAR and the Global Fund?” and he said yes.

Watch this video of my encounter with Bernie here.

Bird-dogging is a tactic used to get a public, on-the-record answer from a politician or other person in power to a pointed question about an issue you care about. In the Student Global AIDS Campaign (SGAC), we often use the tactic to compel politicians to make a commitment related to global AIDS funding or access to lifesaving medicines and healthcare for people living with or affected by HIV—topics that are a matter of life and death for millions of people around the world. Over the next year and a half, we’re going to events all over the country to ask all presidential candidates (regardless of party) if they will commit to doubling funding for to help end the deadliest global pandemics such as AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. 

While I will jump on any opportunity to bird-dog and have been doing it since I joined the Student Global AIDS Campaign in 2012, I do still get overwhelmed by nerves and anxiety about speaking in front of a crowd, particularly to someone with so much power. All I can think is: “if I do this well, LOTS of people are going to see the video of my question and their answer. Don’t mess this up!” This fear hasn’t gone away after years of bird-dogging, but it’s worth it for the feeling of empowerment that follows.

When I get nervous about asking questions, I think about the fact that not everyone is given the same access to safety and opportunity at bird-dogging events. A small moment of discomfort is worth confronting someone who has the political capital to put forward life-saving policy. 

In my opinion, bird-dogging is the most powerful tactic that one or two people can use to affect change in a big way. Give me a little time to prepare and a few hours to get to an event, and I can talk directly to a presidential candidate about any issue that matters to me. This opportunity to challenge public figures and hold them accountable is one that everyone should take advantage of. Even if you’re not lucky enough to live in or close to a swing state for presidential campaigns, your city councillor, mayor, governor, school president hold public events all the time. 

Bird-dogging doesn’t take any special skills or expertise. Here are 5 things you can do to get started:

1) Check out
our bird-dogging guide full of helpful tips for how to find events or craft your question. 

2) Sign up today to join our team of bird-doggers across the country and we’ll be in touch. 

3) If you are a young person or student, join the Student Global AIDS Campaign mailing list to get our weekly bulletin of upcoming events, report-backs, information about rideshares and more! 

4) Join us at Fall Uprising in Washington D.C. from October 26-28, if you’re a young person that wants to build your advocacy chops. We’ll have interactive sessions on tactics like bird-dogging, developing a campaign strategy, and opportunities for you to learn about the campaigns we’re most fired up about.