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Campaigns---> Clothes for a Change Home/News---> Article

Ben Cohen's New Anti-Sweatshop Efforts

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Ben Cohen starts new drive for social activism June 7, 2002


The Associated Press MONTPELIER - Ice cream mogul Ben Cohen's newest venture isn't fruity, swirled or studded with walnuts. But it does have a giant steel-and-fiberglass Earth on wheels that shakes hands with a huge United States as it rolls down the street. There's also an 11-foot pig, part of a trio illustrating what the federal government spends on the Pentagon, education, and foreign aid. And there's a natural-gas-powered Ford with 20,000 1-inch-tall plastic people glued to every surface, and a double-decker bus painted a school-bus yellow that calls for doubling federal aid for education. It's all part of TrueMajority, an enterprise aimed at reducing world poverty and hunger, promoting renewable energy and closing the gap between the rich and poor in the United States.

Even though Cohen sold his company, Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc., to Unilever two years ago, and could retire with a lifetime supply of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, he's still using his creative powers to change policy on the issues he cares about. "If you're aware of injustices and you're aware of people that are getting screwed through no fault of their own, you have three choices," said Cohen, of Williston, who keeps an office in Burlington with co-founder Jerry Greenfield. "You can ignore it, you can say you care about it and not do anything about it, or you can do something about it." Cohen, 51, is doing something about it, as he has for years. With TrueMajority, he plans to use the Internet, some impromptu parades and several rock concert sideshows to sign up hundreds of thousands of e-mail users who care about the same issues he does.

Cohen hopes his new nonprofit will draw the power of some 50 million Americans who are too busy to follow each and every issue in Congress that concerns them. "You start off with this huge number of people who share the same beliefs," Cohen said. "Until now, we'd been ineffective. But now with the technology, you are actually able to make your voice heard on all those issues." The idea for Cohen's latest venture was born when he read the works of California sociologist Paul Ray, who estimates that 50 million people in the United States hold views similar to those of Cohen on social issues. Ray calls this group the "cultural creatives," a phrase that Cohen uses frequently when he talks about TrueMajority. The cultural creatives support things like civil rights, environmental protection, and feminism. But they tend to put their energies into only one issue, and that diminishes their overall power, Cohen said. "If you don't hook up with the rest of those people ... no one is going to get anywhere," he said. To give those cultural creatives more of a say, TrueMajority will monitor issues in Congress and send e-mail alerts to people on its list. By clicking "reply," the recipients can authorize TrueMajority to send a fax in their name to their representative. "We're going to switch our strategy from trying to convince the middle-of-the-roaders to activating the converted," Cohen said.

For all this to work, Cohen has to sign up a lot of users. First, he's hoping his e-mails "go viral," as Internet jokes, essays or other documents do from time to time, being forwarded on and on until they reach thousands or even hundreds of thousands of readers within days. In case that doesn't happen, Cohen is promoting the enterprise in the coming year with some street theater. On Saturday, the group launches a multistate tour of its five-vehicle parade, an eye-catching assortment that includes the giant fiberglass Earth-and-United States; the trio of pigs, and a Toyota gas-electric hybrid covered in missiles, oil drums and a dead tree that turns into a garden scene as the car drives along. "The idea is to create some curiosity as to what's going on here," said Cohen, who, like Greenfield, will be in one of the vehicles making its way around Burlington on an unscripted route.

TrueMajority also has a carnival sideshow with 10 booths traveling to music festivals this summer. The booths have games and prizes on the TrueMajority message - including one called "Dunk the Lobbyist" - to educate as they entertain. "There's a particular time when peoples' hearts and minds and spirits are open, and that happens to be at large music festivals," Cohen said. "They feel this real sense of community, of love and caring." The campaign's goal is to get several hundred thousand people signed up over the next 10 months. Cohen's goal includes getting money out of politics, ensuring equal treatment under the law for all, and persuading U.S. leaders to sign world treaties. "It's always something that I've felt really strongly about - the inequality in our society and in the world," Cohen said. "I couldn't feel OK knowing about these injustices and not doing anything about it."

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