Did you realize that last month was National Information Literacy Awareness Month? No? Perhaps that's because it was also National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, National Disability Employment Awareness Month, National Cybersecruity Awareness Month, National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, National Arts and Humanities Month, and National Energy Awareness Month. Navigating all of which is a challenge for even the most information-literate Americans.
Not according to the White House, which churns out a slew of presidential proclamations at the beginning of every month recognizing special months, weeks, or days in honor of some cause or another. (So far, no cause has received less than a day.) Some proclamations have policy consequences—for instance, President Obama's Oct. 23 declaration of a national swine-flu emergency, which gave hospitals flexibility to house and treat the sick. But the vast majority are symbolic statements—shout-outs on West Wing stationery—that highlight causes, interest groups, and, yes, diseases that the administration thinks deserve attention. (See a complete list here.)
How do official awareness months, weeks, or days come to be? Many of them date back decades, such as National Diabetes Month or Law Day, which President Eisenhower established as "a day of national dedication to the principles of government under law." To get your own, you simply have to ask. Requests usually go through the Office of the Public Liaison, and the proclamations themselves are written by the office of the staff secretary.
It helps to have a cause that fits snugly into the president's worldview. Last spring, Lana Jackman of the National Forum on Information Literacy wrote letters to her two senators, John Kerry and Ted Kennedy, explaining the cause of information literacy and suggesting the president issue a proclamation. It seemed like a natural fit for Obama: Jackman describes information literacy as "the ability to find, access, evaluate, and use information effectively." During his campaign, Obama had dealt with misinformation about his background, leading his campaign to create a myth-busting "Fight the Smears" Web site. Information literacy is, in part, learning to separate truth from bull. Obama's final proclamation was a summation of how this "new type of literacy" can help Americans deal with the "crisis of authenticity" that comes from information overload.
It also helps to have some connection in the government. Many proclamations simply recognize pet causes of one agency or another. For example, National Adoption Month is coordinated by the federal Children's Bureau, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. National Safe Boating Week is celebrated and sponsored by the Coast Guard. The National Eye Institute, a part of the National Institutes of Health, brings us Save Your Vision Week every February.
Other special weeks or months are vestiges of old special-interest groups that one president or another wanted to please. Why do we have a National Forest Products Week, celebrating the role of timber and paper in our lives, but not a National Plastic Products Week or National Cotton Products Week? You'd have to ask President Eisenhower, who signed the legislation creating National Forest Products Week. Indeed, sometimes the proclamations read like a checklist of potential voter groups: National Hispanic Heritage Month; National Caribbean-American Heritage Month; Irish-American Heritage Month; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month; Small Business Week—not to be confused with this magazine—and, of course, Leif Erikson Day. "I find it strange we don't see more of that," says Brandon Rottinghaus of University of Houston, who created a searchable database of presidential proclamations. "It's a low-cost way for a president to acknowledge these groups."
In fact, presidents often update the proclamations to fit their own perspectives. For example, Eisenhower's original proclamation for Forest Products Week called on "the people of the United States to observe such week with appropriate ceremonies and activities." (Read a book? Stab someone with a pencil?) President Obama's 2009 proclamation instead emphasizes the benefits of wood as "a renewable and recyclable resource" that is "one of our Nation's most environmentally friendly building materials." Presidents can also tweak their predecessors in their proclamations and observations. Obama caused a minor fuss when he proclaimed May 7 the National Day of Prayer but declined to hold the traditional religious service at the White House.
The best bet for would-be awareness month boosters would be to find someone in the government who supports your cause and who has the West Wing's ear. Character Counts Week started in the early '90s, when a group of senators decided that character was an important quality in America's youth. They enlisted Michael Josephson and his nonprofit Character Counts to organize the annual activities, like honoring students with exceptional character, and got the president to spread the word. The result is a week that actually matters, says Josephson: "I don't want to be lumped in with National Laundry Week or Pickle Week. … It isn't an earmark or a political favor." (Josephson has little to worry about, since neither actually exists.)
Groups aren't especially particular about which month they get. But October and November are the most popular, with seven and six annual awareness campaigns, respectively. "It's the beginning of holiday season, when families get together," explains Deborah Halpern of the National Family Caregivers Association, which organizes National Family Caregivers Month. As for whether they get a month, week, or day, it's usually up to the group. "We really thought about it," says Josephson, who organized Character Counts Week. "With a day, you wouldn't have enough opportunity to mobilize people. And a month is just too long." National Wilderness Month thus isn't necessarily more important than Fire Prevention Week, which, in turn, doesn't necessarily trump White Cane Safety Day, recognizing the blind. Nor does there seem to be much competition for attention among the different groups. "It's a lot to be aware of," says Halpern of the caregivers organization. "But the reality is, the people we want to reach are not being approached by these other groups."
All of this begs the question: Do awareness days, weeks, and months actually help the causes they promote? The biggest ones do. Breast Cancer Awareness Week, for example, reaps millions annually for cancer research and has enough to clout to convince NFL players to wear hot-pink cleats in solidarity. Other awareness-raising months make a difference, according to their proponents, but not always in a measurable way. During National Adoption Month, for example, adoption groups actively recruit families to take children out of foster care. But the adoptions don't always occur during that month, and stats aren't precise enough to show an annual spike.
A presidential proclamation can help. "But I think it's really up to the organization and the groups that care about a particular day or month to raise awareness about it," says Chris Danielsen of the National Federation for the Blind. If that doesn't work, there's always a last-ditch solution: Set aside a month when people can really, truly pay attention to awareness months.