National Awareness Month Awareness Month
How does the president decide whether your cause deserves a proclamation?
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."
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.