Activism is not something you say, or something you do, no single act can encompass it or qualify one as an activist. Activism is a mindset. Protesting does not make you an activist any more than looking at the stars makes you an astronaut. It is an understanding of a broken or flawed system, and the desire to fix it. So how does one become an activist? Here is a helpful guide to get you started on developing your own, unique activist mentality.
If you had to give a half hour presentation on a topic what would it be? Where can your friends find you during your free time? What are you passionate about? Answering these questions can help you identify causes the are personal to you. To be an activist you don't need to be promoting a big cause, it can be anything that impacts you or others, no matter how small.
Moving forward, it will be important to view yourself as a leader. Leaders are those who create a path, rather than follow one, and being a leader does not mean you are not also in a team. No single leader will faciliate grand change, it requires the cooperation of a variety of leaders to successfully change the world, and you are on your path to being one of them. Leaders tackle challenges, and being able to define those challenges is what will help you become an effective communicator and leader.
Before you can campaign against a problem, you must understand how that problem arises. Is it the result of some outdated piece of legislation, or perhaps the result of a lack of legislation? Is it a systemic issue, or is it an acute problem? What kinds of research have been done already? Who are the affected parties, and what do they have to say about it? These are the questions you should ask yourself to begin developing your understanding of the background and context of the issue.
Scholarly journals are always the best source of information because they provide a wealth of information to those willing to take the time to decipher them. Learning to read academic articles is an invaluable skill that can help you become an effective activist. The information in the articles are cited, offering verifiable facts, and the conclusions of the article can be compared to the methodology to assess the quality of the report. These articles provide such a quality resource because they offer a look into a system or population, rather than offering solely anecdotal evidence as support.
Anecdotal evidence is not your enemy though, in fact it can be used quite effectively to highlight issues and make them personable and relatable to an audience. They also offer glimpses into the reasons behind certain issues, rather than a cumulative assessment of their impact or severity. So reach out to stakeholders in the issue - if you're campaigning for water rights for Flint, Michigan, then reach out to residents, listen to their interviews, or watch the documentaries about their lives. There is often an abundance of information if you are willing to spend the time researching.
Consider using the following as sources for your research:
Talking with affected parties
Reaching out to established activists
Corporate or NGO websites
What really matters is that you weigh the information you obtain proportional to the kind of source you are using. BE AWARE OF BIAS. Do not substantiate your claims completely off of rhetoric from someone that stands to gain from inviting you to their camp. This is crucial in establishing your authority and removing any bias from your own outreach.
Another powerful way for your to develop your knowledge surrounding an issue is to volunteer your time with a nonprofit and gain firsthand experience effecting change and seeing what the problems are, how they manifest, and who they affect.
Moving forward, however you decide to proceed is entirely up to you. Do not feel obligated to be an activist of a certain fashion. The following tips will help you find ways to use your knowledge to effect change in the world around you, whether you're trying to spread awareness for an issue, or trying to end a systemic problem.
Set Actionable Goals
While nobody questions the value of campaigning to secure the rights of the disenfranchised, keeping in mind the scope of your goals is key to a successful venture. Understanding the dichotomy between technical problems and adaptive challenges. Technical problems are those that are acute, easily identifiable, and often administrable with the correct knowledge, while adaptive challenges are those which require concert between creativity and contextual understanding of the systems which interface at their junctions. A design flaw in a car engine can be solved with an engineer tweaking the design, whereas tackling a toxic cultural climate within an organization requires an understanding of the facets of the organization which contribute to that atmosphere.
Is bringing an end to the private prison industry a noble goal? Yes, quite simply, but that does not make it a feasible one. Even if you were able to garner the support of thousands, it would be aimless despite having a well-minded target. Having clean, concise description of your goal, how you plan to achieve it. Identify reasonable targets, and use indicators to gauge success. Keeping with the Flint, MI example, instead of saying, "I am going to make sure the residents of Flint have access to clean water," you could say, "I am going to reach out to businesses and community members for donations of water and money to buy water filtration systems, and measure success through the number of water-days supported (water-days are not a thing, but they explain amounts of water, the recommended daily amount of water per person being one water-day)." If you were able to send fifty gallons of water, then using one half gallon per day as the amount an adult is expected to drink to be healthy (according to many health authorities), then you would have sent 100 water-days to Flint residents, or, in other words, given one resident 100 days of not needing to worry about drinking water. Because the second statement gives a much clearer goal, and provides the framework to achieve that goal, it is a much better tool for guiding your activism.
Engaging the Public
The greatest resource that an activist can utilize is the public. With enough support from community members and stakeholders, you can catalyze change under the proper framework. You cannot mobilize an ignorant public, so the first step is engagement and education. Introduce people to your cause, but make sure to do so respectfully. You wouldn't be receptive to someone screaming at you about dying people in another state and telling you its your fault because you're not doing anything to help, so. . . don't do that. Instead, engage with them on a personal level, ask them if they are aware of your cause. Have they heard about it on the news (if it's a quietly covered topic), or perhaps they've heard about movies about the issue.
If people are not interested, do not press the issue further with them. Instead, thank them for their time, and perhaps point them to some online resources they can use to look into the issue on their own time in a comfortable manner. People do not want to feel pressured to help others, they want to feel proud and accomplished for doing so.
Petitions are a great way to directly raise support for your cause by creating a list of people willing to testify to their support of your cause to legislators or people in power (such as corporate officers, diplomats, and community leaders to name a few). Your petition should be clear and concise, stating your issue, the context necessary to appreciate it, and what you are petitioning for (the action you are asking a person in power to consider). There is no exact formatting for a petition, but be sure to include signors names and relevant contact info.
Websites such as Change.org allow people to sign petitions online, or even create their own which they can use to press officials to consider certain ideas or actions. Some petitions call for boycotting of products or businesses, others ask that a particular course of action be adopted or be stopped. Yet other petitions ask signors to pledge to a certain action or behavior, such as using reusable bags when shopping, or stop using single plastics. There is a lot of leeway when designing petitions, and creativity is an important tool for creating an effective one. You can read more about petitions here.
Pledges are commitments to certain actions which people can voluntarily uphold. They are an effective mechanism at highlighting the impact that individuals can have on an issue. One example of pledges which has been routinely used to enact change is the boycott, or the removal of a certain product or brand from consumers' minds. By boycotting a company an individual is saying that they do not support their actions, such as the use of animal testing, the sourcing of certain materials from war zones, or other unethical practices. Boycotts hold companies accountable for their actions, and philosophically state that their actions constitute a break from the principles that consumers hold.
Pledges don't need to be about garnering support or raising awareness, they can just be about you feeling comfortable with who you are, and being proud of it even, because you should. If you decide to go vegan because you don't believe in the killing of animals or the use of their products, then be proud of yourself for making that decision, and for doing your part to make a difference in the world, even if it may be insignificant - that doesn't mean that others who don't also take your self-pledge are any less deserving of your respect though. We will talk more about how activism's influence on your life later in the article, and you can read more about pledges here.
Social Media is one of the most effective tools for communication in the 21st century, and will undoubtedly be part of your activism efforts. You can use various platforms to raise awareness about your cause, whether that means creating a dedicated page or just highlighting the issue on your personal page.
There are a variety of social media platforms to choose from, and relying on only on only limits your reach:
The list goes on. In another post we will discuss the pros and cons associated with many of these platforms for activism. (Did you see a surprising one? Have any recommendations for us to cover? Tell us below!)
When using social media to raise awareness for your cause and engage the public, it's important to remember that your actions and words don't solely reflect on you, but on others in the activist community, so be sure to be respectful and appropriate (though there are exceptions to this rule!).
You don't need to limit yourself to one cause - you could, for example, blast a different charity or community group every month on your social media, and make that month about raising awareness or support for that group. On the other hand, you could say, "I really am passionate about [xyz]," and focus heavily on supporting that cause or group. Social media is an art form, and how you express your ideas will ultimately depend on who you are, who you want to reach, and what kind of narrative you want to give.
Remember to KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE on social media: we will talk more about this on a future post, but make sure that you keep in mind who you are speaking too so that you can make sure your work is effectively aimed and is coherent in style. Are you trying to change the minds of politicians directly, or are you trying to change the minds of their constituents? Your tone, personality, and rhetoric could be very different depending on who it is you're trying to reach?
Nonprofits can be found in every community, and their work is vital to the distribution of access to resources. Examples of local nonprofits are:
Boys and Girls Clubs
Community Health Clinics
Certain Blood Banks (Nonprofit Blood Donation Centers, not for-profit ones)
National and State Parks
The list goes on. There are also national nonprofits, as well as ones whose work is abroad such as Peace Corps, Doctors Without Borders, or National Geographic. There is no shortage of opportunities to help others, whether directly or through supporting programs aimed at benefiting others. These opportunities also offer you the chance to develop your own perspectives through experience working with issues that affect others. Firsthand experience is one of the best ways to become personally attached to an issue, which can help motivate you to persevere through the work required to effect change.
Becoming an activist is less about following some rubric or any of the tips above, as it is a way of thinking. How do you actually generate the interest in your cause, how do you get people involved? Well that has less to do with following a template and more to do with getting to know yourself. While pledging to go vegan won't do much for the animal community as a whole, it gives you insight into why one should go vegan, and that affects how you communicate it with others.
Many people may tell you that your impact will be insignificant, that even if a hundred, a thousand, or even one million people decided to follow in your footsteps, that it would not be enough to solve the problem. To them, all you have to say is, "you're right, but I don't do this solve a problem, I do this to fight it."Explain how everyone chooses their battles, and you've chosen this to be yours, because it takes discipline and allows you to grow as a person, which helps your community grow as well. Be respectful when communicating your thoughts and feelings, but also make sure to stand on firm ground and voice yourself because you have every right and reason to.
While one million people may not have enough of an impact to change a system, it just takes one of those people to have an idea to replace it. It takes one person to think up Beyond Meat, or Impossible, and that's all it takes, but if they hadn't taken the time to want to change things, they never would have changed them. That is the core of the activist mindset, the mentality that you can change your life to change the world.