How do I get involved? What can I do to help?
These are two questions I often see posted under every news story about a tragedy. When something awful and shocking happens and gets publicized, a lot of people are filled with the desire to take action.
Humans are social creatures. We’re naturally cooperative, and we hate feeling helpless in the face of crime, tragedy and disaster. We especially hate when we see injustice taking place but feel like we have no way to fight back.
Thankfully, there are ways that even the ordinary person on the street can take action. You don’t need to be famous, have money, or even be an influencer on social media. All you need to do is care.
Let’s talk about some strategies that can be used by anybody at any time.
What Does It Mean to Be an Activist?
The dictionary definition of activist reads as such: A person who campaigns to bring about political or social change.
Activism doesn’t require any special skills or abilities. Everybody can become an activist; all it takes is the desire and willingness to get involved. It doesn’t cost money, it doesn’t take much effort, and it doesn’t even require you to travel if you don’t want to.
So, let’s break this down and talk about some tactics you can use to fight for social change. These will be things you can do today, without spending money, and without even taking up much of your time.
Even so, they will help make a difference.
The first thing to get under your belt is information. Before you can effectively join a cause and begin fighting for it, you need to understand it. It isn’t enough to just read a headline and declare your support; you need to take the time to do the research.
If you’re getting involved in an environmental protest for example, get some background know-how. Let’s say there’s an oil pipeline leak and people are up in arms about it poisoning the water supply and local wildlife.
First you need to learn what kind of damage is expected. Find a scientist that has expertise in the issue and email them with questions. If they’re asking people to get involved, they’ll probably answer you. Although you should be careful in who you speak to- if you’re trying to learn about a topic, you’ll want to talk to someone who studies relevant things.
A neuroscientist might be able to help with disability rights advocacy but probably won’t have a clue about natural disasters. Just an example.
Having a list of facts on hand and a full understanding of the danger will help you find an effective argument to bring to the conversation.
Education is a big part of activism. If you’ve ever heard the saying that ‘knowledge is power’, you already get that. If you don’t know the who, what, when, where and why, you’re not going to know what you’re doing.
The same rule applies when you’re getting involved in a human rights cause, but you should be reaching out to the people on the ground instead. Speak to the people that are under attack and listen to their perspective. Ask them what you can do to help and take their advice.
The worst thing you can do is tell a marginalized community you’re there to help, and then disregard their opinion on how best to fight. You’re not a savior, you’re an ally. You are there to learn first, and to jump in second.
Actions and Words Are Equally Loud
If you see the value in information, then you understand the importance of sharing it.
When it comes to activism, speaking out against or in favor of an issue is an action. In fact, even stating your neutrality can be construed as an action. This is what the term ‘advocacy’ means- when you advocate for something, you are making a public recommendation, for or against.
When we think of activism, we think of protests and people rallying in the streets. That’s a very important part of it, to be sure. If you can get on the ground in person, that’s awesome, and you should. But if for some reason you aren’t able, you can still help.
After all, a protest is only effective if it makes noise. If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, is it going to contribute to social change? Weird analogy, but you get what I mean!
Most people today have social media, even if it’s only friends and family. But sharing information about protests and asking your friends to share it around is a fantastic way to help garner more attention and support.
If you share something with three people, and they share it with three people each, and then they share it with three people…try it for yourself. Pick up a calculator and start multiplying.
3 x 3 is 9.
9 x 3 is 27.
27 x 3 is 81.
Keep going and see how quickly it compounds!
So, if you can convince people to share your post, suddenly you’ve got dozens, if not hundreds of more eyes on the issue, right? You don’t need to have a massive following to spread information. You just need to make it compelling, eye-catching and easy to link to.
You can’t make demands if nobody can hear you. Protests on the ground depend on people spreading the word like this in order to make an impact.
In the spirit of sharing and spreading information, consider passing this letter to your friends. It’s free. And who knows- maybe it will inspire somebody to take action, too.
How About Direct Action?
This is where things take a little more effort.
Direct activism can be things like protesting, contacting government officials and attending town halls, joining activist groups and volunteering. Some of these are still pretty easy, and they’re all free- assuming you don’t need to travel outside of your local area, that is.
But they do take up more of your time. They require you to make a concerted effort to be present and involved. Even more so if you plan to try and stage a protest yourself.
You can do it, but it’s going to require a lot of thought and a lot of set up and networking. If you have a background in logistics and a bunch of friends that are ready and rearing to help, you’re golden; you can contact the local law enforcement and figure out what the parameters of your protest need to be.
Most places have simple bylaws to ensure safety during rallies on the street, and law enforcement likes to be made aware of it ahead of time. It’s better for the safety for all involved if you don’t take them by surprise with a giant crowd one day, especially if you plan to block a street or take over a public space near a government building.
If you’ve never protested before though, it’s a good idea to contact people who have and get a checklist. Most activist groups that stage protests will be happy to share their strategy with you if you’re fighting for the same thing. The more feet on the sidewalk, the more impact you all have.
Joining a group and going to protests with them is an awesome way to learn by doing, if you can swing it. Volunteering your time, either for charities or for mutual aid, will help you build a network of talent and like-minded individuals you can work with in the future.
Even if you can’t take part in protests directly, you’d be surprised how many skills can be applied to the planning and execution of a march. Do you know anything about video editing? Website design? Can you write, draw or paint? Can you play music? Are you handy with power tools?
Success in protest comes from making noise, like I said before. Think of it like advertising- the catchier your slogan, the more you can make the cause stick in the minds of your audience, the better chance you have of gaining traction. Videos on social media, well-designed signs, a catchy jingle with memorable lyrics- these can all help.
That’s the fun side of it, anyway. There’s another potentially-not-fun side of protesting. Anybody who wasn’t living under a rock for the past few years has seen what happened to Black Lives Matter protestors in the United States.
If you know how to use tools, consider building signs that double as shields. No weapons, definitely don’t make weapons. But something to block thrown rocks, sticks and batons isn’t a bad idea.
The police use riot shields on the ground for a reason; to protect themselves. A heavy plywood sign with a handle on the back makes for good protection without looking like you’re escalating the situation.
And speaking of escalating the situation- be prepared for saboteurs. Especially if you’re acting on the part of a cause that brings a lot of pushback and counter-protest. Actions against racism and LGBTQ+ discrimination for example bring in a lot of attention from dangerous people.
During the George Floyd protests, there were several examples of masked people breaking windows and damaging vehicles. Later, some of these people were caught after videos of their antics were handed over to police. Some turned out to be counter-protestors trying to escalate the marches into riots in hopes of causing a police crack down.
If you’re at an otherwise peaceful protest and you see someone running around, shoving people, breaking things and making a lot of noise, they need to be challenged. Chances are pretty good they aren’t there for good faith reasons, and they might provide an excuse for law enforcement to get violent with you.
If that sounds too risky for you, or you don’t think you could effectively help on the ground, no worries. I’ve only been to a couple protests myself, for various reasons. Marching on hard asphalt isn’t easy with arthritis. There are plenty of other ways to help a cause.
Contacting the government is easy as pie. It can be as simple as an email, a phone call, or a letter. You can even go to a meeting with a prepared speech. Try taking a look at your local government, I’m willing to bet they’ve got meetings set up that the public can attend. School board meetings, town halls, public speeches, all sorts of things.
The biggest protest I’ve been a part of was a climate change protest outside of my city’s legislature building. The lawmakers came outside to listen to our grievances- that’s their job. In a democracy, the people are in charge. You have the right to tell them how you want things run. Use it.
Getting together with some of your friends to pen and distribute a letter to your local government about the kind of changes you want to see is a great way to do it. You can send it to the municipal offices, and even make copies and pass them out to people, asking for signatures. A flood of letters with the signatures of hundreds of citizens means a lot more than one random phone call.
Speaking of signatures. What about petitions? They’re a great way to submit something to the government for consideration, and to demonstrate the level of support the issue has among their constituents. They’re not difficult to set up.
There are a few things to keep in mind regardless of where you’re working from.
- Petitions with clear requests are important. Don’t bog it down with unnecessary ramblings. Be straightforward and blunt, describe the issue quickly and provide citation.
- Be sure you’ve read and understand the laws surrounding the request you’re making, and ensure you’re submitting the petition to the correct office in the correct location.
- The more signatures the better. The bigger the show of public support, the more likely you are to get an answer.
- Don’t be afraid to send an email to your local radio or news stations and drop a blurb about the petition all over local social media. If your city has a Reddit page, use it. Facebook groups, use them. Twitter hashtag, don’t ignore it. The more eyes you get, the more signatures you stand to gain.
Direct actions take more effort, but they also offer a lot of bang for your buck. Either on the ground, by petition, participating in local meetings or sending letters, you can make a huge difference just by taking part.
Why Become An Activist?
Democracy functions on the shoulders of its citizens.
Casting your vote during elections is one thing. Honestly, it’s the absolute bare minimum of what you can do to help guide your government down the right path.
I see a lot of apathy in the world today, especially with my generation. Some people have the sense that their votes don’t count and that there’s no point in getting involved when your voice is just going to be ignored.
I understand the feeling. I’ve felt it myself, too. But the moment we stop trying is the moment we lose.
Remember when I said that stating your neutrality is also an action? What I mean by that is that refusing to stand up against something is the same thing as allowing it to happen. Refusing to fight for a cause indicates that you don’t care about it.
If you see someone being mistreated and you say nothing, you send a message to the victim that you won’t help them, and you send a message to the perpetrator that you won’t stop them.
In failing to take a side, you are taking a side. And in the case of human rights causes, I would say you’re taking the wrong one.
I can’t tell you what to do, or what to believe, or what you should fight for. But I can tell you that people choosing not to do something is going to be the reason things get worse for everybody.
The more engaged the population is with politics, the more peaceful marches and polite, reasonable debates we see, the better for all.
The more misinformation, personal attacks and violence we see, the worse it’s going to get.
I’m not advocating for people to be demure and quiet in the face of assault, I don’t want to see people fall into the Gandhi Trap. But being the first person to throw a punch is not okay. Being the one to escalate from words and into violence is not a welcome tactic.
Battles and blood shouldn’t be where we end up. Sometimes it’s inevitable, but it doesn’t always have to be. We can draw the line somewhere, and it should be physical violence.
To be an activist is to push for a better world. It’s to learn the tactics and strategies of fighting injustice. It’s to understand how to win hearts and minds, and how to defend your beliefs. It’s to get involved and elevate the causes you feel are important.
You should become an activist because you care about the world you live in and the people you share it with. Because we’re all human beings, and we all deserve to have our voices heard.
You deserve to be heard.