The last few years we’ve had some of the hottest (and coldest) days in recorded history. Politicians are taking aim at rights that women have had for decades. States keep passing laws forbidding same-sex couples from marrying, while on the television our President announces his support for homosexual marriage. And the Occupy Movement has gone beyond Wall Street and even crossed over America’s borders to stage rallies around the world.
If you’re looking to make a difference in the world, there is no shortage of issues or groups that want fresh blood and new, dynamic ideas. But how do you take that first step to becoming a social activist?
Determine your cause. Most people find this pretty easy. They don’t become social activists because they’re looking for a fun way to spend a Saturday night – they do it because they see something in the world that they believe is wrong and it touches them. What is that for you? Does it make you sad every time you see a homeless person in the street? Do you hate the fact that people aren’t doing more to stop atrocities in Africa? Are you personally affected when hearing about puppy mills and dog abuse? It’s possible that there are many things that you care about, but try not to spread yourself too thin. The best way to make a difference is to focus on one specific problem or cause.
What can I do? After you’ve figured out what problem you’d like to help solve, ask yourself what you can do to help. If you’re worried about the homeless, you can donate money to foundations, offer your own time at food banks, shelters, and soup kitchens, or build houses with a group like Habitat for Humanity. Or maybe you have a specific skill, such as graphic design or home repair – could you use your abilities to raise awareness?
See what’s already out there. Before printing out a million fliers with your awesome design to get people to pay attention to the homeless problem, you should check out what other people are doing. We mentioned things like soup kitchens and Habitat for Humanity. Could your graphic design skills be used there or with another organization that may already have an infrastructure in place? Looking around can also help you see what other organizations may have missed. For example, there might be plenty of places offering food for the homeless, but no one has yet thought to collect blankets in your area for those people who can’t get into a shelter. You could be the person to fill that gap by starting a blanket drive.
Big change starts in small ways. Don’t beat yourself up if you feel like the help you’re providing isn’t fixing the overall problem. No one person can do it all on their own, so focus on smaller goals and the individual people whose lives you are making easier. If the issue you’ve chosen is a big one, there’s a huge chance it won’t be “solved” in your lifetime, so if that thought is too depressing for you to bear, activism might not be for you. It has to be about the journey and the little victories as much as it’s about the big idea.
Stoke your fires. Most of us know about a lot of the ills in the world, but they haven’t touched us in a personal enough way to get up and do anything about them. If you feel this way, or if you are already trying to help and starting to feel burnt out, try reading a book, going to a rally, or listening to a good speaker. Nothing jumpstarts your “battery of change” quite like listening to other passionate people who feel the way you do. Alternatively, if it’s an issue with strong and vocal activists on both sides, check out a speaker or group that disagrees with your way of thinking. You may find that you have more common ground than you thought – or it might reaffirm your beliefs and make you want to fight harder than ever.
Take a communication class. Okay, this doesn’t have to be taken literally, but one of the biggest problems many issues face is that the people campaigning for change aren’t very good at communicating their ideas effectively. You all know the stereotype of the activist ranting at you on the street corner, right? That is not who you want to be. Rather than making people want to avoid you, your goal should be to get them to approach you and seek you out. Research your issue so that you know it backward and forward, then practice what it is that you want to say. Use a mirror, ask for feedback from friends, write it down – whatever you need to do to make yourself comfortable and get your message across in a clear, calm, and intelligent way.
Take care of yourself. You know how parents in crashing planes are supposed to put their own oxygen masks on first, then get them for their kids? Well, activism isn’t that different. To effectively help people, you need to make sure that you’re healthy first. This means eating well, exercising, sleeping, and taking time off for rest and relaxation – basically, not running yourself into the ground.