How to Be An Activist
It’s been a pretty harrowing June, and the last 24 hours have encapsulated the atmospheric highs and stomach-churning drops of being fully engaged in our democratic process. The Supreme Court decision to gut a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, the inspiring filibuster of a draconian anti-abortion bill in Texas, and today’s SCOTUS ruling on marriage equality have been a rollercoaster through elation, despair, outrage, cynicism, hope, admiration, and faith in the people, if not the process.
Through it all, I’ve fielded a number of questions about how I can stand to invest so much of my heart and effort into issues so much bigger than myself, many of which don’t even touch me in my place of acknowledged privilege. Personally, I’ve never felt like I had much of a choice–I couldn’t not care or act on that feeling. But here’s a brief primer in how to find that commitment in yourself.
Step #1: Figure out what you believe in. Everyone has core values, and those are the only things that can motivate someone to stand up and fight the good fight. If all you can come up with are things like “I believe Han Solo shot first,” or “I believe in cake,” or “I believe that Washington is evil,” you’re not digging deeply enough–you’ve got to strike bedrock for this to work.
If you believe in the magical, transformative power of books, put in some time to improve library access or literacy programs. If your faith is important to you, figure out ways to act on the belief that all God’s children are worthy of love, or that this planet was given to us as a sacred trust and should be preserved. If your religion is democracy, work to bring sunlight and integrity back to the broken processes that limit our rights.
My bedrock truth is that every single person has inherent worth and dignity, and I act on this in a multitude of ways. I work for racial and LGBT justice. I strive for more accepting and safe schools for our kids. I speak out for freedom of the press and against the death penalty and mass incarceration. I march for each woman’s right to choose. I stand up for rights and respect for disability rights and neurodiversity. So many issues, one underlying principle.
Step #2: Show up. I’m not being trite or overly simplistic. Inertia is the greatest enemy to getting active on the issues that move you, and it’s why you need that deeply motivating value to clear away obstacles. Don’t know how to get involved? There’s this fantastic thing called the Google Machine. Use it. Scheduling conflicts? I don’t know an organization anywhere that won’t take whatever time you can spare, whenever you can spare it. Afraid of being challenged? Good. New experiences do that. But when you act in spite of that fear, you are most open to the experiences that will expand your views, your world, your circle of friends, and your hope for the future.
Two important things about showing up, though. First, show up as an apprentice. Too many groups swoop in as “suburban saviors,” with big ideas about how to fix people’s problems in a weekend. These solutions are the likeliest to stick, and they come from a place of privilege and self-gratification, not true altruism. Don’t come with an agenda–show up and ask how you can help. Second, keep showing up. Again and again, on the issues that matter to the community you’re joining. Let them know that you’re an ally who can be counted upon.
Step #3: Profit. Okay, I’m mostly kidding about this, but stick with me. You’ll never make big money doing good works, but that’s not why anyone gets into it. The dividends are much more varied and durable than money, though. When you keep showing up, you learn new skills, many of which spill over into the rest of your life and make you a better worker, partner, parent, and friend. The base of people you know explodes. If networking is king in the new economy, activism is like LinkedIn that actually helps people. Also, you’re going to have a ridiculous amount of fun. If you’re not having fun at least part of the time, then it’s not activism that’s failing you–it’s that you haven’t found the right group of people to do this work with, so keep looking!
Another important note: Profit happens, yes, but investing yourself in issues and people comes with ups and downs. The only way to keep the fire lit under your chair is self-care. Set boundaries about how much time and energy you can afford to give, so you don’t flame out in a few months–AND THEN KEEP THEM. Organizers are going to test those boundaries, and defending them is excellent practice for doing so in other parts of your life. And when you do feel like you’re burning out, don’t turn inward and shut down. Reach out to other activists who’ve been doing it longer than you. Ask how they stay fresh. Trust me, it works.
So that’s it. It’s not superhuman, it’s not rocket science. Pick something that matters to you, show up ready to work, and keep coming back. Every single person is an activist waiting for an issue, and we never know when we’ll break through and make history.