It goes without saying that 2016 has been quite the year. There has been a lot of debate, turmoil, stress and frustration for many. The good news – and your personal challenge? Now’s the time for you (yes, you!) to step up and use your power for good. Instead of complaining or writing long-winded Facebook posts (yep, we’ve done that, too), it’s time that we all make a difference and focus on what’s important to us.
But sometimes that’s easier said than done. If you’re having a difficult time getting started, then read ahead for some tips that will help you live a more active, and more meaningful, life.
Find a cause
It’s a big world out there, and you’re probably passionate about more than one aspect of it. But the most effective activists are the ones who focus their energy on a specific issue, even though that issue is often tied up in related problems. Think about the most important experiences of your life and how they’ve shaped you. Maybe your beloved rescue pup kept you going when nothing else did, or you had a boss who helped change the course of your career. Then identify how they translate to causes you feel strongly about, like helping to ban puppy mills or mentor young people within your field. While political activism is often the most visible kind of activism, it’s not the only way to effect change in your community.
Before you jump into designing your website and creating your own non-profit, get to know the people and organizations that are already working on the issues to care about. Volunteer with them, attend some meetings, read up on their structure and background, and use that information to determine which one you want to work with, or to identify an area they’re not working on where you think you could begin a new approach. Whether you decided to lend your talents and energy to an existing organization or start your own, it’s always helpful to have connections to other like-minded people on your side.
Become an expert
The issues that activists tend to tackle are big, complex issues, and those kinds of problems don’t crop up over night. You’ll find it much easier to get other activists to take you seriously if you’re truly well-versed in the history of your issue, and you’ll be much better able answer questions and explain your work to other people when you’re fundraising or organizing if you’ve done your homework.
Work your way through a reading list of books written by important figures in your movement, subscribe to journals and publications that cover your key issues, and follow leaders in your movement on social media to keep abreast of what they’re talking about, thinking about and reading about now.
Host a fundraiser
If activism isn’t your full-time job (and for most people, it isn’t!), giving money to causes can be just as important as giving time, since it helps fund the work of organizations devoted to the issues you care about. Those funds ensure someone is always working in your issue, even on days where you personally don’t have time, and hosting a fundraiser is the perfect way to share your passion with your friends, family, and larger social network, while raising more funds than you can give on your own! Be prepared to answer questions about the issue you’re focusing on and the organization you’ll be giving money to, and be ready to make a passionate pitch about why other people should care. That said, don’t take it personally if friends and family who love you don’t feel the same way about your cause. Everyone has different priorities when it comes to charitable giving.
Get ready to run
Organizations like She Should Run have seen a huge uptick in registration this year, and it’s no wonder. Becoming a leader or elected official in your community is a great way to make sure the issues you care about get attention. But it’s not always clear how to get started. A formal training program that helps you identify the causes you care about and develop a narrative around them that you can clearly communicate to others can help anyone go from concerned citizen to a leadership role, and usually in less time than you’d think. You don’t have to apply those lessons to running for elected office specifically, either. It can help you make a case for becoming an officer in a nonprofit organization, or be selected to be a board member, or achiever other leadership positions in a smaller sphere.
When you think “activist,” do you imagine someone shouting slogans in front of a giant crowd, holding up signs and marching in the streets? While that’s certainly one part of being an activist. It’s helpful to attend a big public march just so you know what it’s like, but you may decide that marching in the streets is not your thing. There are lots of ways to make your voice heard, including talking to people at rallies and events, writing op-eds and essays, and creating compelling content on social media. Focus on the mediums where you feel you’re most effective, and build connections with other activists by helping to elevate their voices and sharing their words as well.
Even if you feel so fired up about an issue right now that it’s all you can think about, big problems take a lot of time to solve, and months without progress can dampen anyone’s spirits. When the going gets tough, or progress seems stalled, reach out to other activists in your field to remind each other what you’re working for, watch TED talks or other materials that inspire you to think of new avenues to create change, and don’t feel guilty about taking a break to care for yourself or focus on other things that are important to you. If it helps you come back to the work stronger and more determined, it’s not a distraction—it’s part of the work.