Activism 101- Where to Start

There have been a number of times in the past 10 years in working with families in crisis, and the systems that have failed them, that I've found myself thinking "there is no way we're going to defeat this giant". When you think about issues like systemic racism, poverty, domestic violence, sexual assault, etc and consider the many factors that create a context where these experiences are possible, it can be overwhelming. When something seems too difficult or it feels like there isn't much you could do to make meaningful change, we often become paralyzed to act. We don't know what to do so we do nothing. I think disengagement can also be a form of self-preservation- if I don't think about it, if I don't engage with it, then I can't fail and it won't hurt. Unfortunately, disengagement makes us complicit in these broken systems. When you know of an issue and fail to engage with it, you are sort of saying "I'm okay with that continuing to happen". 

So how can you start to engage in activism if you aren't sure where to start? I know it sounds cliche, but start where you are with what you have. You might not have a huge platform or giant audience, but that's okay. Engaging with a social issue and acting within your circle of influence may create meaningful and lasting change. It also may open the door for somebody you know and love to ask for help or to feel validated, allowing them to work through a painful experience of their own. I could do a full day training on this stuff, but hopefully the simple steps below will be a great catalyst. 

Step 1: Check your privilege. We all come to understand the world based on our own social status & experiences. My life as a middle class educated heterosexual white woman is vastly different from other experiences, but that doesn't mean those experiences are not real and valid. I have been afforded certain privileges and protections that other people were not. Acknowledging that helps me to have an open mind and heart as I approach a topic that I am unfamiliar with. We don't all share the same experience and we aren't all afforded the same opportunities. 

Step 2: Learn about the issue. There are a ton of ways you can learn about any social issue. Read about it, contact a social service agency who works on the issue, attend a training, and most importantly- have conversations with somebody experiencing the issue first hand. You can read every book written about racism that exists, but if you do not make an effort to understand what the experience feels like or how it impacts somebody personally, any effort you make to effect change will be mediocre at best and destructive at worst. 

Step 3: Consider small actions you can take today. Activism doesn't have to be some grand gesture. In fact, a TON of change happens when we take small actions every day towards creating change. That may mean changing your language, shopping at different places, challenging friends and family when they say something ignorant or intentionally hurtful. Sometimes showing up at an event or a town hall is a good first step. Be present. 

Step 4: Take action, reflect, & seek feedback. Start implementing the actions you thought about in step three. Reflect on how those changes are either helping or hurting the cause. Ask for feedback from those who are directly impacted by the issue. We often say in the domestic violence world that a victim is the one who has the best understanding of what might keep her safe. I may recommend she gather her things and flee while her abuser is at work, but she may know that he has cameras in the house, watching her every move, and that her best chance at getting out is in the middle of the night when he is asleep. Well-intentioned acts and words do not always have the impact we thought they would and that's okay. Own the fact that you were misguided and commit to doing better. 

Step 5: Rinse and repeat this process forever. I don't think any of us will be done learning. Keep learning, keep engaging with the group you want to help, keep changing, keep reflecting. And do your best not to forget what it was like before you "knew better". Once you know something, it's impossible to unknow it, but it also becomes easier to pass judgement on those who don't act appropriately without recognizing that maybe they just haven't "seen the light" yet. People don't know what they don't know and we can't expect them to act as if they know all the same things we do. Building bridges and meeting people where they are, without judgement or condemnation, can help others come along in their own journey. 

I hope these simple steps can help you get started or grow in your own journey of activism. We all have a critical role to play in creating change and it's amazing what is possible when people commit to doing what they can to help. Have other suggestions for getting started in activism? Share them!