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Activism 101

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1. Get informed, stay informed.

Whatever issues are most important to you, read about them, every day if you can.

Effective activists have to know and keep up with the facts and with opinion, preferably from several varied sources. Stating something is simply wrong or simply right not only isn't very persuasive, it's often completely subjective. For effective activism, information is often your very best weapon. Someone talking out their rump about something, tossing around facts that simply aren't correct, are outdated, or aren't facts at all can't accomplish much aside of making themselves -- and their issue -- look like a nincompoop.

Inform yourself about activism in general, too. It can take so many forms that pretty much anyone can find a way to do something: marches and active protests, letter writing campaigns or letters to magazines or newspapers, phone canvasses and crisis hotline volunteering, donations, boycotts, support groups, websites, blogs and message boards, poetry slams, group benefits, performance art or visual art exhibits, you name it, it can be used for activism.

2. Get the heck off your tucas.

When psychic activism is developed, a lot of us will be pretty darn excited, myself included. But until that time, you've got to actually get out there and DO something to have an effect. Just being upset, distressed or brassed off isn't enough, neither is voting once every few years or arguing at the dinner table. No one has to be a full-time activist for their living to have an impact -- though that is certainly an option -- but spending at least some hours really working with/on your issue is essential.

3. Find your allies.

Any of us can usually accomplish more as a group than as a single person.

For any given thing you care deeply about, there are others who feel the same way, so seek them out. You can ask around, put a sign up at school, your local community center, coffeehouse or other hangout, network via email or the web (safely, please). If you're not having any luck doing those things locally, use the internet to seek out national or international organizations which support your cause and give them a call or an email to ask for help in finding local allies and ways you can join in. Look to adults you know may know of resources, and by all means, seek out mentors in your activism: most of us who are adult activists are ALWAYS glad to help new activists get started. After all, we older folks won't always be here: we need you!

4. Speak up!

By no means should you think that since you're young, your voice, your concerns are immature or meaningless: quite the opposite. We need your voices. Youth voices are POWERFUL. When you use your voice persuasively, smartly, with dedication and with compassion, in short order, you'll be amazed how many people listen up.

It's not unusual, in fact, in plenty of instances, for people to give MORE credence to the voices of youth than to those of older adults, especially in a culture where so many people have the idea that young people are apathetic and lazy. It's awfully fun to prove them wrong sometimes: they get funny looks on their faces.

5. Be flexible, and be prepared to adapt your stance or approach sometimes.

You'll likely find that as the world changes, for good or for ill, as new things occur, as certain avenues close or open to you, or as some things prove ineffective, that you may have to change how you're doing things or how you think about them.

If you're working in a group, everyone in the group will also often have to come to agreement on what will be done and how, and if people aren't flexible (as well as open to the perspectives of others who may have had different experiences than you), all too often nothing gets done at all. When you're just starting with a group or organization, chances are you may not be your own boss and will sometimes be assigned or asked to do duties that aren't your favorite, so you've got to remember that all sorts of actions are needed to work towards what's important, even things that seem pointless, like cleaning up an organization's coffeetable or licking so many envelopes you feel like your tongue needs its own advocacy group.

If you're still living at home, especially if your family takes a different stance on your issues, you may have to do some work to reach a compromise so you all can live peacefully and comfortably together.

6. Remember that the small stuff not only counts, it's what makes the big stuff.

Imagine if at the March for Women's Lives a couple years ago if every woman who went didn't go, because she figured she was just one person walking, and what good could THAT do? Quite a lot, when there are over one million of those single people, eh? Imagine if everyone who worked for civil rights or women fighting for their right to vote or to have and access birth control felt the same way: we likely STILL wouldn't have those rights today.

ANYTHING is always better than nothing. Is your time just impossible right now? That's okay, you can send $10 to an organization which supports your cause. Having trouble finding allies or ways to be really active locally? That's okay, you can do so nationally or internationally then: many organizations and activist groups have sites online with action alerts where you can take action from your own PC, right at home.

7. Take the initiative.

For some issues, or in some areas, you won't be able to find a group or network that is already formed you can just hook up with. That's okay: you can make your own. After all, for any of those groups, someone had to start them in the first place!

Think you've got no resources to start an activist group? You may be wrong. Your school, for instance, may have funds that need be used for some activist causes, as might your community centers, hospitals, places of worship, or local groups that serve youth like the YMCA, YWCA, Girl Scouts, the Urban League and the like. Check out some of the links at the bottom of the page for funding ideas if what you want to do may cost some money, and then ask around locally: the worst someone can say is no.

Be creative: if you have a couple friends who feel the same way about an important issue as you do, spend some time together simply brainstorming about what you can do. Have a think-tank meeting once a week for a while where you put your heads together.

8. Reap the added benefits.

For instance, activist work is often something that you can put as an extracurricular activity on college applications, and it looks awfully good there. A lot of volunteer work can give you real-life job experience that can help you get a paying job later. If you file taxes for yourself, some aspects of your activism can be written off as charitable donations; not just money you give to a cause, but gas you use to drive to a volunteer job, materials you donate to help build housing for the homeless, and so forth.

Too, activism can develop a whole lot of life skills that will really serve you well: leadership and communication skills; practice in working cooperatively, speaking or writing professionally and coherently, in networking with others, in utilizing your resources efficiently, in organizing your time, in gathering allies and support, in living ethically and compassionately, and in protecting and upholding those things which are important to you. To top all that off, it can also be a whole lot of fun.

9. Don't expect immediate results, credit or a thank you from the universe.

Activism is often thankless, tiring work. Often, we don't see direct or immediate fruits of our labors: sometimes, we may not see any big changes in our whole lifetime. Change, especially the big kind, takes a LOT of time. But it happens from lots of people slowly chipping away at it, working as they can and with integrity, dedication and care.

Working for a cause you care about should be enriching no matter what. Being around like-minded people who care about something as much as you do is always feel-good. And certainly, spending your time doing something of real value -- even if it's only part of how you spend your time -- sure beats the constant brain-suck of spending all your leisure time in front of the television or at the mall.

Don't forget to appreciate the thanks where they come: often, you are thanked and credited in small ways, and that's important, valuable and not to be overlooked.

10. Think globally, act locally.

This is an old activist credo. When you're thinking about the big picture, often the best way to help everyone get there is to start right where you are. For instance, if you're concerned about gay and lesbian rights, the best thing for you to do may be to join or start a GSA at your school. Worried about animal cruelty? Volunteer at your local animal welfare society or animal shelter. Concerned about teen sexuality issues? Talk to your doctor or school nurse about how he or she addresses this issue with their patients. Pissed off about racism? Work to address it where it's happening closest to you first. Feel STI tests or EC should be given at college health centers? Start with a petition at your own.

Here are some links to help get you started, revved up or re-inspired:
- http://www.youthactivism.com/
- http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/youth/
- http://www.ruckus.org/
- http://justact.org.au/
- http://www.youthactivism.org/
- http://www.fcyo.org/

written 29 May 2007 . updated 24 Jan 2014

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