Updated: Jul 31, 2019
When we think of a change maker, the "social activist" may be the first example that comes to mind. They speak up for the people without a voice: for human rights, against oppression and for doing the right thing. Together I want to explore different ways to be an activists - if you scroll down - I am giving some specific suggestions on how you can become involved in activism today. But at the same time, I want to explore some misconceptions around activism and things to consider.
Thanks for reading along.
"They speak up for the people without a voice: for human rights, against oppression and for doing the right thing"
Radical change is not the only way to make an impact, of course, but there are many examples in history where collective activism has made true change. I grew up in Berlin and was always inspired by the idea that people coming together week after week to speak up for freedom, the wall dividing East and West Germany finally fell. Activism is, of course, not limited to participating in protests. Many activists work closely with politicians, lobby the government, create mass-petitions online or gather signatures on the street and thus show world leaders what people care about. Many activists also play an important role in raising awareness about causes that the public is not aware of. This can put pressure on governments or companies to make important changes. Reporters and other media representations can thus be important change makers.
What do activists do?
There are more specific examples of what activists can do to speak up about what's right (scroll down to the end of the post to see them now), but I just wanted to give a brief overview of what activists can do. They can:
Create and sign petitions
Take on public challenges
Moreover, when we think of activism we may primarily think of political change. However, many scientists engaged in activism for many decades to prove that climate change is, in fact, not only real but that humans were and are actively contributing to it and its extremely adverse effects on the globe. Our generation, after learning about their findings, has continued their work e.g by global school-strikes that urge world leaders to take action now.
Not a fan of public speaking?
But if you are interested in activism but are not interested in public-speaking or being the leader of the next social movement – remember that the change initiated by those leaders was only possible because so many people supported them. Greta took an important step by speaking up about climate change, but the thousands of youth all over Europe who went on the streets and stood by her, was what really got the world's attention.
Activism & Extroversion
Many people think in order to be an activist, you have to be extremely extroverted. And looking at these brave leaders who stand on big stages and talk to millions of people, it can seem like that. But there are many activists who work behind the scenes. In fact, on the TED radio hour episode "Changing the World" Sarah Corbett talks about how introverts can be activists too.
"You can be an introverted and an activist"
She makes the point that we also need activists who don't just scream loudly, but who try to make change by being patient, building trust and forming relationships. Who knows maybe that's sometimes even more effective than just yelling at each other?
Activism & Violence
Most of us have seen a speech or action by activists that are inherently aggressive. But although we may think it is: violence is not always effective. In fact studies have shown that violence can cause movements to lose supporters and credibility.
"Violence can cause movements to lose supporters and credibility"
Think about some of the greatest activists and social changes in the past 100 years: the fall of the Berlin Wall and consecutive reunification of Germany, Nelson Mandela's role in ending the apartheid in South Africa, the Independence Movement in India led by Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement in the US. These were all nonviolent movements! Yes, some social changes may or may not have happened without violence. But see it as a last resort. And before you engage in it, look at the strength and success of the leaders before you who were successful because they did not engage in it.
If you want to learn more about nonviolent resistance, I encourage you to explore the courses offered by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. I can also recommend this documentary on nonviolent resistance by school children in Louisiana.
Activism & Listening
Many activists speak up about things that I absolutely support. However, we have to acknowledge that there are many people who don't think the way we do. And that's okay. However, trying to convince them by arguing your own opinion is most likely not going to foster trust, most likely cause people to be defensive and is definitely not going to persuade them to join your cause.
"Try to listen to the people who disagree with you."
Try to listen to the people who disagree with you. Even if you think you can't. People have found forgiveness in the most unlikely situations. Only if you truly take someone else's perspective and can truly say: You know what, I may disagree with you but I understand where you are coming from. How can we move forward together. You are going to have a much harder time making progress with your cause. A book that has very much forced me to take the perspective of people I found very difficult to understand is Arlie Hochschild's "Strangers in Their Own Land" in which the most powerfully narrate the "deep story" of US republicans in Louisiana. A deep story is a story that, if you find it, allows you to understand the perspective of people you disagree with. That doesn't mean you change your opinion. But it allows a respectful conversation to happen.
Talking about the importance of listening in activism, I also want to raise a question that I personally struggle with a lot. Should citizens and governments intervene in the internal issues of other countries?
"Should citizens and governments intervene in
the internal issues of other countries?"
Have you ever had a friend trying to give you advice about something (with the best intentions) and you found yourself getting annoyed, thinking: you don't understand the situation here. It's not that simple.
And in the real world it usually isn't either.
"When we have the right to impose our opinions on others?"
When we have the right to impose our opinions on others? If we have never been to a country - perhaps not even the continent the country is located in, how can we possibly have enough information to claim that we know the solution to their problems?
To be honest: I haven't decided my final stand on this issue and it will probably change depending on the situation. What do you think?
What I do take away from this dilemma is that it's really important to know what you are talking about when you are an activist. Really know the history and context
"It's really important to know what you are talking about
when you are an activist"
Activism isn't always the right path for everyone.
Whether being an activist is the right choice for you also largely depends on your current situation and more importantly: your location. I know many of you may have read the word “activism” and frowned. Activism can be very dangerous and in some countries you can get arrested by simply holding up a white piece of paper. I acknowledge my privilege of having grown up in countries where speaking your truth is encouraged. If that is not the case for you – I would love to hear your thoughts and your story.
Websites every activist should know
Global Citizen (Various causes)
World Merit (Various causes)
Greenpeace (Environmental causes)
Extinction Rebellion (Climate change)
Sunrise Movement (Climate change)
Earth Guardians (Climate change)
Amnesty International* (Human rights)
Unicef Ireland has a great activism toolkit that you may want to check out.
Plan international (Climate change, Women's rights)
Like many activist movements some of these organizations have varying reputations to which I won't position myself but I ask you to go out and form your own opinions.
*Also please check your government's attitude toward Amnesty. There are some countries where Amnesty is illegal and I don't want you to get into trouble.
Activism Ideas (categorized by time you have to invest)
Raise awareness – less than 5min a day (low stakes)
Use social media to raise awareness about causes you feel strongly about.
Help organizations like Global Citizen, Amnesty International or World Merit to put pressure on governments and organizations to do good. By tweeting, emailing and signing petitions you can help urge world leaders to take important actions in social justice, peace, health and many others.
"By tweeting, emailing and signing petitions you can
urge world leaders to take important actions."
And you can even gather points that you can convert to concert tickets :)
Download the app Good on You and educate yourself and your friends about the conditions on the working conditions of the people who make your clothes. Don’t be rude but be persistent.
Start a club – 1-2h/week (low stakes)
Pick a cause and set up a club at your local youth club, school or university. Hold events that educate people about the issues that are relevant today and how young people can make a difference (show them this website :)
Participate in local events – 2-5/month
You can be part of protests or sign up as a volunteer to register voters, be a volunteer in setting up awareness raising events.
Take on a challenge and devote it to a cause (high stakes)
Take on a challenge and devote it to a cause. Many athletes and people with special talents have throughout history taken on challenges that gain media attention and raise awareness for a cause. I am not suggesting that you live in a tree for months or try to swim across the arctic (in fact, you need to train for years to accomplish that). But anything between that and the Ice Bucket challenge can accomplish great things. There are youtubers who take on challenges like living without plastic for a day or being vegan for a week etc.
In Singapore there is an event called “Hair for Hope”, where people shave and donate their hair to cancer patients. Be inspired and create.
A great challenge should be interesting enough to get people’s attention and should involve some kind of difficulty (not everyone should be able to accomplish it easily). You can also get people to sponsor you for doing the challenge. When I was a kid we had the Unicef run – where we would ask our family-members to commit to donating a certain amount per lap we ran in the stadium.
Become a prominent activist – as much time as you can devote (high stakes)
Do all of the above and more. Read books, stories and memoirs about change-makers throughout history. Get trained in activism and come up with ideas how to make radical change. Become a Youtuber. Become a blogger.
Don't forget the ideas around nonviolence as well as the importance of knowing the context and listening. But if you feel a passion to speak up for others - learn how to and make a change
These are, of course, just a few examples from my personal experience – but there are so many ways to be an activist out there – share them with me!