The Overwhelmed Person’s Guide to Activism

By Clio Chang
How to fight back when you’re new (or not so new) to the game
In the two years since Donald Trump was elected president, an upswing in political engagement has been one of the few positive side effects of an increasingly polarized country. According to a Pew survey, 39 percent of the most partisan liberals attended a political event, rally, or protest in the year after the 2016 election; over half contacted an elected official. Overall, more than half of the public — 52 percent — said they were paying more attention to politics since Trump’s election.

But in a world that’s lately felt like a pretty big mess — a new sexual harassment scandal makes news every week, ditto with a natural disaster caused by climate change, and yes, migrant parents are still separated from their children — it’s also hard to not feel paralyzed and exhausted. How, exactly, is one supposed to make a difference when there is so much that needs to be changed? Going to one protest is easy, but what about in our daily lives, when there are also jobs and classes to attend, debts to pay, and children to take care of?

There’s no need to be overwhelmed, and there’s no need to feel like you need to fix everything. Medium talked to a number of organizers — some longtime activists, some new to the scene — about advice on how to step up and get involved even if you’re just one (very busy) person.

Start in your own community.

“Definitely connect with people who are already doing stuff,” Adelle McElveen, a volunteer at Indivisible Brooklyn, said. “Do some due diligence to see who’s out there, who’s active.” The trick is to figure out what you’re passionate about — whether it’s affordable housing, prison reform, kicking a blowhard representative out of their congressional seat — and connecting with groups doing that work in your area.

Googling is an easy way to start, and the internet is full of lists of groups, many of which have guides on how to participate. “A lot of the time, you can read the news and see sort of a structural problem with the world and not know how to fix it,” said Teo Bugbee, an organizer at Writers Guild of America East (disclosure: I’m a member of WGAE). But these seemingly giant political issues are more manageable when they’re broken down to the local level. “Often those social structures that impact your everyday don’t seem as visible as what you see in the news,” Bugbee said. “But they are the places in your life where you have the most agency.”

Think about how to leverage your own position.

Some of the most successful activism of the past few years has come from groups leveraging their unique situation. Take, for example, the state teacher strikes that spread nationwide; educators in many states weren’t just pushing for higher salaries and benefits for themselves but also for more education funding for students and better pay for other school staff.

Cindy Gaete, one of the organizers of the Oklahoma walkout, advised that teachers who are looking to push for change should begin the work in their classroom. “Reach out to students and their families, reach out to their school community, have these difficult conversations,” she said. “It’ll create an organic and authentic way to organize within your own community.”

The nature of the game is to push back against power, so you’re not going to be winning all the time. But the point is to keep at it.

And while teachers might be particularly rooted in the issues, they’re not the only ones. Take a seemingly unrelated field, like tech: Earlier this year, employees from Google and Microsoft signed open letters and petitions calling for their companies to end contracts with ICE and the U.S. military. Ari Laurel, a volunteer with Tech Workers Coalition, said that employees saw what was happening with Trump’s immigration policies and thought “what can they do about it as workers who are rooted in that company and have a stake, both in what their workplace conditions are and what’s going on at the border wall.”

Organize at work.

America has no shortage of labor issues. Only 14 percent of civilian workers have access to family leave. Women make 82 cents for every dollar men make; black and Hispanic women make 62 and 68 cents for every dollar that white men do. Which means that your place of work — somewhere you’re likely spending most of your time — is a place where you can have an effect, even if you might not think of it as “activism.”

“The first thing you should do if you’re in a situation where you think your workplace could improve is to talk to your immediate colleagues,” Bugbee, the WGAE organizer, told me. “Be a bit vulnerable, talk about what it is that you like at your job, what it is that you hope for at your job, and what it is that you haven’t been able to achieve. Form those conversations, and from a communal understanding, you can pursue options together.”

What’s next? Maybe something small, like sharing your salary. Or supporting a co-worker who is facing unfair treatment by keeping your own records. “It’s a great way to begin to build a case for advocating for better treatment,” Bugbee said. “If it’s something that becomes standard for you and your small community at work,” Bugbee said, “it’s a huge help because it means more and more people can verify.”

Make your activism sustainable.

The nature of the game is to push back against power, so you’re not going to be winning all the time. But the point is to keep at it.

“A joke in our circles up here is people make fun of people coming in and going, ‘Oh, we could solve homelessness with an app,’” Laurel from Tech Workers Coalition said. “Of course that’s not true. It’s important to remember that there are no shortcuts to that kind of day-to-day organizing work of just talking to people, making connections, and figuring out how to solve problems together.”

Jiggy Athilingam, an organizer with Indivisible, suggests thinking about activism as a habit to integrate into your day-to-day life. Even small things can add up. “A lot of people who are new activists say they have a specific time every day — on the way to the train or over breakfast while eating their cereal — to make their daily call to their state legislator.”

Everyone has time to do something.

Bring your kids into the fold.

It might feel like you need to shield your children from what’s happening, but some of the most effective direct actions have included kids. Take, for example, the “playdate protests” in which parents against family separation conducted sit-ins with their kids at ICE offices. Hand in Hand, a national network that supports parents doing activism, has a toolkit for those looking to get involved.

“There were a ton of brand new people who never organized anything and didn’t just make a phone call or march on the corner but brought their kids and took over ICE offices around the country,” said Ilana Berger, the director of Hand in Hand. “I would say that every single person I talked to felt completely empowered and excited. I didn’t hear anyone say, ‘Wow, I really regret doing that.’”

Talk to your children about the issues behind the rallies and protests that you’re bringing them to, whether it’s police brutality or family separation. There are helpful lists of age-appropriate books, guides, and blog posts on how to approach sensitive subjects. “It’s inspiring and beautiful to be able to have our children with us when we’re expressing the world that we wanna see,” Berger said.

Push yourself out of your comfort zone.

Everyone has time to do something — make a call, vote, attend a rally. These things are still important, but Athilingam pointed out that the more energy it takes to do an action, the more effective it will be. That doesn’t mean you have to quit your job and devote your life to a cause, but if you have the means and the time, don’t sit on your laurels either.

This can range from confronting your member of Congress at a town hall or speaking up in public, like when Elin Ersson refused to sit down on a plane until a man who was being deported to Afghanistan was taken off.

Berger recounted an incident where an experienced organizer had her child strapped to her chest during a playdate protest while she argued with a cop. When Berger spoke with her after, the woman was in tears because she “started feeling what it must be like to be on the border with somebody and you don’t have power and they’re taking one of your kids.” That fear made her much more resolved to keep acting. “I do think sometimes it’s hard and it’s scary,” Berger said, “but to step a little further into our discomfort is also important.”

Use your wallet.

Yes, you can donate to organizations to help support their work. But even if you don’t have a lot of disposable income, where you keep your money matters too. A new front for activists has been to target the companies that are profiting from immigrant detention. That includes places like JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, which are invested in and finance the debts of private prison corporations, like the Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group.

To make it even easier, there are guides and toolkits on how to move your money and a website that allows you to plug in your ZIP code to find a better bank.

Don’t be turned off by activists.

We often think of activists as being a very specific group or having a very specific mindset, which can seem like a turnoff if you don’t think you belong. “I think that’s a label that might be intimidating to some people,” Gaete, the teacher, said. “But really what it just truly means to be an activist or organizer is being involved in your community and advocating for issues you care about.”

There’s no need to be overwhelmed, and there’s no need to feel like you need to fix everything.

Likewise, don’t let the fear of making a fool of yourself or saying the wrong thing keep you paralyzed. As Berger put it, “recalibrating is a really important part of this, particularly for newer people. You’re not always going to get it perfect, but it’s better to do it and learn than to not act at all because you’re afraid you’re going to mess something up.”

It’s always important to always be mindful that you’re following the lead of marginalized and impacted communities. But the bottom line is that collective action requires, well, a collective. “There are already leaders in the community doing the work that is needed,” Gaete said, “but what we’re lacking is more support.”

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