Demystifying Activism – A 101 guide to getting involved

The US elections have made it increasingly clear to many of us that things need to change, and fast, before they get a hell of a lot worse. But while you may have heard plenty of calls to “take action” and “organize,” it’s not always obvious what that means. Not only that, but I know from experience that activism can seem scary and intimidating when you’re on the outside looking in, especially when all you really have to go on are stereotypes and sensationalized media reports.  If you’re going to take a chance by getting involved, it helps to know what you’re signing up for, so in the spirit of demystifying activism, I thought I’d share a bit of what I’ve learned in the last few years. Just to be clear, I’m hardly a seasoned veteran, and while I’ve spent a fair bit of time studying social movements of various sorts, I still have large gaps in my knowledge. So please take what you’re reading here with a grain of salt, and definitely read other things about activism and organizing if you can. But for those who feel like they’re grasping at straws, hopefully this is a start, at least.

1. Pick an issue. This can be switched up with step number two, but if you haven’t already joined or formed a group with people who share some common ground, then the first step is figuring out which issues take priority for you. The most important thing to remember here is that you can’t do everything at once, so don’t try to—you’ll only burn yourself out. A good rule of thumb is to start with the issues that have a direct and immediate impact on your life, because those are also the areas where you’re likely to have the most amount of influence and the most enduring motivation to make some kind of positive change. Your personal experiences will help you figure out what needs to be done, and also build connections with people who are in a similar position.

That doesn’t mean that if it doesn’t affect you, it doesn’t matter of course. Solidarity is really important, because all issues are interconnected on one level or another. But you can show solidarity when it really matters, while still focusing mainly on the things that impact your day-to-day life. For example, two of the major things that impact me and make my life harder as a mixed race cis woman are sexism and racism. I also work in digital games, which is why most of my organizing efforts have been focused around combating racism and sexism in games and/or tech, and making games more accessible. I didn’t pick this issue because I thought it was THE MOST IMPORTANT ISSUE EVER or that everyone should care about it as much as I do; I settled here because it’s an area where I’ve managed to build up a sense of community and a knowledge base, and where I have some amount of social capital that I can use to try to make things just a little bit better. There are lots of other areas where I could potentially make a difference, but this is the place where I feel like my words and actions have the most impact, at least for now.

If this doesn’t really speak to you, here are some other things to consider. Are you unhappy with your working conditions or pay? Do you live in an area where they are planning to build a pipeline or other destructive infrastructure project? Are you a student being affected by cuts to university funding or high levels of student debt? Are you an immigrant struggling to be allowed to stay in a country that you consider home? Are you and your neighbours being driven out of your neighbourhood by high rent and gentrification? Are there industries nearby that are poisoning your air, soil, or water? Are you dealing with barriers related to a disability or your mental health? Do you have family members or friends in jail who are being mistreated? Are you a sexual assault survivor trying to reclaim your life? Are you a visible minority worried about getting beaten up by fascist thugs? All of these are issues you can organize around. If you’re just starting out though, I recommend picking just one–whichever feels the most urgent or the least scary to you–and going from there.

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2. Form a group, or join one. If you live in a larger centre, chances are that there are already lots of groups out there, from established non-profits to grassroots community groups to reading clubs, political parties, and artist collectives. If you happen to live in a smaller town, or if the groups that exist aren’t tackling the issues that you care about, try starting your own. We’ll get into the specifics of this a bit later, but first I want to mention some things that I think are important to consider when choosing or creating a group.

a. Is it not-for-profit? Many of the problems that exist in the world today can be traced back to one thing: profit. The transatlantic slave trade was started for profit. Fossil fuels continue to be exploited for profit. Wars are fought, more often than not, for profit. In a capitalist society, profit takes priority over people, and the people who make the most profits are the people who call the shots. No matter how much effort for-profit companies put into branding themselves as progressive, or “green,” or socially conscious, as long as they were created to serve the bottom line, they cannot be trusted to make decisions for the benefit of anyone other than their owners/shareholders (note that the situation is slightly different for workers’ coops, where the workers are the owners and can make decisions for themselves, although even they have to deal with market pressures).

b. Is it beholden to corporate backers? Unfortunately, corporations and banks control the vast majority of the world’s capital, which means that even non-profit organizations often need to turn to them for cash. Sponsorship deals almost always come with strings attached, but those strings can range from “you have to include our logo on your website” to “we control the direction of your entire organization.” Figuring out how much power private interests have over your chosen group is very important, because it will affect pretty much everything about what they can or cannot do or say. For example, I once worked for a national non-profit environmental organization that prevented its staff from writing or saying anything about climate change or corporate destruction of the environment, because they were afraid of scaring away their major donors, which included oil companies. By the time I finished working there, it was fairly clear to me that this organization was doing more harm than good, providing a large scale greenwashing service for the very same companies that were directly responsible for damaging the environment in the first place.

c. Is it inclusive and welcoming to marginalized groups? While no group is ever going to be perfectly inclusive, groups that perpetuate classism, racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of oppression (even if it’s through silence or inaction), and refuse to change when they’re called out on it, are likely going to fall apart or make themselves irrelevant in the long run. Why? Because the people who are the most invested in progressive social change, and who can teach us the most about how to move forward, are the groups that are harmed and marginalized by the status quo. By playing into the divisions created by capitalism and other forms of oppression, we only make ourselves weaker. That means all groups that are striving for social change should be making at least some effort to include marginalized people who aren’t already well-represented within their group, unless there is some obvious reason not to. For example, a women-only group might not include men of colour at some or all of their events, because that’s not what they were created for, and that’s fine, but they should be open to working class women, women of colour, trans women, and disabled women. What’s the difference? Well men, as a group, have systemic power over women (even if class, race, and other factors complicate how the power relations actually work out on an individual level), meaning they have certain kinds of advantages that women, as a group, don’t enjoy. Excluding men is a temporary measure meant to make it easier for women to organize or do certain activities until we manage to eradicate patriarchy forever. Trans women, however, do not have power over cis women, just as women of colour do not have power over white women, and so excluding them is a matter of bigotry rather than practical necessity.

d. Are the people who are directly affected calling the shots? Lots of organizations claim to “help” people, while never directly involving them in the organization or decision-making. Sometimes there are practical reasons why the affected groups can’t be present at every meeting (for example, a solidarity group working with people abroad, or people who are imprisoned in institutions), but at the very least you should be consulting with them about major decisions, including questions about where resources are directed. Most environmental groups, for example, should prioritize the needs and experiences of the people who are most directly and negatively affected by climate change and environmental destruction, including indigenous people, people living in the global South, farming communities, etc.

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3. Talk to people around you. The best way to figure out what needs to be done is to talk to other people who care about the same issues you do. These conversations can happen in person, online, over the phone, or whatever else works for you, but they need to happen. All organization depends on communication, and while you don’t want to spend ALL of your time talking, you also don’t want to rush ahead and just do something for the sake of doing it, without knowing if it will be effective or if you have the necessary support to pull it off. Collective action often comes with costs attached, including time, energy, and material costs, so unless everybody involved is fully onboard, it’s not going to happen. That means you’ll probably need to spend a lot of time listening to and sharing concerns, coming up with possible solutions, and potentially convincing those who are on the fence.

If you’re playing any kind of leadership role, self-criticism is SUPER important here, because whatever you do will have an impact on other people’s lives and welfare. Make sure you are clear with yourself and with others about where your interests really lie, what you have to lose and what you have to gain, and how far you’re willing to go to achieve your goals. If other people have power over you and might influence your actions, that needs to be discussed too. Learn about anti-oppressive practices like active listening, and don’t dismiss concerns out of hand, especially if they make you feel guilty or uncomfortable about your own privilege—chances are those are the things you most need to hear. Collective action can be incredibly powerful, but once you’ve broken someone’s trust, it can be very, very difficult to win it back, which is why communication and consent are so essential.

4. Dream big, but don’t forget to participate in the little things. A lot of activism and organizing work is thoroughly unglamorous. If you want to have a meeting, someone needs to send an email or notify people, someone needs to find and book a space, someone needs to bring food if there’s going to be food, and someone needs to clean up the dishes and garbage afterwards. All of this takes work, and while it may seem boring and mundane, it’s important that everyone participate in these little tasks, and try to share the labour equally (for example, make sure it’s not just the women or people of colour who are cleaning up and doing the dishes!). Capacity-building takes time, so have patience. It’s also worth noting that even if you don’t have major goals in mind right away, building up a community of people that can look after one another and support each other still has a lot of value. People tend to turn to fascism when they have nowhere else to go, and if you can provide an alternative, one that promises to make a real difference in their lives, it can make a huge difference. While direct action is an important piece of the puzzle, not all activism involves chaining yourself to heavy equipment or marching on city hall, and behind every dramatic, headline-grabbing event that happens, there are countless people working behind the scenes trying to keep the wheels turning. If putting your body on the line is scary or inaccessible, there are still plenty of other things you can do that are just as valuable.

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5. Apply pressure. Only the rich and powerful get what they want just by asking (or paying) for it. Unless you’re a member of the elite, the people who have the power to make the changes you want to see in the world are going to take some convincing, because as far as they’re concerned the status quo is working just fine (for them). While it would be nice to think that a well-reasoned argument that’s supported by strong evidence would be enough, that is almost never the case. That’s where pressure tactics come in. Protests, strikes, occupations, media campaigns, petitions, boycotts, and acts of sabotage are all ways to apply pressure to groups that can tip the scales in your favour. It’s all about making sure that the perceived costs of continuing with the status quo are greater than the perceived costs of giving in to whatever demands you’re making. This is ultimately how companies and governments function, and it’s also why protests, strikes, and other actions usually have to be as disruptive as possible in order to work. The people who complain about sitting in traffic because protesters are blocking the streets often aren’t aware that this disruption is the main thing that makes protests effective. Yes, they can raise awareness about an issue and help get more people involved, but if they aren’t causing problems for someone, no one (other than the people who are already invested) will pay attention to them, including the mainstream media. In order for progressive change to happen, you need to make it impossible for corporations and governments to continue with business as usual, even if it’s just for a few hours. This may lead some people to get angry and dismiss protesters, and it may even turn “public sentiment” against them, but often it’s a choice between doing that, or having no impact at all. It’s also worth noting that direct action, meaning occupations, strikes, sabotage, etc., is almost always a last resort, something that happens after “official channels” have already proven to be dead ends.

6. Don’t let them divide you. One of the best ways to bring an organization down is to turn the more moderate members of the group against the more radical members. Attempts to demonize people who engage in direct action, or refuse to compromise with people in positions of power at the expense of marginalized groups, are widespread and, in many cases, incredibly effective. It’s helpful if you can recognize this tactic, understand where it’s coming from, and try your best to keep this from happening within your own group.

7. Find a balance. Burnout is a big problem in activist communities. The work can be exhausting, all-consuming, and very unrewarding at times, especially if you’re facing major setbacks. Remember that every project has its ups and downs, and just because things aren’t going as planned, doesn’t mean you’re failing. Also try to keep in mind that you won’t be able to help anyone if you’re too sick or depressed to get out of bed. There are lots of guides out there to help you identify and deal with burnout (for e.g. here, and here)—make sure to take some time to look them over, not just for your own sake, but also for the people around you. Activism isn’t a competition, so try to avoid comparing yourself to others or feeling bad about yourself for “not doing enough.” Remember that there’s nothing wrong with just surviving—for lots of people, that’s a full time job. While projects can be more rewarding if you stick with them for a long period of time, there are also times when you may need to let go and move on, or step back for awhile, and that’s ok too. Just because you’ve spent the last 5 years working on something, doesn’t mean you have to spend the rest of your life there, and in some cases you may actually learn more and be more productive if you switch to something new.

8. Learn from the past, plan for the future. The best thing about organizing is that you don’t have to do it alone. Not only is it by definition a collective activity, but it’s also something that has been around for a really, really long time. That means that there are lots of great books and other resources out there for you to learn from, like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, so please don’t stop here!

Do you have other suggestions, stories, or tips that I haven’t mentioned here? Do you have fears or concerns that I haven’t addressed? Please feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to incorporate them.

Demystifying Activism – A 101 guide to getting involved