The Ultimate Guide To Becoming An Activist

WHAT

Anyone can be an activist. Activism is defined as any activity geared towards manifesting positive social change. And, right now, we need those changes to happen yesterday. More than ever before in human history, society is plagued by discrimination, greed, wealth inequality, environmental issues, political ineptitude, corruption, and countless more issues hampering human progress. And, maybe even threatening humanity as a species.

Often, these issues seem way too big for the average Joe to engage with. Consequently, it’s easy to understand why the desire to switch off, tune out and trade engagement for blissful ignorance seems so appealing. And if the guardians of the status quo had their way, that’s precisely what we would all do.

Unfortunately for them, the same issues that prompt some to remain asleep are precisely the issues emboldening others, particularly the young, to become more awake than ever. Rather than choosing conformity and complacency, their vision for a better, fairer world drives them to stand up, resist, and become activists. These average Joe’s understand that change only ever emerges when ordinary people do extraordinary things. In the current global climate, becoming an activist may be one of the most extraordinary journeys one can take.

HOW

If you’re concerned that becoming an activist requires you to strip naked, paint your body, and lie down before the TV cameras, fear not. Being an activist can mean many things. These include donating, signing or starting petitions, working at an organization, or dedicating a portion of your free time to a worthy cause.  Whichever cause you choose, here are several things to consider before taking up the fight.

Find Your “Why”

Depending on your level of involvement, activism can be an arduous, uphill slog. If the youtube video you just watched of an orangutan clinging to a soon-to-be felled tree empowers you to truly commit to fighting deforestation in a far-flung location, then good luck and Godspeed. However, most activists agree that the deep concern required to mobilize people occurs when those issues are tangible, immediate, and closer to home than the Indonesian rainforests.

An orangutan fights a bulldozer
Traveling to the Indonesian rainforests to fight deforestation is very difficult. Refusing to buy the palm oil products behind deforestation and subsequent orangutan decline is easy. Think Globally. Act Locally!!

If you live in California or Europe and witnessed vast tracts of land destroyed from climate-related forest fires or flooding, then your why is simple. Likewise, if you’re a surfer concerned with ocean trash, or a wildlife lover concerned with animal rights,  the same applies.

Along the way, you’ll encounter difficulties and resistance. Your ‘why’ is what’s required to push you through when the going gets tough. Finding your ‘why’ is much easier when it’s located on your own doorstep. Hence the common activist maxim; Think Globally, Act Locally.

 

Surfing in dirty water
The most outspoken advocates for clean oceans are often those who enjoy it most.

 

Knowledge is Power

Have you ever wondered why shady lobbyists and corporate public relations wizards get paid gazillions? It’s because they’re armed to the teeth with information. Only by understanding both sides of the argument can they argue their own agenda. Essentially, their weapons-grade powers of persuasion come from knowing their enemy, which in this case, is meddling kids like you. Unless you work on the sharp end of politics, most activists may never come face-to-face with these groups. Nevertheless, they’re often the types you’re up against. If you show up intellectually unprepared, they’ll eat you and your argument for breakfast.

For instance, say you’re debating wealth inequality. You receive the following question: In an era where technology enhances many lives but is created and understood by very few, what does a meritocracy mean in the face of inequality? Would you have an answer? Because they would.

Before speaking out, activists need to have their facts in order and understand how the real world works. You need to read, listen to podcasts, learn history, watch documentaries, and more. Essentially, whatever you can to arm yourself with an informed counterpoint to the mainstream narrative, inspire others, and ignite change.

 

Books on activism written by activists

Educate Others

Once you’re ready, an activist’s job is to open people’s eyes to new perspectives. Create awareness by standing up, speaking your truth, and spreading your knowledge. Remember that with knowledge comes responsibility. You’re operating in a fake news-riddled, post-truth world where subjective, alternative ‘facts’ blur the line between reality and fiction. Consequently, it’s essential the truths you share are precisely that. If you find yourself lacking, use the opportunity to research and learn more.

The more knowledge you have and the more deeply involved you become, the more your passion will grow. And that’s great. However, when making a point, check your tone. Don’t give your audience reason to mistake passion for belligerence, even when the topic you’re speaking on makes you angry.

 

Black Lives Matter activist John Boyega making a speech
Star Wars actor John Boyega – Speaking out against the dark side at a Black Lives Matter demonstration.

Defund The Government

On December 10th, 1997, Julia Butterfly Hill scaled a 200ft tall California Redwood tree to prevent loggers from chopping it down. Here, she lived on a 6×4 ft platform for more than two years, battling freezing rain, heavy winds, and intimidation tactics from angry loggers.

She used a solar-powered cell phone for interviews and became a tree-based correspondent for a TV show. Seven hundred and thirty-eight days later, the logging company gave in. Julia descended the tree, in turn becoming a celebrated poster child for environmentalism. Her victory was won. However, her story had just begun.

 

Activist Julia Butterfly Hill protesting while living in a tree
Putting the ‘Act’ in activism. After bringing global exposure to the deforestation of old-growth redwoods, Julia Butterfly Hill threw a middle finger to the government by redirecting her taxes. Photo Credit: Yann Gamblin.

In 2000, Julia Butterfly Hill published a bestseller entitled The Legacy of Luna, documenting her struggle. When the money came in, she refused to pay tax to the IRS. Instead, she directed the same amount to arts, culture, native American, community, environmental and after-school programs. The IRS was silent, probably because they knew that raising a fuss would alert people to a set of obscure, highly discreet, legal loopholes. Namely, mechanisms that allow civilians to direct their taxes towards their chosen organizations instead of government spending programs that they disagree with.

The ‘how’ of tax redirection is beyond the scope of this article. However, some digging around the internet should provide enough information to get started.

Practice What You Preach

At the time of writing, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg owns six airplanes, two helicopters, and more cars than he can probably count. Meanwhile, he’s an outspoken advocate for the masses to ditch their vehicles in favor of using public transportation. Don’t be like Mike.

Effective activism is about leading from the front. The places you shop, things you eat, and clothes you wear can make a powerful positive statement. On the other hand, preaching veganism between bites of hamburger, or dropping the styrofoam container at an environmental march won’t win you much respect. Effective activists need to walk the walk and live in alignment with the ideals they espouse. Or, to coin Gandhi’s well-worn phrase, “be the change you wish to see.”

Michael Bloomberg on Fox News
Don’t be like Mike

Speak Truth to Power

This one’s a bit of a cliché. In reality, those in power know exactly what the truth is and spend time and fortunes to conceal it. It’s the oppressed that really need to hear it. A crucial component of this is to educate yourself on the mechanisms and strategies that ‘power’ employs to keep that truth hidden.

Social Media is Your Friend

In the past decade, simple hashtags have exposed sexual harassment, prompted US athletes to refuse to salute an unfair system, and, in the case of the Arab spring, kicked off an armed rebellion that deposed entire regimes. In addition to amplifying your message, social media is a great way to connect and strategize with individuals, organizations, and other activists that share your values and goals. Effective use of social media allows you to find and build your tribe. And, when it comes to activism, the phrase “strength in numbers” has never rung truer.

 

#metoo placard held by activist at demonstration

Protest

Historically, nothing has proven more effective at lighting a fire under the ass of politicians than a good old-fashioned protest. Protests drove the mafia out of mainland Italy, the British out of India, and US forces out of Vietnam.

More recently, the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests shone a long-overdue spotlight on institutional racism in the US. Police forces were defunded, and massive reforms were enacted. Of course, there’s plenty of work to be done. But, it proved once again that protests, and if necessary, mass civil disobedience, can spark major change. As well as attending and leading protests, dedicated activists also understand how to organize them.

 

Take Direct Action

In the context of activism, the definition of “Direct Action” depends on who you ask. For instance, take Sea Shepherd. In the past, direct action has included blocking sealing boat paths by standing on the ice,  lobbing butyric acid stink bombs on the deck of whaling ships, destroying drift nets, and even using limpet mines to destroy whaling vessels.

Responses to Sea Shepherd’s guerilla intervention gambits range from applause to outrage. Critics denounce them as interfering, reckless eco-terrorists. In contrast, Sea Shepherd argues their work is to document, and if necessary, take direct action to prevent illegal exploitation of marine wildlife. If you’re up for it, Sea Shepherd and many other organizations that aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty are always in need of activist volunteers.

 

Sea Shepherd patrol boat trying to deter whaling vessel
Sea Shepherd volunteers dodging water cannons that never run short on ammunition. Photo Credit. Sea Shepherd.

Stay Positive

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote:

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

As an activist, you’ll spend a lot of time with your head wrapped around the darker aspects of human existence. For grassroots organizers, a life of constant battle, in heated meetings or demonstrations, far from home, friends, and family, in a judgmental world, can take a physical and mental toll. Descending into a negative downward spiral is a risk that long-term, committed activists are all too aware of. To ensure they come out on top, they take care of their bodies, don’t try and do everything at once, celebrate small victories, pick their battles, and remember that the path to progress is long.

Crucially, activists must remember to enjoy the very world that they are trying to make better. If you are campaigning for nature, don’t forget to spend time in it, hiking, camping, or just unwinding. Successful, long-haul activists understand the importance of relaxation, relationships, laughs, and stepping back when necessary. They  refuse to allow the issues they fight for to become all-consuming, preserving vital energy to expend where and when it’s needed.

Other forms of activism include:

  • Sign Petitions
  • Start petitions
  • Donate
  • Speak out at local town hall meetings.
WHERE

Wherever your chosen area of activism calls you to ‘act.’ From your computer to the front line of a demonstration. If you’re starting out, “Think Globally, Act Locally.”

RISKS

That depends on how far you’re willing to go. From Jesus Christ to Jamal Khashoggi, the history books are littered with examples of activists crucified by the state for speaking out. Despite overwhelming public opposition, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Steven Donziger (the environmental lawyer responsible for winning a case against Chevron oil’s murderous shenanigans in Ecuador) are all either imprisoned or in exile. And for every Assange, there are hundreds of more dissidents in similar situations that fail to make the headlines.

 

Steven Donziger in Ecuador promoting activism
In 1993, US lawyer Steven Donziger won a class-action lawsuit against Texaco / Chevron for turning a region of the Ecuadorian Amazon into an “oil-soaked apocalyptic nightmare.” Instead of paying up, the oil companies directed their colossal resources towards Donzigers downfall. At the time of writing, Steven Donziger is in jail on a trumped-up contempt-of-court charge.

REWARDS

The most obvious benefits of activism are simply helping to bring about a better world. However, on a personal level, there’s evidence to suggest that actively fighting for positive social change brings a range of psychological benefits. Becoming an activist helps replace feelings of hopelessness and despair with a sense of meaning and control over one’s life and future.

Activism is also the ultimate team sport. It teaches leadership, adaptability, diplomacy, and debating and organizational skills. This is why some of modern history’s most prominent changemakers began their careers as activists.

Bernie Sanders gets arrested at activism protest
A 21-yr old Bernie Sanders arrested at a 1963 civil rights demonstration against conditions in black Chicago neighborhoods. Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune.

 

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