How to Become an Activist

by JoHarrington

You are passionate about your cause. The cold fury burns up. You want to change the world and do it right now. So how do you go about that?

Human history is a chronicle of people prepared to make a stand. It's also testimony to how often society turns on those who put their head above the parapet.

But, as R.E.M. sang, 'Silence means approval'.

Do you have the courage of your convictions? Are you willing to step out from the crowd, and be the first to state, 'This is not right'?

Then history will salute you.

A Life Spent Fighting the Good Cause

I'm just one voice amongst many, but circumstance and timing have placed me in the midst of a lot of activist campaigns.

I grew up in the 1970s, during the rise of Women's Lib.  My first battles were minor ones - the everyday, petty attacks on gender. 

I lived in a mining town. As the 1980s dawned, the Miners' Strike erupted outside my window and on the television screen. 

It taught me that the media don't always report events precisely as they happened. I learned that the police are as often there to attack, as to protect. 

I discovered that government isn't there with its population's best interests at heart.

I joined Amnesty International when I was twelve years old. 

With the 1990s came adulthood and the freedom to march on London, for whatever cause triggered my ire at the time. We'd had over a decade of Conservative government by then. There were a lot of causes.

Then the Information Age boomed with the turn of the century.  Technology! Internet! So many dreams answered with that glorious global web.

I've been a cyber-activist ever since.  These are my credentials.  What are yours?

R.E.M. Perform 'Begin the Begin'

Michael Stipe called it his 'song of personal, political activism'. All together now, 'Silence means security! Silence means approval!'

Prepare Yourself Mentally for Activism

We each like to think that our truths remain self-evident.

All that is needed for people to agree is for us to tell them about the issue. Then all will instantly change. The world will be saved; and everyone will be home in time for tea.

Unfortunately, that's not quite how it works. 

Mahatma Gandhi came up with a great way to explain the process succinctly. It goes like this:

"First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win."

My own experience over the years has demonstrated the truth of this countless times.

I'm contemplating it once again with a wry smile, thinking of all the things (now mainstream) that were once lampooned.

It's easy to imagine that as being all about government, big business and the media.  Yes, they will almost certainly play their part.  But they aren't the hardest battles. That comes closer to home, when friends and family get involved.

It is not that anyone around you is necessarily evil. They just don't like the status quo to be rocked; or someone making a fuss; or they don't quite grasp the issue; or it's inconvenient; or they may be genuinely afraid, because you are writing to authority figures. What if there are consequences?

There is also the distinct possibility that you may be wrong.

Books about Activism

Buy these guides to learn more in-depth tips about how to effectively fight for your cause - local, national or global!
The Activist's Handbook: A Primer Upd...The One-Hour Activist: The 15 Most Po...Building Powerful Community Organizat...

Learn All You Can About Your Cause

The worst possible thing that you can do is brush over the negatives. The first clever speaker will attack you right in the heart of them.

At one point in my life, I was a fox hunting saboteur. It's not necessary now, as fox hunting got banned.

I was at work one day, when a colleague rushed in, trembling with barely suppressed excitement. One of the sales representatives had just told the crowded main office that he was a fox hunter. No-one was surprised. He came from an established, rural family.

I was led to where he was holding court. At desks all around him, people had downed pens. It wasn't that anyone was particularly interested in the rights and wrongs of the hunt. But they were human beings, and everyone likes a good bit of street theater.

He was waiting for me, a tiny smile to say that he wasn't worried. But his body language betrayed that he was ready for the verbal fight.

What I did next disappointed everyone.  I invited him to sit down with a cup of tea.  I asked him about fox hunting.  I let him do all of the talking with neither judgement, nor intercession, beyond a point of clarity.

Why?  Because I was never going to change anything with one man. But I could learn a lot. 

The most important aspect of activism is information.  You can scream all you want in empty rooms, but that won't change a thing.

You need to understand every angle - the history, the current situation, the likely future outcomes - and you need to grasp every point of view.  You have to be able to respond to each argument, answer every query and accept that there may be compromises.

No issue is ever black and white.  There is no Them and Us.  All realities come in shades of grey, encompassing the whole spectrum along the way. Further information might alter everything, including your own mind.  Once you fall into the trap of deciding there are only two sides (your own and those who are wrong), then you've already lost.

Should I Have Talked With or Argued With the Fox Hunter?

This was my great and noble cause. I could have gone on the offensive, as everyone was expecting I would.
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Talked with him, because....
lavero on 09/11/2012

I find it great that you talked with him. And you're right, information is key :-)

Ralpapajan on 08/25/2012

I messed up here: Missed out the comment about why talk! I am not a Christian but Job 15:3 comes to mind.

"Should he reason with unprofitable talk? or with speeches with which he can do no good?"

Ralpapajan on 08/25/2012

Great article ~ I linked it onto my Facebook Personal Page.

'Fuel to the Flame' by Joolz

'It takes great control to be angry, you must be precise...'

Dealing with your own Emotional Responses

The more you learn, the more furious you become. The more you are ignored, the more disappointed and cynical you may be.

The more you learn, the more furious you become.  The more you are ignored, the more your disappointment and cynicism grows.  The more you are ridiculed, the easier it may be to doubt yourself.  The greater the fight, the more terrifying the outcome.

Do you have what it takes to win?

In the poem Fuel to the Flame, Joolz is talking about her own personal crusades.  The local one, about the judgmental and hypocritical community of a specific church; the bigger one, about domestic violence, child abuse and gender inequality; and the global one, about genocide, murder and pollution.

But the emotional issues that she high-lights are universal.  There is the propensity to become overwhelmed, whether you are fighting a problem in your living room or one that affects all humanity in every corner of the globe.

Once you let yourself be swamped by your own emotion, then you can't be effective.  I've experienced this many times. I'll write ten, twenty, thirty Urgent Actions e-mails on behalf of Amnesty International. Then, on the next one along, I'll cry for every case I've encountered thus far.

Become too emotional and you will be dismissed as hysterical.  Lead the way with calm rationale, evidence and coherent arguments, and you can get somewhere.

Or, as Joolz put it: 'And it takes control to be angry, you must be precise, get hold of the twisting screaming thing each day and leash it tight, because otherwise you burn up inside and nothing gets done, you die.'

It won't be a physical death.  You don't stop breathing. You merely stop fighting your cause.

Books about Burn out in Activism

Read these memoirs and guides to help you scrape away the emotional detritus and refocus on the main goal.
The Lifelong Activist: How to Change ...Aftershock: Confronting Trauma in a V...Think Free To Live Free: A Political ...

Choose Your Battles Wisely

There is a limit to how much your parents, your best friend and the cat can do about the gross iniquities of government. But your local MP and the media might be able to help.

When we are passionate about a subject, it's highly tempting to take the scatter-gun approach to telling the world about it.

You can't imagine how bored your peers are going to get.  There's a limit to politely hearing you, before they simply tune out any mention of the issue. You've alienated them for good, at least insofar as your cause is concerned; and that includes other people going on about it too.

One of the major reasons is that they either can't, or don't realize they that can, do anything about it. You're merely reminding them of their perceived helplessness.

There are much better targets.  Every cause has a leverage point. Out there will be someone, or some thing, or some event, which has the power to rearrange the world more to your liking.

If you want to be effective in fighting your corner, you must learn where the leverage lies. Does there need to be a political, social, cultural or legal change to make it all better?  Who holds the key to doing that?  Where is the point of balance?

In my own cynical mindset, forged through too many fights, my main piece of advice is to follow the money.

It might not be hard cash; but if someone is benefiting from the injustice, then they're likely to be in a position to both cause and stop it.

At the very least, they will be the biggest obstacle in your activism.  Therefore it's worth discovering who or what they are.

Who is it Best to Target as an Activist?

Someone is being tortured in the Kingdom of Blob. Who is the best placed person to stop this happening?
  Display results
There is an argument for all of them (except the goldfish). But in the short term, the person giving the orders, and in the long term, those benefiting are your true targets.

The Top Two Strategies for Effective Activism

Communication! That's the key, but there are two different ways of moving from message to success.

Without knowing the details of your actual campaign, there can be no in-depth advice on ways to tackle the root cause.

However, there are a couple of tactics which remain practically universal.  One word links them both: Communication.

The first involves expressing your disapproval with those who have the power to enable change. 

You do this on a small scale every day anyway. Don't like the fact that such and such keeps leaving the top off the toothpaste tube? Go and tell them. Negotiate a compromise, or make them stop. Or lose. The outcomes are never certain.

There is nothing in this world stopping you having similar conversations on a bigger scale. Write to that CEO, telegram that official, telephone the mayor's office, e-mail the president.  As for your representative in government, the clue to their role is in the job title.  They are supposed to be representing you!

Those who think that great and terrible retribution will result in contacting a world leader has never seen my e-mail outbox.  What usually happens is nothing.

That's when the second tactic comes in.  Volume.  One person expressing their views can be ignored.  But if that person has spread awareness, then it won't be one communication. It'll be tens, hundreds, thousands, a million.  And anyone who ever completed high school knows the power of peer pressure.

Check if there are any organizations already fighting your cause; and join them.  If there aren't, then start one.  Write a press release, create a website, Tweet about it and alert all of your friends on Reddit and Facebook.  Get the word out there and, if it has credence, coherency and solid facts behind it, then watch the movement spread.

That is activism and anyone doing their part is an activist.

Good luck and thank you for caring about your world.

More of my Articles about Activism on Wizzley

Kony 2012 politicized the mainstream seemingly overnight. Not everyone is happy about that. Watch the slap-downs begin.
I consider judicial execution to be a 'cruel and unusual punishment', which is contrary to international human rights laws.
There are roughly 150,000 people registered in the AI Urgent Action Network. I am one of them; and Page Ferguson has asked me all about it.
After an unprecedented wave of global protest, the two pieces of legislation at the centre of the storm were finally dropped.
Updated: 08/24/2012, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 09/11/2012

I'm glad that you liked it. :) And thank you for your work.

I'm a vegetarian, so I know what you mean. I've encountered people who have become furious, absolutely red in the face and shouting, once they learn that I don't eat meat. I'm not talking about butchers or those working in abattoirs, who have something financial to lose through me. It's downright weird.

lavero on 09/11/2012

Very good article. I think I belong to the group of "one-hour activists" :-)

As a vegan I know how it feels to be confronted with utterly illogical arguments and sheer cretinism.

JoHarrington on 08/25/2012

Thank you and you are very welcome. Thanks for reading it! <3

Ralpapajan on 08/25/2012

Looks good. Well done ~ well written so it attracts attention. Thank you for sharing.

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