These days, there is no shortage of causes to get involved with, from fighting for LGBTQ rights to racial justice to the environment. And no, you’re not imagining things if you’ve noticed that some of the most daring acts of resistance have been executed by women of all ages around the world. (See Statue of Liberty climber Therese Patricia Okoumou, Parkland student Emma González, and Swedish airlines protestor and student Elin Ersson.)
If you’ve also marched, made signs, and had hard conversations … only to find that your optimism is fading faster than the world seems to be changing, don’t quit! Activism really is about the long (long) game, and there are many ways to make a difference at any level. Here are ways to address some of your biggest pain points.
“I Didn’t Start This Mess”
You’re absolutely right — but “at some point, although unfair, it’s our duty to take responsibility for leaving a better world,” says Arisha Hatch, the Managing Director of Campaigns at ColorOfChange.org and the Director of Color Of Change PAC.
Today’s younger generations shouldn’t feel singled out. “If you look back through history, so many major movements in our country — the Civil Rights Movement, the Antiwar Movement — have been led by students,” says Taylor King, a student leader at Students Demand Action, the student-led arm of Everytown for Gun Safety. “Young people historically have a role to play in major changes.”
“I Can’t Change Anything”
Activism has to go beyond “a few IG posts or a nice Snap,” Hatch admits, but building power isn’t “just about having a huge presence” — it’s about building a strategic one. For example, after 16-year-old Gynnya McMillen died in a juvenile detention facility in Kentucky in 2016, Color of Change collected “tens of thousands of signatures” and local members demanded that the site release security footage, eventually leading to the facility being shut down.
“An online petition is one small tactic within a broader toolbox of things we can use in order to push for the change that we want to see in the world,” Hayes says.
King adds that simply making phone calls really can leave a big impression on local leaders. “In Oklahoma, where I’m from, the Moms Demand Action chapter was making calls to a state legislator and one of their aides said, ‘Wow, we’ve gotten so many calls today,’” she recalls. “The person calling said, ‘Well, do you mind if I ask how many?’ and the aide said, ‘I don’t know, like 11!’”
“A really valid question in the organizing community is: How do I get involved without taking on risks that I'm not prepared for [while] taking on risks that clearly define where I stand?” says Khudai Tanveer, the youth organizing fellow at NQAPIA, an organization that supports LGBTQ Asian and Pacific Islander grassroots work. Activism is about “building collective power,” they explain — but that doesn’t necessarily mean risking your life!
Estephanie De La Cruz is an undocumented organizer in Texas and a member of the Build The Dream leadership cohort at United We Dream, which is developing youth leaders across the country. If you’re not on the ground yourself, she says, you can support others who are by helping with logistics from booking reservations and bus and plane tickets to helping to serving food after actions.
Love tech and social media? Students Demand Action has a texting team that sends out prewritten messages to other students across the country through an app. People on their Instagram team post information on their personal accounts about issues coming up in Congress or up for a vote in certain states. And if you do want to go big eventually, start out gradually. King says she was once “terrified” of going door-to-door canvassing but “built my way up by phone banking.”
“I’m Burned Out”
“It's really important, particularly if you want to do activism for years to come, to be kind to yourself in the process,” says Taylor Maxwell, Grassroots Media Director for Everytown for Gun Safety. There are a number of ways to implement self-care.
When King is “feeling particularly downtrodden or depressed,” she takes a few days off social media, doesn’t check the news, dives into Netflix, bakes, and reconnects with family and friends.
Some orgs build self-care into their routines: Hatch says Color of Change schedules “black joy brunches” with “great food, usually a DJ, sometimes mimosas, dancing, and Beyoncé and Rihanna.” And De La Cruz says United We Dream’s Austin team meditates a lot and started a program called UndocuHealth, in which members and organizers can discuss mental health and practice indigenous spiritual practices.
“Nothing Seems To Be Changing”
Remember: the injustices you’re fighting against have been decades, if not centuries in the making. (“The gun lobby has about a 100-year start,” Maxwell points out.) Your efforts aren’t wasted just because the revolution hasn’t arrived yet.
“When we look at Congress and our federal government, a lot of winning is actually defense,” Maxwell says. “The bill that we are craving might not be the thing that happens next, but we might have just stopped three terrible things from happening by standing up and speaking out.”
Case in point: King says gun violence prevention advocates have blocked legislation in a few states that would have allowed “permitless carry” (carrying a concealed gun without requiring a permit or safety training). Maxwell adds that Everytown has helped pass 28 laws in the past five years preventing domestic abusers from obtaining guns, and instituted background checks in 20 states that previously had loopholes. And even though their DREAM campaign was ultimately unsuccessful, De La Cruz says coalitions in Austin successfully pushed back on “show me your papers” racial profiling laws locally.
Acknowledging the community you’re part of can also be a way to track progress. Last year, NQAPIA worked with API Equality to create the People Over Pride! training camp for young LGBTQ leaders and activists around the country. Roughly 675 people attended this year, something Tanveer calls an “amazing” accomplishment. “The process is hard but we had so many moments where there was collective joy. How can we not take this collective power that we've been given and use it to build a future?”