Have you, like so many others, been overwhelmed with media coverage of the Black Lives Matter Movement? Do you want to get involved, but have no idea where to start?
Branching into major social issues can sometimes feel like you’re holding Pandora’s box and fiddling with the lock, not knowing just how strange, convoluted, and horrific the contents inside can be. However, if you do find yourself feeling like this: you’re not alone. When I began my journey into activist work, I too was overwhelmed by how deeply engrained discrimination and bigotry is in our culture.
Feeling at a loss for how to help is normal, especially when you’ve never contributed to any activist platforms before, but that doesn’t mean it’s permanent. Together, lets go over what it means to be an activist and how you can become a better one yourself.
It is always easiest to fight for something you’re passionate about. If you’re reading this letter, chances are you’ve already found that motivation: the Black Lives Matter movement, Flint, MI’s contaminated water, your local municipality destroying a homeless camp, etc. The topic in question can be of global relevance or one that only affects your community. Regardless, if it is important to you, it’s worth standing for.
One of the hardest things for me to accept when I started advocating for my city’s homeless community was that I knew much, much less about their issues than I thought I did. When you commit to helping a marginalized group, you need to acknowledge that you will never understand that group’s struggles more intimately than they do. One of the best parts about working with community leaders from said marginalized groups, however, is how willing they are to share their experiences so you can better empathize and assist them.
At the end of the day, it is up to you to educate yourself on the topics you’re advocating for. There is a wealth of information online to find and many people willing to explain some of the finer details to you, if you ask them. Keep an open mind and an open heart and be ready for what you think you know to be challenged by the reality of what’s really there.
The political climate of many social justice issues can change on a dime. Take how our nation’s dealing with covid-19, for example. Governors are changing regulations, adding new ones, stripping some away, fighting with the president, agreeing with the president, all at rates which make your head spin. The fluidity of our social environment is another one of the many things that can complicate how you approach an issue. Personally, when I’m lobbying for an issue like when I lobbied against a specific town ordinance, I checked the local news and neighborhood social media groups almost daily to make sure I was up to date on information.
You don’t have to update yourself so often if you don’t think things will change that quickly, but when you’re actively engaging in some form of activism work it really helps to be as informed as you can. If nothing else, then to make sure your arguments with people are factually correct.
Contribute Whenever You Can
Contributing is a very general term we use to refer to any activity that can assist the cause; which can be money, time, speaking, or even social media posts. It can be pretty scary being in a public place surrounded by people and talking to them about issues that may matter to you on a very personal level. There is a bravery in speaking and being heard, and forcing yourself to speak into a crowd will make each time you stand up a little easier.
However, as I mentioned earlier, there are many other ways to contribute that help the cause. As with all of regular life, never let anyone pressure you into a situation in which you are uncomfortable when you are participating in an organized event. You don’t have to speak if you don’t want to. You don’t even have to physically be at the events. Donating money to organizations that help the people you want to help and even sharing posts on Twitter go a long way to keeping the conversation going and keep you involved.
Stay True to Yourself: Dealing with Negativity
You are going to receive some criticism when you speak about controversial topics. Criticism as a whole is an incredibly helpful tool to help you become the best version of yourself you can be, but sometimes it can get hard to deal with. There are two major types of criticism: constructive and unconstructive,. eEach of which you may experience. Below is how I and others in my field cope with both.
Unconstructive criticism is the flashy, angry comments you see people complain about on social media platforms. Another word you may have heard is trolling. These types of comments may go after your personality, your grammar, or they could be a radical opposite opinion created to make you angry. One time, a man said I was an “ungrateful brat” who didn’t deserve the responsibility of social media. The best way to cope with this type of criticism is to try to ignore it, as hard as that may seem. These comments are people wanting to make you angry or upset, and you should not let their words get to you.
Constructive criticism is an incredibly helpful tool to help you grow and educate yourself on how to be an activist. These comments will typically explain how something you said wasn’t totally correct or otherwise misinformed. They may even reveal new information that you had not discovered yet. This type of criticism is the foundation in which you build yourself up as an advocate for others.
It doesn’t seem like it, but activism is an endurance sport. Sometimes, it’s really difficult to continue fighting for systemic change when you’re surrounded by all of the negativity and pain people are going through, especially when it feels like total change will take years.
You are allowed to take a break every now and again. If you find yourself getting overwhelmed by everything, unplug for a few days and come back to it when you’re ready. You can’t effectively help anyone if you haven’t been taken care of first.
Total systemic change will not happen overnight, and it certainly won’t happen without people like you wanting to join the fight. You are the reason why change is happening and will continue to happen for generations. Every single civil liberty we have has been fought for by people like us who decided enough is enough and acted against a regime themselves.
Reach out to your community leaders. Volunteer. Get your friends to protest with you. Vote! Most importantly, never stop talking about issues that matter to you. Never let yourself be silenced.
Once we are complicit, we lose.
Gabriella Lebo, BA, 21, English and Psychology
Aerianna McClanahan, BA, 22, Women and Gender Studies
Christina White, BA, 21, Biology and International Studies