Making Change

  • March 1 2018

Learn how to become an effective activist by Converting, Collaborating and Conspiring your way to meaningful change

Practical Activism in 3 Parts

In January of 2003, in Uijongbu, Korea, I engaged in one of the most subversive acts of my life: secretly speaking out about the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy while actively serving in the Army. The year prior, a half dozen of my close friends had been kicked out of the military for being gay. Several of them were training to be Arabic linguists.

My best friend at the time had started communicating with a Professor Aaron Belkin, who ran the Center for Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military at UC Santa Barbara. Professor Belkin would act as a conduit between my friend and the news media, providing quotes from active duty gay and lesbian service members.

My friend was about to deploy to Kuwait, and then take part in the invasion of Iraq. “I have no one else I can trust with this project,” they told me. It was then I started coordinating with Professor Belkin, fielding media inquiries or passing them along to others in our tiny, underground network. I became an activist.

I learned quickly that activism is more than just raising your voice about an issue. Activism is about converting, coordinating and conspiring.

Convert them to your Cause

If you want to be effective at changing the world, you start by changing people’s minds. You have to figure out how best to win people over to bring them on board. And the key to each person will be different.

Blogger Molly Fosco writes “The only thing that can really motivate anyone to volunteer is thinking about the people you’re helping”. In other words, begin with a story. In many cases, this is your personal story, and it is a powerful tool. (More on how telling your personal story is effective here.) If you’re not personally affected by the issue, tell the story of what motivated you to get involved.

When you’re talking with others, be as authentic as possible. Tell them exactly what happened to spark your involvement. Did the issue affect your personally? Did it impact a family member or friend? Most importantly, articulate how the situation made you feel. Be honest and open. This is vulnerable process. But often even those who disagree with you will respect your courage for speaking your truth.

Coordinate your Tribe

Now you have a group of like-minded folks who are energized around an issue. At this point, you have to organize. In the past, I worked on building an organizational structure. For non-profits this entailed articles of incorporation, filing for tax exempt status, and coming up with a mission and vision for the organization. I’m not certain that this is always the best strategy.

To start, make a list of who is on your team and what they bring to the table. Who is personally involved with your efforts? What are their strengths/talents? What is their level of commitment? How much time or resources can they devote to this issue?

It’s helpful to have consistent contact between the members of the group to keep everyone motivated and engaged. It’s always best to have face-to-face contact. Revolutions are planned on living room floors. If meeting in person isn’t possible, have a regularly scheduled phone or video conference call.

Conspire to Take Action

If you want to be an activist, you have to get active. Once you’ve identified the strengths of the members of your group, use these to create strategic actions. Marches, letter writing campaigns, sit-ins, town hall meetings, lobbying your elected officials are all tried-and-true methods of activism.

Don’t stop there. In our deeply polarized country it is becoming easier than ever for those in power to ignore their constituents.

So get creative.

Think carefully about your issue and the resources at your disposal. Then brainstorm activities that will be striking and memorable. Art is your friend. Some of the most powerful and lasting change came from deeply symbolic creative acts.

Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech. John Lewis walked across a bridge. Bob Dylan wrote a song. Cleve Jones made a quilt. Tony Kushner wrote a play. Alice Paul held a pageant. Use your imagination to make a statement that is relevant, engaging and difficult to ignore.

Keep in Mind

Make sure to take care of yourself while you advocate. The work you do will be emotionally exhausting and sometimes physically demanding. Know when to step away and take a break. What you’re doing is important but you’re no good to yourself, much less anyone else, if you don’t practice self-care.

Don’t be afraid to ask others for help. It is the only way to be effective in the long term. No one arrives knowing exactly how to affect change; it’s a learning process. Asking for help when you need it will provide you with knowledge, perspective and build trust between you and your tribe.

Most importantly, be kind to others in this process… and yourself. I’ve seen ego infect some people who were working toward positive change. There’s enough injustice in the world, no need to add to it. When you approach your work with an open and kind heart, it will inspire others and win them to your cause.

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