Activism for the Socially Anxious and Despondent

Hello, terrified and exhausted people!

Let’s talk about what it takes to change the world.

We have two situations:

1. When good stuff happens, we celebrate.

2. When bad stuff happens, we mobilize.

After the U.S. election, The November 10 chapter meeting of Show Up for Racial Justice contained so many people that we put away the chairs and crammed people together on the floor just to fit in the building. But even as many people as we had at that meeting (about 300), there are way more people than that who care about racial justice. That night, they stayed home.

And since then, I’ve heard some of the reasons why.

“I live in a blue state. I can’t make a difference.”
“I live in a red state. I can’t make a difference.”
“I’m willing to wait and see a little bit.”

Look, I’m not here to shame you. Getting started with activism isn’t easy.

Maybe you look at protestors on TV and wonder “Do I have to quit my job, move to some other region, or give up my life to get involved?” That seems like a large impact on you for the small contribution you would make to the success of the mission.

Maybe the current events are so daunting that success seems like a slim and distant possibility. The more you hear about what’s happening, the more sad and tired you become. You don’t think you have the energy to protest and contact senators and everything.

Maybe you’re an introvert and it’s hard enough to you chat somebody up at a party, let alone engage a stranger or a loved one in a high-stakes conversation about your differing values. Maybe you were born to be a bystander, and you feel guilty about that.

You want to help, but you don’t have an action item that makes sense for you.

Awesome. Let’s start by talking about a very common first actionthat I don’trecommend. Then we’ll get to four things that I do recommend.

Here is what I don’t recommend…

…asking an activist organization what you can do.

It’s logical, but it’s not the most effective means to get started during times of turmoil. These organizations are usually short-staffed, and a lot of them are getting hammered with interest…

…which is great, but when these organizations get hammered, they can’t take care of the influx of new volunteers. So volunteers might get ramped up way too slowly or way too quickly.


Too Slowly

Last November, when Governor Rauner blustered about banning refugees in Illinois, the inundation of new volunteers to local refugee organizations stalled the intake process. It took seven months for World Relief Chicago to get new teams through their intake process to begin volunteering. For folks new to activism, that’s an awfully long time to wait. The process moved too slowly to capitalize on timely interest.

Too Quickly

Several brand new volunteers for ‘Show Up for Racial Justice’ showed up last week to an enormous Black Friday boycott demonstration in Chicago. Most of them had signed up for green roles, but there was a miscommunication with leadership and a marshall asked a few of them to stand directly in front of an angry police officer (this is a yellow role). As a result, they left early, and not all of leadership understood why because the leaders, for the most part, willingly relinquish their safety at protests to advocate for the safety of people of color. But not everyone has reached a willingness to do that by their very first protest.

Okay, so I don’t recommend looking to an activist organization for broad guidance right now. Here is what I do recommend to get involved while combatting overwhelm:

1. Pick one issue.

It’s fine to care about a lot of issues. Don’t dive into closely following all of them at once. Choose the one that you feel is the most pressing right now, and commit just to that one for your activism efforts. This will help prevent you from getting overwhelmed and despondent. Other people will keep covering the others, I promise.

Have you picked your issue? Fantastic.

2. Find drivers for your issue.

Let’s choose an example; suppose you chose the Dakota Access Pipeline. What’s the conflict? Companies want to finish an oil pipeline by routing it underneath Standing Rock Sioux sacred grounds, close to their source of fresh water. Protesters, largely from indigenous communities, say this pipeline route infringes on Sioux sovereignty and endangers their water supply should the pipeline leak or break. It’s worth noting that the current proposed route for the pipeline is different from the original one; the company building the pipeline rerouted it after primarily white residents of Bismarck complained that the pipeline would endanger their fresh water. Onsite protesters at Standing Rock have experienced violence and unlawful arrest at the hands of police.

So, let’s suppose you think the pipeline is a problem, as well as the violence. Who is driving the problem? If you’re more concerned about police violence, then it’s the police. So who is driving them? Probably they’re being told from above to shut things down, or else. So that power structure is our target for activism.

Alternatively, If you’re more concerned about the pipeline itself, the main drivers include the companies that own it (like Phillips66), the company that is building it (Energy Transfer Partners), and the banks that are funding it. So they’d be our targets for activism.

3. Consider where your money goes.

There is only one of you in this universe.

But to your name you have dozens, hundreds, or even (if you’re lucky) thousands of dollars. People who want money care more about where you’re putting that than they care about you or what you think.

And you get to control where you’re putting it. Where do you donate your money? Where do you spend your money? Where do you invest it?

You can donate to causes you care about. Especially for causes that are geographically distant from you, this is by far the most helpful thing you can do.So, to return to the example, you could donate funds for #NoDAPL protestors to purchase supplies or pay legal fees.

But how about spending? Do the brands that you buy from support your values when it comes to the issue that you care about?

How about investing? Do you inadvertently hold stock in companies like Energy Transfer Partners or Phillips66? Do you bank with any of the 17 banks that are funding the pipeline? Banks notice when their members go in and pull their dollars — all dozens, hundreds, or thousands of them — out of the bank’s investment pool because they don’t agree with the bank’s investments.

Don’t let some fat cat invest your money in projects you don’t want to support. (P.S. Returning to the example, if you theoretically chose to switch your funds out of a DAPL-backing bank and you don’t want to join a credit union, Schwab bank is a reputable and reliable online bank that is not funding the pipeline).

4. Phone bank.

Remember when I said I don’t recommend looking to an activist organization for broad guidance? If you want to join an activist organization, instead of going in and saying “Whatall you want me to do,” offer to do thisMany organizations, from activist groups to nonprofits to political campaigns, need people to do this.

Phone banking involves calling people to get them to go to the polls, show up at an event, or take some other action. It also includes calling people in government or businesses to advocate for an issue.

Remember the previous point about how you’re only one person? Remember how quitting your life seemed like a large commitment for the small help of you joining a protest because, again, you’re only one person? By yourself, you can only raise attendance by one.

But your phone banking can raise the number of people called to attend by much more than one. Your phone banking can affect attendance much more than your attendance does. This may help you feel less pressure to attend. If that pressure gives you anxiety, then phone banking might even make it psychologically easier for you to attend after all. And even if you can’t, you still get to make a difference.

You can phone bank from anywhere, including the safety of your bed with the covers pulled all the way over your head. Ten calls takes about twenty minutes, and organizations that are organizing phone banks will usually give you a word-for-word script to read when somebody picks up the phone.

The first 3 or so calls are scary. After that, you fall into a rhythm. It’s really not as bad as you think it will be.

You can also make calls to state representatives and get their offices to listen to what you have to say. In case you do, I found this handy spreadsheet with instructions, scripts, and contact numbers to contact your state representatives.

Spoiler alert: attending town halls and calling have the highest impact on the conversations that happen in Congresspeople’s offices. Not emails. Not letters. Not facebook posts and tweets. Not pinning a safety pin to yourself or shoving a paper clip emoji in your Instagram bio.

So now you have a few options for definitive action items, many of which can be done from home. So listen up:

  1. Take time to process, if that’s what you need. But don’t let your desire to be promoted faster as a financial analyst at WhateverBank stand in the way of you making a difference on a front that matters to you, so you can look back at age 65 and realize that your WhateverBank gold retirement watch isn’t much of a legacy to leave. Seriously? Do you even care about that damn watch?
  2. If your plan is to ‘wait and see what happens’ before you step in and act, please consider whether you are doing that because you actually want to give sexist, racist, homophobic myopia a chance, or because you don’t want to devote the time or energy to figuring out what to do and you’re hoping that if you ‘wait and see’ it won’t be that bad. Because either way, it won’t be that bad for you. You have time, because you are not one of the people who would be harmed by the coming administration’s initial changes. The course of history is sealed by the number of people who stand by and do nothing. That group is always larger than all the active history-makers combined. Figure out what you need to do. Then help your friends and relatives figure out what they can do. And yes, it is okay to pace yourself. See next point.
  3. We have to play the long game here. To get anything done, we’ll need sustained effort and involvement. Right now, it’s very in vogue for people to call their representatives and show up to things. That’s fantastic, and we need more of it.
    And we’re also going to need it in February. And next December. And two years from now. So rather than exhaust yourself up front and drift away from activism as a result, I’d encourage you to consider for a minute what it will take for you to make your effort sustainable and repeated.

Look, people. Here’s how it is.

Any time we’re reaching for a long term goal, we’re going to run into obstacles. Big ones. The time frame to change the way people think is just too long for a few big obstacles not to sneak in. But whether we succeed in reaching our goals depends on how we react when these obstacles do sneak in. Do we roll over and lie down, or do we keep pushing? Even if we manage to thwart backward progress so it’s only one step back instead of two, we’ve made it easier to move ahead again when things are more in our favor.

And it’s really hard to beat someone who, regardless of circumstances, absolutely refuses to give up.

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