I had a fun time at the Commonground Festival, enjoying the beautiful environment, lovely music and friendly folks. I also ran a short workshop on ‘Getting Started in Activism’. It was a great discussion and it made me think a lot about what it takes for people to get active, what leads to people dropping out of activism, and things we should be thoughtful about when engaging new activists.

Here is some of what we covered.

  • What change do you want to see in the world? We all have things we’d like to see change. What do you care about? What gets under your skin?
  • What does ‘activist’ mean anyway? At the workshop we talked about the different interpretations of this word, which can be really loaded with meaning. Many folks have a sense of not doing enough, not being ‘a real activist’. There’s a bunch of stereotypes about activists so it’s good to break them down. Here’s my definition:

An activist is someone who –

  1. sees a problem;
  2. believes the situation could be different (whether or not they have a clearly thought out solution); and
  3. takes action in that direction
  •  On any issue there are people who
  1. don’t see a problem, so don’t do anything about it (eg ‘the way asylum seekers get treated is just fine, no problem there!’);
  2. are aware of the problem but think it’s inevitable, it can’t or won’t change (‘of course the boss has all the power in the workplace, it sucks but that’s just the way things are’); or
  3. although they think things should be different they experience too many barriers to taking action themselves (‘I don’t have time’; ’what I do won’t make a difference’; ‘I don’t know enough about things’ etc).
  • Those of us who are working to engage new activists need to think about where we focus our efforts – educating people about a problem, formulating and promoting possible solutions, communicating a credible path from here to success, providing accessible actions for people. One conscious approach to shifting thinking and working through barriers to action are the one-to-one organising conversations used broadly in the union movement.

In the workshop we talked about some of the choices we face about our activism:

  • We can act alone or act with others. Many of the changes we want to see in the world require collective action in order to come about.
  • We can fight for something or against something. It was identified by a participant that constantly focusing on the problem can be draining and lead to burn-out. Having a positive vision makes a difference to our personal experience of activism, and how others feel about it too.
  • We can react to events and act spontaneously or we can be strategic. Which one do you think I favour?
  • We can undertake activism in a way which sustains us or we can run ourselves down. This often isn’t considered a choice – we can hurtle into particular activist practices without considering the consequences. When we skip meals, exercise or time with loved ones we make a choice to prioritise the work over our personal needs. This may be manageable for a short hectic period in a campaign but if it becomes a long-term habit our physical and emotional health can suffer. Want some ideas about how to set up sustainable practices? Plan to Win offers workshops on sustaining activism and Plan to Thrive has multiple resources and activist stories.

Some tips for getting started in activism

  • Look around to see who is already organising on the issues you care about. Search the internet, go along to events and rallies, check out progressive publications.
  • Reflect on your skills, interests, what you enjoy, and how much time you have available. What do you want to get out of this experience? What motivates you? What’s needed out there? What can you contribute?
  • Seek out support – perhaps a friend who wants to embark on this adventure with you or a mentor who has been involved for awhile.
  • Learn and grow. Taking action and working with others offers amazing opportunities for learning and personal growth. What learning goals do you have? In what ways do you want your life to be bigger? It’s okay to start small, try things out, and make changes as you go along.
  • Do your research. Read, watch films, learn from others. Find out about the history of social movements. People just like you have been key!

Useful resources for new activists

  • Resources for Nonviolent Action – the links on this page include hundreds of stories of people power. Great for inspiration and for building an understanding of how change comes about.
  • The Change Agency has a suite of excellent resources available for download, divided into the areas of big picture analysis; strategy;  social action skills; working in groups; and personal development.
  • In the Tigers Mouth: An empowerment guide for social action by Katrina Shields. This is a great book with lots of prompts for reflection, with sections on inner resources for social change; tools for effectiveness; and preventing burnout. Check your local library or contact the Change Agency.
  • Watch this space! Keep an eye on this blog for further articles on both getting started as an activist as well as how to support and engage new activists. Fill out the contact form if you’d like to join the Plan to Win email list to receive notice of articles and upcoming trainings.

Do you have tips to share with new activists? What would have made a difference when you were starting out? If you’re new to activism, what questions do you have?