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So You Wanna be an Activist (Or Maybe You Don’t, but You Really Care About Some Stuff)

Policy and Advocacy Center for Women
January 21, 2019 Berengére Phillips University of North Carolina Chapel Hill

Public policy, legislature, laws, bills – it can all get confusing and at times I wonder what exactly it is that I am supposed to be doing to show my support or opposition for a particular cause. The following three steps are what I have determined thus far in my journey to become more involved in the public policy arena:

Step 1:

Pick a cause I care about

Step 2:

Advocate for said cause

Step 3:

Reach “activist” level

Solid plan.

I would like to think of myself as an activist, but after some reflection, I realized I don’t really have a plan (or any idea for that matter) on how to move forward; on how to actualize my desire to get involved in the nitty gritty work for causes I care about. Two things I do know though; 1) there’s no neatly laid out, step-by-step formula to reach “activist” level and 2) there are a lot of strategies, methods, and levels of participation that fill in the gaps between the aforementioned three steps. So here is my attempt to fill in those gaps.

Step 1:

Pick a cause you care about

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It's not.” ― Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Animals’ Rights, Equal Pay, the environment, how do I choose what to focus my energy on??!! One thing is for sure, no one can be a champion of all causes all the time – it’s literally exhausting! Choose something you are passionate about; something that you honestly feel will make a difference in your life and your community. Then stick with it.

Okay, I think I got it - I’ve picked my cause that I’m passionate about.

Step 1.1:

Educate yourself on said cause

 “The greatest mistake of the movement has been trying to organize a sleeping people around specific goals. You have to wake the people up first, then you'll get action.” – Malcolm X

In order to make effective change, you have to know what it is your fighting for (or combatting). Educate yourself. Do your research. Read articles, listen to podcasts, watch documentaries, find other sources of information, determine what side of the issue your policymakers are on, etc. What are the current laws surrounding the topic? Are there bills or amendments in the process of being written or revised that affect your cause? Other aspects to consider are barriers and varying perspectives. What do people on the other side of the table (if there is one) think about the issue or how has the topic affected those with different identities than you? Where is there opportunity to build bridges amongst communities in an effort to fight the good fight?

As they say, knowledge is power and you can’t argue for or against something if you don’t know anything about it! So “wake the people,” aka yourself, and become immersed in all the knowledge that’s out there.

Step 2:

Advocate for said cause

“Knowledge will bring you the opportunity to make a difference.” ― Claire Fagin

Once you have delved into the research and are sitting on this heap of knowledge, hopefully you feel equipped enough to try and make a difference and begin step two – sharing and advocating! Because you can’t educate others or get people on board with your views without sharing the information you’ve collected. In this technological day and age, there are a myriad of ways to do this. Here are just a few to help you get started:

  • Share your views on all social media platforms
  • Share the views of policymakers and legislators you agree or disagree with on social media and discuss why you are or are not supporting a specific candidate
  • Engage in online communities that share your views
  • Participate in your specific cause’s social media campaigns
  • Vote
  • Attend community events that revolve around your cause
  • Write letters, call your legislators, campaign, go door-to-door
  • Donate money, time, resources
  • Run for office
  • Attend a rally
  • Organize a protest, drive, or event
  • Sign petitions
  • Talk about it with people, whenever and wherever

Step 2.1:

Live it. This is your cause now. You’ve selected it, done the research to become knowledgeable about it, and now you’re doing the work on behalf of it. You must lead by example. This means you might have to alter where you shop, the type of products you buy, what businesses you do or don’t support, etc. Model the way and truly advocate for the change you wish to see.

Step 3:

Reach “activist” level

“Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.” ― Johann wolfgang von Goethe

“Activist” level is where I have striven to be, but have come to realize, doesn’t truly exist. There are no correct number of social media posts to share or protests to attend to reach this status. That’s the beauty of activism – it’s doing whatever you feel you are equipped to do in order to enact positive change on behalf of a specific cause. Maybe you aren’t able to donate money to an organization, but you can call your legislators to influence their vote to pass a bill. To be an activist is to take everything you’ve learned and to apply it for as long as necessary. Activists don’t give up when it gets hard, when there have been more defeats than wins. They strategize, collectivize, and mobilize, even when there doesn’t seem to be any hope left. Time and time again.

So whatever cause you feel compelled to fight for, however invested you decide to become, just remember to care, educate, advocate, and live it.

Berengére Phillips currently serves as an Assistant Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is the Public Policy Co-Chair for the WISA knowledge community. When she’s not busy trying to change students’ lives and keep her fraternity/sorority community out of the news, she loves spending time with her husband and 3 year old daughter, baking, and traveling.