Ten principles for personal activism

The past several years have witnessed an explosion of national, grassroots and community activism. Technology, and specifically social media, has driven this renewed public engagement. Many people, especially young adults, are also realizing that they may not be able to change the whole world, but they can make positive changes wherever they are.

The principles outlined below take as truth the idea that if one person is thinking it, others are, too, and if one person begins to do something about it, others will feel emboldened to take a stand as well.

1) Find your calling
Most of us have many interests and contribute to a variety of causes. Yet, we also have that special place that makes us ache, a burden for a particular human frailty or a burning desire for justice for one social ill over all others. Exploring these passions may lead you to your calling, which combines your gifts and abilities with what matters most to you. Find your calling, and you will be well-nourished in the often-difficult and discouraging world of advocacy.

2) Change yourself  
Once you find the area you want to engage, take a hard look inside yourself. It is always easier to see the problems “out there,” yet, we all sometimes unwittingly contribute to the very problems we seek to change. Asking tough questions and looking deep into our own heart is the first step toward personal change. Even one person acting with integrity and conviction sends a powerful signal that there is another way to approach life besides passive acceptance. Personal change is a necessary prelude to community change, because people won’t follow a person who doesn’t practice what he promotes.

3) Bloom where you are planted  
You may be tempted to think of “mission” as happening somewhere else. Few of us have the ability to go overseas to provide hands-on assistance, but we all have the ability to look at the needs in our own backyards. Are there strip clubs and massage parlors that may be enslaving women and girls right in your own city? If you have a passion for helping the needy or healing wounded hearts, most likely there are opportunities right around you. Look for them, and inspire others through your dedication.

4) Gather others to your cause
Social media like Twitter and Facebook have revolutionized the way people communicate and engage society. You have an incredible ability to create public awareness through online and offline networks. Younger people are especially interested in online debate and discussion. Even if people won’t always agree with you, you can begin to challenge the status quo in a respectful way.

5) Make friends, not enemies
As you begin to gather others to your cause, remember that the goal is not to badger people into agreement, but to find ways to make a situation “win-win.” Public officials can be privately encouraged to act on behalf of the community and publicly praised and supported when they do. Taking an antagonistic approach destroys cooperation now and in the future. Investing in relationships is the only way to keep your cause moving forward over the long haul. People need to know you value and respect them. Spend time with them, work on their behalf and keep the debate respectful and positive at all times.

6) Check your tone
The quickest way to violate Principle No. 5 is to approach your work with an angry tone. People are tired of divisive politics, and they don’t want to be a part of controversy. A positive, proactive approach will gather more support than simply proclaiming the rightness of your cause and the wrongness of what you oppose. Always identify what you are for. Your opponents will always try to portray you as the enemy of something good (like “free speech”), so don’t make their job easier by defining yourself by what you don’t like.

7) Speak out
Too often, opportunities for change are missed because we stay silent when we should speak up. How often has a person finally found the courage to share a concern with a store manager only to hear the reply, “I never knew that. I wish someone would have told me sooner.” Of course, the response can be less than friendly, but change cannot happen if it is not pursued. Your voice is more powerful than you realize because business leaders and elected officials know that if one person voices a concern, possibly hundreds or thousands more share it.

8) Show up
Just as too few people voice their concerns, too few demonstrate they really care about an issue. Making a phone call is one thing, but showing up to a town council meeting indicates an entirely different level of involvement. You don’t need to be a gifted orator or have an academic paper prepared. Simply being present and speaking your mind can be very powerful. Show up, and make sure all those you gathered to your cause do as well.

9) Keep the end in mind
There’s a lot of good work to be done, but not all of it is the best work. Set your goals, make priorities and stay focused. The distractions will always be there, but you are the one choosing whether to be sidetracked or stay true to your mission. If you are simply caught in a reactive mode, always responding to unfounded criticism or picking up the taunts of opponents, you are no longer setting the agenda. Reactivity is not leadership.

10) Persevere   
Public advocacy can be draining work. Always remember that problems did not arise overnight, and the solutions won’t take effect any faster. If you are in this for quick-fix success, you may find yourself discouraged and burned out. Activism is more like a chess game than checkers. Take time to do things right, always be strategic and try to anticipate what your opponent will do several moves in advance. Perseverance understands the work will be hard and take time, and that there will always be obstacles. When they appear, move through them with optimism. Most policy efforts fail because people got tired and gave up. Remember what you are working for. It’s worth it!

Copyright © 2013, Daniel Weiss. All rights reserved. Used with permission.