Do you see problems in your community? Or areas that could be improved? Anyone who commits to making their community a better place can become an activist. You don’t need a special title or degree, but that doesn’t mean activism is something you suddenly become an expert in. Effective activism requires planning and good strategies. Here’s how to become a community activist:
Understand the issues
All activists must first understand the community they want to serve and the issues facing it. If you’re from the area and are already very familiar with some of the challenges, you have a leg up on an activist who comes from outside the community. That doesn’t make you an expert, necessarily. You may be familiar with how certain issues affect you and your family, but other people will have different experiences and perspectives. Before jumping in, educate yourself on every angle of an issue, its history, and how other activists have been addressing it. By getting a full picture of a problem, you’re also better equipped to identify how your skills and experiences fit into possible solutions.
Connect with allies
Bettering a community never happens because of one person. Activists are successful when they work with other activists. After you’ve educated yourself on community issues and feel more confident in your knowledge, it’s time to connect with like-minded people. In your research, you might have come across a group that’s already doing work in the community. Depending on where you live and the issue you’re passionate about, there may not be an established group, so consider starting your own. Talk to your network about your ideas and see if anyone wants to join you. Things may start small at first, but if you don’t have experience in activism, small is probably the best way to begin.
Define your goals
What are the community issues you want to address? What do you want to accomplish? At this stage, you most likely have some things already in mind. As you researched and learned about the challenges facing your community, you might feel more connected to some than to others. You may have relevant experience or education on an issue like food insecurity or inadequate healthcare services. You should also factor in how many people you’re working with and the status of the group. If you’re joining a large organization, they will already have established goals.
If you’re starting your own group, work together to come up with goals and consider what’s realistic based on how many people are in the group and how much time you all have. The more specific you are about your goals, the better. You can have a more general “mission statement” to steer your direction, but you want goals to be practical and measurable. If they’re too vague, you won’t know if your activism is making a difference or not.
Decide on your strategy
While you’re discussing goals, you’ll most likely talk about how you’ll accomplish them at the same time. Strategies include social media campaigns, fundraisers, public demonstrations, and so on. Effective activism typically doesn’t involve just one method, although depending on your scope at the beginning, you might only deploy a few strategies at one time. As an example, you might only have the time and resources to make people aware of an issue and then point them toward more established organizations they can donate to. Social media is a convenient and accessible vehicle for raising awareness. If you’re working with an already-existing organization, sign up for the activities that best fit your skills and availability. That could include organizing an event, volunteering on a community project, connecting the organization to funds, and so on.
A community issue rarely has a simple, fast-acting solution. Organizations and activists work for years in their community and the work is often one step forward, two steps back. That frustration can cause burnout, which affects both new and seasoned activists. Exhausted, overwhelmed, and drained activists are significantly less effective. They need a break.
You can reduce some stress by prioritizing good organization, but a lot of the challenges of activism have little to do with how organized or experienced you are. You might face resistance from people in the community who like things the way they are or who disagree with your methods. Activists are often targets of harassment, so be sure to build a strong support network that has your back if things get ugly. To avoid burnout, pay attention to your mental health and take breaks when necessary. Lean on your support network. Communities aren’t saved by superhuman individuals. Community activism is about community.
Take a course on Community Engagement: Collaborating for Change.