So you want to be a human rights activist. What does that term even mean? It can mean a lot of things, including working full-time at an organization, volunteering with a local group, or supporting the work of other activists and organizations through regular donations. With the right motivation, knowledge, and practical skills, anyone can be an activist. In this guide, we’ll explore the definition of activism, ten tips on how to become a human rights activist, and a reading list.
What is activism?
Activism is any action that addresses injustice and calls for or facilitates change and progress. In the article “What is Human Rights Activism?”, we described the main types of activism efforts: letter-writing and petitions, protests and marches, and strikes and boycotts. Countless groups like the ones involved in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s have relied on these strategies to win important victories.
Ten tips on becoming an activist
When you think of activism, you might think of movement figureheads like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, and Greta Thunberg. However, most activists don’t get recognized when they walk down the street. Their work isn’t any less valuable. If you want to join the ranks of countless human rights activists working toward a better world, here are ten of the most important tips:
#1: Commit to small actions
Progress isn’t often achieved through any single, large-scale event that turns the tables on oppression and injustice. Even big changes that seem to happen overnight are usually the result of years of careful and persistent groundwork. When you’re becoming an activist, understand that no effort is too small. You don’t need to wait until you have money, influence, or decades of experience to start donating to causes, signing petitions, joining protests, or volunteering. Your efforts may seem insignificant when you compare yourself to seasoned activists, but everyone has to start somewhere.
#2: Get educated on human rights issues
Research and reading on their own don’t qualify as activism, but knowledge informs activism efforts and prevents unintended harm. If you don’t understand the causes you want to focus on, your efforts are more likely to fall flat or even cause more harm than good. As an example, the last few years have seen large numbers of people rushing to join the fight against human trafficking. However, their understanding of the issue is often warped by conspiracy theories and misinformation, such as the hoax that e-commerce company Wayfair was trafficking kids. A 2021 Washington Post article described the result of this ill-founded activism: trafficking organizations were forced to divert precious resources to combating misinformation instead of working on real trafficking cases. If you want to avoid harmful activism, commit to learning from credible sources and experienced activists.
#3: Join a local group
Activism efforts are most effective when they’re done as part of a group. Groups can share resources, attract more media coverage, and draw more supporters. Look for groups in your area focused on the causes you care about. Think about what specific skills, resources, or connections you can offer to enhance their existing efforts. Big organizations like Amnesty International often have local chapters you can join. If you cannot find an existing organization focused on a human rights issue you care about, consider starting your own group.
#4: Get involved in the political process
The political parties and government in power largely determine the state of human rights. More often than not, voting is the most significant way a person can have any impact on the society they live in. That includes voting for officials and policies, both local and national. If you’re able to, you should vote and encourage others to do the same. Any time there’s an election you can vote in, commit to learning as much as you can and participating. Talk to people you know about voting and why they should care. Volunteer with organizations that provide voting information or volunteer as a poll worker.
#5: If you’re a student, look for classes and degrees in relevant fields
When you’re in school, you’ll have access to classes and resources which may be harder to get following graduation. Take advantage of your time as a student and search for classes that build your knowledge in human rights and activism. Professional human rights activists work in a wide variety of fields, so consider what area you want to work in and choose a degree based on that. As an example, if you want to work in law, you’ll need a relevant bachelor’s degree (criminal justice, prelaw, economics, etc) and a law degree. If you want to work in medicine, nursing degrees, science-based degrees, and post-graduate education are needed. Even if you don’t plan on a career in human rights, seek out classes related to human rights so you’re well-prepared for volunteer activism or a career switch.
#6: Get experience
In addition to classes and/or a degree related to human rights, hands-on experience is critical for budding human rights activists. You can enter the field through volunteering and internships; they’re just as important as taking the right classes or reading the right books. Hands-on experience also creates invaluable connections to organizations and other activists, which expands your ability to make a difference and learn from others. If you want to work as a professional activist – or make a significant difference as a volunteer – experience isn’t optional.
#7: Be flexible and willing to go where you’re needed
A human rights activist goes where the issues take them. This might mean traveling to different places for events, conferences, classes, or meetings with organizations and other activists. If you’re a professional activist, flexibility is especially important as your work may lead you to move for work, school, or other opportunities. As you’re becoming an activist, keep an open mind about travel.
#8: Develop a personal mission statement
A personal mission statement (sometimes called a statement of purpose) is a statement encompassing your values, goals, purpose, and skills you bring to the human rights arena. It’s the kind of thing that would go on top of a resume. Human rights organizations or post-grad programs often ask candidates to compose a statement of purpose as part of the application. Even if you are never asked for this statement, it’s a good idea to develop one on your own. It’s a valuable exercise in self-reflection. When activism efforts get tough or you face an identity crisis related to your activism, a mission statement can help ground you.
#9: Stand up to oppression and discrimination when you see it
Wanting to respond to injustice is usually natural to the type of person who becomes an activist. When they see injustices in real time, in their own life, they speak up. However, taking a stand can sometimes be scary. Speaking up might cost you relationships with friends and family. In certain situations, it can even be dangerous. Each situation will likely warrant a different response. Before you’re faced with a decision, spend some time thinking about the different types of situations you may find yourself in, i.e. someone tells a racist joke, someone is being harassed at work, a police officer is acting aggressively toward someone. Brainstorm ways to respond in the moment and what actions you can take after the fact.
#10: Maintain a support network
Human rights activism can be physically and emotionally exhausting. Burnout is very common and can force activists to step back for their own survival. For the sake of activists and the causes they care about, support networks are vital. The networks serve the dual purpose of providing support to individuals and keeping a movement going. When one activist is on the verge of burnout, another activist is there to take their place. Networks are also important during tense situations, like protests. Activists are safest when they’re together and have plans on how to leave dangerous situations. Fighting for human rights can feel daunting, so prepare for opposition, stay organized, and stay connected.
Human rights activism: a reading list
No single reading list could encompass all the valuable books available to human rights activists, but here’s a list of five to get you started:
The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century
by Grace Lee Boggs (with Scott Kurashige)
The late Grace Lee Boggs was an iconic activist who participated in the Civil Rights Movement, women’s rights movement, and worker’s rights movements for seven decades. In this book, Boggs examines the modern political, economical, and environmental landscape and provides insight into how the world can achieve radical change.
Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds
by Adrienne Maree brown
Inspired by science fiction author Octavia Butler’s work on the human relationship to change, Emergent Strategy presents a radical self-help, society-help, and planet-help perspective on shaping the future. The book’s description calls it a “resolutely materialist “spirituality” based equally on science and science fiction, a visionary incantation to transform that which ultimately transforms us.”
Road Map For Revolutionaries: Resistance, Activism, and Advocacy For Al
Caryolyn Gerin, Elisa Camahort Page, Jamia Wilson
This guide to effective activism and social justice is written for activists of all ages. No matter who you are or what your background is, you’ll learn more about supporting marginalized communities, maintaining your activism for the long term, and understanding action steps for every level of the government. Readers will also learn practical strategies for protecting themselves in risky, closely-surveilled environments, such as in-person protests and online spaces.
In this book, Sikh activist, filmmaker, and civil rights lawyer Valarie Kaur examines revolutionary love as a vital practice extending to others, our opponents, and ourselves. The book describes Kaur’s life growing up in California, seeing the attacks on Sikhs after 9/11, working as a law student in American prisons and Guantánamo Bay, and becoming an activist. From her own experiences and wisdom from others, Kaur names love as an active, revolutionary force that builds a new world.
All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis
Edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson
In this book of essays, women on the frontlines of the climate movement in the United States (including scientists, poets, journalists, lawyers, farmers, activists, and others) present a wide variety of ideas and insights into changing the world. It’s edited by two leaders in the climate movement.