It doesn’t take much effort to see the oppression and injustice in the world. What does take effort is understanding social justice issues and taking action. Becoming a social justice advocate doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s something anyone can do when they’re committed to learning and empowering their communities. There is no one “right way” to become an advocate, but there are some tips that can help guide your path.
What is social justice?
First, what is social justice? The term has circulated for hundreds of years but was mostly regulated to conversations about economics and fairness. In more recent times, it’s expanded so that it now encompasses every area of society. Major social justice issues include gender inequality, reproductive rights, education, healthcare access, and LGBTQ+ rights. That essence of “what’s fair” and equal distribution remains. Social justice is about how privileges, opportunities, and wealth play out within society and how we can best distribute them equally among all people.
You’ll find close links between social justice and human rights. While you cannot have a socially just society without human rights, they are slightly different. Human rights dictate the bare minimum for everyone, while social justice is about equity and equality. A society that upholds everyone’s human rights is not necessarily embracing social justice at the same time.
How to become a social justice advocate
Becoming an effective advocate requires some strategy. Good intentions and passion need to be backed by good information, community, and sustainable actions. Here’s what to do:
Research the issues
When it comes to the story that a social justice issue tells, it’s very easy to be drawn into an oversimplified narrative. Take women’s rights and the gender pay gap, for example. Historically, discussions have framed the issue as one that affects all women equally. That story isn’t true. Native, Latina, and Black women are paid less than white and Asian women. While the gap between Asian and white women has narrowed compared to white, non-Hispanic men, it’s essentially remained the same (or even increased) for other ethnicities. Trans women are also often excluded from the conversation both unintentionally and intentionally. In advocating for women’s rights, too many groups end up engaging in discrimination. Researching and understanding the nuances of social justice issues is essential for advocates. Oversimplified stories that deny the intersectionality of social injustice can easily result in even more injustice.
Social justice advocates rarely work alone. Because of humanity’s love for “the hero’s journey,” we often hear about individuals as if they were fighting social injustices single-handedly. That’s not how reality works. Every effective social justice advocate is part of a community that encourages, protects, and corrects them. Their work is the result of many minds coming together, sharpening their strategies, gathering information, and taking action. Community can take many forms. Thanks to the internet, it’s much easier to connect with people who don’t live in your area. The internet can be an especially valuable tool when meeting in person is risky. Depending on your government or other groups opposed to social justice initiatives, building any community – online or offline – can be dangerous. As a social justice advocate, you need to be aware of these risks and take appropriate precautions.
Define your goals and strategies
Every social justice advocate needs a game plan. Passion isn’t enough when you’re facing significant challenges. You need goals and strategies. Ask yourself questions like, “What do I want to accomplish as an advocate?” The more specific, the better. Specific goals can be measured and evaluated. You’ll know if you’ve succeeded or fallen short of the desired outcome. Once you have a clear idea of what you hope to do, you can develop strategies to get there. This is where a network of advocates is especially useful. Everyone brings different ideas and skills that can be combined into a more effective plan. Everyone has their responsibilities and part to play. There should be frequent check-ins to assess how things are going and whether any adjustments are needed.
Advocating for social justice is not easy. Challenges can range from exhaustion to life-threatening opposition. We mentioned needing to be aware of risks and taking precautions, but it’s worth talking about again in more depth. Depending on where you are and what resources are available to you, it might be possible to step back for a while when burnout strikes. If you have the opportunity to rest, strongly consider taking it. Advocates with strong communities are more likely to have this privilege because others can fill in the gaps for a time. A healthy community is also restorative and can help offset the stress from advocacy.
For many social justice advocates, however, their options for rest may be limited. It’s challenging to “just take a break” if you have police following you or you’re being doxxed and threatened. This kind of danger goes beyond the expected burnout most committed advocates face. Protecting yourself can take a very different form. It might include networking beforehand with people who can offer a safe house, money, or access to journalists who can share what’s happening to you. Whatever form it takes, self-protection is an essential part of being a social justice advocate.