The other day, hip hop artist Dessa tweeted this: “Alright, all you informed activists. I’m moved by the situation in Syria. I don’t know how to help. Suggestions?”
This is a very common question– not just about Syria, but about any number of causes. As someone who people call an “activist” (though I could definitely do more to live up to that, and be more involved in any number of important struggles than I am), I get this question a lot– from students, from fellow artists and from random people on the internet. I don’t have answers, but a few thoughts:
1. The Power of Education and Media
“Media activism” sometimes gets looked down on as a form of “slacktivism,” as a bunch of people posting Facebook statuses dedicated to ending world hunger or re-tweeting some vaguely political statement made by Lupe Fiasco. And sure, social media isn’t going to save the world. But let’s not pretend that every person using social media, writing letters-to-the-editor or designing stencil graffiti patterns is intending to “save the world.” Political, social and cultural change is a big, long-term process, made up of many different strands– some concrete and immediately impactful, others more intangible and long-term.
Media activism is about spreading information. It’s about education. It’s a bottleneck through which we can have a lot of impact for minimal effort– and “minimal effort” isn’t automatically a bad thing. You can’t build a movement around any issue if people don’t know anything about it. And you can’t win if people don’t care.
So yes, whether you have 100 Facebook friends or 100,000 Twitter followers, spread the word about the issues you care about. Find someone more knowledgeable than yourself and help amplify their voice. Write letters and op-eds. Shoot a PSA. Create poetry and visual art and film based on the things you care about. None of this by itself will change anything, but change won’t come without it either.
2. Make Global Issues Local
Whether you’re talking about war and torture in Syria or poverty and oppression anywhere else in the world, it is neither possible nor helpful for you to want to “go somewhere and save everyone.” That’s not the right attitude to have. Instead, research the issue. Figure out the connections between what’s going on “over there” and your own community. It’s not too unlike poetry– you have to take big, abstract ideas and make them manageable.
It’s the difference between holding a rally to demand that the US stop supporting Israel and engaging in a targeted, tactical divestment campaign within the local university. It’s the difference between protesting “war and imperialism” and setting up a counter-recruitment booth at a school or community event where the military is trying to recruit kids. It’s the difference between saying “I’m against racism” and organizing a weekly facilitated discussion where you and your neighbors can talk about their experiences and build. It’s the difference between supporting LGBTQ rights, voting for LGBTQ rights, and volunteering to campaign to get 1000 people to vote for LGBTQ rights. The list goes on and on.
When problems like the violence in Syria, or global warming, or global poverty are so huge, we have no choice but to think tactically, use the power of own communities and…
3. Organize Together
If there’s an issue that you care deeply about, you’re probably not alone. Google it. Find an organization. Find a crew of like-minded people with whom you can work. Maybe they’ll have ideas about what to do, or maybe they’ll be as confused and inexperienced as you. But this is how movements start: people identify a problem, get together, and do something about it. One person may not be able to make a difference when it comes to fighting these huge world problems, but one person can definitely make a difference in the context of an organization. For Twin Cities readers, be sure to check out the MN Activist Project, which lists a bunch of good local activist organizations.
This is also about understanding, however, that sometimes there’s nothing you can do. Well, that’s not quite right. There’s always something you can do– that’s what this essay is about. But there isn’t always a clear path, easily-identifiable solution or action point. Using Syria as an example, you can try to pressure your own government to adopt a particular stance (diplomacy & sanctions vs. arming the opposition vs. all-out invasion vs. whatever), or you can donate to a particular charity that is involved with helping civilians, or you can organize a rally for awareness, but you can’t march over there and punch Assad in the face. “Activism,” as I understand it, is about recognizing both the power you have and the power you don’t have, and forming a plan from there.
Whether the issue is intensely personal or big and abstract, local or global, well-known or unknown, it can always be addressed somehow. Movements of everyday people have won, time and time again. I think these three points are important first steps to consider, but there’s always more– anything anyone would add?