For People Who Want to “Do” Something But Don’t Know What to Do (Downloadable Zine + Text)

UPDATED January 2021. Also, this post collects even more resources for people looking to get involved in movement-building work

As an artist who routinely gets up in front of hundreds of people and talks about activism and power, and as someone who also has lots of friends who do that same thing, in some way or another, I’ve been trying to think more critically about how we USE that platform.

Because talking about issues is good and important, but so many of those performances or conversations end with “talk is not enough; go do something.” And for those of us who have had a political education, we know what that means. We may still struggle with the specifics, or experience anxiety about not doing enough, etc., but it’s a statement that makes sense.

For a lot of people, however, I’m wondering if “go do something” is a little too abstract. Especially for young people, or people with no prior activist experience, or people who are isolated due to identity or geography– how can we make “go do something” really mean something concrete and specific? How can we use the platforms that we have access to to cultivate a culture of organizing, to promote activism not just as some weird hobby that a few hippies do, but as something that everyone can and should and must do?

That was the impulse behind my TEDx Talk, and also this zine project (text by me, design by Liv Novotny). It’s nothing revolutionary; just sharing some of what I’ve learned about action, power, and change, while highlighting concrete action points and plugging people in to existing networks. The image at the top of this post links to a downloadable PDF (that can be cut and folded a particular way to become a zine). That PDF went live back in 2016; the basic text included below has been updated a bit since then.

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JUST BECAUSE YOU DON’T HAVE THE POWER TO RUN OUT THE FRONT DOOR AND MAGICALLY “FIX” EVERYTHING, IT DOESN’T MEAN THAT YOU DON’T HAVE POWER

The key is focusing less on the power that we don’t have, and more on the power that we do. Something that has been really useful to me, that I use in workshops and stuff all the time, is this “individual, interpersonal, institutional” framework. The idea is that while social/political problems manifest at all three levels, so can the action that addresses those problems.

AS INDIVIDUALS: LEVEL UP
Listen. Read books. Take classes. Follow activists and organizations on social media. Challenge yourself to think more critically and more tactically, to ask more questions, and to never stop learning. Engage in critical self-reflection; be humble and willing to grow. Take care of your physical and mental health too. This all builds our capacity to do the work, and while nothing here is enough to change the world by itself, it is an important step. ACTION EXAMPLES:

  • Do some research about activist organizations in your area, and then make a point to get looped in: sign up for email lists, follow them on social media, and pay attention to the work already happening.
  • If you’re a student, set up a meeting with your advisor to explore pathways into change-making career fields, or even just classes that can help you learn more about the issues you care about.
  • Take the time to reflect on your passions, your talents, your identities, and your capacity. You don’t have to do everything; figure out what the specific “something” is that you can do. Check out Deepa Iyer’s “social change ecosystem” map here.
  • Use existing resources: educators and activists often put together online “syllabi” like the Ferguson Syllabus, Standing Rock Syllabus, Syllabus for White Self Education, #AbolitionReadings, etc.
  • Commit, while also taking the time to breathe, to find joy, and to organize your life in whatever way works for you, in order to ensure that that commitment is sustainable.

AS COMMUNITY MEMBERS: SHOW UP
What space do you take up in your own circle, your own community? Remember: no politician or millionaire has access to your friends, family, co-workers, and networks like you do. So start conversations. Post compelling articles on social media. Write blog posts or letters-to-the-editor. Show up (if you are able) to rallies, vigils, teach-ins, meetings, or other events in order to plug in and build community. Also, be mindful of your own identities; for example, don’t expect someone who is oppressed in a way that you are not to “teach” you everything. Proactively bring this work into spaces where it isn’t already happening. ACTION EXAMPLES:

  • Start a book club or study group addressing the issues that you are passionate about. The power of these kinds of (often informal) study and discussion spaces, where just a few people get together and talk through ideas, should not be underestimated.
  • Media matters; not everyone can “show up” in the same ways. Cultivate a more intentional social media practice, signal-boosting activists whose voices need to be heard, as opposed to just memes or opinions. A few more specific thoughts on this here.
  • Communicate with your elected leaders to keep the pressure on; in-person meetings, phone calls, and personalized letters are best. Emails, tweets, and petitions are less effective but can still be useful tools. Show up to town halls and community/neighborhood meetings!
  • Create, and/or use your platform creatively. Poems, for example, don’t change the world on their own; but enough poets (and other artists) directing their energy toward a particular topic or issue, really does have the power to shift culture, to change the story we tell about that topic or issue.
  • Remember that “ally” isn’t something you are; it’s something you do. Think about your own identities, and how they might impact your ability to disrupt the status quo. Don’t let harmful talk/actions slide. Challenge people. Keep showing up.

AS ORGANIZERS: STAND UP
Change doesn’t happen because “things just inevitably get better,” or because we vote for the right people and they “save” us. Real, sustainable, progressive change is always the product of organized movements: everyday people joining up in community groups, student organizations, unions, cyphers, living rooms, and beyond, working together to figure out what we have, what we need, and how we can make it happen. ACTION EXAMPLES:

  • Find (through one-to-one meetings, internet searches, conversations, databases, etc.) an organization working on the issues you care about and get involved—that might mean sending an email inquiry, attending a meeting, working with friends to start a local chapter of a national organization, or even starting something brand new (although my advice is always to seek to join first, since everyone constantly reinventing the wheel can be a drain on energy). Whether it’s an activist group, a union, a neighborhood council, a collective, a student group, or some other formation—organizing drives change.
  • If you are able, set up a monthly donation to an activist group, organize a fundraiser, or find other ways to support existing work.
  • Vote, and get all of your friends/family to vote too—while also understanding voting as just one small part of a much larger movement-building process; organizing can also be about tactical voting campaigns and holding politicians accountable after they’re elected. Pay attention to local (mayor, city council, etc.) races!
  • Some people go into careers that are explicitly about social justice. Other people have to figure out how to infuse social justice principles into the work that they’re already doing. Cultivate a sense of the structure of your school, workplace, or community. What could be different? What rules, policies, or elements of the culture could be changed? With whom can you work to make it happen?
  • March, protest, and resist in whatever ways might be effective, while also working together to create plans for next steps, to provide alternatives to the status quo. Find local ways to apply pressure to national/international issues. Tearing down oppressive systems is necessary; so is building something better.

TAKEAWAY: We need all three levels (personal, interpersonal, institutional). One or two, without the other, are not enough. Luckily, they’re all connected: we can strive to be better individuals, while building relationships with each other, while we work on challenging systems and shifting culture. The point here is that we already have the power that we need to win; what remains is the work.

ON “GETTING INVOLVED”
A big part of this post is attempting to demystify how change happens. Power is not magic. It is not some commodity that only other people have. We all have power, and organizing together is one of the best ways to bring that power to bear. That being said, all of this comes with a few caveats:

  • Some people have more time, energy, or resources than others. After all, just surviving is a kind of activism too. So it’s important to think critically about our own identities, levels of access, privileges, etc., as we begin to figure out how we can plug into this process and make our work sustainable. I’ve heard from multiple people, in some form or another, the idea that “no one has to do everything, but we can all do something.”
  • Take some time to think about why you want to get involved. Trying to “save” other people or act out some altruistic hero fantasy will never be as effective or sustainable as figuring out where your own self-interest intersects with activist work. That “figuring out” work may take time. It may be a lifelong process. Yes, we want to have a sense of urgency, because the problems we face are big and immediate. But we must also be thoughtful and intentional.
  • No organization is perfect, and no organization alone can do everything. But they are important starting points. More on that:

The list below is not exhaustive, and is not about pointing to any particular organization as “the one” or endorsing some over others. The purpose of this list is to make it easier for people to get a “snapshot” of some of the work that is being done in our community right now (it’s pretty Twin Cities-specific). With some of these orgs, you may be able to run out and join them, get a job with them, or volunteer with them; with others, it may be about supporting their work through donating money or services, or even just getting them on your radar. This is a starting point, and one very simple action you can take right now, if you’re on social media, is to “follow” everyone on this list (if you’re in MN).

A FEW LOCAL ORGANIZATIONS
TakeAction Minnesota
Twin Cities Democratic Socialists of America
MN Women for Political Change
Black Visions
Reclaim the Block
MPD150
Voices for Racial Justice
MPLS Sanctuary Movement
Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL)
OutFront MN
The Sexual Violence Center
ISAIAH
MN Immigrant Rights Action Committee
Planned Parenthood MN Advocate
Gender Justice
Violence-Free MN
Asian-American Organizing Project
Showing Up for Racial Justice
Young People’s Action Coalition
MN Youth Collective
MN Council on American-Islamic Relations
Unidos MN
Inquilinxs Unidxs Por Justicia
MN Healing Justice Network
MIGIZI
re:power
Indigenous Environmental Network
• Sunrise Movement: Minneapolis, Mankato, Rochester, etc.
Communities United Against Police Brutality
Men as Peacemakers
Hope Community, Inc
Education for Liberation MN

ART AND MEDIA SPOTLIGHT:
TruArtSpeaks
Juxtaposition Arts
Unicorn Riot
MPLS Podcast
Black Table Arts
Kulture Klub
KRSM Radio
Free Truth Media
Line Break Media
The Center for Hmong Arts and Talent
KFAI Radio
Sahan Journal
Pollen
Pangea World Theater, Strike Theater, Penumbra Theater, lots of other theaters, media channels, and arts organizations I could list here; again, this is just a sampling.

MORE: this is just a starting point. In addition to these organizations, there are dozens of campus organizations, high school organizations, neighborhood groups, informal collectives, unions, etc. all over. It may just take a bit of research to find them.

STEAL THIS IDEA: If you’re not in Minnesota, make a list like this for your community and share it.

Hopefully something in all this can be useful. I’ll close this post with a quote from Mariame Kaba: “Those of us who want more justice and some peace in the world are not alone. We aren’t. All around us there are people who want the same things. All around us there are people working towards both. Actively so. Join us if you’re not already in the arena. Join us.”