How to Be an Activist (Even if It’s Not Your Job)

By the time the Women’s March of January 21st, 2017, took place, I had joined Planned Parenthood as a volunteer. I’d become a member of the ACLU and NAACP, where I made monthly donations. I had hosted political salons at my apartment a la the suffragists of the 1800s. I was spurred into action following the 2016 election, motivated not only by my passions for universal health care, women’s rights, racial and religious equality, and immigration, but by the communities across the United States that were willing to rally hard for what they believed in.

As a first-generation immigrant whose mother left her husband and three young boys in India to pursue her Ph.D. at the University of Oregon (they were subsequently reunited two years later when my dad was accepted into U of O), I understand firsthand the power of diversity and inclusivity — it’s what urged my parents to come to this country. Although I was born a U.S. citizen, my family’s immigration story is key to who I am. That Trump’s America challenged those tenets discouraged and scared me.

Still, as months passed, I grew exhausted by the pace of work I’d set out to achieve. My intentions were good, but I was burning out fast. I cared so much about the future of our country, and yet I stopped going to meetings. I felt lost in the political process and stifled by its bureaucracy. I was dizzy with questions: Should I get involved in a local election? Should I quit my writing career and run for office? Was volunteering at an after-school program for children enough — in fact, what is?

As the #MeToo and consequent #TimesUp movements came to the forefront this past year, I was reminded again of how much we still have to fight for. If I, as a woman and a minority, didn’t step up, who would? In order to regain — and maintain — the momentum I needed for the fight ahead in 2018, I gathered advice from people I admire from various grassroots organizations on what it means to live a truly engaged, activist life.

Monica Klein and Anna Poe-Kest

Klein and Poe-Kest, along with Elana Leopold, are the founders of The Broad Room.

A little about The Broad Room

Founded by former and current Mayor Bill de Blasio aides, The Broad Room is an “activist training camp” that attempts to build a collective of young women to challenge the right-wing agenda.

What does it mean to live an activist life?

“When you think of politicians in D.C. passing incomprehensible legislation, it’s easy to turn away and not be emotionally invested,” says Klein. “But when you think about someone making reproductive health care choices for you, you start feeling more strongly. When you see families being torn apart because of heartless immigration policies, you can’t help but care. And when you realize the economic policies put in place by those D.C. politicians are creating widespread poverty and growing hunger, then you can’t help but feel angry. Those emotional reactions are important — and they should guide you to action.”

Still, she says there is no activist manual you have to abide by in order to do your part: “We try to invest the time we can give into political activism. For some of us, that means spending our professional careers working on organizing and political campaigns. For some, it means finding time in your evenings or weekends. Everyone’s schedules and priorities are different — some have to take care of their families or work double shifts, leaving them little downtime, let alone time to protest. So there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to activism.”

As for the guilt one faces when not being able to tackle it all, Poe-Kest says it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. “We should all strive to do more — to work and fight harder for what we believe in. This past year has proven that we shouldn’t take anything for granted,” she says. “Pre-election, there was a wave of young millennial starlets who proclaimed that they weren’t feminists because they didn’t feel they needed to fight for equality because they ‘respected men.’ I think many of us rolled our eyes then, but it still betrayed a false sense of security that we were on an upswing, that women’s rights, race relations, LGBTQ rights were on a (very slow and very bumpy) rise. What we’ve seen over this past year, through Trump’s response to Charlottesville and through the #MeToo movement, is that no one should have ever felt complacent. We should all feel like we haven’t done enough.”

Marya Stark

Stark is the founder of Emerge New York.

A little about Emerge New York

Though Emerge America has been around since 2005 and has expanded to 24 states, it took Trump’s win to start a chapter here in New York. Launched by Marya Stark — co-founder, founding executive director and board chair emeritus of Emerge America — Emerge New York’s goal is to increase the number of Democratic women in public office.

What does it mean to live an activist life?

Stark suggests that since there are so many causes and organizations, one should look for “points of leverage.” For her, “electing women as a cause helps resolve many of the issues that challenge us. Think about how to have maximum impact and ongoing impact,” she says. She does, however, understand the hardship associated with not being able to do it all. “You have to focus on the issues that you connect to passionately,” she says. “There can be a lot of fun in organizing and community, being around individuals who are passionate about what you are.” Stark’s plan of attack is connecting with one or two organizations that you can dedicate more than just monetary resources to. “There is nothing more bonding than working on shared values,” she says. “That’s what sustains you, too.”

Furthermore, she advises that you shouldn’t feel as though you have to run in order to be an activist. “You have to leverage your own time, talents, network and interest,” she says. “I could have a fantastic fundraising meeting one morning and that could sustain me for an entire week. I will feel like that was impactful.”

As for the question of whether volunteering with children or animals counts as activism, “service is always needed, but if you want to be a political activist, you need to work toward changing policy or a political outcome,” Stark says. “If mentoring children is your passion, work toward getting more resources for an after-school program or expand its reach.”

Tricia Shimamura

Shimamura is a founding member of She Will Rise.

A little about She Will Rise

She Will Rise is committed to dismantling gender-based discrimination and structural inequalities that prohibit women from becoming the leaders they can and should be. “We know that being political and building a pipeline of young progressive women leaders will ultimately create a society in which the policies that shape our lives will also be working towards a more just and equal society for all,” Shimamura says.

What does it mean to live an activist life?

“Politics influence policy, which ultimately affects you and your loved ones, whether you realize it or not,” says Shimamura. “From big policy issues like health care and immigration reform to subtle affirmations of appropriate and inappropriate behavior, so much of our lives are shaped by our elected leaders. When we talk to people who are hesitant or disinterested in being political, we remind them that ultimately these issues are local, and they affect everyone. Who we elect into office determines the level of priority for issues like equal pay, sexual harassment/assault prevention and so many other important fights that we’re still in. It also sends subtle messages about who can succeed, and to what degree.”

Shimamura doesn’t pretend to be the authority on the word “activism.” “What’s the significance of the term ‘activist’ anyway? The work and the impact is much more important,” she says. “We think that if you’re advocating for and serving a community, even if it’s the four-legged community, that work can be seen as activism.”

Haili Copas-Starke and Cristina Gonzalez

Both women are founding members of Women of Color for Progress.

A little about Women of Color for Progress

Women of Color for Progress is a political organization founded by women of color for women of color. Through a racial and intersectional lens, the organization specifically seeks to empower women of color to lead. Their aim is to create an inclusive and transparent political system that focuses on progressive human rights legislation.

What does it mean to live an activist life?

Separating activism from your everyday life is really not what it’s about, according to Copas-Starke. “As they said in the ’60s, the personal is political. Everything that we do in life is a form of politics, from the purchases we make to the events we attend to the people we associate with to what we spend our time doing,” she says. Still, it’s important to level-set your ability to engage. “We believe in the importance of self-care, which means that sometimes it’s important to not focus on the political aspects of things, but to just be,” she says. “We would really love everyone to be involved at some level, but ultimately it’s up to each individual to decide what their level of engagement should be. All of our members have full-time jobs outside of Women of Color for Progress, which isn’t to say that the organization isn’t a full-time job. Every founder is 100 percent committed to community organizing and political activism, but activism could simply be engaging in discussions with others and/or building your own network.”

As for keeping the momentum up, Gonzalez follows the marathon-over-sprint approach: “Don’t get frustrated if you don’t see results, or if you feel like you’re shouting the same thing over and over again into the ether. If you feel like what you’re doing is not as effective as you would like it to be, I’d encourage you to take a step back, regroup and maybe tweak the strategy — ask yourself why the issue matters to you and why you do the work, and remind yourself of that every time you feel like quitting. I like to make my advocacy bigger than me, so that when I get the urge to stop, I remember that there are others counting on me to push forward. As Angela Davis said, ‘You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.'”

Sameer Jha

Jha is a high-school student and passionate LGBTQ+ activist who founded The Empathy Alliance in 2016.

A little about The Empathy Alliance

The Empathy Alliance is a nonprofit organization that works with youth and educators to make schools safer and more welcoming. In addition to facilitating workshops, speaking on panels, hosting community awareness events and developing resources for teachers, The Empathy Alliance also partners with national organizations focused on supporting LGBTQ+ needs in kindergarten through 12th grade. In his work, Jha works to make sure other LGBTQ+ youth don’t have to go through the harassment he experienced. He cares deeply about removing the stigma around being queer within the South Asian community, and he does that by creating awareness and acceptance by telling his own story.

What does it mean to live an activist life?

Activism is something Jha says he “needs to do.” “I am an activist because I need to spread awareness about LGBTQ+ issues and tell my story,” he says. “I was a flamboyant child who, when all the other boys around me were playing badminton, would sit on the sidelines turning the shuttlecock upside down and pretending it was a doll in a lacy wedding dress. I became a target for all kinds of bullying, and it wasn’t until I reached high school that I was able to accept myself as queer and trans.” Though Jha has certainly had struggles along the way, he now has the support to not only be who he is, but explore who he is. “I needed to return to my middle school to change the culture there, especially within my South Asian community. And seeing the impact I was able to have, I just kept going,” he says of founding The Empathy Alliance.

As for whether his activism is political, he says, “I feel like many fundamental human rights are labeled as ‘political’ and people feel free to take sides and debate over things like someone’s right to love or to identify themselves. Though I respect that different people have different opinions, as a queer, trans person of color, I also know that politics deeply affect the day-to-day lives of marginalized groups and that there are some debates that are human debates, not political debates,” he stresses.

At such a young age, Jha is certainly wiser than I was, but he understands activism is about the long haul: “Celebrate each win, no matter how small. Look at yourself in the context of history and remind yourself that you are not alone; others came before you and have paved the way for you, and you are just continuing that work. Believe that you will also inspire others to join you. If you need a break, take it! Enjoy life: Meet friends, read a wonderful book, watch a movie, or eat some comfort food! Find what brings you joy and do it, so you remember what you are fighting for.”

Photo by Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images.

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