Since President Trump’s election, activism is the buzzword on many locals’ lips. But maybe you’ve never considered yourself an activist. Maybe you haven’t written a single letter to your congressional representative, or attended a single rally, march, or protest. Maybe it all feels a little bit overwhelming.
Don’t worry—The Advocate tracked down three area activists to get their tips for newbies.
Step 1: Get Intimate with Your Cause
First thing’s first: you have to know what you’re fighting for, which means going beyond just having an opinion. To truly make a difference, you need to do research. Learn about strategies for creating change, the broader implications that arise from change, and why people might disagree with your position.
“If you want to be an activist you have to stand firm, but you also have to have really good evidence to back it up,” said Jeff Schiminsky, an activist who has worked locally on pollution issues for more than a decade.
Schiminsky also recommended connecting with the broader activist community for support.
“Find an organization that is similar to the ideals that you hold,” he said. “Understand the landscape.”
Sami Al-AbdRabbuh, an activist and former candidate for the Oregon House of Representatives, knows that sometimes you’ll have more than one cause you want to support, but said it can be helpful to specialize.
“This is a time where people might want to advocate for more than one thing, and that’s going to be a challenge,” said Al-AbdRabbuh. “Focus will help us all.”
Step 2: Consider Your Tactics
Once you have your cause, you have many tools in your tactical toolbox. How to choose among them? Al-AbdRabbuh and Schiminsky agreed: what you choose depends on your chosen cause, the bigger picture context, and your own personal level of comfort.
In general, Al-AbdRabbuh breaks his strategy into two stages: first, working with elected representatives—writing letters, calling, attending town halls, etc.; second, working around elected representatives. This second set of tactics prioritizes educating people about their rights, encouraging whistleblowing, and civil disobedience.
For Schiminsky, there are two levels: working with individuals and other organizations in the community, and working with elected officials.
When working with the community, Schiminsky said he tries to connect his message to something people already care about. For example, when speaking to a home brew club, he would talk about pesticides used in hops and barley production.
“Making a personal connection with someone so they understand the root of your activism is by far the most successful [tactic],” he said.
Step 3: Seek Balance: Recognize the Positive
When you’re so focused on changing the things you think are wrong with the world, it’s easy to forget that good things are happening, too.
Susan Christie, chair of the Corvallis Unitarian Universalist Fellowship’s Climate Justice Committee, thinks it’s important to pay attention to the positive. For example, after the Fellowship divested from any investment in fossil fuels—years of hard work against something they felt was negative—they were able to put money to work for something they believed in, investing in Seeds for the Sol, a local solar energy nonprofit.
Similarly, Schiminsky has come to see value in trying to understand positions he doesn’t agree with. Where he previously used confrontational tactics—he once put black sheets over any vegetables on display in a grocery store that had been grown with pesticides—he now tends toward conversation.
“I learned that you have to be willing to talk and listen to both sides, and you may even have to compromise a little bit,” he said.
Step 4: Rest to Reenergize
When people are working on challenging issues with long timelines for change, Christie said, they can start to feel and act desperate. They may stop listening to others, or they might stop eating or sleeping well due to stress. A stressed activist, she said, can get quarrelsome.
“In their desperation, they get too hard on other people,” she said.
Christie recommends that you make sure to plan time to rest and reinvigorate yourself. For her group, she has organized weekend retreats and workshops. She also recommends an evening out at a concert.
While it might feel wrong to take a break, Christie said that’s the stress speaking.
“Every now and then you need a little bit of self-care, just to avoid burnout,” she said. “If you get to burnout or desperation, you can’t be effective.”
Step 5: Don’t Get Overwhelmed
Cause? Check. Tactics? Check. Balance? Check. Self-care? Check.
Now there’s just one thing left: take a deep breath, and remember that you don’t have to do it alone.
“Rather than feel like you are personally responsible for the problem, you find the little piece of it you can do,” said Christie. For example, in her climate change group, one member keeps track of all relevant Oregon legislation. Another member, a scientist, testifies at legislative hearings. Another member protests banks that invest in the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Al-AbdRabbuh emphasized simple steps that new activists can take. Rather than protesting or writing letters, you might instead choose to drive an undocumented worker to her job one day, or host a refugee family for a few nights in your spare bedroom.
It’s important to remember, Christie said, that you can’t do everything.
“You have to trust that other people will do the other parts of it,” she said.
Want to know more? Join us on Thursday, April 13 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. for the Advocate Roundish Table event, Know Your Rights, at Imagine Coffee, 5460 SW Philomath Boulevard. Local attorney Lorena Reynolds will inform activists and attendees alike of their freedoms in this time of political uprise and legal exploitation, free of charge. An audience Q&A will follow. Be there, or be unaware.
By Maggie Anderson