Activism 101: Getting Started

Caroline Griffith, NEC Executive Director

For those of us who are seasoned activists, it can often be easy to forget the complex paths that got us into the movement. Whether we first dipped our toes in at an anti-war protest, a march for racial justice, a city council meeting about a proposed development, or canvassing for a ballot initiative, we all got started because we saw a problem and knew we needed to be part of the solution. As I talk to young people who are interested in working for environmental and climate justice, I am reminded that the righteous anger I felt as a young activist was often mixed with a profound feeling of smallness and confusion about where to start. When looking at the big problems facing the world (income, gender, and racial inequality; extreme weather; sea-level rise; wildfires; species decline; and on and on) it can be incredibly difficult to see how one person can make a difference. How do we even start trying, especially considering we all have different skills and abilities to bring to this work?

Here at the NEC, we take our responsibility to the next generation of environmental leaders seriously, which is why we are embarking on a series of workshops to help them find an entry point for their activism. As someone who benefited immensely from the mentorship of experienced activists and organizers, I am honored to be able to step into that role. Although “activism” can mean a lot of different things, there are some basic questions to ask as you are getting started to make sure that your actions are meaningful and you aren’t just doing stuff for the sake of doing stuff.

The first question you need to ask is “What am I trying to accomplish?” This in itself can be a challenge, particularly when we are talking about big problems like the climate crisis. When the problems we face are global it can feel impossible to believe that anything we do will have an impact. As organizer and writer adrienne maree brown says, “Small is good, small is all.” Focusing on your local community and spheres of influence can help to realize your efficacy and build the skills to expand your impact. You may not be able to stop the global fossil fuel industry, but you can influence your local City Council to adopt a Climate Action Plan that includes shifting to renewable energy sources and expanding public transit, or convince your employer to stop using single-use plastics, or persuade your university to divest in fossil fuels. Setting achievable goals is important so you don’t immediately burn out or give up in frustration. Starting small and acting locally can also help you to make connections with others who are working on the same issues so you can then combine your efforts and get even more done.

Once you’ve determined your goal, it’s time to figure out who can give you what you want. A misstep that I often see passionate activists make is placing demands on people or entities who don’t have the power to accede to those demands. None of us want to waste our precious time, so before you march into the City Council meeting to demand that they shut down the pulp mill, make sure that’s something they actually have the power to do. Power mapping is a fun exercise to figure out who your campaign should be targeting, what might motivate them to give you what you want, and who you should be allying yourself with.

Venn diagram created by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, All We Can Save

What is the work that needs doing? What brings you joy? What are you good at? According to Ayana Johnson, climate activist and cofounder of the All We Can Save Project, these are the questions that should start off your inquiry into how to engage with bringing about your goal. In the Venn Diagram of these questions, the space in the middle – where everything meets – holds the key. Anyone who has engaged in this work for extended periods can tell you that activism and working for climate justice, or any kind of justice, can be tiring. It isn’t something that you clock in and out for. When you care deeply about an issue it can be difficult to turn it off and take a break, so it’s important to take as much pleasure as possible in what you are doing. If you are an introvert who is interested in policy, leading a climate march might not be the right role for you. However, your skills as a policy wonk are an incredible asset, and focusing on what you love can lead to more long-term engagement and a life-long benefit to the climate justice movement. Likewise, if you are an artist, analyzing Environmental Impact Reports might be a good way to get frustrated and burn yourself out, but any movement needs artists. Contributing your time in a way that brings you joy and utilizes your skills will ultimately be more beneficial than trying to fit a mold of what you think an “activist” is supposed to be. That said, there is always opportunity to learn new skills and expand the parameters of what brings you joy.

We’ll be delving deeper into these concepts and exploring some helpful tools at our first interactive workshop, March 29 at 6 p.m. on Zoom. If you or someone you know are just starting out as an organizer/activist/fighter for climate justice and are looking to hone your skills, you can register at Space is limited, so register soon.