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What It Takes to Become an Activist

How finding your purpose in life—and your backbone—can help change the world.

by Sarah Mahoney

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Whether it’s the environment, social issues, women’s health or a political candidate, some days it feels like everyone is trying to change the world. Maybe you support a cause or a movement, too, but feel undirected or like you’re just not up to the charge. Nonsense. If you hear the call, you’re ready, and we’ll tell you how you can make a difference.

While it’s hard to say whether there are really more activists today, “there are certainly more pathways to change, and the pacing of activism is different,” says Brooke Foucault Welles, an assistant professor of communications at Northeastern University in Boston who specializes in activism. “And there are many ways to be involved beyond making a donation, going to a rally or raising awareness online.”

Strength-Test Your Backbone

Your first step should be to measure the strength of your backbone, because activism isn’t easy. Working for change means that on some level, you’re persuading people to do something differently, and that’s a message they often don't want to hear. “Societal change is never easy and never comfortable,” says Kirsten Theye, an associate professor and director of the social activism program at Concordia College, in Moorhead, Minnesota.

But you don’t have to charge down Main Street with a banner if that doesn’t feel right to you. “You may find the thought of doing something that public to be mortifying,” she says. “But everyone has a unique set of skills—the challenge is to think creatively about how your particular skills and life experiences and network can be put to work for the causes that matter to you.”

Consider Your Passions

You may think you know what you care most deeply about, but issues like environmental change and social justice are enormous and complex. Whether you’re out to help honeybees or refugees, there are tens of thousands of organizations trying to effect change in many different ways, all requiring varying levels of time and intensity. You’ll need to sort through many decisions before committing to any one group.

“So start with issues you care about,” says Welles. Then, be honest with yourself about timing. “If you’re fired up about changing environmental policy on a national level, you need to acknowledge that’s going to take a long time. If it’s important to you to see something happen faster, working on a local project, like starting a community garden, may feel much more satisfying.”

Check Out Organizations

Once you’ve identified a group that appeals to you, “spend a bit of time observing its activities both on and offline to make sure that the group’s tactics reflect your values,” says Theye. Scroll back through the archives, to see if its mission has been consistent on the issues, and if you can imagine yourself participating.

While it makes sense to read as much as you can about your passions, whether it’s rescuing elephants or voter registration, start paying more attention to groups outside your specific cause for a better sense of how activists of all stripes are driving change. (Theye is a fan of Christopher Kush’s The One-Hour Activist.)

Discover Your Skills

Once you’ve decided on which groups you think you might like to work with, it’s time to think about what you can contribute. “In many cases, people feel very passionate about an issue, but don’t think that they have what it takes to be an activist,” says Theye. “Perhaps they don’t consider themselves to be a skilled writer, or a dynamic public speaker or an expert at creating social media hashtags that will go viral.”

But everyone can do something, and since caring deeply about an issue is the No. 1 qualification, you’re already qualified. “Yes, people with specific training, like lawyers or nurses, often see how they fit in faster,” says Welles. “But everyone is good at something. If you enjoy talking to people, you’re perfect for manning a table or knocking on doors. Organizing, answering phones—they’re all important.”

Find Your Voice—and Use It

Social media smarts can be a big help, too. Sure, some people pooh-pooh “hashtag activism,” and even call it “slacktavism.” Many experts would disagree, pointing to the impact of movements like #BlackLivesMatter, #OscarSoWhite, #BringBackOurGirls, #OccupyWallstreet and #WhyIStayed. And so would people suffering from ALS, who watched the ice bucket challenge sweep Facebook and raise $115 million for research.

A recent study from New York University shows that, indeed, those who share stories about activism from the periphery, even just by retweeting or reposting stories about protesters, may do as much good in spreading the word about a movement as taking part in the protest itself.

Welles loves social media for another reason, too: It offers an ideal way to experiment with talking about your issue, finding the tone of voice that feels authentic and right for you. And chances are good that you’re a little worried about “coming out” as an activist on a given cause, and may even fear that it will turn off friends and family.

She suggests stating small, “testing out different ways to talk about the issue of Facebook and Twitter. Try posting different articles as well as different comments,” she says. “You’ll get instant feedback and work your way into your comfort zone. Social media is a great way to play around with the issues, to figure out how you want to talk to people.”

It’s also a good way to get used to pushback, which—depending on your cause—might be considerable. That will give you an opportunity to test your ability to respond effectively. “You already have this network of friends, and figuring out ways to call them in on issues, not call them out, is going to be more effective.”

Theye agrees. “Using guilt and shame on another person rarely causes that person to change,” she says. “Kindly—not condescendingly or scornfully—explain why the comment is misguided or racist or hurtful and then be ready to have an honest and genuine conversation about the topic.”

“The challenge is to think creatively about how your skills and experiences and network can be put to work for the causes that matter to you.”

Tread Gently at Work

But as you dip a toe in here and there, consider carefully before mingling social causes with your professional life, which can happen easily in social media. “In an ideal world, you’d be able to be very open about your causes at work, but that isn’t always a good idea,” Welles says. “Some causes make people angry. Politics can be very alienating.”

Her solution? “I don’t think it’s disingenuous to have different identities in different places,” she says, creating different social media profiles to separate your cause from your professional life. And while true activism, by its nature, involves taking risks in order to effect change, “there is a big difference between putting your job at risk, compared to the small risk of ruining Thanksgiving dinner.”

If you can’t find an organization that suits your style, don't be afraid to go it alone. “You don’t have to join a group to be an activist,” says Theye. “Individuals can work toward change through individual actions like writing letters to the editors of newspapers, reaching out to government representatives and engaging in conversations with members of the community.”

Finally, it doesn’t hurt to remember Gandhi’s advice about activism: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”