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How to become an activist in 2021

Becoming an activist means advocating for change either in government or private companies. Activism isn't always public, but it often is. Activism is more than participating in a protest, but protesting is always activism.

Activism does not force change like voting does. The goal is to create pressure so a person in power changes a decision. There are many policies supported by over 50% of people that have not become policy; this shows that pressure alone does not always create change.

Activism uses your voice for change

This post is a starting point for your activism, a short introduction to advocating what you feel strongly about. Almost all forms of activism are legal but that does not mean there are no risks. Activism usually magnifies actions by demanding change publicly.

Online Activism

Social media

Social media can be used for activism by sending messages demanding change directly to a policy-maker's account, or to an organization's account, and also through general outrage. Outrage on social media may not be heard by people in power (because it is not sent directly to them) and without additional coverage, from the news for example, it may not make an impact.  

Social media is effective activism

Petitions

Petitioning is signature gathering, sometimes with direct communication to a person in power. Petition creators usually try to gain as many signatures as possible, adding more pressure for change. Change.org is the most used petition site, petitions at their site can get over 1 million signatures, but a smaller platform may have more petitions for your beliefs. 

Because their site allows people from around the world to sign, petitions to local policy makers may not be well-heard; people in power may respond far more to their voters or their customers instead of outside voices.

Email

Email campaigns are petitions that are always in direct communication with people in power, but done in private without an online platform. You can create an email from scratch or organizations with similar beliefs may give you ideas for a letter, or even a template, to send to a person in power. This kind of activism may be much more effective than platform petitions if they are only from direct stakeholders (voters in the case of an politician, customers or employees in the case of a business).

It is often simple to find organizations that share your beliefs on social media, using a search engine, or by finding them on Change.org to start. New civic engagement platforms like Causes.com also help you to contact your representatives in Congress by email.

Phone & text banking

I'm including phone and text banking as online activism because of new platforms online that allow people to do it anywhere. Like email activism, you can prepare your own message to give by voice to a person in power (more likely someone on their staff) or use a script from an advocacy organization. This is the most effective method of the most common online activist action, at least with elected government officials. Phone banking opportunities can be found at Mobilize.us

Hacktivism & leaking

Organizations regularly maintain information that shows a record of criminal or otherwise unacceptable behavior. Publishing this information is often extraordinarily effective at creating pressure on policy-makers, including pressure for resigning or a firing. Gaining access to the information online by exploiting weaknesses in cybersecurity, to create a policy change, is known as hacktivism. Using access available from inside an organization is generally referred to as a leak and when done for the purpose of policy change, it's also activism.

Hacktivism may always be illegal and leaking information can be too. Even writing about leaked or hacked information may have some legal risks. It is very important to understand as much as possible before working with this kind of information.

Anonymous hactivists are technically sophisticated activists

Public records requests

On the other hand, requesting information from the government is not only legal but the government is required to provide it under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Although it might seem like people in government wouldn't give out information that could damage them, it's actually pretty common. They are required to give out information by the federal government and can be sued if they don't. With that said, some in government do create obstacles to gaining the information.

Writing about the information you receive (on a blog, an opinion column, or a news site with open submissions), including republishing the original information, may be effective at pressuring policy-makers. It is a challenging and time consuming process but MuckRock is an excellent platform for helping you navigate a records request.

Online reviews

Almost exclusively useful for activism with private companies, online reviews can be used to create pressure for change. Small businesses in particular may be pretty responsive to a negative review but even multinational corporations may respond. Clearly saying what you feel is wrong with their business, letting them know you are no longer doing business with them, or are considering it, and will change your mind if they change their business can be effective pressure. Google maps reviews are generally the most used but Yelp may also work.

Blogging and journalism

Instead of reading other people's perspective, you can share your own. Adding credible information, especially from public records requests, will help to add pressure for change. Getting people to read your material can be very challenging, and writing on sites with readers can help you get moving quickly. Guest blogging and open submission news sites like DailyKos.com are a good way to get your voice out instead of starting from scratch.

In-Person Activism

Displays

Progressive Protestor believes strongly that messages in public spaces make an impact. Can you think of the last time you noticed a logo or a corporate message on someone's clothing? We're always walking billboards and don't often recognize it.

Instead of marketing a business, activist fashion, like Progressive Protestor clothing, is marketing change. The clothing collections at this site make direct demands for policy change, instead of just displaying references to the social movements or organizations that support them. Wearing activist apparel in public is a form of activism.

Cancel rent activist shirt


Similarly, coffee cups, stickers, pins, and knick-knacks can be used for activism (I've found some merchandise I like on Etsy). Bumper stickers, yard signs, window signs, and billboards can also carry activist messages. Graffiti is sometimes used for activism, and like hacktivism is almost always illegal. Leafletting is somewhat similar except that the material needs to be handed out to people directly.

Demonstrations

The most known form of demonstration is a protest but there are multiple kinds of protests, including direct action. Direct action is activism at the site of the issue it is protesting against, in contrast to a march which may not go to the site of the issue. Picketing, another form of protest, is recognizable from photos and videos at labor strikes of people walking with signs. Protests can be planned, like in a labor dispute, or happen spontaneously like with George Floyd protests in 2020.

Arguments about whether non-violent protest is the only acceptable form of protest have multiple foundations, the most honest and helpful being the high success rate of non-violent activism. Destructive and violent activist actions can create setbacks but arguments against the use of violence and destructive action for any reason can only be considered in good faith from genuine pacifists. Again, destructive and violent actions are almost certainly illegal.

Getting information about spontaneous demonstrations is generally challenging and social media, especially Twitter, is usually the best place to start. You might find resources like the PDXProtestGuide on Twitter but with many events it's probably more ad hoc. Planned demonstrations can be found on Facebook events or organizer websites.

Artistic

Humor, including pranks by groups like The Yes Men or Stephen Colbert's speech at the 2006 media correspondent's dinner, might surprise some people as being sophisticated activist actions. Music, and visual art, is also used for activism.

This is very challenging to approach as it takes skill in an art to start.

Economic

Think voting, but with your dollars. Send your "vote" to the organizations that fit best with your values and you're practicing economic activism; when enough people "vote" better organizations succeed while worse organizations fail. Sites like Buycott will help you find which businesses should earn your vote.

Where to start

These techniques for creating change are used by many activist organizations and independent activists. But to start as an activist, it is much more important to understand what you feel strongly about rather than how to achieve it. Once you find what's important to you, you're likely to find organizations and people that share some of your beliefs. As you follow them (on Change.org or social media for example), you may decide to join their group, or take action more independently, but you'll be learning what's going on either way.


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