The other day, I asked my friend Sho, founder of my Indivisible activism group, what political stuff she was working on.
“Honestly,” she said, “these days I’m mostly just trying to advocate for my daughter to get the school services she needs.”
I doubt she realized it at the time, but her response shook something up in me. It helped me answer some of the many questions that have been floating around in my mind over the past few weeks, these weeks of crippling wildfires and crippling hurricanes and crippling dread. I’ve been more engaged politically since this past election than I have in my entire life. But somehow, lately, with so much tragedy, I’ve been finding myself desperate to understand the best way to really be an activist.
When Sho told me that most of her activism time was focused on advocating for her own kid, it occurred to me: activism is personal. I mean, duh, right? But it is. We pick our causes based on what’s most pressing in our personal lives. I fought hard, for example, against the repeal of Obamacare. I sent texts I feared would be received poorly to my many relatives in Maine, lobbying them to call Senator Susan Collins. I contacted my own senators about a million times, too, even though I knew they were on the same page as me.
Why did I do all of that?
Because I have a pre-existing condition, an autoimmune disease I’ve had since my teens. I know what it’s like to be denied health insurance over and over again. You know what that makes you feel like? Shit. It makes you terrified that because you have this weird disorder where your hands turn white when they’re cold that you won’t have insurance when you have an unexpected heart attack or car accident. It makes you feel unhealthy, even when you’re walking around strong as an ox. It makes you incredibly grateful to have resources, like parents who could bail you out if you got a $40,000 hospital bill. It makes you deeply aware that most people aren’t so lucky. The mandate, under Obamacare, that people with preexisting conditions not be denied was a Godsend for me. Sure, Obamacare is far from perfect, but on a very basic level, it gave me something I didn’t have before: security. We often come at politics like this: this is what affects me, my kids, my community.
And I don’t think that’s all bad, as long as it doesn’t make us myopic. (Example: being staunchly anti-gun control just because no one in YOUR family has been killed in a mass shooting.) And if your life is pretty good, it might be tempting not to…do anything. But we’re in a time when no one can afford to sit idly by and not do anything
So what’s the best way to be an activist?
1) Identify your issue(s). My delightful friend Annie Burke is a huge champion for the outdoors. She organizes kids to, well, go outside. And so recently, fueled by this deep love for the outdoors, she started her own blog and weekly action list called The Sun Rises. You can sign up for her updates here. I love that Annie took something personal to her—environmental advocacy—and turned it into actionable items for good. What’s your biggest concern these days? What are you going to do about it? THAT’s where you focus your attention.
2) Schedule your activism. There are so many campaigns happening all the time, and so many important causes. If you’re like me, you might get five to ten different emails a day urging you to call, write, tweet, donate, organize. When Trump came into office last January, and I decided I was going to fight like hell, I started doing so much activism I stopped writing, got behind on my schoolwork, let my house go to the dogs, and did crazy things like transport my kid in the Baby Bjorn to San Francisco at rush hour to stand in front of Senator Feinstein’s office shouting with a bunch of Berkeley hippies for twenty minutes before going home again. (If paid protest wasn’t fake news, I’d have made a bundle.)
The reality is that you can’t be an activist every minute of every day, and faced with that, you might just…stop doing anything at all. The solution? Schedule your activism. Join a group. Go to a Protest Playdate. Set aside Tuesday nights, or ten minutes every morning. Give yourself a limit: five calls per week, 20 postcards per month, twelve Resistbot texts per day. Whatever works for you, but just DO IT. (As I say to my students, with regard to turning in essays: it’s always better to do something than to do nothing.)
3) Give money, if you can. Turns out money DOES make the world go ’round. While donating isn’t activism in the strictest sense of the word, if getting out there and raising hell isn’t in your wheelhouse, then support the people who do. Personally, I think that supporting local businesses, buying sustainable products, supporting organic farmers—all of this is its own form of activism. But donating to the political candidates of your choice, to organizations doing work you believe in, to your kids’ schools, to hurricane relief, to wildfire relief—even more so.
4) Remember ALL members of your community. I was pretty heartened, last week, by the incredible outpouring of support for victims of the Northbay fires. At L’s school, parents bustled about filling boxes with goods. “Donate” buttons cropped up all over. The Bay Area community rallied heavily around our friends up north. And while it felt like Armageddon here, I nonetheless had this sense that if we were all going down, we were all going down together. One incredibly important way to be an activist is simply to take care of the members of your community, whoever they are. That may mean remembering that even though your kid is doing great at his school, another kid with special needs might not be. Or it may mean that while your family feels welcomed by the soccer team, the one kid of color on that team might feel less welcome.
The most rewarding thing I did in 2016 was contribute to a gift drive for needy families by buying a Christmas gift for an anonymous junior-high aged girl whose younger sibling attended L’s school. Going to Marshall’s and picking out the fluffiest socks I could find, the cutest underwear, the games she’d asked for, and some other silly little things that would have made me happy when I was 13 is one of my best memories from 2016. And to put that in perspective, in 2016 I had the baby I’d been wanting for six years.
5) Engage in self-care. Burnout? It’s real. We’re assaulted daily. We see evidence in our own communities of climate change, while elected officials deny its existence. We see vitriolic, nasty fights between our Republican friends and our Democrat friends on social media. We despair of America every being a unified country again. We learn that Harvey Weinstein is a sexual predator. We remember that our president is, too. It’s a lot. Add that to our personal and professional difficulties—a baby not sleeping through the night, a lost job, an argument with a partner—and it can feel like a little too much. The antidote? Take a break. Going to Esalen for six days might not be in my budget, but I’ve got my own mini-spa date in October planned (ooh! One in November, too). And practically every night, I sit with B on the couch and watch an episode of The Office. We laugh. (We also fold laundry).
Most of all, we try to remember that we have each other, that we’re Americans, and that we’ll get through this. And then we get back to work.
How are YOU being an activist these days? I’d love to hear from you.