Many Americans are struggling to find ways to show their support around issues of racial injustice and systemic racism as well as other essential public health problems. Unlike public health professionals, most people are not trained in advocacy techniques. The following is a brief primer on how anyone can take those first steps.
On the issues – Read widely including news media, blogs, and books. Watch videos, podcasts and documentaries. Determine who credible sources are and what organizations work in this area. For example, who are the organizations who have been working on racial justice for decades? Some possibilities are the NAACP or the ACLU. Sign up to receive regular information from these organizations who are longstanding advocates on systemic civil rights issues.
Determine what you believe – Think deeply about your personal beliefs and values. Move beyond the platforms or credos of organized groups to whom you may belong. Beliefs often change with age and/or circumstance. For example, many people are concerned about climate change but would not necessarily vote for stricter environmental legislation if it meant putting thousands of people out of work or increasing the cost of an automobile.
Choose your priorities
Not everyone has time to be engaged with every issue. Some issues may arguably be “niche” concerns such as a rare genetic disorder whereas others are so fundamental, and omnipresent at every level of society that they affect all of us, like racism and climate change.
Be visible – Make a statement. It can be a tiny change: posting a yard sign, changing your email signature, liking something on Facebook or retweeting a post, or working with a group to formulate a statement of support.
Provide financial support – organizations need money to continue their work. If you have these kind of resources, share them.
Communicate – Write, email, call, or text your local/state/national representatives and key decision-makers to state your support for essential legislation or initiatives. Sign a petition. Consider writing an op-ed piece to the local newspaper. While younger people are informed through social media and podcasts, newspapers reach many older, middle and upper income individuals who vote in large numbers.
Volunteer – Community organizations also need volunteers, both skilled and unskilled. If you have the time, volunteering can be fulfilling, important work and great way to learn more about the organization and their mission. You will also meet others interested in similar concerns.
Protest – The right to protest is guaranteed in the First Amendment of the U.S. constitution. Peaceful assembly is an inspiring way for advocates to communicate their collective voices on key topics of the day. Some protests are highly organized and planned months in advance, such as the Women’s March on Washington. Others are “pop-up” events in response to time-sensitive and/or local or vital, current events such as killing of George Floyd. Most are organized by community groups working on the specific topic or concern.
Engage your social networks – Converse with family and friends about these topics. Can you recruit new advocates to the movement? These talks are some of the most difficult dialogs you might ever have with anyone. Talking about your beliefs may challenge relatives’ deeply held cultural and historical values that were pervasive in your upbringing.
Understand your comfort zone
What actions are you willing to take? Protesting and in-person contact has to be weighed against individual and family risk during the COVID-19 pandemic. Working people with little time may choose to donate money.
Move outside your comfort zone
Take one step outside that comfort zone. Advocating on multiple levels with a variety of strategies increases the reach and impact of your efforts.
All of us want a better world that will only happen if we move beyond wishing it were so and becoming a part of the change. It’s important to remember that this work is a marathon, not a sprint. If you haven’t engaged with these issues before, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with information and emotions like outrage and discouragement, which can lead to paralysis. Learning to practice self-care and knowing when to unplug and recharge are essential.
Whether your passion lies with racial injustice, climate change, reducing gun violence, preventing death by suicide, or any of the thousands of challenges facing us, I encourage you to take action.