7 Tips for Activism - What I've learned from creating my own organization.
Updated: Sep 2
After 7 months working on Yellowwood Youth, I've learned a lot! I'm sure in the next 7 I'll say the same. I've listed these tips with the month when I learned the lesson and how it all went down, so without further ado, from saying yes to saying no, here are 7 tips for activism.
January: Say Yes
When you're just getting started, just getting interested, don't be afraid to say yes. If it's a teacher asking you to join that club, try out a meeting. If it's a community member telling you about a volunteer opportunity, offer help. If it's an event in your town that you think you might be interested in. Go.
These first opportunities can be huge for your future career, your role in activism, and who you are as a person. When you say yes to an ask for help or show up at an event, you are putting your name and face into someone else's mind. The next time they have an ask, an internship, a job, they'll think of you, and you never know where that can lead.
Yes, be cognizant of your schedule, and we'll get to when you should say no as well, but when you are first starting out, saying yes to opportunities is the best thing you can do.
If you've seen our "Project Green Challenge" blog post, you'll know I started it on a whim. I scribbled it on my folder and almost a year later, here we are. Here's a timeline of what saying "yes" to PGC ended up meaning for me.
So get out there! Get started and see where saying "yes" leads you.
February: A Little Every Day
Each day has a time limit. As students, some of us with extracurriculars, clubs, sports, jobs, families, it can seem hard to fit in any kind of advocacy. It also seems like the point in our lives when we might have the most time to give to activism. Caught in the middle here, the best advice I can give is "A little bit every day."
You probably know I didn't come up with that on my own. It's a common piece of advice, but it's important. When I attended the Youth Environmental Leadership Summit at Indiana University, a group of high school students presented about their project, their climate resolution. When we could ask questions, I was the first with my hand in the air.
My question: "How do you balance everyday life and activism?".
Her answer: something near to "You make activism your everyday life.".
She went on to say that it can be stressful to get all of what you want to done when many of us are setting unreasonable timeframes for ourselves and overworking. She advised that instead of burning yourself out attempting to juggle it all, working a little bit every day- even an hour or less- can be beneficial. It gives you time to think, edit, rest, and appreciate the other aspects of life that you should enjoy.
March: You Can Do Anything Alone (But You Shouldn't)
On the upside- In learning this lesson I learned my own limits, discovered abilities that I had no clue I had, strengths I was not aware I could exhibit, and learned a slew of new skills throughout the process. I learned how to design a website, record and edit a podcast, build a social media presence, and organize a local event all on my own. No help. In doing these things, I explored every aspect of the work that has to go into them, which may allow me to be an effective leader later on. I learned that I was capable of doing all of this work alone. But I never should have.
Building the website took 6 months-and it's still not fully complete. I was working so many hours on Yellowwood Youth that I was leaving behind valuable study time that should have gone towards AP Testing. (Don't worry, I still did well.) But the point isn't that I could work myself into the ground and still get good test scores. The lesson learned was that doing that would make anyone miserable, tired, stressed, and unable to spend time doing things that are just as important like spending time with family & friends, reading, doing creative projects, and getting valuable rest time.
Ask for help. Build a team. It may take a bit to find those people, and you might have to prove yourself first. But once you do, you'll have a loyal team willing to work toward your vision. Being honest, this is something that I clearly struggle with. I am so willing to take on any project and do it well- so willing to say yes- that I forget my limits and abilities to do that task well while taking care of myself. But for any movement to be successful, it must include other people, and that means in events as well as in the planning stages.
April: Listen First (Then Create)
It's important to remember- you're an activist, not an expert. Unless of course, you are also an expert, but you get what I mean. Take the time to learn before you make yourself out to be a credible presence in your group, club, or organization. Even personally, do your research, know what you're talking about. It won't do you any good to pretend you have valuable educational experience in this topic if in reality you don't.
The best advice I can give you for how to move forward and listen at the same time is this: Make listening into a product. Make what you learn in to a tangible element for someone else's learning.
Here's the thing- You will hopefully always be learning, which means you will hopefully always be listening. The key is how you wrap others in your message, your goal, your mission while doing that. That can mean in a business, a nonprofit, it doesn't matter, the lesson is the same, create content from your learning. Not only does this further your understanding of the topic, but it will build the base of people who rely on you for trustworthy information.
Our original idea for this was to go around and attend other organizations' events and make youtube videos about each one and the group behind it. When Covid-19 made an appearance, we had to alter that plan to be accessible online and be able to be created from where most of us are right now-at home.
We chose a podcast. I ask leaders of environmental organizations questions that I think others would want to know, put a specific focus on our focus- youth- and they answer them. In this way, we can be providing our audience with content that they can learn from as we learn too! They also get to hear about other opportunities and contacts that could be meaningful. I know for me, they have been. In asking organizations to spend often just an hour interviewing a staff member, they are able to spread their message and we are able to create meaningful, educational content. I am building relationships with people that do the work that I want to do, asking advice, getting to know them, and I know that after our recording, if I have a question on how to go about a project or an idea, I have a group of people who are more than willing to give me an answer or opinion.
Here are a few ideas for how to make your learning-listening process into content:
Youtube Videos- Any of the above listings for podcasts styles apply here too, but you can also add on animation, stop motion, spoken word, documentary, and many other visual styles of content. Think art, vlogs, critique/content reviews, and DIYs!
Social Media/Design- We've all seen the infographics that exploded on Instagram this year. I know I myself have learned a ton from them. Social media is a powerful force-and it is a tool that employers need people understand in order to work for them and portray their image.
For any of these, keep in mind your goal as an activist is to inspire others while being factual and mindful about the information you are spreading. Choose qualified sources, and site them. Be professional and down to earth. Always be an amplifier for marginalized communities, use your platform to share the information they are asking to be shared. Listen first, then create. The more you learn, the more content you will create and the more other people will learn through you.
Hardly anyone is a full time activist. Your work is supposed to help better humanity, so you're not going to-or shouldn't-be making millions off of it. Find the way your interest or career can be a way to inspire others to do more for the cause. Piece in what you have learned where it fits and always be open to learning more!
May: Practice Writing
If you are going to be in the public eye as an activist for any topic, other than being knowledgable about the issue you are championing, you need to be able to express your opinions and communicate with your audience.
Many of us have fallen out of the habit of writing for fun, and only put effort into writing for school. The older you get, it seems the less you write about what you're interested in and more for other people or a grade. It's time to change that!
It can be a blog, like this one, writing articles for your school newspaper, or even just personal journaling. You'll be surprised how fast you'll see a difference in your vocabulary, and how you speak as well! As an activist, much of what we do is through words, be it written or spoken. It's important to build up a style of writing and speaking that gets your point across the way you want it to. What is your image? How do you come across to other people?
If you are younger, like me, we don't have all that much experience with writing professional emails, which will come up in the next tip. Practice writing scripts for outreach, whether it's for prizes, participation, or a request for support. Have people edit your work before you send it out, another look never hurts.
A lot of times we don't realize how we come across until someone else points it out or we have to put our work into a critical light. For me, It wasn't until I was editing podcast episodes that I realized I said "um" before every question, and while it took me a whole minute to ask the question, the person I was interviewing would respond in 20 seconds. It takes practice to be concise. It take practice to be fluent and impactful. It's something you might have to spend some time on.
So remember- read more, write more, work your brain!
June: Send That Email
It's hard to make waves starting from scratch. Use what is already familiar to people to build a connection with your audience. Recognizable figures, organizations, news outlets. How? It'll take a few emails.
The podcast actually started when Mary Welz from the Southern Indiana Cooperative Invasives Management reached out to me and offered to be a resource or work on any project I would like. I had had the idea of the podcast but didn't know where to start, so I jumped on her offer and asked if she would like to be interviewed. From there, my confidence grew, and I emailed about 15 people in 3 months to be on the podcast. So far, 4 are published, 6 are being edited, and 2 are in the beginning stages of planning. All because I asked.
For prizes for the shoe strike, I started by taking screenshots of sustainable brands, companies, and shops and emailing them one at a time. In under 24 hours, I had 4 say yes, one donating $152 worth of prizes, another $69 worth. All because I asked. And a reminder here, I am not 18 yet, so we cannot apply for a tax-exempt status as a non-profit unless we want to list an adult as the head of the organization. If that were the case, we would not be run by youth, so we have chosen to wait for that designation. This means that everyone who donated prizes gave them purely as a donation. The point is, asking makes all the difference. The worst that can happen is they say "Sorry, no." People want to help, they want to support good causes, and many times, they will be able to benefit from saying yes too!
So send that email. Ask for that person to speak at your event, be a visitor to your event, donate that item, money, or support. Better yet, first ask them for advice. Show interest in what they do and learn from them. Especially right now, we must be able to function virtually, and many people are seeking the opportunities to be active in this space online. Invite them in. Reach out. You never know what can come from it.
July: Take Care Of Yourself
I'm sure we've all experienced burnout at some point or another. I'll say for me, there were weekends every now and then I didn't even want to move. I had worked myself into the ground to pass that test, finish that project, plan that event, or even to make sure I was spending time with all the members of my family.
But just like we are working towards a sustainable earth, we need to work with sustainable progress in mind as well. Pace yourself. Take days off. Get a full night's sleep, eat well, exercise. Take a break from social media, the news, and other people too! All things we've heard before, but when you take the time to do them, when you return to working on whatever you are focused on, you'll have a renewed excitement and your brain will have had a chance to rest.
Some of my best ideas came from days I wasn't working on current projects, when I was resting, taking a break to talk with friends, going hiking, or even watching youtube.
In a podcast episode that is yet to be released, Abigayle Reese, a Grassroots organizer working in South Dakota, said about every two weeks, she takes one whole day and rests. Her roommate will make them meals, they'll watch "stupid" TV shows, play board games, or take naps. She stated that some might think of this as "lazy behavior" but in reality it is a needed break from the weight that comes from working in this field, or any field really. Activism can put a lot of stress on your mental health, especially if you yourself have experienced the injustices you are working to prevent. Take time to be forgiving to yourself, relax. Remember, with any cause, you have a whole movement behind you cheering you on. You're not the only one fighting. The outcome of the world does not rest on your shoulders. Do the best you can and every now and then, take a break.
August: Say No
Last but certainly not least, sometimes, you just have to say "no".
As we've discussed previously, there's only so many hours in a day. You simply can't fill each and every one with work, school, and activism. That's not truly living, and it will hurt your mental health in the long run. If that organization asks you to help with one more thing than you can commit to- say no. Many people who I would love to have on our team and work with are in so many things, so many groups, heading off to college, etc. I'm not going to be mad at them for saying no to helping out, and if someone does get mad at you for that, you aren't volunteering your time to the right people.
Yes, I would love if we had a consistent group of people working with me, and March's lesson taught me to keep looking for those people. But, I am not going to pressure someone into helping out, and I definitely not going to be upset or angry when they say they can't commit volunteer time.
Echoing our last tip-take care of yourself. Say no to be able to keep tabs on what all you are working for, make sure you can put your energy to things you truly believe in and where you feel you are appreciated and needed.
And it's not just saying no to what others ask of you, but what you ask of yourself as well. I fall into the "I can do anything" trap that we talked about earlier on. I have so many ideas and I have the urge to do them all at once. My brain is going, going, going all the time, and I never take the time to say "that project can wait", "I should push that deadline back", or "I need help.". I need to say no to myself. It's a lesson I'm having a hard time learning. I'm still in school and I'll be honest, writing this blog post is my way of feeling productive while pushing off taking notes for Finite- a college credit course I need to do well in to save money for college. I need to say no to myself, set aside Yellowwood Youth for a few hours, and work on school. On relaxing. On family.
So on that note I'm saying no. I'm accepting that the content in this blog post is enough- if not too much- and regulating the energy I am putting towards different aspects of this organization and my life outside of it. I hope you were able to take something from these tips and they can be useful to you!
Keep up the good work and stay mindful! See you another time.
- Josie Sparks; Founder of Yellowwood Youth -