Ask A Helping Han #10: Providing Guidance to Budding Activists

Dear Han,

First of all, I'm a huge fan of the podcast, and I especially love your approach to handling social justice issues, so I thought I'd reach out about something that's been bugging me for a while.

I am a couple years out of college and work full-time in the progressive political space. Without going into too much detail, I know my stuff and I'm pretty familiar with how Congressional offices, political campaigns, and advocacy groups work. In college, most of my circle of friends were liberal arts majors and creative types. They all shared my progressive political views, but they were not politically active until after Trump's election — my pleas for them to help during the 2016 election, when they could have actually prevented some of this stuff from happening, fell on deaf ears, but I digress.

Since January 2017, my friends have all become much more active in political causes, which I am thrilled about (well, I'm not thrilled about the circumstances that motivated this, but I'm glad they're taking action). One of my friends has even gone so far as to start a political blog about different ways to take action.

My concern is that in their eagerness to do something, my friends are sometimes led to take actions that I know are not the most effective use of their time. A good example is calling Members of Congress who are not their own representatives — while I've seen this practice encouraged online, I know that these representatives are not obligated to consider input from people who don't live in their district, so by calling, they're only preventing people who do live in the district from having the opportunity to express their opinion. Or, a couple months ago, a photo went viral of someone writing a check to their representative's campaign with "thoughts and prayers" written in place of a dollar amount. While I appreciate that the original photo was a creative way to raise awareness about gun violence, some of my friends then proceeded to do the same, either addressing the checks to their own members of Congress or to other high-profile legislators. I know from my professional life that all representatives have finance staffers who would be responsible for handling what looks like a donation and that campaign offices and "official" offices are legally not allowed to communicate with each other, so they're basically sending their opinion to an overworked employee, with no impact on policy, who will have no way to pass their sentiments on to the desired target. I know this seems like a harmless and fun thing to do, but I worry that it makes them feel satisfied for having taken action without having any impact on the cause.

Despite knowing my professional background, my friends don't ask my advice on how they can most effectively take action, and I've been hesitant to give them unsolicited feedback on how they choose to get involved. I'm becoming slightly annoyed that they don't seem to respect my opinion on something that's so important to me. My friend who started a blog has written about topics that are directly related to my job without ever asking for my input or even letting me know she was researching this topic, and then published incorrect information. Look, I know that everyone has the right to express their political views, but this has been my life's work for years and years, long before it was "cool," while for my friends it's just a fairly recent hobby, and it's hard not to feel disrespected when they act as if they're experts. This is especially frustrating because I know a lot of organizations that are in desperate need of volunteers where my friends could make a real impact, but they never want to participate in these opportunities.

How should I approach this? Should I take it upon myself to critique my friends' ways of getting involved and suggest more effective courses of action, or would this come across as annoying and intrusive?


Activist in a World of Slactivists


Dear Activist,

My journey as an activist involved a fairly steep learning curve. I started looking for social justice jobs in 2015, when I’d hit the point of feeling really helpless politically, living in a liberal city where it felt like my vote didn’t go very far. When I started at my current job, I had — to put it kindly — no fucking clue what I was doing. It took a lot of gentle teaching from colleagues to get me on the right path to be a solid activist and ally, and I’m still learning today.

There’s this attitude that comes up a lot amongst long term activists of “where were you when…”? I totally get it, but also, you’ve gotta remember, everyone has their own Moment of Realization where they start to see how bad things actually are, and it usually doesn’t happen until something affects them directly. We have to be patient with newer activists, just as more seasoned activists were once patient with us as we learned the ropes and made rookie mistakes. Teach gently, and be grateful they’re here now, rather than berating them for not being there yet before.

All of that said, I think that helping direct your friends’ enthusiasm is an extremely worthwhile goal, and your unsolicited advice is absolutely worth giving. However, I think this is one of those places where a private message is preferable to a public one, and assuming best intentions will go a long way. So when your friends post things that encourage people to take actions that aren’t particularly helpful, I think you can message them something along the lines of “Hey, I saw your post and it’s awesome that you want to take action on X! I keep seeing stuff like this going around and I wanted to let you know that in actuality, taking Y action is way more likely to be effective than Z. I’m happy to hook you up with resources if that would be helpful!”

Also, be honest with yourself: do you know exactly what all of your friends do for a living? Chances are, your friends aren’t purposefully avoiding your advice —  they just didn’t think to ask, because the fact that this is your career isn’t at the forefront of their minds. As long as you aren’t rude about offering to help, it’s likely that they’ll be grateful for your guidance! Post-election, I made a post on Facebook openly offering to help guide angry people to the ways they could help most. I said something along the lines of “Everyone is super mad right now, and feeling really helpless, and it can be overwhelming to know where to start. If you’re at a loss and would like my help, let me know what you have excess of (time, money, emotional energy) and I’ll help direct you to what you can do to make the biggest impact, whether it’s through volunteering, making calls, or giving donations.” Then I pointed people towards local orgs making a big difference to help with, connected them with their representatives, recommended organizations to become members of, and passed on links to petitions etc. to whoever asked.

For your friend with the blog, I would openly offer to consult or read over their stuff. For your friends taking less-than-effective actions, I’d try to start a one-on-one conversation about whether they’d like tips on making a bigger impact. For yourself, I’d try to remember that these people are coming from good places, and that we all had to start somewhere. Channel their energy into the greater good, and be glad that they at least share your values. There are worse starting points than being misguidedly well intentioned.




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