“I have a question,” a friend approached me recently, “but I don’t know how to ask it or if I should.” This was the beginning of a two-hour, honest and interesting conversation he and I had about the rights of transgender citizens in America, where he raised questions I had never truly thought about and I tried to cue him into current events he didn’t realize were occurring.
But it occurred to me, during this conversation, that there are probably many people like my friend, who want to ask questions about and get involved in activism, but they are scared to approach the subject at the risk of saying something unknowingly insensitive or just appearing ignorant all together. So this article is an introduction to the wonderful (and sometimes intricate) world of civil dissent that above all aims to prove two things:
- It’s okay to not know your position on many of these issues and
- You don’t have to be radical to be a dissenter.
- You don’t have to know it all, but you should ask…
The first step to becoming involved in activism is to shed any outer shell of complacency. These issues require passion. Again, this doesn’t mean you have to call for radical change, but you can’t subscribe to the age-old “this is just the way things are” mindset either. When I started to become involved in activism and human rights issues my older sister gave me great advice. She said, “It’s okay to be angry, but you have to also be smart.” So if you want to shed your complacency, start doing some research because I have found that the anger tends to build as your knowledge on current events in the field of civil rights does as well. You can visit the Amnesty International homepage to learn about some prevalent human rights issues in today’s world, or read these short articles about trans rights, police brutality, and reproductive rights.
The next important step is to ask questions. A good place to begin is in conversation with your peers. Good conversation, however, does take a bit of practice and A LOT of humility. Recognize your privilege when you go into conversation. If someone asks you a question about a system of oppression you don’t operate under (ie. if someone asks you about minority and police relations and you are a white, middle class individual) you can state your opinion but make sure to point to your inexperience. Also, if you are involved in a conversation you’re not educated about or that you don’t have any experience with its not only okay but actually necessary that you defer. Do not attempt to speak for the experience of others. Civil and human rights is a huge umbrella of diverse issues – it would be impossible to know everything (or anything) about all of these problems. Human rights is not a place where not having an answer equates to a failure or a shortcoming. Dialogue is important, but it must be honest, intersectional, critical dialogue.
If you are the one asking the questions, this is a good time to practice humility as well, especially if you are someone who benefits from a privilege that the person you’re talking to does not benefit from. Keep your opinion out of your questions because you might enter a conversation that completely changes your mindset, but only if you go into the exchange willing to learn, rather than eager to “prove” your opinion. This might seem simple but something I always keep in mind is that everyone you have met knows something you do not. Do not try to tell others what they have been through.
Other than conversation, you could start to shed your complacency by taking a class or even just conducting a google search, you’d be amazed at what you find. Earlier this year I was researching the proposed defunding of Planned Parenthood when I happened upon a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. supporting the organization. And this is another thing you will discover as you become more involved with activism and dissent: many of these issues are inter-related and intersectional representation is unbelievably important. (Intersectional is a term used to describe the overlapping social systems and institutions of oppression).
You might also read contradictory articles and think, “yeah, these both make great points” which will leave you possibly even more confused than when you started. Don’t be discouraged; activism, like everything, is a learning curve. You’ll likely change your mind a million times about the issues you really care about and might never fully take a stance on others. This is the nature of the beast, don’t worry, you’re still “doing activism right.” Again this is just a great way to familiarize yourself with different issues in today’s society. You might have to do a good amount of research before you feel passionate about some issues, and you might not know where you stand at all and that’s okay!
- Start engaging with human rights activism, even in “small” ways
As you become educated, become involved. Even easier than a google search, start following outspoken people on Twitter (both those you tend to agree and disagree with so you don’t miss either side of the conversation, even if you think one side is “wrong”). Some I follow are Ava DuVernay, Michele Goodwin, Derrick Clifton, and Craig Newmark, just to name a few. These activists deal with issues such as racism, sexism, human rights abuse through religious institutions, international relations, and reproductive rights. A word of warning however, just because you agree with one thing one of these activists might tweet, you might still find yourself hours later, deep down the twitter hole outraged by some of his/her other positions. This combination of complete agreement and utter disagreement is normal, and in fact, necessary. If we all agreed, the solutions would be simple, debate would be redundant, and politics would be much less murky.
Now you might be thinking, “okay, I’m interested and have an idea of what’s going on, but what can I really do?”
Anything and everything.
Continue to stay educated about these issues. You can subscribe to email updates like this one, or try to read one article each morning before you get up. You can look for rallies nearby where you live (a great place to start is the “Events Near Me” tab on Facebook). You can donate to foundations you feel passionate about. Again, you don’t have to be radical to make a difference. You could even talk to a friend who might have questions or who might be able to answer some that you have. By shedding your complacency, you’ve already taken the most important step into dissent and the call for change.