A guide for those who want to make a difference.
Like many of you, I often scroll through social media with a slow rumbling of anxiety beneath me. Every third post is about some conflict, some problem, some ongoing trend that doesn’t bode well. I worry about the future, and wonder what I, a single citizen, can do to make a difference.
But that’s the trap, isn’t it? That’s the thought that always holds us back.
“What can I do?”
I think this helplessness plagues us because the path forward is never lit. The steps are never clear. And we don’t always know if the ground in front of us is solid rock, or muddy water.
But no matter how much we stay put, the problems continue to grow. At a certain point, we have to do something.
That’s why I’m writing this article.
We all can make a difference. Even on our own. But to do so requires a step forward, into unknown territory. That can be scary.
I want to shine a light on the first few steps of this important journey; one I believe each of us must take, no matter how tall the mountain or how small the step. It may be the only way we truly address the challenges of our time.
I’m referring to this journey as one of civic involvement and engagement. But no matter what you call it, the core principle stays the same. The only way to make a difference is to take that first step.
Step #1: Write Down What You Care About
I’m sure many of you watched Patriot Act by Hasan Minhaj.
If you haven’t, all the episodes are online.
I want to highlight a question he asked in one of his episodes, and the answer he provided in response. Hasan highlighted the growing list of problems we face in today’s day and age, and how overwhelming they can be (especially for those who are trying to fix them). At the end of the episode, he asked the audience:
“How do we face all these problems without burning out?”
It’s easy to commit all your energy and vigor to solving a problem — but when you’re exhausted from the first fight, and another problem appears… What do we do then?
Hasan offered a simple and slightly contrarian opinion.
Close some tabs.
He used the metaphor of opening a new browser tab for every issue that appeared on our radar. Climate change? Tab. Educational accessibility? Tab. Digital safety? Tab.
Hasan pointed out that the civically engaged among us often open too many tabs. If we’re not smart, we can burn out from trying to pay attention, and fix, every single one.
His advice was to be okay with closing a few tabs and keeping the ones that resonate with us open. To focus our effort on issues on a small few (or maybe even one).
We can turn this suggestion into an exercise by creating a short list:
- Buy a small notebook / open a google doc, and write out how you feel about specific issues you see over time. Document what the subject is, its source/where you saw it, and what you think of it.
- Beside or below it, write another list for specific subjects that come to mind when you think about yourself and life. The first list was for what you see online, on TV, or what you hear in in your day-to-day. This one is for what comes to mind in your quiet hours.
- Once you have both lists, start comparing & contrasting the two. What you’re doing here is finding the specific subjects that really resonate with you — the ones that make you go “yeah, that’s it. That’s what I want to fix.” Highlight those ones. If you’re worried about highlighting too many, rank them from 1 to however many you have. Then pick the top 2–4.
And there you have it. Step one completed. You have a short list of subjects you’re passionate about. This list will be your starting point for now. Remember, you can, and should, return to it and refresh it every once and a while.
My list settled on the following: public engagement & trust, civic leadership, disinformation & digital safety, and youth development. This list is what resonates with me right now. It may look different next year. And that’s alright.
Step #2: Find Opportunities With Shared Values
Now you know what topics really resonate with you. Great! Let’s map out what your next steps are.
There are many ways to get involved, but for those of us existing in the civic engagement realm (as opposed to the political realm), here are 3 options:
- Volunteering/working for an established organization
- Educating yourself on the subject
- Starting independent projects
Each path is a bit different, and none are done in silos. You can do all 3, or you can focus on 1. Pick one to get started with. As you progress, you can consider adding in the others.
(Note: I acknowledge that some of us don’t have time to spare to do this: we might be single parents with 2 kids and 2 jobs, for example. That’s alright. Take care of yourself.)
Once you decide on what you want to do, start writing down specifics: what organizations you want to volunteer with, what resources you can use to educate yourself, or what project you want to start.
I know examples help, so below are a few.
- Building open-source software to assist with various responsibilities in a human rights organization
- Educating yourself on anti-racism and finding ways to implement the lessons you learn in your life
- Starting an Instagram account to share research and strategies to address mental health on university campuses.
After you have your list of options, you can organize that list into an action plan.
Step #3: Start Doing Something
The final step is to start doing something. To assist with figuring out what to do, here are quick breakdowns for each path.
- If you’re going down the organization route, start checking websites for volunteer opportunities or flat-out emailing organizations and offering to help. When possible, try to chat with a human being who may be able to clarify options for you. It’s rare, but you may even be notified about other options that aren’t publicly available.
- If you’re educating yourself, make a list of resources to start looking at. Podcasts are always free, but you may look at books or online series as well.
- If you’re starting an individual project, sit down and define its scope, purpose, where you’ll do it, and your schedule. For example: post on TikTok once a week sharing a piece of research that is distilled into plain language. Have every video end with some practical steps viewers can take.
So, there you have it. You have defined the subjects you care about, decided how you want to approach addressing them, and started the long journey of helping solve them. Congratulations!
One more piece of advice though: please only do what’s manageable.
It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of progress and burn yourself out, and burn out doesn’t help anyone.
Make sure you have a hard line for the most you can do and an acceptable line for the least you can do. Stay in the zone in between them.
If you’re working two jobs, taking on 20 hours of volunteering might not be smart. But, coming in once a week to organize the office, participate in outreach, or research a specific project might be all that’s needed to help move the dial. One the other hand, if you’re a student who is looking to gain work experience and the drive to help, you might be able to spare more time (as long as it doesn’t conflict with your responsibilities).
Gauge your options by what is manageable for you. We’re looking for fire, not flash.
- If it’s an option, go for paid positions. It’ll allow you to do more work while sustaining yourself.
- Don’t be a hero. Focus on doing what’s needed, and doing it well.
- Ask for advice from people you meet. Many people involved in civic engagement have been at it for years, and can give you practical wisdom.
- When it comes to skill building, try to find common threads: like getting really good at graphic design. You can use these threads as you progress in your journey, building on them over time.
- If the solution doesn’t exist, that might be a sign to start it. How you do that is up to you. But take the risk to start.
The Path Forward
When I began writing this post, it came from a place of anxiety. As I conclude it, I type the final letters with a sense of optimism. The future is hopeful. It can be better. And we can make it better.
But it requires us to work for it.
And that work can start today.
I hope that what I wrote can help you. Even if it doesn’t. I wish you the best on whatever fight you take on.