Be the change you want to see in the world. We hear this refrain on a daily basis, and we personalize it. We identify our passions — whether it’s something we find wonderful about the world, such as anti-body shaming campaigns, or issues we find despicable, such as sexual harassment in educational settings — which is certainly no easy task (finding your passion is one of the 5 key decisions you’ll make while in high school). The next step is becoming an activist.
Rebecca Scurlock, the Director of Youth Powerhouse, believes that activism is a deeply personal action. “At its core, activism means standing up for the changes you believe need to be made in society,” she says. “These beliefs often stem from one’s personal experience with or connection to societal wrongs, combined with core values such as equity, justice and respect.”
It’s not as overwhelming as it sounds. Linn Davis, Operations and Technology Manager at Healthy Democracy, believes that activism can be defined quite broadly. “It’s any activity that seeks to have a higher societal purpose than its own existence, perpetuation and profit for its creator, such as artwork, journalism and scientific inquiry,” she says. “‘Activism’ ought to be redefined as simply ‘public purpose’ or ‘for the good of society.’”
But there are barriers in your way: maybe you don’t know what activism translates to in your community or high school. Maybe people are telling you that you’re too young to be an activist or that you can’t do anything to support your issue until you’re older. Here’s how can you can prove them wrong.
1. Start a club
If you want to raise awareness about an issue you’re passionate about, and a club doesn’t currently exist in your school, starting a club is a great way to bring together like-minded activists at your school while gaining leadership and teamwork experience.
Nadya Okamoto, a Her Campus 22 Under 22 Most Inspiring College Women honoree, co-founded PERIOD, a global NGO, as a 16-year-old high school sophomore. The first step, according to Nadya, is figuring out the process: how can you register a club in your school? Do you need an advisor? Do you need to write a constitution?
“The next step is building your team,” she says. “How many collaborators do you want? What other roles do you need to complement your skill sets? It’s important to identify your strengths and your weaknesses.”
That’s not to say that starting a club is easy. “When you start an organization as a young person, you have to work three times as hard to prove that you’re credible to do it,” Nadya says. But if you have a team of support and a confident vision in your mind, anything is possible.
2. Join a club
There’s a chance that a club already exists about an issue you care about. You can find out more about your school’s clubs on your school’s website or at a student activities fair at the beginning of the year.
“Joining an activist organization or school club can be an effective way to find a community of committed, experienced and like-minded peers to collaborate with,” Scurlock says.
Joining a club can be just as meaningful and amazing as starting one. Hannah Harshe, a sophomore at the University of Michigan, was her high school’s delegate for Girls State. A week during the summer after her junior year, she joined students from across the country in a week-long mock government. “We simulated absolutely everything – elections, debates and more,” she says. “Girls State taught me so much about how the real-world government works, and I’m a much more effective political activist now! I feel much more qualified to take a personal political stance and I can hold my own in an argumentative conversation with relatives, peers and professors.” This is definitely one of the skills you should master before college.
Activism isn’t limited to politics, however. Kayleen Parra-Padron, a senior at Florida International University, was in an environment club in high school. “While we didn’t do much, it taught me the importance of taking care of the planet we live in,” she says. “Since then, I’ve been mindful of recycling and I pick up litter if I ever see trash on campus.”
Regardless of what your interest are, find an organization and check out the first meeting or event to see if you’re interested. You’ll never know if you don’t give it a chance!
3. Educate yourself and others
In an age of fake news, it’s incredibly important that you are an informed activist. If someone’s asking you questions about your cause, it strengthens your and your cause’s legitimacy if you’re able to answer their questions.
This isn’t as difficult as it sounds, however. According to Nadya, it’s as easy as just looking up your issue on Google. “If you’re passionate about an issue, look up the current state of affairs, determine how you’re trying to be involved and move from there,” she says.
Education itself can be a form of activism, believe it or not. “Some things — like educating young people, reporting events in a fair and factual way or exploring our world or our mind for the betterment of humankind — are far more important than any particular political activism as we so narrowly define it today,” Davis says.
Don’t forget to be careful. Advocacy websites can often be biased towards the organization’s goals; it’s important to seek out in-depth news and information sources as well.
4. Donate money or supplies
Do your research before you donate, but don’t be afraid to give a helping hand to organizations such as UNICEF and One America Appeal. Even if you can only donate a few dollars, it can still go a long way in helping people across the world.
“Every movement always needs resources. With public service, any amount of money, as someone who leads a global organization, resources are always needed,” Nadya says. “High schoolers can easily take action by hosting a drive or hosting a fundraiser of some sorts to collect resources to give to an organization that they really believe in.”
Many charities and organizations depend entirely on donations to continue their work and improve the lives of people across the world. If you’re unable to donate money, consider donating supplies—such as old clothes, school supplies and more!
5. Engage in digital activism
As technology advances in platforms from Google to Snapchat, it’s important to take advantage of it in pursuing your goals.
“[The power of social media and digital communication] is one of the powerful things that we have in our arsenal as activists,” Nadya says. “We can mobilize and connect with people we don’t know face to face purely through digital communication. Being able to create movements and engage new people in that setting is very needed and very possible.”
One powerful way to mobilize and connect with people is through writing. Op-eds, which merge your opinions with reason and evidence, are timely and persuasive pieces that express your personal voice and opinions.
Digital activism extends beyond writing to also including social media campaigns. Social media and technology have played huge roles in transforming movements and globalizing them. From change.org to iPetitions, use your tools and your Twitter accounts for good. #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo and #RefugeesWelcome are only a few examples of powerful social media campaigns.
Videos are also tremendously powerful. In an increasingly busy world, videos can inspire and inform people in just a few minutes about issues and problems. Greenpeace’s campaign against Nestle for using palm oil from companies destroying rainforests — and thus orangutans — was a success. Nestle promised to give rainforests and their inhabitants a break.
“A great place to start is by signing up for organizations’ email lists or following activist groups on social media,” Scurlock suggests.
As you can see, there’s a huge numbers of way that you can use digital activism to make an impact. All you have to do is choose one method to start with that you believe will be most impactful on your audience and specific goals.
6. Talk to other activists and leaders
Teamwork truly makes the dream work. “Students face barriers of time, and resource, and institutional barriers,” Ben Phillips of Citizen University says. “And I think some students don’t know how to begin, or feel isolated or like they are the only ones who care about an issue. They way to fix this, is to get together with others; that’s the first step in making change.”
Another benefit of working together with people is the diversity that collaborations can bring. After all, the nature of activism is to be democratic and to represent all voices against interest groups that otherwise dominate the political and policymaking arenas.
Jake Haigis, a UNICEF USA clubs fellow, suggests one way to advocate for UNICEF’s causes, such as protecting the rights of children, is through reaching out to your legislators. “You can advocate on behalf of UNICEF through writing letters and speaking with your State Representatives,” Haigis said. “If you are interested in learning more on how to speak with your Representatives, join a Congressional Action Team (CAT).”
There are people beyond legislators who also make a difference in a cause, such as your fellow activists. It’s important to know who the leaders of the movement are to learn from their paths in forging your own. Identify the people or group of people who have the ability to do something about your cause and find the most effective way to contact them, whether it’s over the phone or in-person.
“The next generation of activists must embrace activism as a lifestyle,” Sara Schmidt, the Youth and Student Program Manager at Amnesty International USA says. “They must think critically while remaining open to learning from those who came before and those who are outside of their own networks and communities. Intersectional activism – which embraces connectivity between different identities and challenges – is critical to our collective victory.”
Don’t be afraid to talk to everyone and anyone about a cause that you believe in. Everyone has a perspective you can learn from and a story to share.
“High school students are just people — with more and less wisdom than people who are older and younger,” Davis says. “While high schoolers are bound by some restrictions that adults are not, they also possess some attributes that adults seem to lose: the ability to think further outside the box, to not be bound by convention; the ability to try things out without too many pesky societal judgments and responsibilities; and the ability to turn impress adults into action.”
Civic engagement has a dramatic variance between younger and older generations. Thus, activism isn’t enough as it currently stands. It must be extended and understood in the larger context that is the American political arena as well as the global one. It’s not only limited to eye-catching rallies and protests but to conducting polls and developing policies with administration. It can influence cultural, environmental, legal, social and political change and any other issue that you’re passionate about.
“What you choose to do with your voice – whether it’s joining a movement an organization or volunteering or writing or doing something through art or public service – it’s up to you,” Nadya said. Conduct leafleting or post fliers around your school, canvas for a candidate you support, write articles or report for student newspapers: just get involved. Just do it.