Is “activism” a scary word for you? Are you terrified to phonebank, nervous to start volunteering for a nonprofit, or unsure how to actually fight for social justice? If so, I have some great news for you (thanks to some, ahem, potentially embarrassing lived experiences):
You do not have to know what you are doing!
I’m serious. You — yes, you — can sign up, show up, level up, and make a difference. Our current hot-take culture makes many of us feel pressured to project expertise at all times. It feels good to know what’s going on — or at least to have convinced others that we know what’s going on, right? But the truth is, the world is messy and chaotic and hella confusing. I know I’m preaching to a choir of social justice readers, so I hope we can all admit there is simply not enough time to become an expert on every single topic that matters (not to say that we shouldn’t do our best).
It’s normal to want to be on the good side of an issue while also feeling like you don’t really understand it well enough to get involved. But this should not be your stop sign! This is the moment to engage! Cue the beginner’s mindset!
The beginner’s mindset is about being open. It’s good for business, creativity, education — and, yes, your activism. Even if you’re already a social justice warrior/volunteering pro, you might still find it helpful to cultivate a beginner’s mindset for your activist toolkit. According to spiritual teacher Shunryu Suzuki, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” Sounds conducive to working for social justice, no? (Suzuki wrote a whole book about “shoshin” or “beginner’s mind” called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind if you’re interested.)
Beginners and newcomers are essential to the work of activism. Next time you feel hesitant to get involved with an issue because you don’t feel good/smart/capable/connected/cool enough, step forward instead of turning away. Whether or not you realize it, you have a lot to bring to the table.
Offer A Fresh Perspective
Even if you’re an expert on something, you bring a perspective to that thing that is wildly different from how the experts view it. This can be really beneficial in an environment of people who might be susceptible to burnout or could feel like they’ve exhausted every option. Remember when Dorothy got rid of the Wicked Witch of the East? She literally wasn’t even trying. This is how easy it is to bring something helpful into a space you want to support.
I teach piano to students of all levels, but the ones who stump me the most are my beginner students. They ask me questions I have never even considered before. Questions like “Why are there alternating groups of three and two black keys?” Questions that I have to look up with them in lieu of snapping, “Because that’s the way it is!” When you’re in a new-to-you community, your lack of knowledge has the power to improve everyone around you. Your questions will make people think critically and differently about the work they’re doing, and that is a good thing.
Being a beginner more or less means making tons of mistakes, experimenting, and gradually improving as you go. You can be a super stressed perfectionist about this reality, or you can think, “Hey, nobody ever learned to walk without falling a bunch first!” Beginners tend to figure out quickly that a bearable experience is made possible by embracing the silliness of errors. This is why people tend to laugh at themselves when they fall or stumble in public. It’s like saying, “Don’t worry, I’m okay, and isn’t falling funny?” Humor is important in serious spaces. Lightness is vital to heavy work. The people you’re working with might benefit from the change of energy brought about by your awkward, curious presence.
Bring the Vision
You’ve signed up to volunteer! Here you are, first phone bank, pages of contact numbers and a script in front of you. You chose to be here because, somewhere inside you, you believe in an end goal for this activity. It might be as simple as building community with a few like-minded individuals or as big as influencing a presidential election, but your belief in this possibility has brought you here. That is so powerful! People who do this kind of stuff full-time need the refreshing balm of your belief and the motivation of your vision. Bring it.
Bring the Chill
In other volunteer roles, you might work with people who are victims of various systemic injustices. You might feel stupid about trying to help them when maybe you’ve never been through the thing they’re going through, or you feel anxious that you’re going to make their experience even worse with your bumbling beginner presence. But in lots of cases, people in these situations are not experts, either. Sometimes it’s validating to find that the person showing up to help you is simply figuring it out alongside you. It can make you feel at ease. We’re all just people, after all. A well-intentioned helping hand can go a long way.
Oh, how uncomfortable it is to get caught not knowing things, to get yelled at by mean constituents while canvassing, to fumble when responding to people in crisis! It’s also uncomfortable to make stupid mistakes that result from internalized ableism and patriarchy and racism and homophobia and all the other horrible things that require a lifetime of vigilant unlearning. But guess what: It doesn’t get better until you sit with that discomfort and unpack it. Assuming you have a good self-care plan in place, I recommend spending time in an environment where you don’t feel comfortable and questioning what’s going on for you internally. You’ll probably learn something about yourself. Feeling uncomfortable can also help us learn what things we are just really not good at or truly hate doing (maybe you are literally terrible at organizing events or find that you hate the work of social media advocacy with a fiery passion). Don’t force it if that’s the case. But you won’t really know until you try!
Be a Foot Soldier
There are so many organizations that simply need people to show up and fill roles. This means everything from tabling (I mean, you literally sit at a table) to event help (can you greet attendees or fold chairs?) to quietly writing postcards or tweets at home in your PJs (if the thought of shared space with another human is too much). These jobs might not feel as important as founding a nonprofit or planning a protest (by all means, do those, too!), but their importance cannot be overstated. The world does not get better if no one shows up to do the little tasks.
Because you have expectations for what a volunteer or activist experience will be like and you believe in the possibilities of its goals, you bring accountability to the mission of the organization or community you’ve decided to help. Members of communities hold each other accountable. Your presence alone is enough to say, “Alright, we all better make something happen!” You also hold yourself accountable by showing up. Signing up to do some good work is a way of declaring to the world, “I intend to do something productive!” and you’ll feel kind of silly if you don’t follow through.
Set an Example
Volunteering is contagious! People are more likely to get into things if someone around them is into the thing. (I mean, how else do you pick which TV shows to watch?) If other people see you jumping into the work of trying to help improve the world, they might feel inspired to consider doing something themselves. Dismantle the thought of “only experts do that” and normalize learning the ropes as you go — because there is no better education, anyway.
Become an Expert
Oh my gosh, after all this volunteering and protesting and calling and writing, is it possible that you are becoming someone who kind of knows what they’re doing? Every expert has to start somewhere, so the idea that you can’t help a cause because you don’t know enough about it is a bit of a catch-22. How are you going to learn about it if you don’t go out there and learn about it? I believe we would all be smarter and more compassionate citizens if we spent more time engaging hands-on with the people, animals, and nature in our own communities. To quote Shunryu Suzuki again, “We try, and we try, and we fail; and then we go deeper.”
Or, as Malala says, “Life isn’t just about taking in oxygen and giving out carbon dioxide.”
So, go forth, give more than carbon dioxide, and remember you only need to take one step at a time.