8 ways to be an activist when you don't have time
By Mae Wiskin
In Hebrew, the phrase tikkun olam (“to repair the world”) refers to an old Jewish concept that encourages everyday acts of kindness and altruism. The phrase is akin to a more widely known expression, “with great privilege comes great responsibility.” My family is neither religious nor conventional and my upbringing was peripatetic; however, the values of social justice and responsibility are what have always anchored us. When I was a teenager, I even got the words tikkun olam tattooed on my arm as a reminder of who I am.
Since undergrad, I have been involved in work, which either supported or advocated on behalf of others. During college in Seattle, I studied human rights law, worked at the Q Center, and organized alternative spring break trips through Hillel. I also spent a year living in Cairo, where in addition to drinking too much sweet tea and playing frogger with the chaotic traffic, I taught ESL and creative writing to Coptic and Egyptian adults. Upon graduation, I drifted off to Oaxaca, Mexico and volunteered with a grassroots micro-finance organization, while waiting to receive my Peace Corps country placement. The day the package came in the mail and I found out that I was headed to Zambia to serve as a global health volunteer, I ran into the nearest bathroom and cried – I was both excited and terrified. After my stint in Africa, I spent a while in D.C. managing a nonprofit bookstore. My time in Zambia was enlivening, but rough, and I needed time to readjust.
Since I can remember, I have been torn between pursuing purely creative work and social justice. Once I was ready to move forward, I left D.C. to attend Parsons The New School for Design, where I obtained a Masters in Design Studies. For two years, I studied the intersection between mental health, ethics and smart technologies, while also teaching undergraduates and delivering lectures. It was at Parsons where I discovered that teaching and becoming a professor was what I was meant to do.
Graduation came swiftly and suddenly I was charged with making a lot of decisions in a very short period of time. Knowing that I needed to take a break before returning to academia, I decided to pursue something entirely different. I had never worked for a for-profit business before, but I love to write and collaborate with creatives. This is how I justified taking a job that had no affiliation with anything related to social justice. I was hesitant, but knew it would be worthwhile to experience another professional track, if nothing else, I told myself that it would reaffirm who I really am and what I love to do.
Although my current work is not grounded in social justice, I do not regret taking the position. In a very short amount of time I have learned a lot about myself and when I am ready to teach again, I am confident that I will have even more to offer my students. Moreover, of all the lessons I’ve learned, the most important has been that in order to feel truly fulfilled, I must always be engaged in meaningful work that positively impacts other people’s lives.
This work, however, can take on many forms and does not necessarily mean that in order to feel satisfied, I need to be working at a non-profit. It simply means that whatever work I engage in, I must bring my whole self to it. You can affect change anywhere; sometimes you just have to be more creative about how that change manifests itself. What’s most important is that you just start somewhere.
Once the election happened, everything changed. I felt momentarily paralyzed; quitting my job and running off to join resistance efforts full-time wasn’t an option, but neither was complacency. My desire to re-engage in social justice work became all consuming. My current workplace is unlike any environment I’ve ever been in before. Executive leadership is almost exclusively comprised of white men, and there are no diversity initiatives to speak of. As a Jewish woman of color in a leadership position, I knew that I was in a unique position to affect change at work.
Getting started is the hardest part, which is why I believe in starting small. As with most things, the best thing to do was to first listen to the other women around me, who, more often than not, voiced concerns and ideas that mirrored my own. Once I realized that my female colleagues desired a safe space in which they could speak freely, collectively problem-solve and develop professionally, I took the steps necessary to start the company’s first women’s group.
Everyday activism means making a lot of modest and consistent movements towards a common goal. These actions do not need to be big, or involve attending protests, or drafting petitions - there are so many ways to improve people’s lives.
Many women, myself included, feel torn between their paycheck and their passions; however, I no longer believe that life is so black and white. You always have a choice. You can start small and work towards improving the things that frustrate you most where you are.
Activism looks different to everyone; nevertheless, here are eight things that have worked for me:
Connect with others who share your passions
Listen to one another, play off each other’s strengths and utilize one another’s experiences in order to develop a clear action plan.
Share your stories
Often, the most meaningful thing you can do is help others understand that they are not alone.
Mentor other women in the workplace
This will expand your network and together, you'll innovate solutions.
Do something every day
It doesn’t have to be big, but it should be meaningful to you and others. Perhaps this means attending a talk, a town hall, standing up for yourself during a meeting, asking for that raise you deserve, teaching your children about social justice, or encouraging others to advocate for themselves.
Have in-person conversations and leverage your network of friends and professional contacts.
Find out who your representatives are and write to them about the issues you care about.
Donate or volunteer your time
If like me, your day-to-day does not directly align itself with the causes you care about, dedicate your free time towards supporting them.
If you don’t like something, then stand up and change it
Start by being more vocal and less apologetic. If your workplace does not support your efforts, ask yourself if it is the right cultural fit for you. Put simply, if your employer does not value you, have the strength to walk away. (I recognize that this statement comes from a place of privilege. Not all women can simply walk away from their income; however, all women can make small changes every day that can help change their circumstances. Take a day to update your Linkedin, freshen up your resume, or spend a few hours every week checking job and volunteer sites. There is always something you can do.)
Social justice and activism can feel overwhelming; however, it does not need to be
You can create change anywhere and at anytime. After the election, a few friends and I created The Every Day Project, which places the notion of committing yourself to small daily acts of activism at its core. The premise is simple, for 45 days leading up to the inauguration of the 45th president, we send our subscribers one thing they can do daily to fight alongside the people most affected by this past election. Every action works to protect the issues and communities most at threat, including: women, people of color, LGBTQ people, voting rights, climate change, healthcare, and immigration. Whether its subscribing to an activism platform, finally having substantive conversations with your neighbors, or starting your own women’s group, I encourage you to just do something. You are powerful and we need you now more than ever.