“A lot of people tell me I’m crazy for leaping in front of a harpoon gun to save a whale. Well, I’ll say that humanity is holding a harpoon gun to its face and I’d be crazy not to get in the way.”
— Peter Wilcox from Greenpeace Captain
So in case you haven’t noticed, the whole world is going to poop right now. Entire cities are sinking, billionaires are still finding ways to buy elections, the President of the United States brazenly advertises himself as a criminal, the UK just elected a fascist into the Prime Minister seat, and more and more, we see people on Twitter reacting to it all with GIFs of Natalie Portman in Revenge of the Sith saying, “So this is how liberty dies. With thunderous applause.”
Everyone is feeling this collective universal dread from their social media and newsfeeds right now. The reality is that a lot of powerful people are paying to keep the hate machine alive. They want us to feel powerless, because it is in their best interests. That’s why folks like Mark Zuckerberg refuse to deplatform Nazis on Facebook, or why a “Democrat” like Michael Bloomberg — who loves talking about how we have to beat Donald Trump — pours his money into his vanity project of a Presidential campaign instead of using it for concrete, tangible action.
It’s silliness, guys; a lot of this stuff is incredibly silly! What we need to do is believe in ourselves and organize. When we organize, we win. If one person goes into the middle of the street to yell about climate change, that’s no good. But if one hundred march out there, we’ve got a nonviolent direct action going and the people in power start to feel pressure.
However, it is easy enough to proclaim that we will win, but it is hard to answer the answer of How. How will we win? How will we contribute? This essay series is dedicated to all you folks out there who want to help out but don’t know how. This is how we resist.
(Disclaimer: I am an experienced canvasser from Greenpeace and phone bank coach with the Los Angeles LGBT Center. I am moving soon to be an Organizing Inter from RepresentUs. I know a fair amount, but I have gaps in my knowledge like most organizers. With that said, I am going to write specifically about what I know so we can keep this streamlined and not overwhelming.)
The first step towards finding a role for yourself is to get a handle on what you want to work on. There’s environmental justice, prison reform, mental health advocacy, animal rights, social justice, and a whole other slew of things we face every day. It’s not humanly possible to tackle all of those; realistically, you can get involved with one or maybe two.
You don’t need to pick the issue that seems most important to you; you want to pick the one that makes your heart thump. Burnout is real, and it’s important to tether yourself to something you are passionate about.
If you aren’t really sure what issue to choose, that’s okay. To get help you get started, I’m going to ask you to consider these questions:
1. What are some issues that give you anxiety? Think about articles that you’ve found particularly upsetting. Think about the people you vote for, and why you feel inspired to support them. You can even think about the movies/books/comics/videos etc. you love and how they explore the issues you’re passionate about.
2. Do you know of any groups that work on those issues? Do you have friends, or even acquaintances, who seem to care about those sorts of things?
3. What are some things you are good at? / What are some resources that you can share? This might feel silly, but literally anything you can bring to the table can be useful. Some people don’t like doing a lot of practical actions like canvassing or phone banking, so they offer themselves as a driver, or offer their beds to folks who need to travel far to receive an abortion. Even things like cooking or writing or being good with animals / kids is super helpful.
Honestly, give yourself a moment to think about these questions.
Okay, you can keep scrolling. I have no idea what you just thought about, but I’m sure it was really badass.
This being an essay, I can’t really respond to your thoughts. What I am about to do instead is throw a metaphorical spaghetti of volunteer opportunities at the wall — here are just a few hardcore, world-saving nonprofits that are super easy to get involved with.
Greenpeace is one of the world’s only environmental nonprofits that refuses to accept corporate or government money. They use nonviolent direct action and are constantly working on tangible campaigns to stop the destruction of our ancient rain forests, cease the production of plastic, and many more things.
Through volunteering, you can help them out with phone banking, trash clean-ups, protests, and social media campaigns. They always need help with blog writing and content creation.
And they have independently started volunteer groups all over the country! They are very easy to join; just fill out Greenpeace’s volunteer form here.
RepresentUs is a nonpartisan group focused on saving democracy by ending corruption. Most people can agree that corporations should not be allowed to bribe politicians with money. Their main goal is to make that explicit thing illegal. It’s super badass.
Anybody can start a volunteer group for RepresentUs. It’s all managed through Slack. See if there’s a RepresentUs chapter near you here!
If not, you can always join their Slack server. Just fill out the volunteer form to join! It’s very chill and also operates as a form of community. You can hang out there without committing any volunteer time. Feel free to message the organizers and other volunteers to suss out what you could maybe do.
Extinction Rebellion (XR) is an international group dedicated to ending climate change. Like RepresentUs, anyone can start their own Extinction Rebellion chapter. XR is relatively new, having only been founded a year ago. Their campaigns aren’t run by staff, but volunteer organizers across the country. As such, it’s a place that needs people, and a great choice if you want to make yourself really useful. If you’re the kind of person who wants to run with both arms swinging, XR is a solid pick. Learn more about joining XR here!
Your Local Labor Union
Chances are that wherever you live, there are workers who are represented by unions. Chances are that there are also workers who are not represented by unions. Uh oh! That’s no good; people should be in unions!
To find a union near you, Google “[Your Town] Local Union.”
A lot of union organizers are people who work[ed] at generally nonunion jobs, like retail and customer service work. These are people who fight for their own rights and uplift their community. Some of the highest turnouts I’ve seen at volunteer events have been through union actions.
Elections are another good go-to. Obviously, we have presidential races, and then we have races for Senator seats and the like, as well as races for local and state propositions. What I’d suggest is looking up what will be on your local ballot, and read into the candidates and propositions. If anything strikes your fancy, look them up! They will have a site, and through that, you can find volunteer opportunities.
Animals! Shelters! Those guys need all the help they can get, as they’re usually short staffed. Whether you lend a hand by socializing kittens, or driving shelter dogs to vet visits, there’s a variety of ways to get involved.
IDK, something else plz
If you are really drawing a blank, check out Idealist.org. Give them your zip code and they can show you what nonprofits are in your area. You can even search for potential volunteer opportunities. You’d be surprised at how much is going on.
Finally, be kind to yourself. You don’t have to chain yourself to a tree — unless, like, someone asks you to in a context where it is imperative that you do so, but idk if that’s going to come up — and any action you take is cool. Choosing a cause and then committing significant chunks of time to it is obviously overwhelming, so try to keep a cool head and have fun with it. As a former Greenpeace canvasser, one of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from my boss who liked to remind me to remember that no one is going to get hurt over this, and to always “smile and giggle.”
Additionally, if you’re feeling a little disconnected or unmotivated, try to remember why you want to do this sort of work. Maybe try to shave some of your social media time down by finding books/documentaries about whatever issue you want to volunteer time for. You want to stay angry, you want to remember we can win, and you want to believe that other people care too.
It’s easy to get bogged down in negativity; we all have complicated and sometimes frustrating lives. It can be hard to find the strength to find that motivation to do good. However, I promise you that when you work with these groups to effect serious change, you’ll find that a lot of your own issues will get eclipsed by this work we’ve been talking about. You’ll realize that you aren’t alone, and that when standing besides other people, you can change the world.
I want every single reader of this essay to go out and do something, but I acknowledge that there is still a lot left to process and understand. With that in mind, I am going to spend the rest of this series digging into common volunteer actions that you’ll probably run into during this journey: phone banking, canvassing, and lobbying.
While radically different from one another, they all have this one thing in common: they might seem incredibly intimidating on a surface level, but they’re actually super accessible and fun. They’re important to me because they are what brought me into activism, so I’m going to do my best in the next three pieces to explain not only how they work, but what you can get out of them.