The United States is known as a democracy. However, this is not entirely correct. We are a republic. In a democracy, citizens vote directly to pass and change laws. Instead, we elect government officials to represent us and it is these officials who vote for and create laws in our name. Voting is the most sacred aspect of how our republic runs. When the Constitution was passed and the United States was created only white men with property were allowed to vote. Over the next two centuries, women, African Americans and unpropertied white men fought to gain the right to vote. Laws such as the Voting Rights Act were enacted to ensure the right to vote of all citizens and to prevent voter suppression by certain actors who would benefit from limiting people from the voting booth and suppressing the right to vote. In fact, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act going through Congress now is a clear indication that the fight to obtain the right to vote is far from over. That more than fifty years after the Voting Rights Act, this fight is far from over. Being apathetic ensures that your voice is not heard. If you are unhappy with our government officials and how government runs, vote for candidates who reflect your values and interests.
Run for Office
Do you feel that your representative is out of touch? That they do not represent your values and ideals or the interests or needs of your community? Do you feel that they are too beholden to special interests that run counter to what the people need? Whether it is local government such as the school board, state government like state assemblies, and federal government such as the House of Representatives, being a candidate and elected official ensures that the values that you cherish and which your community cherishes will have a seat at the table. There is much good that you can do within the workings of our republic, within the system, and take it upon yourself to lead that good.
Petition your Elected Official
There is a long tradition of petitioning your elected officials to advance the causes and interests that you and your peers and colleagues seek. This can often be done through letter writing or telephone calls, emails or tweets. The purpose is to act collectively to have your voices heard and in numbers to compel policy makers to act according to the needs of their constituents. Is there a cause that you are passionate about? Write to your congressman or congresswoman about it.
File Law Suits
As a nation of laws, the United States enacts laws to define relationships between government and the people, people toward each other, business toward society, majority toward minority. Laws can benefit one segment of the population and be a detriment toward others. Laws can be immoral and unjust and to prioritize the interests and values of some over the other. But laws can also effect dramatic social change. The history of the judicial system in the United States is full of examples of how legal action can change how society relates to itself. Brown v Board of Education outlawed segregation. Roe v Wade upheld a woman’s right to choose and to have control over her own body. Obergefell v Hodges upheld the right of a same sex couple to get married. However, these very laws have been subject to extreme scrutiny and have constantly been challenged and sought to be overturned decades after the passage of these laws. The courts, legal institutions are a battlefield where actors are continuously fighting to advance their own causes. Join the fight to ensure the legal protections and rights of those who are left behind, demonized, and marginalized.
Engage in Civil Disobedience
John Lewis, civil rights activist and United States Congressman, who passed away in the summer of 2020, talked about getting into “Good Trouble”. By this he meant getting into trouble, with the authorities, for moral or good reasons. If a law is immoral or unjust, it the responsibility of citizens to break those laws and refuse to comply with those laws. As a peaceful form of protest, this act of defiance illustrates and brings into the open, into focus the immorality of such laws and the reasons why such laws should be overturned.
Engage in Peaceful Protesting
The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” As citizens, peaceful protesting is our way to have our voice heard concerning actions that our government does on our behalf. Remember that dissent is patriotic. Some require that for us to love our country, we must accept whatever our country and government does in our name. However, to love our country is to hold our country and government accountable to the highest ideals embodied in our values and in our Constitution. Some question the ability for mass mobilization to effect change, that it is a waste of time and true change can only come from within. However, the recent mass protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter Movement has shown that real change can come when people take to the streets.
Re-write the Narrative
Often times, it is the powerful, the majority who determine how others, marginalized and minoritized, are seen and represented. Minorities and other oppressed groups are told in stories that lack truth and complexity and reinforce stereotypes and discrimination. Say no to these master narratives. Write counter-stories about your lived experiences, the truth about your experiences and communities. Write the stories that challenge these master stories, the stories that are told about you in a way that misrepresents your turth. Write fiction or non-fiction, create poetry or music, paint or draw, make films and have your voices heard. Speak truth to power.
Create Safe Spaces
Safe spaces can be communities, physical spaces, or environments that are often established on college campuses to provide areas where individuals who are marginalized and oppressed can come together to feel safe and free from microaggressions, discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm. Safe spaces provide opportunities for individuals to communicate with each other their lived experiences and of the discrimination they face and the values and ideals that they uphold.
Grassroots organizations, advocacy groups, arts organizations need people to do the work that they do. Joining an organization ensures that that work can continue. Whether as a volunteer, an intern, or a paid staff member, doing the work that needs to be done advances the causes you believe in, the work that these organizations do. Stuffing envelopes, canvassing neighborhood, working on phone banks, issuing press releases, speaking to the media all are important ways in which you can contribute to the causes that are so important to you. Visit websites or call and find ways that you can join the struggle.
Donate to Causes
Whatever interests you, whether the environment, animal rights, charities, immigration issues or reform of the criminal justice system, donate to causes so that they may continue the important work that they do for ideals and values that you support. Many grassroots and advocacy organizations work for the good of civil society and the public good. Doing so means that they do not provided a product that can be monetized. By donating money or time or other resources to causes you ensure that these organizations can continue their work and to fight for the good and betterment of those that they represent.
The internet has transformed activism in the 21st Century. Email, social media, listservs, cell phone cameras, and websites, have facilitated collaboration among individuals and groups, the ability to dispense information quickly and widely, communication with constituencies, and the building of communities, communication and the exchange of ideas. Organizing movements has become much more effective with these tools and technologies. With the advent of internet activism, activists can truly think globally and act locally.