March 19, 2006

Amateur Activist Starter Kit

by Tal Ariel
Forget about the iceberg
So I'm driving to work this morning, nauseatingly contemplating how screwed the world is, how my excruciatingly long commute was contributing to environmental devastation, how I should be doing more, and how contrary to my self-image I wasn't a serious activist at all.

You see I'm a regular guy. A wage slave one might say. A cog in the capitalist machine. I get paid to generate revenue for my employer, a privately held corporation whose sole focus and purpose is to generate profit for its shareholders.

I'm not a seasoned organizer or community leader. I'm not a scholar or expert. I'm not a journalist or author. I don't meet with world leaders or celebrities (Though I did recently hug Cindy Sheehan). I'm not a mover or a shaker.

Then a brilliant thought comes to mind (or maybe I heard it on the radio and subconsciously claimed it for myself). If I'm feeling this way, surely there are others who feel similarly. As a matter of fact, maybe there are millions out there who feel they don't have the tools to be effective protagonists of social change. Maybe hordes of tortured souls feel that since they could never possibly run with Chomsky in the next activist Olympics (to be held in Venezuela?), they might as well not even bother to begin with.

Then yet another interesting thought comes to mind (I'm pretty confident this one was really mine). Maybe I'm more of an activist than I give myself credit for. And maybe I could allow myself the luxury of brief self-congratulations and a momentarily hopeful outlook, and still be a leftist. How exciting! And what does it mean to be an activist anyway? Does one have to use fancy words like "community", memorize tomes of factoids about the history of the hemp plant, and master the art of impromptu political sloganeering?

So for all of you out there who feel my pain, and for the sake of feeling better about myself, this amateur has humbly created an Amateur's Activist Starter Kit. It is not intended to be comprehensive or exhaustive in any way. Just some different ideas to help each of us can take steps towards engaging with our world in a more positive and effective manner without requiring deep life-altering transformations.

Education & Awareness

For me, an essential part of being an activist involves being educated about the world around us. If you're reading this, you probably already feel that accomplishing to any significant degree is virtually impossible via corporate media outlets alone. Fortunately for us, with all the non-corporate media available today, be it books, magazines, websites, radio, film documentaries, live events, and email listserves, there is an enormous amount of information available for cheap, and often for free.

Probably the most difficult part is deciding where to start. There is also a tendency amongst amateur activists to feel ill equipped to discuss important issues. Undoubtedly many issues can be quite intimidating given the amount of information and opinions, so much of which are contradictory. Unless you have unlimited time to research and fact check everything you read, you'll have to use some judgment based on various factors such as author and publisher, combined with sporadic checking of sources and facts. Eventually you will develop a level of trust with certain writers and gain a better understanding of the issues. It's not easy, but it does get easier with time and perseverance.

Since each of us has different interests, education levels, and amount of disposable time, there is no single correct answer to where one should start (though if asked, I will often tell people to read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States). Figure out what topics interest you most, and start with the most easily accessible source of information (Internet, library, etc.) Once you get started, one thing will lead to another, and before you know it you'll be debating Alan Dershowitz in front of millions of adoring fans. Okay, maybe not millions, but I'm sure some people will show up if it's not at the same time slot as "The Apprentice".

Dissemination & Agitation

All of the information in the world is useless if it's not shared with others. Email has made communication incredibly easy for anyone with access to the Internet. Start emailing articles and links to other online materials to your friends, family and coworkers. To be sure, some will ask that you stop wasting their time with your political nonsense. Others will think you've lost your mind. Still others might report you to the department of homeland security (as opposed to the department of non-homeland security). But if you're sensitive about sending the right information to the right people, some will be open to it, and may even look forward to getting more.

If you have print publications (books, magazines, etc.) that you think might resonate with others, give it to them when you're done (or buy it for them if you can afford it).
And of course there's always that ancient art of talking. Don't buy the nonsense that you shouldn't talk politics or that people aren't interested in politics. Politics pervades every aspect of our lives. And since most people do care about their lives, then they necessarily care about politics.

I can share from personal experience, that my own dissemination and agitation efforts have made an impact. One of my close friends left recently left his job for a research analyst position at a union, and is now considering filming a documentary about undocumented immigrant labor. Another close friend who is a successful music promoter is making serious efforts to "green" his events, and spends more time volunteering and working on various progressive issues. There are other examples as well. Of course I don't take sole credit for these changes, but I believe (maybe arrogantly) that I played some role.

Donations & Support

If you can afford it, donating to worthwhile organizations is an effective activist tool, and is highly appreciated by the recipient. Think about which issues concern you most and which organizations you believe in and would like to help. Many non-profit and independent organizations would be very happy to accept as little as $5 a month from their supporters.


There are many organizations working on every issue under the sun that need volunteers. Find the issue that speaks to you most, and start by volunteering a few hours a month. It can be anything from working at a soup kitchen to transcribing interviews for radio programs. It may seem insignificant to you at first, but it's meaningful to the organization and to the people they are helping. If they didn't need your help, they probably wouldn't ask for it.

Volunteering also gives you an opportunity to learn firsthand, to gain experience, to meet likeminded people, and to build a broader network for future activities. Best of all, it will make you feel really good about yourself. It's a great excuse to be selfish!


Whenever I start feeling like everything is hopeless and I just can't deal, I will find a local activist event. It can be a demonstration, rally, protest, lecture, debate, concert, film screening, or anything where a group of people are congregating and engaging each other about certain issues that interest me. These can also be great opportunities to invite others to go with you and have some fun while still focusing on what's important - your angst about the evils of the empire. You are sure to meet lots of other activists and leave feeling energized (don't worry, you'll get used to that patchouli smell).

Pressure your representatives

Though it might seem futile, politicians do sometimes bend to the will of their constituents if enough of them apply pressure (or if the financial rewards are big!). Sometimes those constituents can even be regular folks like you and me. Calling, emailing and writing to your representatives is another way to make sure your voice heard and heard often. If you don't feel comfortable composing your own letters, there are many websites and organizations that will even write the letter or email for you, and all you have to do is sign your name and send it.

Obviously, as mentioned earlier, this is just the tip of the iceberg. But the point is not to freak out about the enormity of the entire iceberg and give up from the start. Rather, take your first step, stay open-minded, learn as you go along, don't expect immediate results, and enjoy the ride.

Tal Ariel is a wage slave, husband, band leader, amateur activist, and now probably even considers himself a writer of sorts. Imagine that. He'd be thrilled to receive your questions and comments at (it makes him feel special).


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