When Gloria Steinem said “Voting isn't the most we can do, but it is the least” she meant that if you want a democracy, you have to participate in it. She meant that even if you do nothing else to consciously engage in politics then the very smallest action you can and should carry out is to vote. After all, it is only in the ballots that every citizen of a country has exactly the same importance: no-one, no matter how rich or poor, can vote twice. But she was also hinting at another important point: there is so much more that you can do to make a difference, and voting is just one small action compared to the world of change you can make. Politics isn’t just for Christmas (or Christmas elections)… But how to know where to start? How not to feel overwhelmed by all of the causes that demand our support? How to see the light in times of darkness? I’m glad you asked.
1. Pick one thing to focus on at a time
When I feel most helpless, it’s probably because I’ve been read just too many articles about the state of the world. As much as I want to, I cannot make a meaningful impact to the lives of people affected by homelessness, sexism, racism, homophobia, climate change, refugee crises and poverty all at once. Seeing all of the injustices in the world as an amorphous, insurmountable darkness won’t help anyone either.
Try picking just one thing to focus on at a time. This might be one cause per month, one charitable society at university, one single fundraiser to contribute your spare change to. Don’t spread yourself too thin.
2. Draw on your existing talents and abilities
Another way to combat helplessness is to find a way to contribute in a form that you are good at and which you enjoy. Good at art? Try volunteering to make some eye-catching graphics to communicate an issue you care about. Got a little free time? Get volunteering for a local charity in person! Got some spare pocket money? Add it to a fundraiser! Good at persuading other people to give? Start your own fundraiser! Are you a people person? Find a volunteer job working with vulnerable people! Perhaps you’re a scientist? Find a way to use that knowledge to make a difference!
You get the idea. We can’t all do everything – but everyone can do something.
3. Put your money where your mouth is
2020 is the year to start showing up – for yourself, and for the things you care about. It’s the year of no longer making excuses, and instead springing into action, empowering yourself to make hopeful decisions in every aspect of your life. For a start, consider this tiny but significant decision: every single toothbrush you have ever used in your life still exists. It is most likely buried somewhere in landfill and will stay there for hundreds of years. Bamboo toothbrushes are a little more expensive, it’s true – but you’d spend more on one drink in a pub than you would on a toothbrush that won’t stick around in landfill forever. What’s stopping you?
Hopeful decisions don’t have to be about the planet, either – and they don’t have to cost money. Next time you see that protest, petition or crowdfunding initiative, why not go along, sign your name, and share it to your more affluent friends and family? Adding your voice to a movement isn’t only extremely productive – it can be a brilliant way of combatting the feeling of helplessness when faced with so many international crises.
4. Get informed
It can feel extremely daunting or pointless to participate in the political sphere when we don’t know what exactly it is we’re debating. You may feel that other people know better than you or have “better opinions”. You might think politics isn’t for people like you, or that it’s all just quite messy and boring.
It becomes a lot less messy and a lot less boring when you start to get more informed. If that still sounds far too vague, try these steps:
BEGINNER (5 mins/day): Before you get out of bed, tell your mobile assistant of choice to “play me the news”. You will get a 5-minute (or less) roundup of the day’s top headlines to start off your day, and over time you may see certain topics coming up more than once. Follow non-biased accounts like Simple Politics on social media to get a hit of news sporadically throughout the day.
INTERMEDIATE (15-30 mins/day): Listen to a news or current affairs podcast, like the BBC’s Brexitcast or Podlitical, or the Guardian’s Today In Focus, or Economist Radio. If you’re not a podcast person, spend some time reading a trusted newspaper or magazine – you might find your university library has a subscription to a whole range of options, even in multiple languages!
ADVANCED (60+ minutes/week): Get involved in student politics. This could be something as simple as going to some Student Union campaign events, or it might mean going along to debates and panel discussions organised by Politics societies. Failing that, check out your university radio station – is there a political radio show run by students for other students?
5. Don’t give up – and do take breaks
It’s a good idea to stay informed, but it’s also a good idea to take breaks. We live in a 24/7 news cycle and trying to keep up isn’t just mentally draining – it’s impossible. Make sure you spend some time away from the bad news – rest, recover, and return to the fight.
Things will happen in the world which make you sad. Some things will make you angry. This is okay. Spend a day being sad, but then get up again. Use the anger. Use your vote. Use your voice.
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