When asked about the world around us the most common sentiments expressed are negative. Be it war, environmental crisis, political instability, or inequality there is no shortage of problems that challenge us as a society. But what can society do to challenge these problems?
Activism is a word that elicits many different responses from those who hear it. Some conjure up images of the violent G20 riots in Toronto, while others see organized conferences and petitions.
Despite the varied connotations associated with activism, the alternative mentality of inaction and shutting out the world, hoping someone else will solve the world’s ills is completely ineffective. Activism is the clear choice to impact change.
This option requires work; real activism involves harnessing passionate feelings about an issue and taking vigorous action to bring about change. So now that you’ve decided to join the protest, what does it really mean to get involved, and how do you do it?
“Being an activist means really getting involved in your community. Getting together with people and getting a sense of collective power, of energy,” said Ryan Lee McKenna, an anti-war activist and pro-nature advocate. A 26-year-old university graduate and former member of the Royal Canadian Navy, McKenna has had the opportunity to be active in causes across the country.
“It’s ensuring our democracy, we need activism to really challenge government or even the system as a whole, to really question what decisions are being made and how they are being made, and to look at how we as activists can create a better society for everyone,” said Amalia Savva, former president of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa.
In this function activism does not need to be aggressive, but acts as a watchdog ensuring decisions are made on behalf of the people they affect.
“We live in a world where there are a lot of problems, and as the younger generation we are going to be the ones who have to deal with these problems and consequences, so I think it’s really important to engage with something, anything really,” said Lauren Jutai, president of the University of Ottawa Women’s Empowerment Society. “There’s a variety of issues that will affect us into the future that people can get involved in and it’s a meaningful way to make a difference and really be a part of the change.”
With lofty goals an inherent part of activism, getting involved can be daunting, but the first step is a natural one.
“Sometimes it’s just about going and sitting in on a meeting here and a meeting there and finding what really speaks to you,” said Jitai. “It could be about in which area you want to make the most change, but it’s also about personally, what suits you the most, what draws your beliefs, because it’s really important that you’re passionate about your cause. When that passion comes from within your work your advocacy is all that much stronger.”
Each individual has their own reasons for getting involved in activism and taking up a cause, what’s important is that each of those individuals brings a unique voice to add to the whole, making it stronger.
“What drew me to activism was by no means a single moment. It was many moments strung together,” said McKenna. “I’ve always had a predilection for finding out how things work, and that compulsion has led me to seek out a wide range of knowledge.”
Once you have found where you want to devote your time and energy towards making a change the next step is getting out there.
“Getting involved on campus there’s a whole bunch of ways, whether its with your student union or with campus clubs it’s kind of looking out for those things,” said Savva. “Or if students are interested in their own initiatives then making a club or a group and starting to talk about those things and learn about them. It’s educating yourself first and hopefully educating others on what you’re trying to do.”
Starting her own club is exactly what Jutai did.
“We just felt a void on campus of a club that was dedicated to bringing more awareness to issues that affect all women both in the developed and developing world,” said Jutai. “So our goal has been to raise awareness and funding for organizations actively working to help.”
Jutai realizes that deciding to start your own club is a big leap, and acknowledges that any involvement can help.
“Even just helping out at a fundraiser, working behind the scenes is really important too,” said Jutai.
There are opportunities all over if you are willing to look for them, and people willing to help you as you begin to become a part of the activism scene.
Savva encourages newcomers to start by networking. “Connecting with activists, with those people who have done activism for a long time, or people who are also just getting into it to create personal relationships is important,” said Savva.
Once you’re immersed in the world of activism understanding the process is the next key. Change doesn’t come like a flood, and not getting disheartened is critical.
“I think when people become more involved with issues, that everyone really benefits, these issues that might not have been brought to light otherwise can be and I think even having a more open discourse is really beneficial to society,” said Jutai.
Measuring the effects of activism can be difficult but Jutai has her own way of assessing how her work is impacting the issues.
“You have to measure your results not only by what you achieved concretely but by what you’re contributing to discourse and to the creating and sharing of ideas.”
Every little effort helps in the long run, even if the effects are not immediately apparent. Each new voice speaking out for a cause can be an impetus for change.
“It can be students, it can be community members, it can be their first time getting involved with activism, but that’s making change that’s getting more people aware of our system and that in itself makes a great deal of change,” said Savva. “Everything is connected so it’s looking at it in the bigger picture and all continuing to work together.”
For students there is no shortage of subjects to be angry about. Rising tuition, increased cost of living and a depressed economy paint a picture of a bleak future for an entire generation of Canadians. This is the time to speak out.
As the ones to be affected by the decision being made right now, making your concerns known is as important as ever. The best way to speak out and fight for change is finding the issue that speaks to you, educating yourself, and spreading that awareness to others. In other words, being an activist.