Following the news these days, it is hard to be optimistic, there are so many serious problems the world faces and we may see ourselves on the sidelines as a passive, helpless spectator. We all have our hands full juggling our own responsibilities and all the stresses of modern day life. Media and society in general doesn't do a lot to inspire us or appeal to our own individual power to create change, or even to help us believe that a more hopeful vision of the world is possible. In many ways it does just the opposite.
In fact, we have been conditioned to leave the messy business of world change to our elected officials, rather than as Gandhi said, to "Be the change you want to see in the world." Or as world renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead famously remarked, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." The evolution of Mother Earth and humanity's consciousness is calling each of us, all of us, to awaken to our own individual power, our own voice, our own way of being an active agent of change in the world.
When thinking about where to start, my best advice is to follow your heart, pay attention to where you feel called, what interests, outrages or inspires you. And then set out to find out more about the issue and what resources, people and organizations there are working on them -- the Internet makes this easier now, and then follow your passion and try to discover your own unique way of contributing. Every little bit helps. Maybe it starts out in small ways, by joining an organization, a mailing list, signing online petitions or action alerts or writing op-ed pieces or letters to your representatives.
Or, maybe your way of contributing is in writing a check, no matter what size, to a worthy organization doing great work around an issue you care about. You could find yourself inspired to play even a larger role, by organizing a fundraiser, or starting a campaign or your own non-profit, or volunteering or applying for a job at a local, national, or global organization you admire. There are many options to get involved, in whatever ways fit you and your lifestyle - the point is to just begin to take those first steps.
I think people can be confused by the term "activist". It sounds so serious, so fanatical, so demanding. What I find very interesting and telling as a journalist who specializes in interviewing celebrities about the causes and charities they promote (which have included inspiring artists and activists such as Jane Fonda, Natalie Portman, Annie Lennox, Goldie Hawn, Ted Danson, Melissa Etheridge, Cameron Diaz, Meryl Streep, Ed Begley Jr., Bette Midler and so many others) is that when these artists and entertainers achieve the definition of success that society conditions us to strive for -- fame and fortune -- many are passionately driven to give back, and ultimately find they derive the most meaning in their lives through their charitable work.
When I interviewed Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman, who serves as the Ambassador of Hope for the organization FINCA International which promotes micro-lending to empower women in poor countries, she talked emotionally about being dramatically transformed and greatly enriched by her time traveling the globe working with and assisting these women in developing countries. She spoke to me about how "amazing" and "rewarding" and "meaningful" volunteer work was for her, confessing that she felt, "I am not helping them in any way near as much as they are helping me." This is the dimension of activism we need to hear more about and experience ourselves, the soul-nourishing rewards that come from working on a cause you feel passionate about, with a community of like-minded people -- and the uplift of focusing on hope and working towards positive change in the world.
You can contribute to change through your very being, by being conscious of your own impact and energy you bring within your own personal circle of influence, in your family, your community, your school, your workplace. It is as simple as the way you interact with the people around you in life, which includes the messages you implant in your children, the way you talk and behave around your colleagues, the kindness you show a neighbor or a total stranger. You can be a part of bringing love and peace to the world by spreading love and peace yourself, which radiates out, and by celebrating what unites us rather than divides us. It starts in our mind, with positive thinking, intention and action. And activism is also not an all or nothing approach. For example, if you are interested in helping the environment, you can start just bringing some awareness and mindfulness to your own ecological footprint, even just by remembering to turn out the light or deciding to switch to one natural, recycled or organic product, or using a reusable container for your water - all these are positive, meaningful acts that collectively can make a huge difference and are good for the environment, your health and your soul.
You can't help but be an optimist when you are contributing to positive change. Believe in your own power and then to be bold enough to use it. Together we will create a better world.
For further inspiration, here is some advice on creating change in the world from my book, Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice.
First of all, change is like a house: you can't build it from the top down, only from the bottom up. Whatever small change we make will be like a pebble in a pond. It will reverberate outward, and also it will be fun... We're meant to be active and contribute to the world. What's the alternative? Just sitting there and wondering, "Oh, if I had just done this, maybe..." I've learned only one thing: no matter how hard it is to do it, it's harder not to do it. Then you're stuck with wondering, "What if I had said...? What if I had done...?"
Everybody has the power to make changes... and every change makes a difference.
As much as you can do helps. You don't have to be perfect, you don't have to be an expert, you don't have to have hours and hours of free time or tons and tons of money. You don't have to go to workshops to know about it. All you have to do is have faith in your passion, and it really makes your life a lot better. You feel like you're making a difference.
I never said, "Ooh, I want to be an activist." I just found that the more I spoke the truth, the more activist I became. I am constantly amazed at how courageous and radical speaking the truth is. The most activist thing you can do is just speak the truth and search for the truth and just follow that trail, and it will come to you. Believe me, the universe will hand it to you.
There's so much to do that you will be paralyzed if you sit around thinking, "What's the best thing I can do? Or the most effective? Or who's the neediest?" These are questions that actually don't serve us. What serves us is to just pay attention to where we feel really called... I think it's less about figuring out what's the best thing to do or who's the most needy, and it's really about who are you, what are the resources you bring, and how can you match that with what the world needs?
--Courtney E. Martin
There's always something to do--always.
I think when people say to me, "Jane, I really want to help. What can I do?" people could just spend time a bit of time each day thinking about the consequences of their choices. Like what do you eat? Well, that may seem simple--I ate this or that today--but where did it come from, how many miles did it travel, did it harm the environment, how much pesticide was used, was it produced using child slave labor? If it was intensive farming, how did that affect the animals? How did it affect the environment, and how did it affect your health? The same with what you wear, how you travel, how you connect with people. If people would just start thinking about the consequences of all these small actions.
You could sit there and say, "Oh, the problem's too big, I'll never be able to change it." That's a cop-out. It's a responsibility to your brothers and sisters in the world. That should be your number-one concern. You are responsible for what this world is and how it is and all it is. And if you don't want to help fix it, you're part of the problem.
With a global population of 6.8 billion people, that's a lot of potential for good to happen. If we all just do a little something, it'll go a long way. We need to realize that we are powerful beings. We live in a world where ordinary people do extraordinary things every day.... Activism is like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it'll become. It's like riding a bike: you start, you practice, you get better at it. The next thing you know, it's really not that hard.
I think volunteering is the most fun thing... it can be really, really amazing and rewarding and meaningful.... Sometimes I feel like it's more for me, you know? I mean, I'm not really helping them in any way near as much as they are helping me.
Discover your fantasy of what you need the most, what you would want someone to do for you the most, and then go out and give it to someone else.
Portions of the above originally appeared in Marianne's monthly radio commentary for 51% The Women's Perspective.