“If we don’t ask for what we need, nobody will”: a beginner’s guide to becoming an activist

Executive director of Change.org UK, Kajal Odedra, explains why we should all be activists and outlines practical steps you can take to make the change you want to see happen in the world. 

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We should all be activists. Activism helps you realise your power and makes the world a better place. It can be life-changing. But, many people feel they aren’t qualified enough to get involved or have the right to speak up.

I got involved in activism after growing up in the UK in the 90s and rarely seeing anyone like myself in positions of power or influence. I internalised the idea that people like me and my family didn’t have the right to be heard. The working-class village I grew up in also felt neglected by the state. I quickly realised, if we didn’t ask for what we needed, nobody would.

I started small, at school. I challenged rules that didn’t make sense, like the school uniform policy, advocating for better facilities and access to sanitary products in the girls’ toilets. At university, I moved onto student politics. I refused to be told I didn’t know enough to have a say because time and again I realised nobody knows enough. If we let that stop us, nothing will ever change.

Now, as the executive director of Change.org UK – the world’s largest petition platform, I work with ordinary people, like you and me, who start petitions about the issues that matter most to them, from their child’s healthcare to tackling the housing crisis. I see them winning every day.  

I quickly realised, if we didn’t ask for what we needed, nobody would

Politics affects us all. When the pandemic hit, politics dictated whether you could leave your house, order takeaway or hug a friend. It’s the big stuff too. Politics affects whether our planet will be a safe place for our great-grandchildren to live. It affects whether children fleeing war-torn countries will live. So why aren’t more of us speaking up?

Activism has been protected and maintained like an elite sport for too long. When I started getting involved in activism I was intimidated. I felt like I needed a degree in politics to be taken seriously. This is a myth that maintains the status quo. The more people feel nervous about getting involved, the more likely it is that nothing changes and we won’t see progress.

I’ve worked with politicians, CEOs and the biggest NGOs, and I’ll let you in on a secret – no one knows enough. If we don’t all get interested and engaged in the world around us, the world we live in will continue to be shaped by the same people who have been in power for decades, leaving out the most marginalised and vulnerable in society. 

Activism has been protected and maintained like an elite sport for too long

I often get asked, “What’s the point, does campaigning even work?” Despite the myths out there, I see campaigns winning every day. During the pandemic, everyday people getting missed by government rules spoke up and won their campaigns: care workers campaigned to make sure people with disabilities were given the Covid vaccine (who were previously denied), pregnant women called for their birth partners to be allowed to attend hospital appointments and students got the government to U-turn their decision around predicting grades with an algorithm.

Campaigning isn’t always serious. It can be fun. It brings people together who have similar values. Some of my best friends are people I’ve met through attending and organising protests. With so many reasons to feel anger, frustration and despair, getting involved can channel those feelings into something positive and incredibly powerful. 

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Practical steps to channel your frustration into real-world change

Channel your anger

With so many problems in the world and limited time, it can be hard to know what to focus your energy on. My advice is to think about what issues make you angry. What news story or problem puts a fire in your belly and leaves you feeling annoyed or excited?

Anger gets a bad rep, but it’s a really useful emotion. It shows us we’re not indifferent, we care and if you can channel anger into action, things start happening.

Be specific about what you want

If you want to make a difference you need to get specific. What is it about race in the UK you want to change? What part of climate change do you want to focus on?Sustainability, air pollution or biodiversity? The more focused you are, the more likely you are to know if you’re making a difference. Every small campaign adds up, creating a movement for the broader issue.

Last summer, after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in the United States, people across the UK took a stand. They organised protests and spoke up on social media. They focused their attention on specific calls to action: campaigns to remove statues, decolonise the curriculum and get justice for other Black men and women who have died in the UK.

Once you know what victory looks like it’s easier to plan what you need to do to get there. Focus your limited time and energy in a way that will make more impact. 

Anger gets a bad rep, but it shows we care

Educate yourself

Read the books, watch the films, listen to the podcasts. Don’t just post about them on social media. This is the work you need to do. It’s called work because it doesn’t happen from reading one article or sharing a social media post.

Make time in the evenings and weekends to actually learn from the years of thinking and writing on the issue you care about. There will be so much you didn’t know that puts everything happening today into context.

If you don’t have lived experience of an issue, listen to the people who do. Don’t project your feelings of outrage or guilt onto them or the movement. When we are quick to speak, we are not listening. 

Sign or start a petition

Petitions work. Globally, we see one petition win every hour on Change.org. The mistake people make is thinking that a campaign starts and ends with a petition. Petitions are a tool in a campaigner’s belt. It’s one of many things at your disposal to help you create a case, garner support and influence your decision maker.

Do some research to see if there is already someone campaigning about the issue you care about. Reach out to them and see how you can help. Running a campaign can be lonely and every campaigner I know would jump at the offer of support from an eager activist.

Get to know your MP

Whether your local Member of Parliament is your ultimate decision-maker or not, you should get in touch with them to see how they can help you. Even if they can’t change things for you, they will be able to advocate on your behalf if you get them on side. Use the handy website, Write To Them, to get your local MP’s contact details. 

The good that comes from campaigning isn’t just from the ultimate victory, it’s from the journey along the way

Build a community

This is the most special part of campaigning. Finding your community of activists and allies is not only empowering and helps your campaign, it’s medicine for the individualism of modern life.

When you’re building a community for your cause start with your network. Studies show that your friends and family are more likely to support a cause if they see people in their network supporting it. We trust the people in our lives and we’re more likely to be persuaded by them. Use dinner table conversations and family calls to bring up what you’re doing and how people can get behind the cause. Once you have a few people in your circle backing you, you’ll feel less alone and can start building your own community of supporters.

Make it playful and fun

Campaigning doesn’t need to be serious all the time. It’s important to create space for lighter moments to keep you going. The pandemic pushed us to be more creative to maintain motivation when we couldn’t meet up at protests and have real-life contact. Here are some ideas to keep things upbeat:

  • Organise events that don’t just discuss campaign strategy but include things like campaign songs and chants. These can be a great way to get strangers interested in what you’re up to.
  • Host events to create placards and artwork to use at different points in your journey.
  • Create rituals to share something personal at the beginning or end of each gathering.

One of the most important things I’ve learned is that to sustain your campaign, you must have fun and create deep connections.

Don’t give up

Be persistent. The campaigners who win are the ones who didn’t give up. It can be hard to know how long you need to keep going, so don’t think of it as a sprint, but a marathon. Don’t burn out quickly. Sustain yourself, lean on your community and know that if you never give up only good things can happen.

Celebrate small wins along the way to keep you going, like gaining new supporters, persuading someone you thought was unpersuadable or meeting with a potential ally. The good that comes from campaigning isn’t just from the ultimate victory, it’s from the journey along the way. 

Useful resources

  • Do Something: activism for everyone by Kajal Odedra. 
  • Campaign Bootcamp runs programmes to help you win your campaign. 
  • Sheila Mckechnie Foundation runs online workshops. 
  • Write to them is a handy resource to help you contact your MP. 
  • Change.org can help you start or sign a petition. 

You can read more about campaigning on Stylist.co.uk. For more practical guides sign up to The Curiosity Academy newsletter. 

Images: Kajal Odedra

  • Kajal Odedra, executive director of Change.org UK and author

    Executive Director of Change.org UK, Kajal Odedra.

    Kajal Odedra is an author and activist. She is the Executive Director for Change.org UK and has supported some of the biggest people-powered campaigns in the country. Her first book, Do Something; activism for everyone, is out now with Hodder and Stoughton. 

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