Know the end goal first before joining any activism group
When I read the temporary results of a criminal trial, I bought a bus ticket shortly after. I knew I wanted to go to this particular city and vent my frustration regarding the judge’s decision. I knew I wanted to donate funds to get one particular gentleman out of prison. And I knew I wanted to go to the local courthouse to figure out what exactly was going on — because the news just wasn’t covering it enough for my taste. (It was the very first time I ever decided to cover a news story myself — long before I knew I had any interest in journalism.)
I kept my travel plans pretty low-key up until my supervisor at the time really wanted me to attend a book publishing work event. I knew if I told her why I couldn’t go and where I was really going for a few days, my job would be at risk — especially if we weren’t on the same side of the trial results. Luckily for me, we were. I packed my bags, let my godfather know where I was headed (it was close enough to his hometown in case I needed help) and jumped on the bus.
Working with a group of activists is incredibly helpful. There is a bonding experience that happens when you find out that people care about the same causes that you do. I know first-hand how stressful it can be to fight for a cause by yourself, while everyone who agrees with you just sits quietly by the sidelines. But I’ve never been really good at being a bystander. I’m a walking, talking version of, “If you see something, say something,” even if my opinion may not be the most popular.
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The legal case mentioned above has long passed. The individual in question has been freed from prison. And while this was my first “go” at journalism, I learned quite a bit about grassroots activism that I’d originally not thought much of.
Focus Point 1: Know where to donate to help your cause: For this particular trial, there were multiple well-known people who were collecting funds to free the individual who was in prison. Unfortunately, there was a lot of confusion regarding where those funds were actually going and if they were actually helping the family. This included the prisoner’s own family members debating about who got what, when and where. The hesitancy led several protesters to not donate at all — including the ones I was with. I was not comfortable with that decision, specifically when the whole goal of going there was to help this particular man.
Meanwhile, the group that I went with took up a collection to give the bus driver a “bonus” for staying nearby on the bus. And that bonus was hundreds of dollars. Keep in mind, a bus driver staying firmly put during a protest is a major deal. But my group had already individually paid for the drive down there, so the bus driver was going to collect those gas and travel expenses anyway. When I later asked about donating to the prison expenses for the prisoner in question, I was met with silence.
Focus Point 2: Know what your group’s immediate end goal is for a cause: I can only speak for myself, but quotes in magazines and newspapers is not sexy to me. Even before I started writing for multiple media publications, that just wasn’t my end goal. I had no interest in fame. I wanted actual results, as in a lesser sentence for the inmate or him being released altogether. That’s it. Nothing else. But in conversation with many activists who traveled with me, the end goal was just a lot of screaming, marching and signs. And if we were “lucky,” maybe we’d be on the news. (We were. I dodged the cameras.) I don’t knock protest marches. It is extremely effective when done consistently and in an organized manner (ex. March on Washington). But there should be a bigger goal other than saying a catchy phrase and a journalist tapping you on the shoulder to talk.
Focus Point 3: Get familiar with your own social circle: There may be times when people just cannot financially help a cause. That’s fine. But if you know some people who can actually help, reach out to them instead. I donated my own funds and sent multiple emails and information to family and friends who did not travel with me during this long bus ride. Instead of huffing and puffing about my protest group not donating to the cause, I tried to find a workaround.
Focus Point 4: Stay focused on the social cause, not socializing: After the marching was over, and my group was headed back home, they wanted to stop at three different places. They went to a church to hang out and eat breakfast. They stopped in another city to take group photographs. One guy kept flirting with me and trying to get me to go on a date with him, with a couple other protesters egging him on. They sent out a big group email for a surprise party for one of the main organizers. And I just wanted to go home. I’d done what I intended to do: march, find out the latest results of the prison sentence and set aside money to donate to the inmate’s family’s fundraiser.
As cold as it may sound, I just wasn’t looking for friends (or a boyfriend). I did indeed run into an actual friend of mine during the march (which was bizarre considering there were thousands of people). But not even two minutes after hugs and chit-chat, we were both focused on the trial. We made no plans to link up later and party around the city. That could be done at a later date. If you find yourself in a group that seems more interested in hanging out and less on the actual cause, you need to find a new group. EventBrite, Patch and MeetUp are around for a reason; that’s not what your end goal should be. If your mission is to help this particular cause, find like-minded members that have your level of enthusiasm about said subject. And ask them, “What is your end goal?” before making any moves to participate.
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