Opinions in Dialogue: Strategies for advocacy work

What are some of the best ways to fight for change?

Photo of protestors blocking a road and holding signs against racism
PHOTO: Khalid Alshehri / Unsplash

By: Nushaiba Nanjiba, SFU Student and Michelle Young, Opinions Editor

From climate change and gender inequality, to 2SLGBTQIA+ rights, there are countless issues that could use more of our attention. However, time is limited for all of us. Common forms of advocacy include protests and awareness campaigns on social media — though not all of us can commit to every form of advocacy all the time. What are the best ways to advocate for a cause? Where should we turn our energy when we have the capacity to make change?

Nushaiba: I think when we want to advocate for a cause, the best way to go about it is through collective action. This is when people come together to improve the conditions of people who are disadvantaged. Collective action can be done through protests, riots, or even campaigns.  

Collective action brings attention to a cause because of the sheer number of people involved in the process. That attention forces those in power to create changes. I believe the best way for people to come together is through protest. Protests are a great way to advocate because there is an audience present to witness what’s happening. It’s harder to ignore a protest than any other form of activism. 

Protests are disruptive: that’s the point. If a road is blocked due to a protest, it forces people to pay attention, rather than being able to look away. It’s much easier for someone to put their phone down than to get out of traffic. Workers going on strike press employers to change their actions because people coming together disrupts their plans to oppress and exploit. Social media campaigns don’t have the same effect when striving for change because advocating through these mediums has fewer consequences for most people involved with a cause. 

Michelle: I do think social media campaigns can sometimes turn into “slacktivism,” where people are sharing information and raising awareness about causes online — but doing little else in their lives to create change. It’s a huge issue when people are posting #SignalBoost and signing off, doing nothing else to promote their cause. However, social media activism does have some unique qualities, namely the speed of communication for time sensitive causes and allowing people to organize in spaces that are accessible to them, if in-person protests aren’t an option. 

Historically, some protests have created tangible change: Stonewall and even Vancouver’s “earliest pride protestwere very important to advancing 2SLGBTQIA+ rights. The fall of the Berlin Wall was an extraordinary example of the power of protest. However, not all protests have been entirely successful, and they tend to take continuous advocacy to advance their causes, which can be exhausting. The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 were some of the largest in history. Yet, a 2021 poll showed decreasing support for the cause. Black folks hired in direct response to these protests to “diversify” workplaces have been let go three years later. Police violence rates in America also remain at similar numbers compared to 2020. 

Protests can sometimes turn people away from causes because they dislike inconvenience — whether they are justified in thinking that is another issue, since inconvenience is often the point. However, I find that sometimes having a conversation with someone and answering their questions can change their opinion. The discomfort in approaching someone directly (when it’s safe to do so) tends to force us to sit with whether we’re OK letting something slip by, or if we’re willing to open a conversation around it. Of course, they have to be open to change, and educating folks is a very labourious process — but if that can change one person’s behaviour or attitude towards something, I think it’s worth it. 

Nushaiba: I think social media is a good starting point in one’s activism journey. It can be a place to share knowledge and communicate logistical plans. However, we must avoid “slacktivism” or performative activism, and not let social media be the only place we engage in activism. 

For any type of activism we engage in, our actions need to match our words. If we’re tweeting or sharing hashtags on Instagram, we have to make sure we are also supporting local businesses who may be affected by racism or gentrification. We have to make sure we’re voting for the people who are going to create the change we want to see. I don’t think there is any one way we can engage in activism. It has to be present in every aspect of our lives. Whatever platform we decide to engage in activism, the first place to start should be ourselves. I think on an individual level, we have to behave and lead our lives the way we want the world to be. 

I remember ranting about how important it is to me that wealth is redistributed in our society because capitalism allows the rich to get richer and the poor to stay poor. It is extremely important to me that I donate a percentage of my income to causes I feel strongly about. Seeing how passionate I was led my friends to do more research about wealth inequality and think more critically about their own socio-economic statuses. Recently, one friend called me excitedly to let me know they donated some money to a children’s hospital after saving money for months. The easiest way to engage in activism might be to lead by example. If we all behave intentionally and make a choice to support marginalized groups, it can have a ripple effect and create change. This might sound idealistic, but it is only a first step. 

Michelle: I love what you’re saying about change coming from within and leading by example. It’s so important, especially when particular movements are seen as “unimportant” or “too radical” to mainstream thought. If you’re going to talk about equity and diversity, for example, people need to have their actions match their words. And not only when it’s easy or convenient for them. Folks needed to take charge to start something — and eventually those things grow over time. Feminist movements, anti-racism movements, and labour movements have eventually created a huge impact, and those started from within.