How To Become an Everyday Activist – Tips From 5 Women Driving Change in Their Communities

I was honored to lead a panel at this year’s Mom 2.0 Summit. My topic was “Activism as an Influencer – How To Be The Driver of Change in Your Community,” so I assembled five of the smartest, fiercest women I know who are driving change in our community and beyond.

Because there were so many amazing sessions to choose from at the same time as ours, (not to mention a literal room full of puppies!) we have put together some highlights for those who missed it, (and for those of you who made it but were too full of Dove lounge champagne to remember all the details.)

In order of the seating position in the photo above, we had:

  • Carrie Collier-Brown – Blue Action Democrats – Mobilizing volunteers to reach out to non-voting Democrats in Austin to increase voter turn out and engagement.
  • Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez – Jolt – Building the collective voice of 10.8 million Latinos in Texas to use their power to influence voting, education, economic and social justice.
  • Erika Nowlin – Austin Allies – Organizing community and charity events that children can do with their families, starting the habit of giving back at a young age.
  • Kristin Finan – Carrying Hope – Collects & distributes Hope Packs full of essential and comfort items to help children during their first 48 hours in foster care. Awesome recap video available here.
  • Meme Styles – Measure – Uses data to inform and educate about social inequities and build bridges in the community, such as through police reform training sessions.
  • Susanne Kerns (me) – Informed Parents of Austin – Advocates for LGBTQ students, families and staff and comprehensive/inclusive sex ed in Austin ISD.

First, a quick shout out to Amber Tamblyn for her keynote where she pointed out that once you become a mom, activism becomes more of a necessity than a choice.

We heard that sentiment echoed by many of the women on the panel: once you see the world through the lens of a mother, you want to make that world as good, just and safe as possible. In fact, that’s how all of the groups started: pissed off moms who wanted a better world for their kids. Or, in the words of panelist, Cristina Tzintzun, “I need to change the world…then I need to change a diaper.”

We used the pyramid of engagement from as a framework for our discussion. (They also have an amazing site dedicated to helping how to set up a grassroots movement including sample campaign plans and fundraising tips.)

What Is Your Current Level of Engagement & Where Do You Want To Be?

  • Awareness – Having basic knowledge of an issue. Ex: have read about it or seen news coverage about it.
  • Interest – Having a greater understanding of the cause and a desire to learn more. Ex: Following relevant social media accounts & signing up for a newsletter.
  • Participation – Willing to contribute time, financial or social capital to a cause. Ex: Attend a rally, call a legislator, share on social media or make a one-time donation.
  • Commitment – Fully invested in the mission & success of a cause. Ex: serve on an advisory board, donate regularly and/or becoming an influencer spokesperson.
  • Leadership – Serve as a decision maker, thought leader or leader in work. Ex: Lead training, meet with policymakers and/or organize a rally.

Your Goal Doesn’t Have to Be Reaching The Top Of The Pyramid.

An important note about the pyramid: It’s not like climbing a mountain where you have to pass through every level or that your end goal has to be reaching the summit. There’s a good chance you may decide to skip a few levels and head right to the top, or you may decide that somewhere in the middle is your comfort level and you simply want to become more effective and efficient at doing that.

The world needs people at EVERY level of this pyramid.

Carrie Collier-Brown, Susanne Kerns, Meme Styles & Erika Nowlin

What Is Your Why?

Some of us know exactly what cause we want to fight for and what change we want to make, for others it may not be as clear. There may be an issue that is impacting you or your family directly, there may be some “thing” that makes you think, “someone should really do something about that.” Or maybe our current political and social climate leads you to want to do ALL THE THINGS. What is calling to you? Which of your beliefs or values is feeling a *zing*?

A quick note of difference between your what and your why. The what of my Informed Parents of Austin group is that we advocate for LGBTQ students and families in Austin. The why of the group is that I believe to my core that every child should feel safe and seen in their lives, including at school.

Having a tangible goal can help others rally around your “what.” For example, Kristin Finan of Carrying Hope finds that giving people a specific task of putting together a Hope Pack and providing specific lists of what to include helps eliminate the ambiguity and “what can I do to help?” feeling of supporters.

Dig to the Core of Your Why to Make Sure Your What Avoids Mission Creep.

Like I mentioned above, my why of believing every child should feel safe and seen could encompass a lot of different groups of kids: immigrant kids, kids of color, kids with special needs, foster kids, homeless kids, etc.

Part of what drove me to single out LGBTQ kids is that there was an urgent and immediate need for someone to fill this void in advocacy in my kids’ school and in our neighborhood. I fell into the “someone should really help fix this” category, but because of time constraints around an anti-LGBTQ meeting that an opposing group has scheduled, I didn’t have time to wait around for someone to raise their hand. Also, due to the focus of the “anti” group in question, I needed to be very focused in defending the group they were coming out against: that was LGBTQ students. Decision made.

Panel member, Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez summed up the need to keep a tight focus for your mission by encouraging people to think about what their “realm of greatest impact” is. It’s this intersection of passion/your why and your collection of skills and access that can help you make the greatest impact for a given cause.

Susanne Kerns, Carrie Collier-Brown and Erika Nowlin

What is Your Privilege

For the most part, if you are in a position to advocate and help a cause, it’s because you have some position of privilege. Your privilege may be financial, racial, educational, schedule flexibility, personal connections, or even having an extrovert personality type that eases the process of asking for help and money.

How can you use your privilege to elevate and support those who don’t have it? For me, it’s using my straight privilege, which I didn’t even know was a thing until I started realizing how much more open cis-gender, straight suburban moms are to talking about trans-rights with me than with an actual trans-individual.

Be Careful How You Use Your Privilege

It’s a delicate balance of speaking up for a group you’re not technically a “member” of. The last thing you want to do is speak over the voices that you’re trying to elevate. You want to be a megaphone for their needs and voices.

Also, beware of serving your ego instead of serving the needs of the group you are trying to help. You are not a savior or a hero, you are an advocate. Your goal needs to be their goal.

Erika Nowlin from Austin Allies touched on how important it is to communicate this message to the kids who are often participating in community service projects which assist people who are homeless or having challenges affording basic goods and services. Whenever possible the focus is put on partnering with a group not going in to help a group.

Cristina Tzintzun of Jolt in Forbes

Don’t Worry About Making Mistakes

Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez’s group, Jolt, represents the Latino community. She noted that white volunteers and supporters are often concerned about whether they use the correct version of Latina/Latino/Laninx. Her personal view for herself and her group is that she does not expect perfection, simply progress. We’re all learning, and asking questions and making mistakes are the best ways to learn.

Meme Styles, (Founder of Measure,) echoed that sentiment. In fact, immediately after the panel she was heading down to lead a group to help educate and train police officers in Houston about the importance of police reform in terms of diffusing tensions and inequity in their communities. Since her group’s goal is to use data and education to bridge divisions, she appreciates advocates who are willing to listen, learn and make some mistakes along the way.

It’s important to share your acceptance of mistakes with your volunteers and board members. Carrie Collier-Brown’s Blue Action Democrat group helped give hundreds of women in Austin the tools and confidence to do something they had never done before: knock on the doors of complete strangers to talk about the election. The reason they felt comfortable doing this is because the entire organizational spirit was about taking chances and doing your best. Giving an eloquent speech was not the primary goal – reminding people to go vote was.

Still nervous? Start slow. I’m an introvert and not a huge fan of conflict. However, somehow I found myself at a Senate hearing last week debating with Senator Hall about a sex ed bill. The reason I felt prepared and capable of doing that is because two years ago I started making public comments at our district’s School Health Advisory Council group meetings. Then a year later I made the jump to giving public (televised!) testimony at school board meetings. Those baby steps over a couple of years have made all the difference.

Make Self Care a Priority

Advocacy is rewarding, energizing, connection-building and fulfilling. It can also be stressful, exhausting and take a toll on your health.

Meme Styles shocked us all by sharing that a couple years back she had a heart attack, which was likely caused by the stress on her body and mind from saying yes to everything and trying to do everything herself.

She has learned to delegate whenever possible and focus on her health. A perfect example was that since she was rushing from our panel in Austin all the way to Houston for her police training weekend, she had a friend in charge of driving her there so she didn’t have that extra stress during an already busy weekend.

Easy Ways for Influencers to Make a Difference

One of the easiest ways can make a difference is to simply ask the brands you partner with what they are doing to help make a social impact. If they are hearing from their partners that it’s important, they’re more likely to get involved or even build a campaign around a cause you support.

Tell your followers about your advocacy goals/work and ask them to share their goals too. Sometimes people just need a little reminder to help build their own momentum.

Easy (to Less Easy) Ways for Anyone to Make a Difference

  • Scroll up to the top of this post and click on the links to the groups started by the women on this panel. You can find their social media links there, sign up for newsletters, donate and learn about upcoming events.
  • Search for groups in your area that match your passion/privilege intersection and do all the same things listed above.
  • Be a social-media megaphone: Sure, we don’t want to limit our advocacy to just retweeting groups’ messages, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t retweet the groups’ messages! Tweet, Forward, Share, Like, Comment. Do all the social media things, and then do even more.
  • Show up: go to meetings, marches, community events, school board meetings, political rallies.
  • Know your power: When I show up to board meetings or legislators’ offices they always tell me how much it means to hear from every day citizens/parents. They hear from lobbyists and corporate representatives all day long. Your personal story goes a long way.
  • Call & Write: Have a representative or organization that is doing something amazing? Write them to say “thanks” so they’ll do more of it. Have a representative or organization that is doing something sucky? Write them to say “knock it off” so they’ll do less of it.
  • Donate: If groups don’t have a donate button on their website, shoot them and email and ask how you can contribute. Many groups have fun events where you can show your support. Kristin Finan’s Carrying Hope has had great success raising funds through their annual “Fostering Love Gala.” If a group doesn’t take donations, ask if there’s another organization that they would recommend. (For example, Informed Parents of Austin does not take donations, but will happily forward people to HRC Austin, Texas Freedom Network, Equality Texas, GLSEN, Planned Parenthood of Texas, and Transgender Education Network of Texas.)
  • Become a board member: Reach out to the contact link on the website and ask about requirements to join the board. Be sure to share what skill set you bring to the table, (doesn’t have to be a resume, but if you’re great at webdesign or fundraising, definitely bring that up.) Meme is currently looking for board members at Measure – contact her if interested.
  • No group currently exists? Or perhaps, like Carrie Collier Brown’s “Blue Action Democrats,” other groups do exist, but you want to take a different approach. We all started our own groups from scratch. If we can do it, so can you. The easiest first step, a Facebook group/Facebook Page. The “pretty easy” next step, build a website. Be sure to collect email addresses (check out MailChimp or other mail services for professional looking newsletters and outreach.) Reach out to smart, like-minded friends to start your board/executive team and reach out to the panel if you have specific questions that apply to their area of expertise.
Kristin Finan of Carrying Hope

I’m going to wrap up with some inspirational advice from Kristin Finan of Carrying Hope: In terms of advocacy, to me the key is to have confidence in your ability to make an impact, even if you start small. At Carrying Hope, we are a completely grassroots organization. Each Hope Pack — backpack filled with comfort items and essentials for children entering foster care — we receive directly impacts the life of a child who has undergone heartbreaking trauma. We could not fulfill our mission without each and every donation. If you let yourself, you, and your actions, can be the change.

Thank you to all of you who spent time at our session and who are working to spend time being the change in your community. Also, big thanks to Mom 2.0 Summit for giving us the platform to have this discussion.

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