Last week I gave a talk to a student-taught class at UC Berkeley studying the Central Valley and planning a service-learning trip there for their spring break. I was excited to speak with them not just because of the content matter but also because their class is run through the Democratic Education at Cal program (DeCal). I taught several DeCal classes when I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley and fell in love with college teaching, which directly led to me being in a PhD program now.
I remember being frustrated as an undergrad that so much of my education was focused on learning about social problems and so little was focused on learning how to fix them. Knowing that I was addressing an action-oriented class, I tried to plan my talk last week accordingly. Still, the shoe was on the other foot when I gave my own somewhat tongue-tied response to the inevitable “What can we do about it?” question at the end of my talk. I did a little better than the generic “get involved” or “call your senator” response, but not by much. Here’s what I wish I had said instead:
Connect with organizations already working to solve the problem. You can’t solve complex social problems single-handedly. Working in groups is almost always a better way to go, especially when you are new to a particular issue. Find out what work is already being done before trying to launch your own campaign or project.
- “Like” movement organizations on facebook so you can stay current on their issues and events, and respond to calls for support. Here are a few Central Valley organizations that I follow this way: Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, Community Water Center, Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, Californians for Pesticide Reform, Central Valley Air Quality Coalition
- Sign up for organizational list-serves. See here for a list of environmental justice organizations active in the Central Valley
- Intern, volunteer or donate money to organizations whose work you admire
- Ask issue leaders what students can do, and get a group of friends together to do it. For example, get people to sponsor your group in the upcoming Walk for Environmental Justice on May 1st in Golden Gate Park.
- Come up with a list of skills that you have and projects you could see yourself doing, and ask movement organizations whether they have any need of these skills and projects.
Learn how the political process works. I attended the Labor Summer program at UC Berkeley, which any UC student can apply to. I’ve also heard good things about the Movement Activist Apprenticeship Program (for people of color) and the Women’s Policy Institute (for women already actively engaged in social change work).
Plan for the long haul. Social change doesn’t happen quickly, so find ways to sustain your engagement throughout your life. This might mean training yourself for a career that makes a difference in the issues you care about. It might mean finding a meaningful volunteer opportunity that you can do regularly with friends. It might mean researching and making artsy voter guides for elections with friends. It definitely means making the work as much fun as possible!
Keep the faith. I think of working for a better future in ways that I imagine religious people think about God. Sometimes you can’t prove that your work makes a difference, but it is important to keep doing it anyway.