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How to be politically active when things feel too broken to fix

We read the reports, we've liked and we've tweeted. Yet, the news has often felt too huge and overwhelming for us be heard. But don't give up. There are simple things everyone can do to make a difference, says Zoë Beaty

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By Zoë Beaty on

Recently, it feels like we've come to a turning point – a spaghetti junction of opinion and limited options on which way to go next. It might be tempting, at this point, to ignore it completely, bury our heads in another reality (or the back of a cosy pub) and hope that it ends soon. Or, we could try to unpick the tangles. Except, increasingly, not least as the power and influence of Donald Trump and his ever-harrowing cabinet grows – and with Brexit, and the repercussions of a widening political identity disparity in the UK, and an unprecedented global refugee crisis – it doesn’t feel like the former is much of an option any more.

But where do we start? Occasionally, just saying words like “poverty”, "homelessness", "refugee crisis", "rape culture" or "racism" feel sky-like – always there, all-encompassing, yet simultaneously too far away to touch. We read the reports, the surveys, the reactions, the likes and the comments sections; we see injustices happening in front of us on our own pages, or in our own space on the bus or the Tube, but we don't know what to do. It’s all too huge. Too overwhelming. What can we do?

Because, for what it's worth, we are trying. We feel like we're trying. We believe in justice and fairness – passionately so. We like to think we practise what we preach. And, this year, we’ve preached. Over Brexit, over the Labour Party leader election, over the US election, over dinner, in the pub and, my God, have we preached over the internet. Yet, we’re static, stuck in the same old merciless cycle. And we're exhausted. Now is the time for practice. 

The political disparity across the globe has left in its wake a feeling of self-consciousness, at least for me. More than ever, we’ve seen the inequality – in wealth, as poverty and the profits of the one per cent rise in unity; in gender and the undercurrent of misogyny that peaks and troughs, but never fully goes away; and in the racist undertones and overtones that divide society – in full view. How will it end? What have I done about it? What can I do? 

This week, Emily Ellsworth, who worked in US Congress for six years under President Obama, shed some light on that very quandary. In a series of tweets, she outlined, very plainly, what politicians listen to – and what can be ignored.

"Second," she continued, "writing a letter to the district office (state) is better than sending an email or writing a letter to DC.

"But, the most effective thing is to actually call them on the phone. At their district (state) office. They have to talk to you there.

"If you want to talk to your rep, show up at town hall meetings. Get a huge group that they can't ignore. Pack that place and ask questions."

It’s the idea that fuelled feminism throughout the suffrage movement – deeds, not words. Her advice was exactly what I needed – what, perhaps, if we're honest, what we all need: a reminder to turn up. Our big ideas and affecting opinions die in our own idleness if we let them. More than usual, I felt embarrassed by my own lack of participation – limited to irregular volunteering, fleeing involvement in grassroots movements, petitioning, the occasional march – on issues that I genuinely care about. Because it’s never felt so important as right now to really act. 

It is a monumentally tangled spaghetti web that we're in. But we can unpick it, one strand at a time. And to do that, we need to turn up

There's a tangible change that has to happen but, for it to gain traction, we have to redirect our energy. It is overwhelming. It is a monumentally tangled spaghetti web we're in. But we can all unpick it, one strand at a time. And, to make sure that happens, we need to do turn up and do one thing, even if it’s just a little thing and every once in a while. Here are a few ideas how.

1. Accept you have limited time. Pick one cause.

Don’t let that put you off from giving a little of it. Everyone is busy. Bob Dylan is too busy to collect a Nobel Prize. It can feel like a lot to take on but, once you set yourself a limit of what you realistically achieve, it won’t feel so overwhelming. Decide how much time you can give per week or per month to one issue. Don’t beat yourself up. Something is infinitely better than nothing. 

2. Join a grassroots campaign.

Campaign groups often fly just under the radar. Seek one out and go to the meetings. Groups like Repeal the 8th, campaigning for women’s abortion rights in Ireland and Northern Ireland, are holding monthly meetings to garner ideas and strategise how to attack – and make a real difference. See also: Sisters Uncut, Movement for Justice, Rape Crisis, Abortion Support Network

3. Ask how you can help a campaign.

Even if you have no time, there might be a skill you have – copywriting, design, spreadsheeting, listing, making pompoms – that you can offer. Or maybe you’ve got a connection that might. Lend support, add your voice.

4. Join in local politics.

Even if you can't turn up, write a letter to your MP. Phone him. Phone the council. Let them hear your voice, not just see your avatar. 

When you can, attend the branch meetings of your party and go to local council meetings. Arrive in numbers, raise the issue you want to change and stop off at the pub on the way home. You can find out when and where your local council meeting is here. Or, if you fancy really going for it, become a councillor yourself. Change it from the inside out. The next elections are in 2018 and the London Labour Party is holding a meeting for women to learn about becoming a councillor in their constituency on Saturday 26 November.

5. Talk to people about what you care about.

In person. Encourage them to turn up, too. Speak to people outside of your own social circles, who probably hold the same views as you, and do them the favour of listening back. Go to debates, discuss ideas. Don’t get mad – get stern. Leave your “social media echo-chamber” at home. Practise what you preach. Don't stop. 


Photo: Getty Images
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US election 2016

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