When news breaks about troubling injustices, oppressive shifts in government, or court rulings that seem unthinkable, it’s normal to feel extremely angry. Anger, like no other emotion, can move us toward action. That can be a powerful thing, but when we act impulsively or without informing ourselves, we can actually undermine the work of activists. For many, activism is a healthy way to process anger into work that actually helps to dismantle the roots of the problem, but figuring out how to help can be a challenge.
To help us navigate these stormy waters, I made a flow chart showing the steps to transforming anger into sustainable activism that effectively demands change.
Why How we Advocate Matters
Too often, our efforts at activism are short, intense bursts that do more to make us feel better than they do to forward the cause we care about. For already marginalized groups, this has the potential to do more harm than good- making our activism part of the problem.
Protests or marches thrown together overnight often muffle – rather than build on – the work of established activists who have been working on the cause for weeks, months, or even years.
If we fail to check in with existing activists and activist groups, our “political action” may do little more than provide an outlet for us to cope with our anger. At worst, it can disrupt the momentum of activists’ ongoing work.
Real change demands more from us than this. It’s okay if you don’t have the social or emotional energy to stay invested in activism 12 months out of the year. Engaging with organized activist groups makes it possible to tag in and out and still be a part of sustained activism.
I created this flowchart for sustainable social justice and environmental action work as a way to communicate this idea.
A Guide to this Flowchart for Sustainable Activism
The flowchart goes like this:
Activism Begins with Outrage & A Safety Check:
Sometimes, we experience outrage in response to a court decision, news article, or political event. It’s normal and healthy to feel incredibly angry when events occur that we believe harm us or people we care about.
When we feel this kind of outrage, it’s essential to stop and check in with ourselves.
Are we safe?
Are others safe?
In some cases (for example, if you are an undocumented immigrant and news has just come out affecting your safety), moving your outrage into social or political action may not be safe. Instead, this is the time to let activists help you. If you aren’t safe, connect with resources. Reach out to activist groups to find out ways to find shelter, support, and other resources.
Think Before Acting
If you are safe from imminent harm, pause and consider if you are ready to act. Before jumping into social activism, it’s essential that we understand the core issue and the underlying issues around it.
We must understand an issue to avoid jumping to conclusions and advocating for the wrong thing. Checking trustworthy sources and cross-checking with sources outside our typical media bubble can be a good way to ensure that we don’t prematurely jump to conclusions.
If you want to move your outrage into action but know that you need to be more informed about an issue, consider connecting with an activist organization. While you are getting up to speed on the issue and its complexities, you can support them as they support people harmed by the event, policy, or political issue.
Connect with Existing Resources
If you are safe, ready to act, and well-informed about an issue, you are well on your way to being prepared to step into active action to move your outrage into activism. But there’s no use reinventing the wheel. Whatever you are passionate about or have become recently impassioned about, there is probably an organization in your region. Organized, long-term focused activist groups are filled with knowledgeable, experienced activists. They often have research-backed strategies ready to implement as soon as they have the support, volunteer hours, and/or funding.
Before planning a march, creating an event or rally, or staging a protest, talk with local organizers. Effective, sustainable activism requires that we connect with each other and allow the efforts of one to be supplemented by another.
Reconsider that Grand Gesture
Sometimes, even when we are safe, ready to act, well-informed, and connected with local activist organizations, the grand gesture our anger makes us want to take may not be the best course of action.
Sometimes, things we feel like we “must” do are more about what’s going on for us internally than they are for the cause. This is often true when it comes to reactive activism.
Self-Examine for Motives Prompting the Need to Act
For meaningful change to occur, it’s important that we grow self-awareness and choose to be mindful of our motives as we engage in social justice-oriented activities.
🚩 Feeling like we need to plan a march or stage a protest immediately because we didn’t get an instant call back from that swamped local organizer might be less about the cause and more about our need to cope with our discomfort. Additionally, sometimes reactive activism may be rooted in our need for an identity others see as associated with social justice. For a small percentage of people, this type of activism may even be a type of attention-seeking behavior as they hope to be noticed for their actions on social media.
Local activists can help us learn what the appropriate course of action is. Although anger and outrage often move us towards activism, we should be mindful not to engage in activism for the sake of soothing our anger.
Don’t ask activism to soothe your own discomfort. Lean in. Instead of trying to get rid of the discomfort of anger through reactive activism, let yourself be uncomfortable. Let that discomfort fuel long-term activism.
Find ways to meaningfully engage with activist communities over longer periods of time. Many organizations are swamped with volunteers in the days and weeks after a significant news cycle but may need more volunteers to survive a few months down the road. Channel your outrage into small doses of sustainable activism – lending time, money, or your skills to the cause in the weeks, months, and years to come.
Anger, like no other emotion, has the power to move us toward action. That can be a powerful thing, but when we act impulsively or without informing ourselves, we can actually undermine the work of activists.
If you are feeling angry today, give your body permission to move in anger, but pause to reflect on where you are in the process, the appropriate next steps, and how you can connect with activists already doing the work.
Anger at governments, social systems, or political powers can be difficult to handle. Unlike anger with a specific person, outrage at social injustice or political inequality can be more complex to navigate.
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Detailed Image Description for Screen Readers
This illustration is on a light purple background. The title is at the top center and reads, “How two be outraged: A flowchart.” Below this is a flowchart.
The top of the flowchart is a yellow box that reads, “I am outraged!”
The first question on the flowchart asks, “Are you safe from imminent harm?”
If yes, “Are you ready to act?”
If yes again, “Are you well-informed?”
If still yes, “Have you connected with people and groups organized to respond?”
If yes, “Would a grand gesture be helpful, sustainable, and appropriate?”
If yes, “Do the thing!”
If no, then learn from activists what small, sustainable actions can help.
If you answer “No” to “Are you ready to act?” Then support an activist or affected person.
If you answer “Uh… no” to “Are you well-informed?” Then get up to speed before taking action.
If you answer “No” to “Have you connected with people and groups organized to respond?” Then don’t reinvent the wheel or split focus – connect with other activists.
If you answer “No” to the initial question of “Are you safe from imminent harm?” then let others help you with resources, shelter, or support.