First steps and leap years:

There are many ways to start making progressive change in your community

Happy (almost) February 29th! You’ve just been given the gift of an extra 24 hours worth of time. (We know. It’s probably the best gift you’ve been given this year—although given the way 2020 has been playing out, that might not be saying a lot.) 

Not everyone is comfortable leading a march, or organizing a protest (though anyone who’s hosted a birthday party probably has more experience in this area than they realize!). But the most effective and inclusive movements rely on different kinds of meaningful contributions that allow people to join in where and how it makes sense, to grow their experience and their familiarity with making change on a larger and potentially more public scale. 

So what can you do? Well, that largely depends on what skills and resources you are able to lend to the cause.

Here are a few examples of the types of contributions you can offer:

Once you've figured out what your preferred type of contribution is, the next step to finding an activity that you will feel fired up about. Here are a few suggestions.

In a world that’s increasingly impersonal and automated, seeking out casual daily human interaction can be revolutionary. If possible, take public transportation, or avoid self-checkout and bank machines and make a point of having a quick conversation with the people behind the counter or in line with you. It’s much more difficult to dismiss the lived experiences of someone you’ve spoken to—this is particularly important during job actions or budget cuts which often see these people and the work they do marginalized or undermined. Sustained collective actions are fuelled by the stories and experiences of real human beings—not a catchy slogan.

Have a face-to-face conversation with someone (or a small group of “someones”) about an issue you care about. Consider, for example, the climate tea party that Ann co-hosted with her friend Andrea last summer: an event which involved four simple-yet-powerful ingredients: great people, great tea, great food, and great games. (Yes, Andrea came up with a cool climate change game that involved having Ann play the part of a climate villain.) Maybe you could come up with something fun and unexpected, too?

Make connections. Check out what’s happening at your local library or community centre or after a school council meeting. Look for other ways to connect with other human beings and to contribute to the life of your community. Find your people. They might be closer than you realize, and more of them than you think.

Ann will never in a million years volunteer to be treasurer for any organization, but she will happily write a blog post or do something similar because that’s something that comes naturally to her and that she actually enjoys as opposed to dreading. Can you use your skills, or your circle of friends, to amplify a message, to highlight someone doing excellent (perhaps under-appreciated) work, or to provide a new platform of support to a cause or campaign you may be less familiar with, but deserves attention and support? 

Write a letter to a politician—or a whole bunch of politicians—making the case for a policy change you support. We’re thinking of a recent letter that a group of citizens wrote to Marc Garneau after meeting with him to express their dissatisfaction with the Liberal government’s abandoned promise re: electoral reform. An action that like that can make a big difference.

Send a thank you note to a decision-maker, community leader, or politician. (Hey, maybe writing grumpy letters isn’t your style. If so, this option is for you.) Express appreciation for an act of political courage or their commitment to going above and beyond the call of duty in some way. Better yet, turn it into an open letter. Post it on your website. Send a copy to the local newspaper. Create a video of yourself reading it on social media. Sprinkle the seeds of appreciation far and wide—identify people on Twitter or Instagram whose work you appreciate (e.g. Chloé Germain-Thérien's incredible guide to understanding the #wetsuwetenstrong solidarity blockades happening across Canada, for example) and give them a public shout-out. Who knows what other changes you can spark—in yourself, or others—and how your circle of support (and friends!) may grow? 

Recognize the limitations of online conversations and social media sites. Facebook is a great way to get the word out about an event, to sign a petition and even to build contact lists—but ensuring people understand how an unfamiliar issue impacts them and their loved ones requires conversations, relationship-building, and information sharing. That’s the foundation of long-term momentum. 

Identify areas of your life where you have something in abundance (which could mean anything from too many cans of canned tomatoes or too much time alone). Then look for a way to reinvest that abundance in a way that will make someone else’s life better. Not everyone can make a financial donation (legacy giving or stock options, for example)—though financial resources are in too-short supply in the NGO world—but there’s more to movement-building and community support than money. Donate those extra cans of canned tomatoes to your local food bank. 

Take a lesson from libraries—or tool libraries, or household equipment libraries: consider setting up an “activist library” in your community to support local NGOs or grassroots campaigns—even job actions—by sharing experience, knowledge, campaign tips, or time. Can you loan your banner-making skills? Stuff envelopes? Do you have unused art supplies? What about making meals for door-knockers and leaflet distributors, or offering copywriting or editing skills? Do you have a button-making machine you can drop off in preparation for a rally at City Hall? 

Look for ways to expand the conversation beyond the same group of faces. Meeting after meeting with the same well-meaning and dedicated crew of the usual suspects is not just repetitive: it’s unrepresentative, and it’s a virtual guarantee that any progress we might make or changes we might successfully advocate for will be at the expense of others who are already unheard. Are you in a position to use your extra time to broaden the “community” we work with? Can you use your time, and your skills, to ensure more voices are heard, and that decisions are more reflective of the needs of the entire population? 

Sometimes people are missing from these conversations for very basic reasons. Precarious employment and debt, including student debt, can be a huge barrier to civic engagement and participation. Public transportation is not always as convenient as we may like to think. If child care is not provided (even at school council meetings, for example) can it be prioritized? What about setting up a child care/babysitting bank (or even “solidarity camps” during job actions) to support parents who find it difficult to attend school board or school council meetings or other political activities? This would ensure attendance reflects broad community representation and, in addition, draw attention to the societal need for affordable, accessible, universal child care. 

Some obstacles to inclusion and representation are much more physically systemic. Consider doing an accessibility audit of your neighbourhood (or your downtown if you’re feeling that ambitious), and reexamine your assumptions of who has full access to public spaces. A minor inconvenience for one person may bring another to a complete halt—and may make it less likely their voice will be heard in the very decisions that impact them the most. 

Give yourself time off for good behaviour. The revolution won’t be sparked in a day, so you need to pace yourself. We need you to safeguard the precious resource that is you! There was a point to the old socialist adage: eight hours' labour, eight hours' recreation, eight hours' rest. We all need time to relax, to reflect, and to recharge. Read a book you’ve been meaning to: Until We Are Free: Reflections on Black Lives Matter in Canada is on Erika’s agenda for March Break. 

Listen to an inspiring progressive podcast while you chop veggies, clean your bathroom, fold laundry, or otherwise go about the business of daily living. It’s called temptation bundling. You reward yourself for doing a less-than-inspiring task by “bundling” that task with something you love: listening to a podcast that moves you to action. We love Sandy & Nora, The Intercept, Bad and Bitchy, VoicEd, CCPA's Talking Points (of course!)...but follow us on Twitter to see some of our other favourites (far too many to list here!).

Create a piece of political art. It’s great therapy! And it doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive or time-consuming. It could be as simple as handwriting a quote and sharing it on social media or knitting, sewing, or painting something that expresses your progressive political vibe. Consider doing this collectively with old friends or new ones—like an updated version of a quilting bee—to unwind and engage on an entirely different level. We frequently forget to nourish this part of ourselves, perhaps because it’s seen as frivolous, but it’s often a way to engage our political goals and priorities more fully and in a more holistic way.  

The journey of a thousand miles...

The first step is often to challenge yourself to challenge assumptions of what’s possible, or to push back against the limits we often put on the progress we’re capable of making. It’s easy to buy into narratives like, “This is the way it’s always been” or “That could never happen.” Turn that thinking on its head by asking, “Says who?” and “Why not?” Or “Wanna watch me?” Enlist friends in this task. Make new ones. 

Practice two-way mentorship. Listen (and yes, this can itself be a challenge). Ask “how can I help”?  Be patient with others, who may not have the time or the comfort level to engage in activities you consider a priority; be patient with yourself, when you need to take a moment to rejuvenate or to learn something new. Seek out opportunities to learn, to ask “what don’t I know?”, to do the work required to better understand, and to get out of comfort zones.

Remember: progress can be slow. There can be setbacks. But the community we build celebrates our victories and supports us during moments of disappointment. The creativity we nurture helps us reconfigure “mistakes” as learning opportunities—which can be as valuable as victories. The communication we practice ensures that we are always learning from each other—from past wins, and from omissions we must avoid in order to be truly inclusive. And the capacity we build will contribute to a foundation of trust, allowing us to recognize and make use of the resources we collectively represent. 

Time is valuable...and transformative. Let’s use our skills, enthusiasm, experience, and compassion and do what we can to make the most of it—for ourselves, and each other. 

Ann Douglas is the weekend parenting columnist for CBC Radio, creator of The Mother of All Books series and author of Parenting Through the Storm. Her most recent book, Happy Parents, Happy Kids, was published by HarperCollins Canada in February 2019. Find her latest work on her website and follow her on Twitter at @anndouglas for updates.

Erika Shaker is Director of the CCPA National Office and Editor of Our Schools / Our Selves. Find her on Twitter at @ErikaShaker