Today, I will be joining hundreds of other human rights leaders for an annual day of lobbying, demonstrations, and activism in front of the Chinese, Sudanese, and Sri Lankan Consulates in New York for the Annual Get on the Bus Event sponsored by Amnesty International Group 133 from Boston. The event encourages these various government leaders to respect human rights and urges them to release prisoners of conscience and improve freedom of expression.
For many students and professionals, this event is a great way to get their voices heard by political leaders and consular staff. And for me, it’s a special day that marks nearly 12 years of being devoted to human rights and global justice around the world.
This event also marks the time of year when students are thinking about summer internships and projects and wanting to do something that will both boost their resumes and have an impact on the world. My inbox gets filled with messages asking, “How do I get involved with public health in developing countries?" or, "Where can I start to help advocate for children’s rights or gender issues?” I try to respond to each email with detailed advice, tailored to the person and cause, but there are some similar themes and action items that I share with everyone.
Whether you’re just beginning to learn about a particular issue or you’re an expert in your field, here are five ways you can get involved with a cause you care about.
1. Organize It
Whether it’s through your school, workplace, alumni association, or community, start a group or hold an event of some kind. You can create a chapter of an existing organization (like Amnesty USA or STAND), or start an issue-based group of your own on anything from women’s rights to AIDS awareness to anti-trafficking. Groups can create a space to learn about and discuss the issues or even take action, depending on their focus. Usually university budgets can cover some seed money to start, or you can ask members to pay some dues each month.
If you want to start small, gather some colleagues and plan occasional happy hours, charity 5Ks, or other events for a cause. My friend and well-known activist Aquib Yacoob has organized many events around getting the Arms Trade Treaty passed—everything from an awareness event in Times Square to speaking at the United Nations General Assembly. While he and many other activists and world leaders championed for this issue, he was a well-known youth voice in the movement. (Just this week, the Arms Trade Treaty passed, revealing that his organizing really did make an impact.)
2. Put the Fun Back in the Fundraiser
Another option is raising funds and donating them to the organization or cause you care about. My friend Shin Fujiyama runs an organization called Students Helping Honduras, a part of the Central American Children’s Institute, which brings 1,000 volunteers to the country every year with the goal of building 1,000 schools. He has raised a lot of money for his organization, both by organizing events and quite literally knocking on doors and asking for money to build an orphanage. Another colleague decided he would train and run the Paris Marathon to raise $5,000 dollars for Amnesty International and used the funding site Crowdrise to promote his cause.
But you don’t have to be raking in thousands to donate to a cause—every little bit helps and you can start small. When I started out fundraising for human rights issues, there weren’t sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo out there. We had to organize bake sales, tea houses, and talent competitions to get attention and money, and these options definitely still work.
3. Make Media
No matter what field you’re in, you should learn how to write an op-ed and a press release. This type of writing is not only marketable for your resume, but it can help you get your message out there to the world.
Writing editorials and trying to get them published is a fantastic way to share your story or opinion, provide fresh perspectives on the issues you care about, or advocate for change of the status quo or current policy. The Op-Ed Project has great resources to help you craft a compelling op-ed, as well as contacts at national publications to help you get it published. You can also try writing an article as a freelancer, guest posting for blogs you follow, or submitting an article to a scholarly journal or major publication.
And, if you have an event or just want to raise awareness about your issue, that’s where a press release or media advisory comes in. A press release is generally used to inform the media of an issue or unique story, while a media advisory usually highlights that an event is happening and you want a reporter there.
4. Learn to Lobby
Lobbying isn’t just about showing up about at political meetings, it’s about doing anything you can to ensure political leaders are well informed about your issue and encouraging them to take action. Your lobbying efforts can be anything from writing letters and making phone calls to sitting down with legislative aides and pitching your stand and a plan of action. Most congressional staffers are willing to meet with constituents who are representing a group or coming with a delegation, but they are also often willing to meet with individuals who want to advocate for a cause.
Make sure your identify yourself as a constituent, and be brief and respectful during your meeting. It’s really important that you know what position your elected official holds on a certain policy or issue and are familiar with the legislation surrounding it. Make sure the information you're bringing to the table is accurate and up-to-date.
5. Identify Your Skills, Then Get Out There
I’ve said it before, but there is no better way to get involved with a cause than by gaining first-hand experience in the field. Identify your skills—whether you’re bilingual, you have some teaching experience, or you’re skilled at communications and marketing—and volunteer them for an organization you care about. More importantly, use it as an opportunity to learn more about the issue and advocate for it.
For example, a colleague of mine went to the Philippines as a Fulbright Scholar and used her skills in production and reporting to produce a news story on youth caught in the adult justice system. The piece was seen around the country and by government officials who encouraged prison reform for young inmates. A few other colleagues worked with indigenous American women to learn about traditional crafts and cooking and later were able to speak out about the conditions indigenous Americans face on reservations.
When you are in the field, you’ll learn more about the issues you care about than you can even imagine. You might also find that an issue is more complex than it seems or that people on the ground expect very different policy outcomes than you do. But no matter what, the experience you will gain getting out there is unsurpassed.
So this spring, if you find yourself ready to champion for a cause—make it happen. Turn these simple tips into powerful tools for change!