Every election season there seems to be a message around every corner, from celebrities on social media to the local canvasser knocking on your door, urging you to vote, telling you it’s the only way we can influence change in our government.
While voting is an essential civic duty of all citizens of a healthy democracy, especially during this turbulent time in our nation, it isn’t the only way to bring about changes in at a local or national level.
There are many reasons to seek influence and action outside of the polling boxes. During a time like the present, when the rights of many are being threatened, voting might just not feel like enough, and some may not have the ability to vote.
Either way, there are many routes one can take to influence the government outside of the realm of electoral politics, including social activism, calling and writing letters to legislators, attending meetings and hearings, forming political organizations and volunteering for political parties or candidates.
Time and time again, I’ve heard people dismiss the value of social activism in the form of protests, claiming that it doesn’t get anything done and that the participants are merely “whining,” instead of taking real action.
Naysayers be damned because protesting is in fact a valid way to make your voice heard when you see injustices occurring or feel frustrated with the actions of your elected officials. At the very least, protesting is a way to start necessary debates. More often than not, they also receive media coverage, which sends a message to your officials that the people they are serving are beginning to rise up, which is something that no politician ever wants.
Professor Jose Luis Serrano Najera, who teaches a class called “History of Social Activism” at Long Beach State, points out that historical evidence supports the theory that social activism has the power to make a difference.
“By October of 1964, after the many sit ins, marches, voter registration drives and boycotts of the Civil Rights Movement, Gallup polls indicated that nearly 58 percent of all Americans approved of the Civil Rights Act that had just been signed into law in July of that year,” Najera said.
Najera said the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of 1965 showed a “tremendously influential shift in national discourse to focus on civil rights in a short amount of time inspired by the actions of social activism, which eventually led to meaningful legislation.”
Another option is to voice your discontent by calling your legislators. After all, their job is to serve the public. If you don’t agree with a certain bill that is being proposed, call your senators and urge them to vote against the proposed legislation.
But before you call, make sure you have a couple of things down. Tell them you are a constituent because senators are usually most interested in people they can wrangle a vote from. You should do the research behind the topic you want to speak about and be able to provide reasons why they should vote one way or another.
When faced with all the gut-wrenching national issues that our country always seems to be facing, it’s easy to forget about our problems here at home. Your local community needs you just as much as your country does and it’s a lot easier to affect change locally.
There are a lot of local meetings that happen throughout the week that are open to the public and are usually posted online afterward. These can range from town hall to city council to school board meetings, depending on where your interests lies.
Unlike national politicians, local ones are typically very accessible. If there is an issue in your community that you are passionate about, it’s likely that you’ll be able to speak about it face-to-face with local legislators, which is much more likely to leave an impression. These local meetings essentially serve as public forums for the community and are often forgotten in the shit storm of national politics.
That brings us to the next method for getting involved in politics: forming political organizations. There is nothing more likely to enact change than a group of fervid citizens coming together. There are so many impactful social movements that sprout from just a few ambitious people coming together.
Professor Najera pointed out recent events that prove the effectiveness of grassroots political coalitions.
“Immigrant rights activists, who protested outside various Obama campaign offices in 2012 did eventually push [him] to enact Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) through Executive Order,” Najera said. “Also, since 2013, Black Lives Matter activists influenced national discourse in regards to police brutality and the disproportionately high incarceration rates of African Americans.”
Volunteer your time to causes and people that matter to you. While voting does matter, it’s only effective when people actually get out there and do it. If you feel passionately about a certain candidate or proposed bill, you can volunteer for their campaigns. Many worthy candidates and causes do not receive the attention they deserve due to a lack of resources and manpower.
So, if you really care about something, take the time to get the word out about it. Persuade your community to care as much as you do and you can play a role in changing the face of your government.
At the end of the day, in order for change to occur, we need these forces to combine. We need people to vote just as much as we need them to speak up, organize, mobilize, volunteer and protest. Change begins with you, so don’t stand by idly and wait for it to happen.
“In short, what I’m trying to say here is that there is no one magical way that is better than any others in influencing policy and government,” Najera said. “Instead, the majority of people, the ones we now refer to as the 99 percent, should get involved in whatever ways they can, as part of a broader unified strategy to bring about social change.”