A recent Atlantic article argued that Donald Trump’s election has been a really good thing for U.S. civic engagement, which has been on a steep decline for decades. For too long, too many of us were content to stay home and binge the latest Netflix show instead of getting out there and interacting with our communities.
“Americans today are rushing to make up for decades of atrophy and neglect in civic education and engagement,” contributor Eric Liu wrote. Which is great! But if you’re new to this whole improving-my-community thing, or just trying to figure out what to take on first, it’s not easy.
That’s why I (the celebrated Umbra Fisk, Grist’s green-living advice columnist) have created a 21-Day Apathy Detox, filled with practical advice and encouragement from experts and activists. I’m here to get you out the door and making a difference — the right way.
No doubt you want to dismantle the patriarchy, end racism, and take down the fossil fuel industry — but where to start? You’re probably wondering: Which charities deserve a share of your hard-earned money? How can you make your elected officials listen? Which forms of protest have the best chance of getting something done?
With so much to ponder, it can sometimes be a struggle just getting off the couch.
So I asked Danielle Jackson, a Seattle community activist, how to get going. She answered very simply: “We can’t do everything. You can be so involved in so many different things that really nothing’s getting done.” Here, then, is some expert advice for making your time and money go the farthest.
1. Figure out what, exactly, is eating up all your time and keeping you from the things you want to do. Are you whittling away weekend afternoons on Facebook? Find yourself binge-watching Gilmore Girls reruns on Tuesday evenings? Keep a log of your activities for one week. Then, give it a good, long, honest look, and figure out what constitutes necessary down time to heal and rejuvenate (hey, we all need it in moderation) and what you could use for more productive means.
2. Make a list of what gets you fired up. What issues make you yell into your scarf when you read the news? Do some soul-searching — and rage-tracking — and keep a list of the causes that really matter to you. Then, choose just one issue to commit to — for now! If you take on too much, you’ll burn out down the road, Jackson advises. And do note: We’ve got some more exciting, civic-minded activities in store for you this month, so be sure to leave ample time for those.
3. Do your research. Once you’ve found your broader cause, get as specific and local with it as you can. Worked up about Dakota Access Pipeline and indigenous rights? Concentrate on getting one local institution to divest its funds from the pipeline company. Freaked out over Betsy Devos as Education Secretary? Heck — consider running for a position on your community’s school board!
Once you’ve settled on an idea, read up on similar efforts that were successful in other communities. If you can, get in contact with someone who has done it before and ask them for advice.
4. Get your hands on a planner. Jackson swears by Google Calendar, her “lifesaver.” But a good old-fashioned pen-and-paper planner works just as well — and as a bonus, it keeps you free of the internet’s time-sucking labyrinth and makes you feel like you have your act together.
5. Find some events to attend. If you know of a local group related to your cause, call them up — or just follow their Facebook page or Twitter account — and ask how to get involved.
Invite a friend to each activity that interests you. That way, you’ll be accountable to someone for attending and have more fun while you’re at it.
Mark down events and volunteer opportunities that you’re interested in on your planner for the next three months. (You thought this Umbra detox thing was only going to last 21 days? No such luck!)
6. Budget your money. No extra time? Money doesn’t solve everything, but it sure does a lot. Charitable giving is the fastest way for people to make the biggest impact, according to Bill Stanczykiewicz, director of fundraising at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
Take a look at your latest bank statements to see where your money is going. If you’re low on cash, you may be able to make a simple change: For example, instead of ordering Pad Thai this month, donate $15 to a cause of your choice instead.
7. Get excited! Just think: If we all took the time we spent staring mindlessly at our Instagram feeds and used that to do basically anything else instead, we’d be living in a much prettier world — one definitely more worthy of Instagramming.
Now that you’re off the couch (right?) and have a hot new planner, half the battle’s over — and it’s just Day One!