Nobel peace prize winner and Guatemalan activist Rigoberta Menchú Tum wrote:
"There will be no Peace if there is no Justice.
There will be no Justice if there is no Equity.
There will be no Equity if there is no Progress.
There will be no Progress if there is no Democracy.
There will be no Democracy if there is no Respect
For the Identity and Dignity of the Peoples and Cultures."
You have probably picked up this activist guide because something is already stirring within you, calling you to work for peace and justice in the world. You will find that this work is more like a marathon than a sprint. It will ask you to not only become an agent of change, but to be an embodiment of the change for which you hope.
Self-assessment is an essential first step in the development of the personal qualities you'd like to see in the world. That's why this guide abounds with reflection questions. Take time to give them your undivided consideration, and you will be sure to notice a deepening of the active work in which you are — or wish to be — engaged.
And now, before you read further, take a deep breath. Notice your very life as a gift in and of itself, nothing more and nothing less. Extend gratitude for this life you have been granted. May it be lived so that all will know their value and worth. Let us practice peace. Let us practice justice. Let us practice democracy. Let us practice together.
1. Understanding Democratic Virtues and Values
A strong understanding of the foundations of democracy provides a basis for creative and innovative social engagement. Here are four ways to explore underlying democratic principles:
- Read this description of the issues facing America's democracy by Mark Nepo from Deepening the American Dream. What stands out to you? Consider how our notion of service to others can be expanded — and challenged by — the questions Nepo raises and the vision he presents.
- Check out this chart of Democratic Values, Virtues, and Spiritual Practices that contribute to vibrant democracy in the United States.
- Which are you drawn to work on?
- Which are challenging to you?
- Which of the values, virtues, and spiritual practices apply to the issues you are most interested in?
- Use this Language of Democracy feature — which considers more than 1,100 quotations — to help develop your own vocabulary of democracy. Try defining in your own words key democratic values such as: common good, interdependence, liberty, equality, justice for all, rule of law, patriotism, and popular sovereignty.
- Watch these four key videos on democracy and discuss the content with a friend:
Gregory C. Ellison II on Radical Hospitality
Diane Randall on Practicing Democracy
Uvinie Lubecki on Hope for America
Lisa Sharon Harper on Stewardship and Democracy
2. Understanding the Issue(s)
“If you wish to know what justice is, let injustice pursue you.”
— Eugenio Maria de Hostas, Puerto Rican educator
“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
— Frederick Buechner, Protestant minister and writer
No matter what draws you to respond to a particular injustice or to "the world's deep hunger," the issues that you wish to engage surely have multiple layers and dimensions. The questions in this section will help you to develop more clarity about your personal connection with the issues and your intentions for your work.
- What is just about your neighborhood? city? region?
- What is unjust about these same places?
- In these places, who is entitled, oppressed, marginalized, dominant, impoverished, ostracized, imprisoned, divided, alone?
- Identify people and/or people-groups for each of the descriptive words above.
- Think through these questions and write notes on each:
Are people living on the streets? Are people living in poverty? How are the schools? Are educational gaps prevalent between schools? Between social groups? Is one group scoring higher than others? How are race relations? Are there safe places for kids to play? Is there easy access to healthy food options? How is the air quality? How is the political climate in these places? What is the employment rate? What is the state of the local government? How active are religious congregations? Are people with disabilities included in the social rhythms of these places? How is access to health care? Choose one issue that stands out the most to you and write it in your journal or in a place where you will see it often.
Dive deeper into the issue with these questions:
- Whom does this issue affect?
- Where is this issue most prevalent? Are there pockets within your city? Are there specific places?
- When did it become an issue? What is the history? What is the evolution?
- Who is working to bring justice to this issue?
- Who is making this issue worse?
- Who is doing nothing about it?
After you have answered the questions about "Your Issue" above, follow these steps to further understand the issue:
- Meet people who are addressing the issue.
- Meet people whom the issue is affecting.
- Ask people you know what they think about the issue.
As you come to understand the issue, ask yourself what you can do to make a difference. There are a few directions you can go:
- You are clear on the issue you want to pursue — so you reach out to someone from your contact list to see how you can get involved, or sign up to volunteer.
- You notice little is being done about a particular issue — so you get in touch with a mentor to brainstorm what you can do to get something started.
- You are unclear on the issue and feeling stuck — so you take a few days off to clear your head, then start over.
3. Collecting Resources in Your Own Backyard
This section helps you find other opportunities to join up with others and learn from their experience.
- Fortunately, it's likely that you do not need to start from scratch to address your concerns. The Practicing Democracy with your Neighborhood Guide is a good place to begin. It suggests projects to do and practices to try to become more connected with the people and problems in your neighborhood.
- Collect resources about social justice. To begin, review this list of social justice definitions. Christians looking for a biblical understanding of justice work may want to check out InterVarsity Press' Social Justice Handbook: Small Steps for a Better World by Mae Elise Cannon. Reviews of books on social justice from other perspectives and traditions can be found here.
- Do research online. Create a list of contacts in your local government, schools, religious groups, and nonprofit organizations. Scour these organizations' websites and social media platforms to identify any social issue they mention. Check out this list of 45 issues that hit closest to home for many people.
4. Acting on Behalf of Democracy
The more avenues of engagement you have, the more you can maximize the impact and momentum of your work. This section helps you connect the spirit of democracy to everyday practices to strengthen and support your work.
- Celebrate democracy mentors.
- Vote, call your local representatives, write letters, and in other ways utilize political advocacy to promote your issue.
- Build intersectional coalitions. Here are some democracy organizations with which you can start.
- Create an art exhibit to promote awareness, in the spirit of artist and activist John August Swanson. Or create a gallery of photographs that reflect your love of country, such as Practicing Visio Divina with U.S. National Parks and Monuments.
- Start a book club that speaks to the issue. If you'd like support for doing so, please explore the We the People Book Club offerings.
- Create a playlist of songs that spotlight an issue of concern to you, and share it with friends and colleagues.
- Use social media to spark awareness. When you do, be sure to be mindful of how you greet people online, work towards healthy conversation, and forgive any ignorance that you encounter.
- Host an information and discussion seminar, and invite guests to share food and conversation.
- Organize a prayer service to align religious and democratic values. Here is a collection of prayers.
5. Applying Pertinent Spiritual Practices
The following list describes practices that are further ways democracy can be engaged from spiritual foundations. Please use this section for inspiration, as not all practices may may be relevant to your issue or situation; feel free to modify them to your need.
- Praying with Your Legs: An invitation to consider using the act of political demonstration as a prayer.
- Listening with Compassion: Ways to insure that people with whom you work — and even those with whom you disagree — feel heard.
- Acknowledging the Goodness in One Another: A method of inclusion that helps build a non-judgmental atmosphere in your group.
- Healing Conflict: Tips for disarming and tending to inner conflicts when dealing with challenging people.
- Taking the 30-day Kindness Challenge: Ideas for overcoming harm by wishing others well.
- Caring for the Environment: Ways to become more conscious with waste disposal and to promote ecological sustainability.
- Pausing: A practice to ground democratic active engagement in a more holistic perspective and interior wisdom.
- Introducing Children to Volunteer Work: Teaching children to be service-oriented alongside others who are passionate and seasoned in their work.
- Encouraging Community Use of Faith Buildings: A call for collaborative and community use of worship spaces.
- Starting a Community Garden: A means to empower people to grow their own food while demonstrating what it means to work for the common good.
- Organizing a Service Day: Ideas for designing a day to benefit your coworkers and community.
- Sponsoring a Sermon Series, Adult Education Study, or Book Club: Using established formats to address the intersection of faith with democratic values and virtues.
- Practicing Socially Responsible Economics: Suggestions for consciously choosing a more simple lifestyle to help reallocate resources.
- Limiting Screen Time: Practices to create more space for personal renewal amid the often difficult and tiring work of activism.
- Advocating for Corporate Ethics: A call to participate in ensuring corporate moral and social responsibility.
This Student Activist Starter Guide was created by Aizaiah Yong after many brainstorms with and feedback from Joshua Fieldson of the Center for Student Action at Azuza Pacific University.