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Effective activism’s a long-haul process, not “save the Earth in 30 days, ask me how.” But there are some principles that seem to reoccur for people addressing every kind of challenge from the Gulf Oil spill to inadequate funding for urban schools to how to deal with Afghanistan and Iraq. They give us clues on how to reach out to engage our fellow citizens and help us get past our own barriers, not to mention burnout and disappointment. When I was updating my Soul of a Citizen book on citizen activism, an activist rabbi who was teaching the book at a Florida university suggested I gather together a Ten Commandments for effective citizen engagement. Calling them Commandments seemed presumptuous, but I did draw together ten suggestions that can make engagement more fruitful. Some I’ve already explored in various Soul of a Citizen excerpts. I’ll flesh out others in coming weeks. But pulling them together in one place seemed useful.
Suggestion #1: Start where you are. You don’t need to know everything, and you certainly don’t need to be perfect.
Suggestion #2: Take things step by step. You set the pace of your engagement. Don’t worry about being swallowed up, because you’ll determine how much you get involved.
Suggestion #3: Build a supportive community. You can accomplish far more with even a small group of good people than you can alone.
Suggestion #4: Be strategic. Ask what you’re trying to accomplish, where you can find allies, and how to best communicate the urgencies you feel.
Suggestion #5: Enlist the uninvolved. They have their own fears and doubts, so they won’t participate automatically; you have to work actively to engage them. If you do, there’s no telling what they’ll go on to achieve.
Suggestion #6: Seek out unlikely allies. The more you widen the circle, the more you’ll have a chance of breaking through the entrenched barriers to change.
Suggestion #7: Persevere. Change most often takes time. The longer you continue working, the more you’ll accomplish.
Suggestion #8: Savor the journey. Changing the world shouldn’t be grim work. Take time to enjoy nature, good music, good conversation, and whatever else lifts your soul. Savor the company of good people working for change
Suggestion #9: Think large. Don’t be afraid to tackle the deepest-rooted injustices, and to tackle them on a national or global scale. Remember that many small actions can shift the course of history.
Suggestion #10: Listen to your heart. It’s why you’re involved to begin with. It’s what will keep you going.
I’d love reader comments on how these idea have played out in your own personal social engagement.
Adapted from the wholly updated new edition of “Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times” by Paul Rogat Loeb (St Martin’s Press, $16.99 paperback). With over 100,000 copies in print, “Soul” has become a classic guide to involvement in social change. Howard Zinn calls it “wonderful…rich with specific experience.” Alice Walker says, “The voices Loeb finds demonstrate that courage can be another name for love.” Bill McKibben calls it “a powerful inspiration to citizens acting for environmental sanity.”
Loeb also wrote “The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear,” the History Channel and American Book Association’s #3 political book of 2004.
For more information, to hear Loeb’s live interviews and talks, or to receive Loeb’s articles directly, see www.paulloeb.org. You can also join Paul’s monthly email list and follow Paul on Facebook at Facebook.com/PaulLoebBooks
From “Soul of a Citizen” by Paul Rogat Loeb. Copyright © 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Griffin. Permission granted to reprint or post so long as this copyright line is included.