This year I’ve been sharing a lot with my Instagram followers about how I’m getting more involved in local activism here in Colorado. Since moving to Denver from DC two years ago, I wanted to seize the opportunity of living in a state with a lot of political diversity that’s tackling some big, important issues.
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I’ve long been active in national politics (I started my career on the Obama campaign working as an organizer and later a digital strategist) and often find myself donating to causes I care about, but there’s just no substitute for making a difference locally. I’m still a grassroots gal at heart.
And as the headlines lately have become so triggering and frustrating, I’m reminded of the saying, “Think global, act local.” One of the best ways to keep hopelessness and despair at bay is to get busy doing something – anything – to make a difference. So far my experience getting more involved on the ground right here in my backyard has proved to be a rewarding and worthwhile endeavor.
For those interested in getting more involved as an activist in your community, here’s how to get started:
1. Show up
I know this sounds so simple, but it’s true. Decisions are made by people who are in “the room where it happens,” as it goes in Hamilton. So get yourself to those rooms!
Scour social media and event listings in local publications to look for rallies, press conferences, hearings, and lobby days – which are days when organizations bring people together at the State House to talk directly to their elected officials.
Most activist organizations are nonprofits or 501(c)4 organizations who operate in conjunction with other partner organizations in the form of coalitions. So search for organizations with your state’s name and the word “coalition” in it, and you’re likely to find a whole bunch of interest groups that you might want to be a part of.
Follow them on social media. Sign up for their email lists. Fill out any volunteer sign-up forms they have on their site, or email their staff directly if you’re interested in learning more about how to get involved.
I was introduced to a national group focused on getting small business owners involved in activism, Small Business Majority, by a friend in DC. She connected me their local Colorado staff and they keep me engaged and involved in what’s happening on the state level that relates to small businesses. Similarly, I filled out a form on the website of another group I heard about, Good Business Colorado, that has similar goals, and have been kept up-to-date on meaningful opportunities to make my voice heard on the State and local level through them as well.
I also simply asked a friend who’s way more involved in local Colorado politics than I am, where I should start showing up. My friend, Faith Winter, is someone I met and connected with years ago through a national activist group and now she’s a State Senator elected to a leadership position in Colorado. She told me about a “Women & Family Wednesday” meetup group that connects over breakfast at the State Capitol building here in Denver on most Wednesday mornings. Even though I didn’t really know what I was getting into and literally didn’t know a single person there, the next Wednesday morning, I showed up. I introduced myself, met a whole bunch of leaders and local activists, and got connected right away to groups where I could make a difference.
2. Volunteer on a campaign
Even though we’re over a year out from our next national election, now is the best time to get locally involved in the campaigns you care about. I started volunteering on electoral campaigns when I was in high school. I love the infectious energy you’ll find in campaign headquarters, full of hardworking people – on staff and volunteering – who are doing the real work of talking to their neighbors, one phone call and one door knock at a time. Grassroots organizing taught me so much about public speaking, persuasion, empathy, and building power through consensus-building. I think now more than ever, having real and regular conversations with our community is so important.
There are many different ways to volunteer on campaigns. After I cut my teeth in “Field” – which is the department of a campaign apparatus that focuses on phone calls and canvassing voters door-to-door, I transitioned into a digital volunteer role in college. In fact, my senior year of college, before I stepped into my leadership role as a member of staff, I served as a Digital Intern on the Obama campaign. My job? Answering voter questions on behalf of the campaign that came in through MySpace in 4 different battleground states. It felt so satisfying to be able to provide clarity on the President’s policy positions and basic voter information about registering and getting out to cast your ballot.
So how do you get involved? First, know that different campaigns volunteers are treated and managed wildly differently. As a volunteer, you have every right to be treated with respect and fairness, and for your time, which you’re donating to the campaign, to be treated with respect. Keep showing up for the campaigns who provide meaningful opportunities to get involved and treat you with respect.
Assuming you’re paying attention to the news – which is part of my morning routine – and that you feel passionately about a candidate’s vision for the future – whether they’re running nationally, statewide, or in town or city near you – get on their email list! Sign up to volunteer on their website. Ask for a 1-on-1 meeting with their organizers to see how you can have a maximum impact. And once again, keep showing up for the organizations that make you feel welcome, included, and important.
3. Engage on the issues you care most about
If you’d like to get more involved in activism, but find yourself called more to the issues you care about than a single candidate, then volunteering on an electoral campaign might not be for you.
Instead, look out for coalitions or organizations in your area that are fighting on behalf of the issues you care most about. Many national organizations have local chapters, too. So if your number-one issue is preventing gun violence, for instance, you might want to learn more about getting locally involved in The Community Justice Action Fund or Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. You might happen to be living in a politically relevant state for those organizations (where legislation is up for consideration), or you might not. So don’t take it personally if the biggest organizations you care about don’t care about you. Sometimes it’s more about timing and geography than what you care most about.
When I showed up at the State House for my first Women & Families Wednesdays, for instance, I learned about the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, a group that was organizing a lobby day that morning. I didn’t know about it beforehand but learned from their organizers that they were pushing for more flexibility for tenants who were late on paying rent. Here in Colorado, we have some of the strictest tenant laws in the nation, where landlords can begin eviction proceedings after just 3 days past the rental due date.
As a new landlady, this legislation caught my attention, since I have a new personal connection to the issue and also believe in strengthening tenants rights. Was this my number-one policy priority beforehand? No, not really. But given the timing and my geography, I realized this could be an opportunity for me to make a meaningful impact. With the support of the coalition staff, I ended up testifying in both the House and Senate hearings on the bill as the only landlady present to advocate for tenants rights on this issue, and I’m thrilled to have played a small part of passing the new legislation that increased the legally protected grace period for tenants from 3 days to 10 days.
Choose how you spend your time wisely
Getting involved as an activist is all about sharing your time, talent, and effort on behalf of the changes you’d like to see in this world. But as we all know, your time is your most valuable asset. Donating it to the causes and candidates you believe in is no small gesture. And I’m well aware that not everyone has the privilege of being able to spend their time freely or on behalf of causes they believe in. But if and when you do find yourself in such a position of privilege, let’s use it with intention.
Getting involved as an activist can be an incredibly enriching, purposeful addition to your life, especially when you’re not deriving a sense of purpose from whatever earns you a paycheck. At the end of the day getting more involved in your community is about acting on something larger than yourself.
As the rabbinic sage Hillel the Elder famously said – and has been evoked by political leaders from JFK to Barack Obama since:
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” – Hillel the Elder
Answering those tough questions is about engaging in our communities. And there’s nothing more patriotic to embrace this 4th of July than the idea of joining activist efforts to better our nation and our world.