Five ways to make a difference in 2013

During the holiday season we are often preoccupied with food, family, friends. In anticipation of the year that has just arrived, many of us have made a number of New Year’s Resolutions. Lose weight. Get a better job. Find love. Make a difference in the world. The list is endless.

Despite the initial enthusiasm, how many of us find our passion to change the world dissipates in the first few weeks of January as we return to old routines and realise the enormity of our initial expectations?

When it comes to achieving global change, some of us think of radical revolts spurred by social media like those of the Arab Spring or the various rallies ‘occupying’ cities across the globe.

Social change takes many forms. It is also a challenging process. No one would deny that. That said, we should not underestimate our capacity as individuals to effect significant change.

So here are my five key tips on how to generate some social change and sustain it for 2013 and beyond:

Occupy your mind. In our zeal to change others, we often forget to reflect on our own values and assumptions. No matter what the political leaning or cause you are interested in, trying to make a difference begins by challenging how you think about the world and the status quo. Reflection requires openness, critique, respect and creativity. 

Learn more about what matters to you. If the virality of Kony 2012 taught us anything, it is that Hollywood style narratives combined with a little ‘clicktivism’ do not make for sustained critical engagement. For marriage equality fans, it’s easy to get caught up with sentimentality and hinge your argument on public feelings. While emotions can galvinise support, it can be of little effect when challenging opponents. Take for example the reiterated assertions that: (i) marriage is an unchanging phenomenon; (ii) marriage is a religious institution; and (iii) marriage secures procreation.’ No amount of sassy Internet memes or heartfelt pleas will help. So how do you respond? With marriage facts. 1. Marriage was once a property contract between fathers and husbands. 2. Australia has a constitutional separation of Church and State, and civil celebrants solemnise approximately 70 percent of marriages. 3. The Marriage Act makes no mandate of procreation. See how a little research can provide the impetus to systematically rebut your opposition? 

Begin a conversation with friends and family. In the refugee debate, you could be forgiven for thinking we are swamped by ‘illegals’ on boats if you relied solely on the political debate or loudest pundits to shape your views on the matter. So, if we want to change public opinion, it is up to each of us. We can start with the basic principle of international law that it is legal to seek asylum by boat, even if you have no documentation. Asylum seekers on boats can be indefinitely detained having committed no crime. From there you can highlight that boat arrivals constitute less than five percent of our annual migration intake and that we receive less than one percent of the global asylum flows. If you were dealing with financially minded folks, mentioning that onshore processing in the community would save up to one billion dollars could get a few surprised gasps. Who knows, you may just get a few people to rethink refugees altogether.

Take action. One word: flashmob. Next time you are planning an outing with friends, leave a little time aside to entertain the locals with some interpretive dance or makeshift theatre? If public actions are not for you, there’s always letter writing. While I know many will find the idea of picking up a pen and writing a letter on paper (remember scented stationery?) a little unusual, never underestimate the power of some carefully crafted cursive. For Birtukan Mideksa, a former opposition party leader in Ethiopia, global letter writing secured her release from detention. Of particular note too, writing letters to those who have sacrificed their liberty to defend human rights is a sign of solidarity. As Mideksa notes: “Your letters were my protection during the worst time in my life. You were my voice when I had none. Your letters kept hope alive at the darkest hours of need.” In an age where pro-forma emails and online actions make activism quick and accessible, it is easy to forget about those who are unable to access online space or choose to ignore it.  

Build an activist community. Activism should not be isolating. Whether it is at your workplace or through social media, you should find others with similar interests (or those you have convinced with Number 3) to share the pursuit for social justice.  Get a group of friends together each month, and while navigating the latest gossip over lunch, write a letter to your local MP about the need to end the discriminatory Northern Territory Intervention. If writing while eating is not appealing, you can start a Facebook page about why we need an Arms Trade Treaty with actions for people to do online. 

Being a socially minded citizen does not need to be exhausting or boring. We can accommodate social change in our everyday lives.

We learn new things everyday. We have conversations. We reflect on our lives. We organise events. We build networks.

We can make a difference by just rethinking what we do in our banal social interactions. We do not have to create onerous new ones.

In the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”


Senthorun Raj is a Churchill Fellow.

Follow him on Twitter: @senthorun 

For more information on activities and issues you may want to get involved in, please visit the Amnesty International Australia website. They are very friendly and host fabulous events. What more could you want! 

Lead image via Shutterstock