There has been a lot of research on the “double-benefit” of civic activism, the economic rewards it can store up for the people who do it as much as those it’s done for. But I’m not really interested in the economy; I’m interested in what makes a person feel alive. And getting involved with a campaign, no matter how big, can make you feel much better, much more engaged – even energised – than just sitting and worrying about the state of the world.
How does an effective campaigner get started? I asked Alena Ivanova, 33, because I think she embodies the activist life well lived. She came to the UK eight years ago from Bulgaria, where there are very few entry points to activism: no developed student movement, little spontaneous campaigning. “It was living in London that radicalised me. I thought things would be different, but better. Actually they were different, but the same: people were just as devoid of real power to make decisions about their lives, and it was so expensive that everyone was too busy working to think about it. You either have to make a retreat into yourself, or you have to commit to trying to make it better for everyone.”
Ivanova found groups through word-of-mouth. A guy she met on Tinder suggested a left-wing reading group; from there she joined the Women’s Strike and Sisters Uncut; and then got involved with the Labour party. She’s since battled everything from the closure of a community language programme to Britain exiting the EU. “National campaigns, which were epic failures, local campaigns, which were small failures. My only experience of success was getting the freedom of movement motion past the Labour conference.” This was in 2019, when an overwhelming number of motions forced the party not only to uphold freedom of movement – which their 2017 manifesto had promised to end – but to extend it. Ivanova ruefully points out that there’s little mention of this motion now.
But if you think political action seems worth it only when it succeeds, going in a straight line from raising awareness, through fundraising, to getting parliamentary attention, to changing the law, well, you have to ditch all that. It’s not couch to 5k: you can’t put your civic identity through a set of key performance indicators. This is why activism and voluntary work are different from the usual run of happiness-booster suggestions: because you can’t control the outcome simply by working harder, you almost certainly won’t always succeed and there will be moments where, if you care, it is very painful. That’s the joy, I suppose: it’s more like life than yoga is. But just like yoga, you have to find an approach that works for you. To decide which, ask yourself these key questions:
Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
The assumption about altruism is that you have to want to interact the whole time – in an activist context, to be in constant debate or always at a protest; and in charity work, be dealing directly with someone in need.
But there are roles for all personality types. Sophie Livingstone, 43, runs Trustees Unlimited (a company that matches charities with trustees, and that aims, among other things, to improve diversity among trustee bodies). She is shortly to take over at Little Village, a baby bank (like a food bank but for baby-related gear), and says, “We have volunteers who interact directly with families, but there are other people who just want to sort babygrows.” Both are useful.
The same is true politically: if canvassing is your idea of hell, you might help behind the scenes, with organising or planning. Perhaps you could devise a map of food poverty like All Of Us Together, which was inspired by Marcus Rashford’s campaign; or if you can code, join the Radical Engineers and be matched with a project that needs a developer.
How much time do you have?
Once you have a passion for a cause, such as migrant rights, there are a near infinite number of entry points, from housing a refugee yourself to resisting racism locally. Zoe Gardner, 32, is policy adviser at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. She describes grassroots initiatives, which always need more support: “Befriending services, legal advice, talking to people, handing out food and donations.” Be realistic about how much time you can commit and it will help focus your efforts.
In 2015, Gardner realised she wanted to go all in, and spent two months on the Greek island of Lesbos at the height of the refugee crisis. Together with an anarchist group, she helped with “bringing in boats, giving people a hot drink and dry clothes, directing them to the official refugee camp”. The scene was very mixed, politically – anarchists working with Islamic Relief, and maverick Kent mothers who had never done campaign work before. It was disorganised and imperfect: some people used these groups as a symbol of how useless the EU was. But in a way, part of the ad hoc movement’s success was that, in its spontaneous internationalism, it made plain what European institutions wouldn’t admit: this wasn’t a Greek problem, it was an us-problem. Besides, Gardner says, “How many more people would have just felt unwelcome, if we hadn’t done that?” This experience seeded Gardner’s attitude today, in her professional life: that however adverse the political context, the work she does never feels pointless. There is no such thing as wasted human connection.
Do you have relevant personal experience?
People often think in binaries: are you political or altruistic? Are you a person in need or a volunteer? When truthfully, we are all of these things. It’s time to collapse the distinction between the helper and the helped, something addiction and prison services have known for years: there is no more effective support than that which comes from someone who’s been there.
Danny O’Donoghue, 53, is area manager of the Richmond Fellowship, a mental health charity, and describes some volunteers who previously suffered severe mental illness, and who now run a Hearing Voices group. “If you ever want to know total isolation, try hearing voices. Nothing is more alienating than something you can’t share. When clinicians ran these groups, they were poorly attended – sometimes the staff outnumbered the people. That never happens with volunteers with experience. I was struck by one saying, ‘The voices have always been the thing I hide, that I find some way to bury. The pleasure in this instance is being able to wear it as a uniquely qualifying asset, to apply it in support of someone else’s recovery.'”
Do you need structure?
“Join a political party” is like the bromide of activism, not in the sense that it’s soothing, in the sense that it’s just so boring, a fire blanket over the spirit – especially the endless meetings. I never heard this as plainly expressed as by the Bernie Sanders campaigner Claire Sandberg, whose motto was, “Never have groups: it creates a tyranny of the annoying”; and her sub-motto, “Never have a meeting whose action is another meeting.”
If you want to see those principles in action, look at the most momentous movements of the recent past: Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion. Rupert Read, a co-founder, describes XR as “nothing like the Green party, it’s not a membership organisation. Anyone can act in the name of XR, provided they adhere to its values, principally nonviolence.” This has led to some “very unpopular actions – with XR, let alone with the public. But it shifted the conversation. Power conceded something to all of XR’s demands. I was there when we met Michael Gove, and the next day parliament put through a symbolic emergency climate motion unopposed. The last two years have been the best years of my life, finally being involved with something that was successful. But it’s not just about success. The really striking thing is how joyful, satisfying, meaningful and regenerative this has been.”
Start here: eight ideas for getting politically active
A campaigning group for a more equal, democratic and sustainable society. Sign up to be part of its citizens’ special assembly.
A membership organisation running solidarity campaigns for trade justice. It shares activist resources and runs several local groups.
An environmentalist collective. The website has resources, a list of local groups, a calendar of events, and a directory of volunteering opportunities.
The Trussell Trust
A volunteer organisation to alleviate and fight food poverty in the UK. Donate goods, time or money to your local food bank.
Volunteering here can bring life-changing insights. You can train to become a listener in one of its 201 branches in the UK and Ireland, or to be a support volunteer, helping with marketing, fundraising and organising.
Engage with government
From becoming a school governor to starting a petition, to giving your views in open consultations.
Support witnesses in court, or help at your local centre.