Making a difference

I’m trying to remember when I first got involved with anything that could be called activism. I was a bit young when LiveAid took place, but I know I did get involved with raising money for charity as a child. I’m not sure I sent postcards or ever lobbied an MP much before my university days. My parents weren’t politically active and I think any petitions I got involved with were more school based issues rather than anything more global. I do remember a youth meeting at church when we were all encouraged to echo how “my prayers can make a difference”. I definitely started my year out determined to make a difference to someone and I think it was then that I first saw a poster with the story about lots of stranded starfish, adapted from the Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley. In this story, someone is picking up marooned starfish and throwing them back into the sea. Challenged by an onlooker that they can’t possibly save enough to make a difference, the rescuer replies that it made a difference to that one.

The recent campaign and massive viral video “Kony2012” has got me thinking more about how to engage young people with activism. Watched by over 85 million people to date, the video was certainly a sensation on Facebook and Twitter, trending and making an impression on many young people who had maybe not previously heard about child soldiers or felt inspired to take action on such a distant issue. The backlash and criticism of the campaign over the following days raised some valid questions but on the whole, I was disappointed that the momentum to act for change may have been diminished by nay-sayers and pessimism. One blog I liked on the topic by Dan Pallotta addressed some of the criticisms and argued for the potential of “a generation of kids believing again that they can change the world, and seeing themselves accomplish it.”

I’ve been hoping that more young people might take on the challenge to find ways of doing more than just clicking or tweeting to contribute to movement to capture Joseph Kony. One petition I signed early on was asking the UK Government to take action to stop the rebel group the LRA and arrest Joseph Kony. This included the request that those in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office “Raise the LRA issue with the responsible United Nations, European Union and African Union bodies as a regional security concern.” I was encouraged to hear the news yesterday that the African Union has launched a 5000 strong force to hunt down Kony. I don’t know if anyone in the UK Government said or did anything to encourage this but I think it’s a step in the right direction. Another positive step is in Amnesty’s campaign to address the wider issue of armies using child soldiers, and I commend their email action to you as well.

With such massive global issues, it sometimes seems hard to imagine how ordinary people can make a difference. Chatting about the Kony issue with other adults from church there seemed to be a pessimism, a weariness or a simple lack of vision about the effectiveness of peaceful methods of activism. One woman asked sincerely what I thought our young people could do to make a difference. While my first thought was that I wanted to support young people in their own ideas, the answer I gave listed a few possibilities:

  1. We could pray that Kony is brought to justice (the most powerful action if you believe prayer works)
  2. We could sign petitions like the one to the UK Government
  3. We could send emails like the Amnesty one to Barack Obama
  4. We could create our own publicity materials to raise awareness regarding Kony and child soldiers
  5. We could encourage our friends and contacts to get involved in similar activities

None of these seems particularly difficult or impressive, but a lot of the activism I have been involved in over the years has been similarly simple. Petitions and email campaigns can seem insignificant, too easy to join in with. When I was a student involved with People & Planet we gained over 2000 signatures for the Jubilee 2000 debt relief campaign. The campaign continues, but over $100billion of third world debt was cancelled, bringing real change including basic health care and education to tens of millions of people. In Tanzania, teacher numbers have doubled in three years and primary school fees were abolished in Ghana, Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia, Uganda and rural Benin. Almost a million children in Mozambique have been vaccinated against disease and user fees were abolished at rural healthcare clinics in Zambia. After the earthquake in Haiti, the Jubilee debt campaign was part of ensuring total debt relief for that country.

This time last week I joined a much smaller local protest outside Birmingham Children’s Hospital. Along with 22 other regional groups we were asking members of the House of Lords to block the Health and Social Care Bill which I believe will be very damaging to the NHS. The Bill is now only waiting for Royal Assent which I imagine will soon be forthcoming, since Her Majesty can’t claim to rely on public health care herself that much. I’m not sure if the group of sixty of us could say we made much of a difference, and yet it seems an important part of democracy to object when we see vital public services heading for privatisation. The news that many of the peers (including head of BBC Trust, Chris Patten) stand to gain financially from the reshaping of the NHS perhaps suggests they are far from unbiased on this issue.

I can’t say I feel particularly powerful against many of the changes being enacted by our democratically elected representatives at the moment. I don’t feel particularly proud of my wasted LibDem vote or the efforts of my Union to oppose public sector pensions changes. I don’t work with refugees and asylum seekers any more, instead I’m working to educate people to work better with children, young people and families. This involves encouraging more awareness of political changes and the power of the media, and challenging students to be critical of the things they hear and read. Maybe that will make a difference. I have to believe that they will make a difference for the children, young people and families they go on to support (assuming they can get jobs).

Some days, we don’t feel like we’re making much of a difference at all. But if I’ve been encouraging to someone, or thanked the bus driver, or prayed for someone, or held a door open, or explained something or even clicked a button to give a cup of food to a hungry person, then it’s not been a wasted day. For other people, the differences they make are for the children or elderly person they look after, or the people they serve in a shop or speak to on the ‘phone. If you’re reading this blog you can make a difference to someone today. Share your ideas in the comments block below or on Facebook. Aside from anyone else you inspire, I can say that your contribution will make a difference to me 🙂

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