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  • Writer's pictureSerena DeSteno

A Roadmap to Becoming a Successful Activist

The Harvard Chan C-Change Youth Summit on Climate Change, Equity, and Health, is all about empowering youth to become ground-breaking leaders, activists, and change-makers. After attending this program, I feel incredibly inspired and excited about the possibilities and opportunities that lie ahead in the future, and even more motivated than ever to take action and effect change. However, becoming an activist and starting an organization can feel daunting, as there are so many steps, procedures, and thought-processes that must go into such an undertaking.

Kristy Drutman is an inspiring and powerful climate and equity activist, and the founder of Brown Girl Green and Green Jobs Board. In this abbreviated transcription of an interview, Kristy Drutman shares her wisdom and offers advice to aspiring activists on how to become an activist, communicate effectively, and achieve your goals.

Your organizations, Brown Girl Green and Green Jobs Board, are incredible. How did you first get the idea to start them and to become an activist?

I did student youth activism at UC Berkeley, and during that time I was getting really involved with student divestment, fossil fuel divestment and things like that on campus. But then eventually I realized I didn’t see many people like me doing activism, and on top of that I didn’t see people like me in classrooms. And my own family was like, “Why are you studying this?” I was facing all these pressures where I was passionate about climate change and environmental issues, but like it didn’t seem like I fit in here or belonged here. And eventually I was like no, I’m really passionate and this is impacting a lot of communities of color around the world. And I was like, this needs to shift, the whole industry needs to shift. It shouldn’t be on me to feel like I have to fit in, they need to shift to create the space for me. So I was thinking, what is that going to take? And for me, that’s storytelling.

It was my summer of my junior year of college, I was actually living in the Philippines. I did a project doing investigative journaling in the southern Philippines and I was actually interviewing farmers that were experiencing really severe drought and the failure of the rice crops and how, basically, these children were being held at gunpoint by the military. I was connecting with my own diaspora as a Filipino-American woman. And I asked them what’s the biggest thing we that don’t live here can do? And they said, “you just need to tell our story.” That clicked. It was so simple, but to provide validity and truth about what’s going on in the world, there’s so much information that’s not talked about. So that combined with this whole experience of me feeling a lot of isolation was why Brown Girl Green emerged. I wanted to create what I didn’t see. And I was able to then think, if Brown Girl Green is all about bridges and pathways, what about the green economy? And that was how the Green Jobs Board emerged…

The idea of starting an activism organization can at first be daunting, because it can be hard to know where to start. For aspiring young activists, what do you think are some of the best first steps to take to become a successful activist and leader?

I would say it’s all about community and collaboration. It’s really important to know who are you accountable to, what is the message you’re trying to share, and the issue areas you’re most passionate about. Trying to tackle it all at once, you’re just going to get burnt out and overwhelmed. It’s good to pick a specific issue, a specific community, where you can focus on a particular solution to think about that change and how you’re going to bridge that is really helpful. And then you’ll start meeting other people who are passionate in that category or community.

Communication with others on social media about these complex issues such as climate change, environmental justice, and equity is so important. What do you think are the most important elements to include in your social media content to reach people effectively?

I would say citing your sources is really important. Make sure you’re getting research from a wide diverse range of perspectives and it’s properly cited. And think about if you never knew about the issue and you’re first approaching it, how would you talk about it? So make it a lot more accessible. And you want to think about things that are also visually captivating, and having good hooks, and making clear calls to action at the end, so that way people know, ok that’s great, but then what? Don’t just leave that in the caption, put that actually in the content.

How do you think we can reach people that may tend to disagree with our views initially?

I think making a “frequently asked questions” list can be helpful…being able to put questions together about, “is this really happening?” Things like that, and like “Questions we frequently get asked about climate change.” I think that could be helpful.

Being a social media activist can take an emotional toll. Do you have any advice on how to deal with the stress and exhaustion that can entail?

Again, you have to build community, and you have to have self-care practices that help you to balance and get out of the work, because the work is always going to be there.

How do you think aspiring activists can raise their voices to be heard over the din of misinformation on the internet and social media?

I’m still figuring that out, to be honest with you. I think the biggest thing is doing content to debunk certain claims. If you get the right people that have the right institutional power that maybe weren’t as convinced to be more convinced, that’s what actually matters. They have the resources and the political will to make a change, and those are the people you need to focus on reaching. I think the misinformation is always going to be there, and unfortunately, we do not live in the most media literate society, so it’s also like, how do we teach people media literacy? That’s also a really important thing.

How do you think we can reach audiences that wouldn’t necessarily be seeking out information on climate?

If there’s ways to find media partners and organizations that don’t have anything to do with environmental stuff, I think that’s going to be key. Even like cultural organizations or public health or things like that that are maybe tangentially climate but not necessarily, but do content on pop culture and stuff like that. I think figuring out ways you can form those partnerships to get that content onto other people’s channels is really important.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Yeah, just on the media literacy. A lot of people have a lot of biases online, and there’s a lot of cancel culture. But it’s also important in climate storytelling and us giving solutions or suggestions on what people can do to take action, we also have to start adding in this ethos of connectedness between people, and that means helping people build more self-awareness and tools of self-awareness, both for their own mental health with climate anxiety, but also the relationships their building and how they’re connecting to people. It’s definitely an important part of the work that I don’t think is talked about enough. So that was something else I wanted to bring up: how can we use these online platforms to begin creating that for people, not just action stuff, but also community, is really important.

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