5 Tips for Changing the World: An Activist’s Journey

At the Mashable Social Good Summit, student activist Roxanne Rahnama spoke about the electronics industry’s move toward creating a Conflict-Free supply chain for conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)

I remember being assigned to read “Night” by Elie Weisel in 9th-grade English class. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard about the Holocaust, or even read a book by someone who’d lived through it. But it was the first time I had a whole week to deeply reflect on the sobering lessons from this horrific global experience.

At first, it seemed redundant that something as obvious as “genocide is bad, let’s make sure it doesn’t happen anymore” had to be articulated, but I soon realized the importance, power and need for such a declaration.

Around the same time I was assigned “Night,” the international movement known as “Save Darfur” was gaining momentum. I had very little knowledge of Darfur’s sociopolitical circumstances or the historical context that undergirded the violence, but when I heard more about the genocide and the shocking lack of attempts to stop it, I felt confused.

How could this be allowed to continue? Hadn’t our world leaders read “Night”? All my frustration culminated one day when a poster on a wall outside the cafeteria caught my eye. A trio of Darfuri children sat with bellies bulging from starvation, clearly distressed.

The only words on the poster read: “Go ahead, eat your food. They haven’t eaten in a week.”

At that time in my life, I didn’t know what it meant to “do advocacy.” I didn’t know that you could make a career out of working toward solutions to horrific situations, or that there were strategies to get people to listen and take action.

Although I didn’t know exactly what advocacy looked like, somehow I knew this poster wasn’t it.

Instead of feeling empowered to make a difference, I just felt guilty and confused about how skipping my lunch could translate into an improved situation for the children on the poster.

Looking back, this was a real turning point for me. Consciously or not, it led me to study Peace and Justice Studies at Tufts University. It drove me to forgo the popular semester abroad in Europe and instead choose a semester in Uganda, to learn from — not just about — the people and places I was studying.

Without realizing it, I was already on an unusual career path, a journey to discover what it means to fight for change.

Eight years later, I find myself working in Washington D.C. as an Advocacy Associate at the Enough Project, leading the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative: a network of students across the United States., United Kingdom, Canada and beyond who are working together for sustainable peace in the DRC.

By identifying a problem — conflict minerals — and proposing a piece of the solution (purchasing products from companies with conflict-free supply chains), student activists and members of the broader conflict-free movement are taking a proactive approach to advocacy, bolstered by the efforts of socially conscious companies like Intel, which had the vision to transform its practices and go beyond “business as usual.”

Annie’s 5 Tips for Changing the World Being an advocate is about taking responsibility, not about emotionally manipulating people into taking action because they feel guilty. It’s about constructively informing and motivating people to feel empowered enough to change things for the better, even through simple choices they make every day.

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned since delving into the world of advocacy that keep me engaged and inspired:

1. Know your story. Think through defining moments in your life that led you to care about a particular issue. These moments can be as grand as traveling to a foreign country, or as minor as catching sight of a news ticker at the bottom of your TV screen.

Creating a personal connection between yourself and your audience makes the idea of joining a movement less distant and strange.

2. Inform, educate, empower. Assuming someone will care about something just because you do won’t get you very far. Inform people of the issues, educate them about solutions and help empower them to take action.

People will be resistant to join your movement unless they believe they can actually make a difference. And in order for them to believe in their ability to make a difference, they have to have a real understanding of the situation at hand.

3. Connect to the bigger picture. Once you’ve explained your story and given context for the issue, it’s time to bring home the connection to what’s happening in the world.

For example, how do the minerals in the computer I’m using to write this article connect me to the lives of people in Congo? Connecting people and places through stories of shared understanding motivates action.

4. Design a “ladder of engagement.” Some people may sign a petition and never think about it again. Others may be compelled to stay engaged and become more ardent advocates for your cause. Both types of participation are important to any advocacy movement.

Designing a “ladder of engagement” provides people with options and room to grow: from something as basic as posting a picture on Facebook to raise awareness, to more time-consuming activities that require deeper commitment, like hosting a rally or lobbying government representatives.

5. Strength in numbers. Good news: you’re probably not alone. If you care about an issue, chances are there is someone out there advocating for it already. Do some research on groups and organizations seeking to create similar change.

Not all of your ideas have to line up identically, but if you can support one another through constructive partnerships and coalitions, your collective voices will reinforce the overall goal.

Being an advocate has different meanings for different people. Some choose to dedicate their entire lives to grassroots advocacy. Some write stories to amplify voices that need to be heard. Some spread pictures and videos across social media.

The Congo is half a world away, on a continent that is often confused for a country. Making a connection to that conflict may not seem easy. But, in fact, there is a very real immediate connection to our daily lives.

Our use of products containing tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold extracted from land marred by conflict directly connects us as consumers to both the worst suffering and the deepest hopes of the Congolese people.

When it comes to conflict minerals there is a real opportunity for my actions, and the actions of the wide network of activists, industry leaders and students to have a powerful, positive impact on lives and communities that at first seem beyond our reach.

To me, being an advocate is not simply a matter of upholding some broad definition of morality. It’s about choosing to take responsibility.

* “Conflict free” and “conflict-free” means “DRC conflict free”, which is defined by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission rules to mean products that do not contain conflict minerals (tin, tantalum, tungsten and/or gold) that directly or indirectly finance or benefit armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) or adjoining countries. We also use the term “conflict-free” in a broader sense to refer to suppliers, supply chains, smelters and refiners whose sources of conflict minerals do not finance conflict in the DRC or adjoining countries.

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