When I came to Yale, I was looking forward to meeting students who were socially aware and actively involved in a variety of causes. I was excited to be surrounded by people who wanted to make a difference in the world, but more than that, would take active steps toward effecting change. For the most part, these hopes have come true. I have gotten to know students who are active and interested in fixing the problems that plague our society.
Recently though, I’ve begun to notice a disappointing trend. Some activists at Yale seem more concerned with raising awareness than actually engaging with their chosen causes. For example, the other day I had a conversation with a self-proclaimed homeless rights activist who had attended a protest on the New Haven Green a few weeks earlier. As the conversation continued, I learned that this student had not visited a homeless shelter since school started. Still, he had written a rousing Facebook diatribe on the unfairness of “the system.”
When a person says they support homeless causes, I assume they mean that they go to a homeless shelter for two hours a week and do work with actual homeless people. When a person says they are involved in helping underfunded public schools, I assume they mean that they go to public schools on a pretty regular basis and tutor students, or work as a classroom aide. I do not think they mean that they liked a couple Facebook pages and protested at City Hall once.
There is a difference between raising awareness and actually effecting change. Awareness is a means, not an end. In most cases, public protest is a form of raising awareness. If you protest for homeless rights but have never actually spoken to a homeless person or donated clothing to a homeless shelter, then you are not actively engaging with your chosen cause.
I do not mean to put myself on a pedestal. I don’t do nearly as much hands-on work as I should. But I do like to think that when I support a cause, I will do something concrete to try to create real change. It is easy to like pages on Facebook or go to a protest and hold signs from your pre-protest sign-making party while you chant that somebody needs to do something. It is fun to post pictures that show you fighting for social justice and looking good doing it. But there is a reason only about a quarter of those attending events on Facebook actually show up. Facebook activism is easy. Being generally aware that a problem exists is easy. Doing something about a problem is hard.
Awareness absolutely should be raised, but it should spur people to take some tangible action. I am not saying that any of the aforementioned activities are unnecessary. In fact, change requires awareness — but in conjunction with action.
If you care about the environment, go vegetarian for a couple meals a week. If you want to help immigrants, sign up for Yale’s very own Refugee Project. If you’re a Republican (one who’s actually brave enough to admit it on campus) and believe President Obama has overstepped his bounds, raise money for a legal fund to sue the government. Whatever you do, make it concrete. At the end of the day, you should be able to point to exactly what you’ve accomplished.
Many of us either don’t have time or don’t feel strongly enough about a cause to truly become invested, and we shouldn’t feel compelled to do so. But if we don’t do real hands-on work, we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking we’re actively making the world a better place. We shouldn’t call ourselves activists.
Those of us who genuinely want to make a difference should make our contributions real. We should move beyond Facebook likes, philosophical discussions and catchy chants. We should engage with the issues we care about directly.
Ian Garcia-Kennedy is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.