6 Ways You Can Change the World (Right Now)
Whatever your political beliefs are, you’ll agree that we live in turbulent times.
Maybe you’re horrified by 2016’s nativist double-whammy, the election of Donald Trump hot on the heels of the UK voting for Brexit, with Marine Le Pen polling high in the French presidential elections too. Or maybe you’re delighted at all of the above, and concerned only that Trump’s policies might be watered down, or that the Brexit the UK ultimately chooses will be ‘soft’ (including freedom of movement and single market membership) rather than ‘hard’. Either way, it seems clear that some of the assumptions generally made a few years ago – that most politicians would pursue more-or-less the same agenda, and that most developed countries were trundling slowly but steadily in a liberal direction – have been proven wrong.
Whether you love it or you hate it, you might well be thinking about what it is that you can do, even as a school student, to set the direction that your country or the world is taking. And the options can seem limited. You might read advice on changing your personal habits, such as recycling more or getting into meditation, or very small-scale change, such as setting up campaign groups within your own school. The causes you’re likely to be directed towards are probably focused around young people, such as anti-bullying charities. These are all very worthwhile things – but you might be wondering if, with so much of significance going on in the world, there isn’t more that you can do.
Good news: there is. While there are some form of activism, political engagement and other campaigning that’s only open to people over the age of 18 (standing for election, for instance), there’s still plenty that you can get involved in while you’re still at school. Here’s our list.
1. Join and/or support a campaigning charity or NGO
A liberating thing to realise is that if there’s a cause you really want to fight for, there are probably a whole lot of people out there fighting for it already, and you can go right on ahead and join them.
Take Amnesty International, for example. They are a human rights-focused NGO with more than seven million members worldwide, campaigning on issues from defending the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, to promoting religious tolerance, to abolishing the death penalty. Their focus is truly international, looking at human rights violations in the developed and developing world alike. And they have a youth membership offer, which allows people aged 14 to 18 join for just £5 per year. As a member, you have a say in the campaigns that they pursue, and they can advise you on how to direct your own activities to the benefit of their campaigning.
Amnesty International is just one example. Almost any charity or campaign group will welcome supporters regardless of age (even if they don’t have a specific youth membership package, or a membership scheme at all). That’s not just because they want to encourage you to keep supporting them when you’re older; it’s because young members are valuable in their own right. That might be through fundraising – for instance, getting a whole school to raise money, such as through a non-uniform day, can be remarkably lucrative. Or it might be through advocacy – an articulate, well-informed teenager who is prepared to give a youth perspective on a particular issue can be a powerful champion of a cause, especially if they have a personal connection to it.
2. Join a political party
If it’s politics in general that you’re interested in, rather than a particular cause, you might want to consider joining a political party. In the UK, Young Labour starts at 14, Conservative Party membership at 15, and there are no age restrictions for joining either the Liberal Democrats or the Green Party. And young members can get fully involved in political parties, even if they can’t vote; this year’s Liberal Democrat conference included multiple teenage speakers, including on the main stage.
Most aspects of party political campaigning are open to younger people, whether that’s stuffing envelopes, making campaign calls, delivering leaflets, running street stalls, or, indeed, canvassing on the doorstep. When you’re still at school, your routine is usually quite predictable – no danger of being required to stay late in the office – and you often have more free time than, say, someone who has young children or is trying to get established in their career would do. And although these things can seem small, the impact of one additional volunteer can be more significant than you might expect.
It’s a common misconception that to become a member of a political party, you have to agree with everything that they say. That’s seldom the case for even the most dedicated party members – usually it’s just that they agree with their chosen political party more than they agree with any of the others. It can be best to choose the party whose principles you agree with most, even if you don’t like the way that they express those in policy. Though the amount of say that members get in forming policy varies from party to party, you should also get some chance to influence the party towards your preferred direction.
3. Engage with political processes (especially the ones young people usually ignore)
Joining a political party might be a step too far for you, especially if your opinions seem to cross multiple different parties. But that shouldn’t stop you from engaging with other political processes. There are plenty of these that young people frequently get on board with, such as signing online petitions and attending rallies.
While these things are valuable, you can make even more of an impact by thinking about the political mechanisms that young people (and that can mean anyone under about 40) usually ignore. For instance, you might have thought of emailing your MP. But would you ever think of writing them a letter, giving them a telephone call, or, best of all, going to speak to them face-to-face at one of their constituency surgeries? These are regular events that any constituent can attend, although some MPs will require that you email or call in advance to book a slot.
Because these are so rarely attended by young people, showing up can have an outside impact. Meeting face-to-face is more memorable than being just another email or signature on a petition, and you might well be the only person under 25 who has shown up all year. Even if they disagree with your points, they might take them on board as an example of what the coming generation of voters think.
4. Make small changes
Even while you’re looking at changing the world from a national or even international level, it’s still worth thinking about how you can make a difference on a smaller scale. For instance, consumer boycotts force change because of the impact of thousands of customers choosing to avoid products that they see as unethical, causing their producers to either change tack or accept a financial loss. Yes, your personal decision to avoid whatever product you disapprove of (whether that’s because of ingredients, manufacturing method, dodgy marketing or country of origin) won’t make that much difference on its own, but in aggregate, it can be very powerful. And boycotts aren’t the only thing that makes a difference – you might be one of many people helping save the hedgehogs by cutting a small hole in your garden fence, for instance.
Small changes aren’t just about being part of a larger whole. It can be hard work to make a difference nationally, but you might well be able to make a difference in your community single-handed. Community issues like playground maintenance or parking costs can be affected by the hard work of a single individual, for instance by lobbying your local councillors or even just drawing attention to problems that others might not have noticed. It’s not world-changing, but it can improve the lives of the people around you by a small amount, and that’s a satisfying feeling too.
5. Choose causes and situations where you can make an impact
Some causes are more impactful than others, and some causes are more accessible for young people, too. For instance, if you’ve been personally affected (whether directly or in the family) by a particular disease, your voice is especially valuable to charities seeking to fund research into that area – and your youth can help rather than hinder that. By contrast, if you’re reasonably affluent in a developed country, your effort to speak on behalf of people struggling in the developing world can do more harm than good, and your donations – even small ones – might be the best way you can help.
If you’re feeling powerless, it makes sense to focus your efforts on the causes where you can have the greatest impact. Perhaps that’s the ones where anyone can have the greatest impact, such as by supporting the charities highlighted by Givewell as particularly impactful and underfunded. Or perhaps that’s the causes where you personally can have the greatest impact, perhaps because you don’t fit the standard mould of supporters and can thus help to bring the cause to new audiences, or because your own experiences or your personality make you a particularly strong advocate.
For example, one specific area where you may be able to make a particular impact is in providing IT skills; many small nonprofits, especially if they are run mostly by older people, might see the benefit of a good website and social media presence, but not have the skills or the time available to produce this for themselves. If you’re even only averagely web-savvy for someone of your age, you can probably make a significant contribution – and gain valuable experience for yourself while you’re at it.
6. Learn useful skills
Hopefully, the above points should have shown you that even as a young person without (necessarily) any specific campaigning skills, you can still make a difference if you’re able to write emails or letters, make phone calls, deliver literature, maintain a Twitter account or any one of a host of different options. After all, there are plenty of people out there making a difference despite being housebound, or severely disabled; being younger adds an extra difficulty to shaping the world as you’d like to see it, but it’s by no means an insurmountable barrier and it can be an asset.
All the same, if you’re committed to trying to change the world – whatever that means to you – it’s also worth looking into how you can go about learning some useful skills to make your efforts go further. For instance, our Computer Science programme can teach you how to build your own interactive website, which could be crucial for spreading the word about your cause. As we discussed above, these skills are very much in demand among nonprofits and other activist groups, especially if your understanding is at a more advanced level.
Alternatively, our leadership courses – Introduction to Leadership, Global Leadership Programme and Politics, International Relations and Leadership – not only teach you about contemporary global issues and the underlying causes that shaped them, but provide you with a grounding in practical leadership skills, such as debating, preparing and writing speeches. Public speaking is frightening for many of us, but you can conquer it with a bit of training and practice – and again, people with skills in this area are worth their weight in gold to campaign groups.
Going from feeling depressed and anxious about what’s happening in the news to actively trying to make a difference is a powerful step to take. It’s easy to feel powerless with so much happening in the world, but you’ll soon realise that one person’s contribution can help a great deal. Once you’ve got stuck in, you’ll have the reassurance of knowing that even if everything going on in the world seems awful, at least you did your best to fix it. And when it gets to the point that you check the news and things are going your way, you’ll have the immense satisfaction of knowing that you did your bit to make it so.
Image credits: whole world in her hands; tiny boat; charity; left or right; handshake; hedgehog family; computer; newspaper;