New Year's Resolutions: Turning Outrage Into Positive Action

Jennifer Liss
December 29, 2006

Your sister has resolved to lose 10 pounds, and your brother swears he'll call mom more. But this year, you're ready for a different kind of change. You're pissed off about the Iraq war, rising college tuition, lack of decent health care, and anti-immigrant sentiments coming out of the Congress. You don't need to be told what are the problems; you experience them and read about them. 2007 is the year you want to realize yourself as an activist. But how? How do you turn your anger into positive changes? How do you get involved?

WireTap spoke with six young activists from around the nation who shared their thoughts on New Year's resolutions you can use to make a difference.

Get into a routine

1. Do the laundry. 2. Take out the trash. 3. Rally. Gavin Leonard, founder of Elementz: a hip-hop youth arts center in Cincinnati, says that when you're ready to go public with your private rants, weaving your activism into your daily life is a key first step.

"Your activism becomes part of who you are when it becomes a part of your routine," he says.

This means schedule, schedule, schedule. The register-voters flyer that always catches your eye? Take down the date. The city council meeting? Pencil it in. The anti-war rally next Thursday? Jot it down. Once your activism has a place in your routine, Leonard emphasizes, it becomes part of what you do and who you are.

Get a business card

Business cards are bourgie, right? Not so, says Tanzila Ahmed, Los Angeles-based director and founder of SAAVY: South Asian American Voting Youth. Activism is all about community. So when you're out at meetings and rallies you want to connect with people. And you want them to know how to connect with you. The cards don't need to be fancy, she says. Word-processed cards with just your name and contact information will do.

When Ahmed moved from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, she was living with her parents and hanging out with college friends she didn't "politically mesh" with. She started attending political events -- business card in hand -- and meeting like-minded people. "Now I have that activist community in L.A," she says.

Recycle and reuse ideas

Don't get hung up on trying to come up with an original action. Ingenuity isn't necessary to take action, says Mike Hudema, author of "An Action a Day Keeps Global Capitalism Away."

"Don't be afraid to recycle ideas. There are countless creative things that have been done before but that haven't been done in your community."

This means hook up with a preexisting group that shares you plight. Or surf the web for activists around the world who have taken up your issue. And then bring their actions to your community. There's nothing wrong with copycat activism, Hudema says. He points out that mimicry might even help you feel connected to a larger, global movement, which can be a saving grace for young activists who often feel isolated and unheard.

As an example, Hudema describes an action that he's taken an interest in. A group of young activists from Ontario launched a campaign to encourage people to stop idling their cars. When handing out pamphlets wasn't working, they bought safety vests and dressed as a traffic cop. And when they saw a car idling, they knocked on the window and informed the driver he or she was in a "no idling zone." The group reported to Hudema that almost every time the driver obliged and cut the engine, saving gasoline.

Be creative, Hudema stresses. If letter writing is not your style of activism, use uniforms, theatrics, and twists on cultural customs. For inspiration he suggests checking out The Yes Men, Adbusters, and

Keep a journal and ask big questions

"Ask yourself: What do you care the most about? What do you love? Everyone has something they love and would fight for. Working from love is a lot different than working from anger," says Shalini Kantayya, a filmmaker, educator and activist based in Brooklyn and India.

She suggests keeping a journal as a way to find answers, record process and connect with the issues that are most important to you.

"We live in a world where we are looking outward for answers. But within each of us, there is a place in what we know what we should be doing. It is hard to listen to yourself."

Kantayya fell in love with a river, the Ganges, and it compelled her to ask critical questions. She now fights for water rights and water education.

"Sometimes you don't see change right away. But I believe what we desire to do is as important as what we accomplish in the world," she says. "When things get hard, I try to reconnect with what I love."

Get a passport, travel

Hudema says travel shaped his identity as an activist. He went to India and experienced what he says was a "whole and integrated" kind of democracy, and it woke him up to the "different choices we have if we don't like the way the world is going."

"If you have the financial means to travel, get out and see different ways of how the world can be," he says. "Get other perceptions."

But you don't need to travel far, says Leonard. Call up that pro-life cousin you avoid at family gatherings. Travel outside of your comfort zone. Leonard says that on a recent trip to California he met young activists who told him they didn't know any Republicans. It shocked him. He encourages emerging activists to "work through ideas with other people in a smart and positive and respectful way."

One of his first activism jobs was as a canvasser in Colorado. "I had to get out of my comfort zone every day. You don't know who's going to be behind the door when you knock on it. And I knocked on 85 to 100 doors every day."

Get a calendar

Huge goals can be unwieldy. They're more manageable broken into parts. At the beginning of each year, Kantayya thinks about her goals as an activist. This year it's launching a water education program in schools. She'll start by breaking the project into smaller tasks and by setting rough and reasonable deadlines. She always gives herself more time than she thinks she will need.

By the way, she notes, big projects usually require big money, but it doesn't have to work that way.

"The mind is really focused on money," she admits.

Say you're filming a documentary about Katrina relief, and you need money for a camera. But what you really need is just the camera, right? And what if someone who shares your passion for New Orleans has a camera? And he's willing to let you borrow it? Or donate it to you? Funding a project is about more than collecting cash, Kantayya says. It's about taking stock of all of your resources.

Educate yourself, once a week

"So often you see activists acting without education," Ahmed says and stresses it's really important to stay up on the issues that concern you, to know the facts, and to understand history. When she was living in D.C. she kept a resolution to attend one educational event a week -- from going to a museum to hearing a speaker to watching a documentary.

Eat right, exercise

This year Kantayya is resolving to take care of herself, spend more time with her family, and exercise. Why? Because activism is high-risk, burn-out work, and a healthy body, a relaxed mind, and the tools to deal with stress can help you avoid the crash-and-burn syndrome.

"These can be trivial things in the activist community," Kantayya says. "But if I want to do this for the next 50 years, I need to keep my mind and body in check, all those mortal boring things that activists ignore."

Finish what you start

After dropping out of high school, Jorge Quinones went back, and now he fights for school reform in New York and educates youth on safe sex. In January, Quinones will graduate. His resolution this year is one of the hardest to keep: following through on commitments. Finishing what you start is tough; it's one of the reasons people make the same resolutions year after year. So, how is Quinones going to keep his resolution? He's going to fight for what he truly believes in.

"People are not always going to agree with what you're saying," he says. "If you really believe it, you'll keep going."

Last year Quinones was part of a group that took on metal detectors and police presence in New York schools. It was a challenging fight, but his cohorts were determined to keep at it, even into summer break. Eventually they won some of the changes they were fighting for.

Leonard is six years into a 15-year commitment to finish what he started. After college, he moved around from place to place and project to project. In Alaska he made a radical decision. He was going to Cincinnati for 15 years to "get work done." It was extreme, he admits, but he wanted to be able to say to himself and other people that he was going to stick around.

"(Commitment) is something lacking in the social justice movement," he says. "People stick around for a year or two and then bounce."

A serious level of commitment requires tenacity and persistence, says Yvette Felarca, a civil rights and immigration rights organizer and educator based in Oakland.

Felarca recently organized a contingent of 19 high school students to travel across the country and attend a rally in support of Brown v. Board of Education at the Supreme Court. She also organized students for this year's walkouts in support of immigrant rights. She says that some of her students' parents politically disagreed with their decisions and some were even hostile. But she says her determined students knew that expressing their political position was in their best interest, even if other people in their life didn't agree.

One of her students wanted to attend an immigrants' rights demonstration last spring, but her mother wouldn't allow it. The student persisted, and her mother met her half way; she agreed to let her respect the boycott. But she still wouldn't allow her to march. By the time Felarca announced the Supreme Court trip, the student had won over her mother. "She had shown her mother the necessity of taking action, and her mother couldn't have been more proud," Felarca says.


Jennifer Liss is a frequent contributor to WireTap and a freelance writer based in San Francisco.

Tanzila Ahmed is the founder of South Asian American Voting Youth, a national nonprofit organization that promotes civic engagement among South Asian American youth. She is currently pursuing her master's in public policy at UCLA. Tanzila is a frequent contributor to WireTap and serves on its advisory board.


Yvette Felarca is the West Coast coordinator for the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, and Immigrant Rights, and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN). She organizes high school students, college students, and educators to join the new civil rights movement. She currently teaches English at San Lorenzo High School.


Mike Hudema is a longtime member of the Canadian activist scene. He was part of a motley band of activists that took to the streets of Quebec City for the FTAA protests, slept on the steps of the legislature to protest rising tuition rates when he was president of the University of Alberta Students' Union, and occupied Anne McLellan's office to defeat Canada's anti-terrorism legislation. In his spare time he co-hosts an alternative campus community radio news program Rise Up: Radio Free Edmonton and co-writes books like the recently published "An Action a Day Keeps Global Capitalism Away". Mike moved to the United States a year ago and works for Global Exchange as its Freedom from Oil campaign director.


Shalini Kantayya is a filmmaker, educator and activist. She uses film/video as a tool to educate, inspire and empower audiences. She founded 7th Empire Media, with the mission of bringing a professional voice to the voiceless through media. A William D. Fulbright scholar, Shalini has lectured at colleges and universities across the United States and India on such issues as the future of water, media and democracy, and independent filmmaking. She is currently working on a trilogy of science fiction feature films about the environment.


Gavin Leonard is executive director of Cincinnati-based Elementz: The Hip-Hop Youth Arts Center, serves as board president of the League of Young Voters Education Fund, is a BLOC Fellow, and is on the advisory committees of the Allied Media Conference and All-Ages Movement Project. He believes that building power to make change starts with strong community-based relationships. Gavin is a frequent contributor to WireTap and serves on its advisory board.


Jorge Quinones is a senior at Bushwick Community High School in Brooklyn, a small alternative school to which he transferred after he dropped out of an underfunded public high school. Jorge is now an education organizer and a leader of the Urban Youth Collaborative. He leads by his example in school, by organizing young people for change in his school and by leading campaigns to ensure that all New York City students know their rights and have them protected.