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Colleen Wynn is an assistant professor of sociology and co-director of the Community Research Center at the University of Indianapolis. She is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project. This column was produced for The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.
As we reach the end of another tumultuous year, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Besides the ongoing pandemic and concerted assault on democracy, we’ve had deadly tornadoes, another mass school shooting and a U.S. Supreme Court poised to outlaw abortion.
Such a confluence of events can make people believe it’s pointless to seek change, which makes change even harder to achieve. But effective social change can start small, and lead to reasons to be optimistic.
For example, the uprisings for racial justice in the summer of 2020 have been called the largest social movement in U.S. history. After more than a decade of protests, led by Indigenous activists, the Keystone XL pipeline was shut down. And organized labor has seen an uptick in strikes and unionizing from workers in tech, media and higher education.
On Dec. 9, employees at a Starbucks in Buffalo unionized. There have also been major recent protests in support of paid family leave, child care and climate justice.
Of course, not all protests bring progress. The insurrection on Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol and newly revealed text messages from that day to President Donald Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows are alarming. White supremacist movements show a dark and incredibly troubling side of protest.
As a sociology professor, I spend the semester helping students learn to see big issues and problems in society. So, by the end of the semester, they ask how to solve these issues and what are possible next steps for them to take.
Obviously, there aren’t easy answers to addressing structural social problems.
The biggest piece of advice is to get involved. When things feel overwhelming, look for the people already doing the work. There are usually activists, groups and organizations working on the issues who can point out ways to support their ongoing work.
History shows that sustained social movements made up of small and large actions over time, like the civil rights movement, the women’s movement and the movement for same-sex marriage, do yield change.
Starting small can include learning about an issue, then sharing that knowledge with friends, family and your community; following organizations, activists and organizers on social media to learn more; donating resources or funds; contacting elected officials to voice opinions on issues; voting in elections; volunteering in community service; attending an event in support of a cause; and working on a political campaign. It can also mean engaging in protests.
Research shows community engagement in the classroom improves student experiences, benefits faculty and community partners, and can lead students to critically think about social change. The benefits of community engagement are not limited to college classrooms. Community engagement promotes feelings of belonging and has health benefits.
As organizer and educator Mariame Kaba, founder and director of Project NIA, a grassroots organization with a mission to end youth incarceration, often says, “Hope is a discipline.”