In for the long haul

Placards at #womensmarchlondon. Photo by @loumorrisphoto.

This always happens. Someone somewhere makes a stand against something. A big, bold gesture that commands attention, that challenges the status quo. Fairly shortly after, we hear the question: “But what difference did it make?” So it was that this article appeared in this week’s Metro, questioning the impact of the women’s marches which occupied the streets of cities and towns just over a week ago, and which our own Anna Zecharia wrote about so eloquently here.

Who is to know what the impact of one of the biggest protests in history will be? Only time will tell. However, I doubt that Anna is alone in feeling “this march was restorative…We remembered that we are not alone in this, and we reminded others that “we are with her”. We refuelled for the challenges of tomorrow.”

That sense of solidarity, of publicly celebrating your principles and dreams and ambitions with so many others, of not being alone in what you want to achieve, is personally restorative and energising. Particularly when you have been fighting on your own front for a long time and seen slow progress, if any.

Many of those within ScienceGrrl have been doing this a while. We mark our fourth anniversary this year, and are in for the long haul. I recently wrote an obituary for Ann Marks MBE, who served with me on the Women in Physics Group committee at the Institute of Physics for many years. She spent her life working to address many of the issues that ScienceGrrl is still challenging now. Change often comes slowly, and though I do believe the arc of moral universe bends towards justice, I feel a personal responsibility to keep pushing our world in the right direction and leave it in a better condition than when I arrived. Things will not get better automatically without our intervention, and sometimes disruptive non-violent protest is needed to stop hard-won progress unravelling.

I have personally been campaigning for and against various things since my early teens, with varying degrees of success. So whether the march you attended in the last couple of weeks was your first or you’ve been carrying placards for most of your life, you just feel you need to do SOMETHING about the state of the world or you’ve tried and lost heart, here are my top tips for keeping on making a difference from over 20 years of activism:

1. DO Get informed

It’s very easy to listen to people who agree with us. Our social media and internet search engines are tuned to give us more of they know we like and feel comfortable with. It takes work to find views we disagree with, to hear perspectives other than our own. Read widely, from worldwide sources – I read an international news digest every week, and it really helps me see the bigger picture. Read up on your history too, you’ll be simultaneously encouraged and disappointed that it seems to repeat itself and human beings continue to be a mixed bag of awful and glorious.

2. DO Review what you’re already doing

We are creatures of habit. Take time to review your habits and ask if you could make the world a better place by making different choices. Look at where you shop, what you buy, what you eat, how you travel to work, what you do at work, where you go on holiday. Don’t just do what everyone else does, settle on a way of being and doing that works for you and expresses your values.

Bonus tip: Don’t do this to every area of your life all at once, and make changes gradually if you find this easier. Changing a lot of your life is very disorientating and questioning the ethics of every single thing you do can be exhausting. Also, don’t let this ‘internal work’ – which is a life-long project – stop you looking outwards, which leads me to…

3. DO Assess what resources you have

Confession: this is something I’ve been pretty bad at until quite recently. I’ve always been good at seeing the problem, and a whole load of exciting solutions, but assessing whether I have the time and energy and money to make it happen? Not so much. I am never knowingly under-committed. But I have got a lot better at realising what I can actually fit into the gaps when I’m not at work or looking after my kids or keeping the domestic merry-go-round in motion, and to be honest, it’s better for everyone if I over-deliver on a little rather than under-deliver on a lot. So my advice is to be realistic and work out what you can give in the light of your existing responsibilities, in terms of where you can be and what you can do and when, without completely running yourself into the ground and becoming a husk of a human being.

4. DO Get behind something you care about

We all have different passions and interests. Find a cause (or two or three) that you genuinely care about and seek out organisations that are working on that, internationally, nationally and locally. I like to support at least one in each category, with the larger organisations giving me the sense that I’m contributing to something much bigger than myself, and the local ones giving me a sense of connection with the needs in my home community and the most opportunities to get ‘hands on’.

Then pick out those organisations you think you would feel at home in – doing things you agree with in a way that you feel comfortable with. That includes having a look at their accounts and being happy with how they will spend any money you donate. Then think about how you could support them, in terms of money or time. At this juncture, I must remind you: DO NOT FORGET POINT THREE. More funds are always needed and there are always more jobs to do than we have time to do them in, so don’t let yourself be pressured into over-committing by your well-meaning but over-stretched comrades.

And if you can’t find quite the right thing to join, you might want to consider starting something new yourself. Which brings me to…ScienceGrrl.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably quite keen on encouraging gender equality in the sciences. If so  – excuse the shameless plug – please join us, it’s only £5! We have an established team looking after Twitter and facebook, but are always looking for people to contribute their #womeninSTEM stories to our blog. We run periodic events celebrating and supporting #womeninSTEM in all corners of the country, so if you have an idea, please get in touch and we’ll put you in touch with your nearest chapter lead to help get it off the ground, with a small grant from ScienceGrrl HQ if needed. We also run higher profile campaigns and projects from time to time, such as the ScienceGrrl Calendar and She Blinded Me with Science, and are cooking up another one as I type. And we’re friendly and positive and run entirely by volunteers, most of whom work in STEM-related fields. <shameless plug ends>

But whatever you do, remember to tell your MP why it matters, and when it comes down to local organisations and events, your local councillors too.

5. DON’T Get smug and/or miserable about it

If you’ve got this far, you’re doing a lot of good stuff. Be proud of that, but don’t get all smug and do-goody about it. This should feel like a natural expression of who you are and what you want for your world, not something you’ve talked yourself into in the hope there’s a space on a pedestal somewhere with your name on it.

It’s also very easy for activism to grind us down. It’s easy to be intimidated by the number of problems to be solved, frustrated by the lack of resources available to tackle them and disappointed by the resistance to accepting and implementing solutions. Take care of yourself (Psst! Point three!) and nurture a spirit of joy and generosity in your efforts, even if it’s Saturday night and you’re doing a really boring job like the end-of-year accounts. Don’t let your activism be reduced to a bleak slog, a burden of obligation. Let go of failure, focus on the good. Remember what has been achieved so far and keep an eye on the final destination. Look after the people you work with in your chosen organisation(s) and encourage each other. Stay hopeful, dream big, try again.

Hope that helps. Got something to add? The comments are a-waiting…