When tasked with that question, It’s easy to shut down, because the issue is simply too big and multifaceted. There is too much that needs to be done: from education to healthcare to law enforcement and incarceration… the list goes on and on. Plus, many solutions require money, time, or confidence – resources that may be lacking in people who sincerely want to help, but feel like there is nothing significant they can do.
I’ve identified 5 simple actions that every single American can implement today, that collectively will help move the needle forward:
Get Vulnerable – it is human nature to hold prejudices. When you see someone approaching you, your brain automatically assesses the person and the situation to determine if you are in danger. We’re programmed to look for danger so we can avoid it, or in some cases prepare to confront it. It’s that concept of “fight-or-flight” we learned about when studying animals – but it applies to us too!
These biases we hold are shaped by our unique lives and experiences – and what I perceive as a threat may be different from what you perceive as a threat. We have to be willing and able to acknowledge that those biases exist inside of us, and then we must challenge why they exist? Is it because there is ACTUALLY a threat? Or is the threat a false perception? If it’s a false perception, then we can work on reframing that prejudice.
A few months ago I was working in a Starbucks. A group of kids walked in with their backpacks, they clearly walked over from a nearby school, and were loud and playful and having a good time while they hopped in line to order and started looking for tables to sit at. I moved my purse from the chair next to me, to the floor between my leg and the wall. Why? Not because I wanted to free-up a chair.
I had to recognize what I had just done, realize why I did it, then think about how I can reprogram the experience instead. I moved my purse to the window ledge – off the floor! And made sure to make eye contact with the kids and smile. I imagined my own kids at that age – and remembered hanging out with my own friends similarly. This is nothing to fear. I will reframe this – and other – prejudices when I recognize them.
Challenge yourself: I’ve found that talking about how I’m identifying and reframing my prejudices out loud with a trusted person face-to-face, or even on social media, is really helpful. It holds me accountable, and others show up to support the process, which is vulnerable and difficult.
Educate Yourself – You can not expect anyone else to do the work for you, you must educate yourself. In this day and age where social media is the place where much of our news and education is consumed it’s important to be thorough in your research and to consider the sources for your information. Much of the information on social media tends to have a political agenda tied to it – and that’s a topic for a whole other conversation. But I do encourage you to consume content on both sides of the spectrum and to seek out peer-reviewed sources for information, as opposed to information that is influenced by opinion.The same way we got vulnerable to identify our internal biases, we have to extend that vulnerability to the content we are consuming so that we can be as confident as possible that we’re not spreading false or misleading information – including memes.
There is a lot that I’ve discovered that I didn’t know – I am ashamed to admit that I had never learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre until this year. That’s inexcusable. It further enforces that the education system failed me, but also that there is a lot of work I can do to educate myself, which will allow me to be a stronger advocate and also share that information with others.
Challenge yourself: get a small group together to learn together. Select a book or movie that will challenge what you know and watch it – then come together to discuss it openly and with vulnerability. Keep an open-mind, and be willing to learn and possibly change your opinion.
Listen – If you know me personally, you know that this is an especially difficult point for me – because I love to talk! But, if you’re the only one talking – then you can’t possibly be learning.
It’s essential that we compassionately listen to the stories of others – without getting defensive or interjecting our own opinions. We must understand that we all see life through different lenses, which are shaped by our life experiences. Two people can be in the same room at the same time, but leave with different feelings and experiences. We have to be willing to believe what other people tell us about how they feel and what they experienced – even if it’s not consistent with our experiences, or the expectations we had for them.
Oftentimes when it comes to divisive issues (political or otherwise), we project an extremist opinion to those who are in opposition to our beliefs. For example, if you support Black Lives Matter, you hate police. Not always the case, right? And the flip side of that coin – if you support All Lives Matter, you are racist. Not always the case either, right? But, these perceptions prohibit productive conversations.
We have to have tough conversations to get to the real issues. Maybe we’d discover that the BLM advocate fears police brutality and supports police reform and training… and the ALM advocate has family who are police and they fear for their safety. Once we’ve unpacked that a little, we can begin to continue the discussion, and discover areas where beliefs do in fact overlap. Then, we can open ourselves up to learn more, and evaluate biases we’ve been feeling about people who vote/advocate differently than we do.
Challenge yourself: Show up on social media calm and maturely. Before replying to a heated debate on social media take a deep breath (sometimes I even save the post and walk away for a few minutes) so that you can reply calmly and not with anger. Remove any cliches like “you’re part of the problem,” from your vocabulary and any other insults. Consider asking more questions in an attempt to understand why the person holds their beliefs, and be willing to admit when you’re wrong, “woops, I did get that one wrong – sorry about that! I learned something new today!” This will be much more effective than a war of words – no one really LISTENS to those conversations.
Stop Injustices – Before we can stop injustices from happening, we have to understand what injustices are. The spectrum ranges from overt racism to discrimination and all the way down to microaggressions like racist jokes or slurs that we’ve normalized. Part of the process of educating yourself will be to discover what qualifies as a microaggression and/or an injustice.
Stopping an injustice from happening means that you don’t laugh at the racist joke. You don’t ignore an offensive word/phrase/symbol when you see it. You can start by questioning it, “did you know that’s offensive?” – maybe they didn’t and you can use this as a teachable moment. Maybe they just don’t care – in which case you’ll need to evaluate the situation to determine how you’ll handle that relationship. Is there anyone you can report the incident to? Is this a person you want to remain friends with?
When the injustices are bigger, the ability to stop it from happening can be difficult – we all witnessed that with the murder of George Floyd. If it’s impossible to stop the injustice from happening, calling for help, bearing witness and/or recording the injustice can help to ensure justice is served after the fact. I wish there was a better answer than that. I really do.
Challenge yourself: Think about injustices you’ve witnessed in the past, and practice what you would say to stop that injustice if it happens again. Often what keeps us silent is our initial shock in what we’re witnessing, and the time it takes to process and then react to the situation. No one hates role playing more than I do – but it’s a good way to get yourself prepared to stop an injustice from happening. At the end of the day, if you drop the ball, don’t be too hard on yourself. Report the situation, ensure that the involved parties are okay, and learn from the experience.
Vote with Intention – When it comes to voter turnout – there is always variation between states, years, and other demographics. Most notably, more people vote in years where there is a presidential election, and less in mid-term or local elections. This is where we need to do better.
There is no doubt that the role of the President is important and everyone should certainly cast their vote for a candidate who is anti-racist and aligns with other policies deemed important to the voter. There is not always a great choice presented to us, but we must weigh the options and the possible ramifications of each option and make the decision that we believe will be best for us, and for our country.
Your civic duty does not end there. Local and State elections are far more important. Local/State officials are the ones passing legislation that will directly impact your everyday life in your immediate community. And a lot of Federal legislation starts at the Local/State levels. Plus, since less people vote in State/Local elections, your vote can really push the needle towards your preferred candidate!
We’ve all been there, voting for Federal offices and when we get to State/Local offices we are not so certain and try to remember political campaigns, or just vote down party lines. We need to do better and vote intentionally in ALL elections to ensure that the policies that are important to us and to our community are supported by our elected officials at ALL levels.
Challenge yourself: First, ensure you’re registered to vote. Even if you were registered last year, check again (I’ve been mysteriously unregistered!). Ensure you check ASAP so that if needed, you register before the deadlines in your state.
Next, make a plan! Research when the next election day is in your district, what offices are on the ballot, and who is running. This may be overwhelming, but stick with me. Pull out your calendar and set some weekly goals. If you can dedicate yourself to 1-3 offices per week (or more if you’re planning well in advance, less if you’re a procrastinator), and do the work to research each of those candidates. Challenge yourself further by giving an honest open-minded look at the “other” party and don’t just vote down party lines. By breaking the work into smaller chunks, it’ll be easier for you to feel confident in voting intentionally in the next Local/State election.
Once you’re comfortable with these five action items, there are certainly additional ways to help. You can make charitable donations to nonprofits who align with your cause, march in a protest, write letters to your elected officials, or even run for office yourself… but don’t get so hung up on taking BIG action, that you fail to take any action at all. Absolutely everyone has the ability to start with these five action items, and as more and more people step up and take these actions, we’ll see more and more change. It took us hundreds of years to get to where we are now, this will not be an overnight success – but if we all work together, we will shorten the timeline.
Meg Brunson is an advocate for racial equality. Over the past few years, she’s devoted herself to learning more about the Black community and race relations in America, so that she can ensure her family, friends, community, and country are making progress towards becoming actively anti-racist. Meg is NOT an expert on this topic, but she is committed to learning, and refuses to stop working towards becoming a stronger ally.