It’s very easy to get overwhelmed. With so many actions to take and so many organizations that need your support, it’s easy to drown in the sea of ”I should”/”I can’t” and find yourself shocked into inaction. There are a lot of people who don’t know where to start. And there are a lot of people who are frustrated with accessibility issues surrounding some more common forms of resistance.
A lot of people have asked me: How can I help? I’ve weathered a process to figuring out how I can help build community and fight for justice and I’ve gotten pretty good at it, so I’m going to share that process with you. I’m going to breeze through the list of steps, and then describe how I went though them to get where I am today. Here we go:
A nervous wreck’s disabled guide to stepping up
Step zero: Give yourself a moment to breathe.
Step one: Make a list of what you’re good at.
Step two: Make a list of your limitations.
Step three: Make a list of people and organizations who need support.
Step four: Make a list of people and organizations you are connected with.
Step five: Put it all together.
Case study: me
I’m going to use myself as an example: My body and my brain don’t work quite the same as everyone else, and I get frustrated with my inability to just show up in the street to throw down. After sober self-reflection and negotiation with my dis/abilities, I’ve been able to design a strategy where I can do work that matters to me, that helps others, and that actually works with my body instead of against it.
Step zero: I find it easy to get overwhelmed and shocked into inaction by the weight of the world. First and foremost, I give myself permission to feel overwhelmed. I find the key to fighting panic is to accept my feelings and let the panicked thoughts run their course. I listen to my body. I take a long shower. I pray. I center myself, so I can remember what’s important and look to the future with an eye that is both critical and hopeful.
Step one: Once I’ve let myself breathe and acquired a more level head, I write down a list of things I’m good at. I’m a writer. I am a great cook. I know basic carpentry and household maintenance. I’m good at internet research. I’m OK with public speaking but excel in one-on-one conversation. My faith in Allah and my passion for justice are assets. I am an empathetic person who feels very strongly in rising up for the disadvantaged and marginalized in the world. I write these traits down, because these things are critical to remember, and having a physical copy is helpful for me to process everything.
Step two: I consider my limitations. I don’t place judgement on my limitations; I accept them for what they are. I write them down on paper: I cannot stand for long periods of time or march long distances. I cannot risk arrest. I can’t go to a venue that has flights of stairs without an elevator or escalator. I spend maybe too much time looking at this list because it hurts and it’s easy to dwell on what I can’t do. I give myself space for the feeling. I understand that most romanticized forms of protest aren’t accessible to many. There are allies and accomplices who can risk facing down the pigs, who can march for hours to shut down freeways, who can put their bodies on the line for justice. Let those who are willing and able rise up to their ability. I’m no good to the movement if I’m dead or hospitalized and my access to doing the work is severely limited from behind bars, so I swallow my guilt and I get back to considering what I can do to help.
Step three: I write down a list of the people and organizations who need support. I try to be as specific as I can. This requires a bit of research. It’s easy to say “refugees need help”—it may take time to come around to “these three organizations in my city are helping refugees and need support.” I look at organizations who are doing good work—I find the donate page on their website.
Step four: I write down the people and organizations I know. I consider my faith community. The local organizations I admire. I consider the people in my life who are doing good work: the brother who gives so much of his time to a refugee family struggling to get on their feet, the sibling doing suicide prevention work in the trans community, the sister who uses her car to give free rides for people going to medical appointments. I think about the communities I’m a part of who could be doing more to help others.
Step five: With everything written down, I can look at these four categories and start putting ideas together:
- I can write well, but I can’t risk arrest at a march. My friend is going, though, and she’s just down the street: I can write protest signs and hand them off along with some other important supplies (water bottles, vinegar soaked bandanas, anti-tear gas mix in spray bottles) and my friend can distribute them at the march.
- I can hold a marathon of cooking in my home kitchen (to help process my feelings, because I know cooking good healthy food will calm me down), and when it’s done I can package it up and donate some healthy halal home-cooked food to the refugee family my brother has been supporting.
- I have a little extra money this week. I can use it to patronize the immigrant-run business down the street and keep money in my community instead of giving it to corporate interests.
- I can reach out to LGBTQ orgs in my city and educate on advocacy for Muslims. I can reach out to Muslim orgs and talk to them about strategies for trans inclusivity. Let’s start with e-mail or phone calls, and maybe it can develop in to some in-person discussion with local leaders.
- I can commit 30 minutes every day to calling my senators and local representatives to make sure X bill doesn’t pass, Y bill does, Mr. Z doesn’t get appointed to the supreme court, etc.
- I have a lot of friends and family who can see the direction this country is headed, aren’t happy, and while they believe something should be done about it don’t know how to get involved. I can plan a potluck dinner from home to have friends and family over to raise money for that organization doing local legal support for immigrants and refugees. While they’re over I can teach my less-informed family about the importance of this work and help strategize how they can get involved, too.
- I have a lot of connections, and a lot of organizing experience I could put to good use. I am going to get my friends together and help create a prayer space for marginalized Muslims and do what I can to empower others to build community together in a way that is safe, accessible, and affirming for everyone.
That last one is maybe a bit grander of a direction than many may be willing to take it but this is the point I’m trying to make: in this process, you can’t leave any idea behind. You don’t have to do everything on your list. Just write out every possible idea that comes to your head. Start with the tiniest, most basic good deed—the kind of thing you think any decent human being would do—and move your way up to those big-picture dreams you feel like you could help bring to life if the stars aligned in just the right way.
Be mindful of your limitations, but more importantly celebrate what you excel in:
- Maybe you know how to knit! You can host a knitting circle to discuss an issue you care about.
- Maybe you’re an artist! You can create advertisements and art in support of that organization you admire in your free time.
- Maybe you’re a dank meme creator! You can do whatever that entails, in whatever way it may help your cause.
- Maybe your aunt is queen bee at the retirement center! With a little help, she could coordinate a senior call-in to your local representative.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. It’s also pretty easy to sit down and think about the ways you can contribute to the movement. We can make space for both, but if you want more help figuring out how to step up, I’m here. Lots of us are.
Madison Mahdia Lynn is a community organizer in Chicago and founder of Masjid al-Rabia, a women-centered LGBTQIA+ affirming organization providing spiritual care for marginalized Muslims. This post originally appeared at Medium. You can follow her on Twitter at @mahdialynn.