Activist toolkit

Basic activism principles

Here are some basic principles for activists in pursuing their causes.

1) Know what you want and why you want it.
When you are deciding whether to protest against something, or join a cause, think hard about what you want to achieve and why.

For example, when I wanted to join the School Strike for Climate Action in 2019, my parents made me find out what the strike organisers were asking for and said I could only go if I agreed with what they wanted and if I wrote to my school principal and explained to her why I was going. This meant that I had to understand what I was striking for. This is important because you will not help your cause if someone asks you why you are there and you can’t explain it.

Similarly, when I was angry about a maths test in Year 8, it wasn’t just because I did badly in it, it was because I felt the reason I did badly was not because I didn’t understand or I didn’t study hard enough, but because of the disruption in the way the test was administered, especially getting half the questions halfway through the test.

2) Try to have constructive proposals as well as knowing the things you don’t want (the things you are protesting against).
Sometimes you just need to tell people in power to stop doing something, but it often helps if you also have some suggestions about what you want them to do. People in power want to know what they would need to do to stop you from protesting. This doesn’t mean that they will do it, but they are more likely to be receptive if you have a list of demands rather than just complaints.

For example, when Yassine was asking her school canteen to phase out single use plastics, she actually did some research into what items they might be able to replace, and how they might replace them.

3) Think about why they might want to do what you want.
People are more likely to change their behaviour and do what you want if you can make them see why it is reasonable, or better still, why it is in their interest to do it.

For example, when I wrote to my school principals in Hong Kong asking them to make homework optional, I pointed out to them that students were likely to learn more if they got enough sleep and had time to play with their siblings. Since the school was really keen to get good results from their students, this argument showed that their objective would be achieved with less homework.

4) Always be polite and respectful, even if the people you are opposing or petitioning are not.
People who don’t like what you are saying will take any excuse not to listen to you, and if your behaviour is aggressive or offensive then they will ignore what you are asking for and focus on why nobody should listen to such an aggressive or offensive person. If you make your arguments respectfully, then they have to focus on the substance of what you are saying.

So, even if you think your opponent is stupid or biased, you should present your arguments as if they were really clever and objective. It won’t necessarily work but at least they can’t then say that you are stupid and biased.

For example, when Yassine was told that the canteen couldn’t have wooden forks because kids might break them and use them as weapons, she thought that was quite a silly argument. But instead of saying so, she did a series of experiments with actual wooden forks to see how easy they were for kids to break and whether they would be sharp enough to be dangerous.

5) Remember that activism is its own reward.
If you work really hard on an issue and something changes, the powerful people who made it change may take the credit. This is very annoying, but it is better not to tell everyone that actually you made them change their minds and that they made concessions and backed down. This is because it will make it much harder to get them to change anything in the future if you do this, because nobody (especially a powerful person) likes people to think they are weak. It is better to remind yourself (repeatedly if necessary) that what you wanted has actually happened and that you have helped to make the world a better place, even if you didn’t get recognition for it. The people who are close to you will know and, most importantly, you will know.

Activist toolkit

Practical tips

These are some practical tips to help with things like letter writing and handling the media.

How to write a good letter:

  • Get to the point
  • Say at the beginning what you want them to do
  • Explain why you want them to do it
  • Use some examples to show what you have said
  • Analyse what you have said
  •  Summarize everything you have said and restate your point
  • Do it formally (no or little slang)
  • Check your facts with good research 
  • Read over your letter and make sure your spelling and grammar is correct
  • Use simple words and write clearly
  • Don’t use swear words

How to organise a petition, campaign or protest:

  • Advertise!
    • If you want to spread the word about your campaign, you have to advertise
    • Put up posters around town
    • Advertise on social media platforms
    • Email, text, contact everyone you know
  • Contact the politicians
    • Let them know what you are doing
    • If you can, try and get some politicians to come along and speak at the event
  • Work really, really hard
    • Organizing an event like this is really hard, so you have to make sure that it’s really what you want to do
  • Know exactly what you want
    • If you are going to organize a huge event like this, you have to have the reasons you are unhappy and a solution to the problem or some demands
    • Make sure the solution/demands are reasonable and realistic
  • Don’t do propaganda (e.g don’t say “Repeat after me!”) 
    • Lots of organizers like to have speakers come up and tell people what to say, but contrary to popular belief, this really annoying, and gives off the vibe that you are trying to tell them what to think. Instead have speakers present evidence that what the government/whoever is responsible for the problem is wrong.
    • It is okay to organise chants just while marching, but not in between speeches.

Handling the Media:

  • Don’t be scared
    • Journalists/reporters are usually really nice people so there is no reason to be scared
    • They have probably dealt with people a lot more nervous than you, so know how to help
    • Even if you stuff up really bad you can always retake the shot
  • It’s not your job to fill up the space 
    • Don’t get sucked into trying to fill up the space
    • If you do it can be dangerous because it can make you say things that you don’t want to say
  • Don’t be scared to correct yourself
    • It’s always better to just say ‘sorry I meant this’ rather than ignore it and keep speaking, especially if what you said was factually incorrect.
  • Stay calm. It doesn’t look like you know what you’re doing otherwise.
    • If you are looking really nervous on camera, then you could come off as trying to hide something 
  • Don’t use palm cards too much, and don’t show them to the camera too much.
    • Otherwise it may look like someone else wrote everything you have to say!
    • A way to avoid this is by practicing your interview beforehand (you could even ask your parents to ask you questions an interviewer might ask)
  • Always check your claims!
    • This is probably the most important tip
    • This is really important because as long as you have checked all your claims and everything you say is factually correct, you have credibility.
    • Credibility is really important if you want people to believe what you are saying
  • Don’t criticize the person, it’s better to criticize the policy/action
    • This is something many politicians need to learn
    • As I said before in ‘Activism in Schools’ you have to be respectful
    • This not only makes you more credible, but it makes sure that you aren’t just criticizing, you are finding a solution
  • Stay on track
    • Make sure you don’t start talking about one thing and then another and then another
  • Don’t avoid questions (It makes you look like you’re trying to hide something)
    • It’s okay if you don’t have all the answers, especially if you’re only a child
    • If you can’t answer a question because you don’t know the answer, it’s okay to say that you don’t know

Activist toolkit

Civil disobedience

Definition of civil disobedience

refusal to obey governmental demands or commands especially as a nonviolent and usually collective means of forcing concessions from the government
An accompanying feature is usually also submitting to the legal consequences. Many protestors who have engaged in civil disobedience have used their court appearances as an opportunity to state their case for protest.

Some prominent people who have engaged in civil disobedience:
Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), a British activist who campaigned for women to have the right to vote (called ‘suffrage’). She and her Women’s Social and Political Movement broke the law by disrupting parliament, chaining themselves to railings and burning churches. Many were imprisoned and went on hunger strike.

Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi (1869-1948), an Indian activist who campaigned for India’s independence from Britain. At the time, Indians were prohibited from collecting or selling salt (which everyone needed), so Gandhi organised a small group of followers to collect salt from seawater. This action was called the Salt March. More and more people joined across the coastal cities. Gandhi was arrested but by then he had thousands of followers in his campaign of satyagraha, or civil disobedience. Gandhi was killed by a Hindu nationalist in 1948, after India gained independence.

Rosa Parks (1913-2005), is known as the mother of the American civil rights movement because she refused to give up her seat on a bus for a white man, as then required under Alabama state law. She was arrested (but only fined) but her action sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, which eventually led to the US Supreme Court striking down the Alabama state and Montgomery city laws that required blacks and whites to travel separately on buses.

Rolihlahla (Nelson) Mandela (1918-2013) was an activist involved in both non-violent and violent resistance to the apartheid regime in South Africa. Apartheid (a Dutch-Afrikaans word meaning ‘separateness’) laws made black, white and ‘coloured’ South Africans live, travel, go to school and shop in separate places. While they were supposed to be ‘separate but equal’, the minority white population had access to good education, jobs and property, while the others, particularly the majority black population, did not. Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 and spent the next 26 years in prison. During his trial, instead of testifying, he made a three hour ‘Speech from the Dock‘, where he declared he was prepared to die for democratic ideals. After apartheid was dismantled in 1990-91, Mandela was elected President of South Africa in the first multi-racial election in 1994.

Martin Luther King Jr (1929-1968) organised the Montgomery bus boycott, and also played a leading role in the Birmingham campaign (Birmingham and Montgomery are towns in the US state of Alabama, which was one of the states that had slavery before the US Civil War in the 1860s). As a result he was arrested and imprisoned, where he wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, which laid out his case for equal rights for black Americans, and criticised those arguing for a more moderate approach to civil rights. During the March on Washington in 1963, when 250,000 people marched in the US capital to protest against inequality suffered by black Americans, King made his famous ‘I have a dream‘ speech. He was killed in 1968 by a white racist. The 3rd Monday in January is now a national holiday in the US, called ‘Martin Luther King Day’.