The following post was written by medical student Leana Wen and published on the New York Times Two for the Road: In Africa with Nick Kristof on June 27, 2007.
One of the most common comments we get goes: “What can I do to help? You guys talk so much about the problems, and now I want to do something.” I don’t like to bring up problems without proposing solutions. In this second-to-last entry, I propose concrete action steps to channel passion and idealism into activism and action.
Be forewarned that I don’t think that giving money is usually the best way to help. I believe that education, awareness, and tangible actions multiply many times over. They are actions that, during your lifetime, will far outweigh infrequent monetary contributions. An aid worker at HEAL Africa summarized my thoughts when she said, “It’s too easy to give money and feel like you’ve helped. Doing something shouldn’t be about relieving your guilty conscience.” That said, there are many humanitarian organizations doing great things that rely on donor funds, and I do hope that you consider supporting them. I am just proposing other ways to help beyond monetary contributions.
1) Educate yourself
Exposure to and understanding of issues is the most important and most fundamental step of “doing something” to help. Broaden your understanding through reading and traveling. Your voice as an activist will be much stronger if assertions are backed by evidence, and if your passion and conviction is grounded in reality. . . .
2) Educate others
Once you understand the issues and have spent time abroad, use your social and professional networks to educate others and share ideas. You have more networks than you might think. Forward articles to help educate family and friends. Join discussion forums. If you worked abroad or spent time researching an issue, seek opportunities in your community to give talks. . . .
3) Take action
Assist existing humanitarian aid groups. There are many excellent aid organizations worthy of your investment or volunteer time. . . . Lobby your legislators. It’s not because of politicians that the US is not doing enough to help Africa or to stop the war in Congo. It’s because we have not, as a country, expressed interest in global issues. . . . Ultimately it is us who will propel our government to action.
Finally, remember that problems don’t exist just in Africa; injustices exist everywhere. Social activism is not limited just to the places “over there”; there are many opportunities to assist no matter where you are. Insecurity is not limited just to war-torn areas; there are destructive people and destructive values that exist in our own backyard. There is a lot we can do by assisting our own communities. Part of being globally conscious involves striving to help all those around us, to the best of our abilities, every single day.