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NYC activists on how to make change in your community

Here’s how you can actually make yourself useful as an activist in New York

Activists during the Womens March in New York City earlier this year
Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images

People are finding themselves hungrier than ever for a way to make a difference, both on the national and the local levels. After all, change starts at home. But in a place like New York City, the number of choices for ways to help your community can be overwhelming.

How do you decide which issue or issues to dedicate yourself to? Or, for that matter, how can you actually make yourself useful as an activist and not just a pain in the rear? Here are some good starting points to help you figure out what matters to you—and how to actually get stuff done once you do.

1. Find your people

“We’re in for a long haul,” acknowledges Jeanne Heifetz, creator of We Are New York Values. There are thousands of grassroots groups in New York City, but you can’t possibly belong to every single one—so find the ones that address the causes closest to your heart. “Make sure they're people you'll be comfortable sharing the trenches with,” Heifetz says.

Heifetz, who refers to volunteering as “a form of sustained resistance,” lists a wide range of organizations on her site that are sorted by issue. Whether your interests lie in English as a second language education, at-risk youth, workers’ rights, or police reform, chances are good there’s a group near you working to make a difference.

2. Connect with your community

If you’re unsure where to focus your energy, ask yourself: Who are the people in your neighborhood? Lenny Letter’s editor at large and activist organizer Mikki Halpin (who curates the Action Now newsletter) says that it’s not as hard as you think to find out what needs to be done on a micro level.

“What are the issues in your community? Who are the people who are already working on them? What is it that you see that you’d like to change?” she says. Halpin suggests going so far as to put up flyers. “The city will tear them down, but I’ve done that a million times,” she explains.

3. Hit the streets

If you’re able to participate in a form of public action (such as a community board meeting, a rally, or a protest), you should—and not just because it’s a great way to get your voice heard. Heifetz explains that the added bonus of being out amid your fellow activists is “the shot of renewed energy you'll get from being surrounded by allies you didn't know you had and by so many creative expressions of our collective anger.”

Plus, you can help others raise their voices as well. “If you haven't been exposed to the people's mic, you'll discover how powerful it is to use your voice to amplify the stories of lives very different from your own,” she explains.

4. Check yourself

Don’t just try to shoehorn yourself into a community—be prepared to listen and be of service. “Don’t assume that you can walk into the community and know what to do,” Halpin says. “You have to put yourself in the position of a listener for a long time, because there are probably people there who are either feeling the effects of whatever problem you see and have ideas and thoughts on how to fix it, or who have already been working on it.” TL;DR: Listen and learn.

5. Do what’s needed, not just what you want to do

“People talk about privilege so much these days, but there is a real privilege to defining what you’re going to give to a cause rather than letting the cause ask you for what it needs,” Halpin says.

Be prepared to participate in ways you might not have thought possible: You might be asked to cold call or learn how to apply for grants or do things that are outside of your comfort zone. The important thing is to commit yourself to be of service and do what needs to be done—whatever that may be.