If you’re a caring and compassionate person with an awareness of what’s going on in the world, you may be having a hard time right now. The good news is (Yes! Good news!), if you are not yet involved with an active environmental or social justice organization, you have a lot of potential to reduce anxiety, increase your confidence and hope, and help to make positive change in your community! As someone who has gone through the process of getting involved locally, I want to share how I’ve learned to overcome some of the barriers to volunteering to help you get started.
In our hyperconnected world, with practically unavoidable news of distant disasters that we have little power to directly influence or assist with, it’s all too easy to fall into a spiral of helplessness. I’ve been through the thought patterns of “who am I to complain and feel bad, when I know other people have it so much worse?” and “these problems are so vast and complex, anything I could do would make so small a dent as to be pointless.” These thoughts are utterly self-defeating, and if too many of us allow them to continue for much longer, they could become humanity-defeating as well.
Local actions do matter. Your actions do matter. A lot is terrible right now, and it’s not unreasonable to be sad and worried. However, if we give in to despair, we’re letting the fact that we can’t stop all of the bad events keep us from acting on those we can influence, and surrendering the power we have to make a difference.
So, how do you resist despair and get involved?
I’m not going to give you a line about how easy it is to just pick an organization and sign up, because that is the easy part, but that’s not all there is to it. There’s a multitude of different options, and finding the best fit for your availability, skills, values, and temperament may be a trial-and-error process.
You also might encounter both external barriers (such as availability), and internal emotional barriers as you contemplate where you might fit in, and how you might best contribute. I’m hoping that raising awareness of some of the internal barriers to volunteering – which can hold us back without us even realizing, and therefore be the most difficult to get past – will make it easier for you to overcome them and get involved!
Here are some barriers to volunteering that might come up, and ideas for reframing your thinking:
Barrier to Volunteering, #1: Getting involved means I’ll be more aware of what’s going on, and I’m already worried as it is.
Suppressing those emotions and avoiding reality too much isn’t healthy. Facing them, processing them, and finding ways to turn them into action – with the support of like-minded individuals who have been through the same journey – can be tremendously freeing, and life changing! We have to feel our feelings to live fully. Trying to maintain a normal life overshadowed by vague yet growing dread, believing we’re helpless to change anything, is a miserable way to live. Though challenging at first, it really does get easier to handle these fears and feelings the more you practice.
Creating positive action as part of a community instills hope within each of us. To hope is not to wait around until you are feeling optimistic, but to join with others in a defiant response to what we are doing to the planet. It is an action that you do rather than a feeling that you have. ‘Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up‘ (David Orr, 2008)
When you find something you are deeply excited about, and you are good at it, invest your time in doing it. You will start having a flurry of hopeful thoughts. Hopeful thinking causes hopeful emotions, in the sense that positive feelings emerge from our sense of our own capacity to achieve our desired goals. Feeling hopeful about one thing carries over to other situations, hope theory says. Successes help you feel excited and enthusiastic, and thus more hopeful about other things.– Elin Kelsey, Hope Matters
For professional support with navigating these emotions, the All We Can Save Project and psychologist Britt Wray (Generation Dread) have compiled a great directory of resources.
How to Process Our Collective Grief by psychotherapist and organizer Gabes Torres, is also a fantastic overview.
Barrier to Volunteering, #2: I’m overwhelmed by the enormity and complexity of the problems in our society. I don’t believe my involvement will make a difference, so I don’t see the point in trying.
Overwhelm and hopelessness are a terrible, toxic combination of feelings to live with. They can also feel all-consuming and inescapable. Fortunately, they absolutely are escapable! And a good thing, too, because cynicism, pessimism, and lack of focus from information-overload are significant barriers to much-needed participation in movements for change.
Strengthen your self-care routine
We can be much better external activists when we’re good at doing the internal part of self-care, too.– Britt Wray
With so many people and other living things suffering, and imminent threats to our social fabric and environmental stability, even considering putting effort into self-care can seem a selfish waste of time for those of us seeking to contribute to the greater good. However, in books, articles, podcasts, blogs, and Ted Talks, experts juggling activism with careers in psychology and science communication have asserted in no uncertain terms that the concept of “you can’t fill the cups of others if your cup is empty” holds entirely true here.
Some eager to start their climate journey might want to shift all their efforts to activism, but Wray says that can be a mistake without also undertaking “psychological and emotional resiliency training” that helps alleviate despair and burnout. Wray calls this “internal activism,” a term coined by climate-aware psychotherapist Caroline Hickman to describe the work of being with difficult emotions, without self-judgment, and learning to integrate them into one’s life instead of trying to avoid or bury them– Rebecca Ruiz, 3 Surprising Ways to Cope with Climate Change
Taking small steps can help build confidence that you can make positive changes. Here are a few tactics that helped me reduce those specific feelings of hopelessness and overwhelm, which you can adapt to your own self-care routine:
If you feel overwhelmed and hopeless, a good early step in “internal activism” is to commit to learning how to reduce these feelings to a manageable level, and establish habits to prevent them from becoming an obstacle to taking action. A helpful guide on these habits is this checklist created by local activist and climate wellness coach, Jill McIntyre Witt.
Another good early step is to recognize that these feelings are not bizarre, unique, or anything to hide, but a reasonable human reaction to the many distressing issues we face, and shared by more people than you might realize. You’re not alone.
If your perception is that everything is only bad and getting worse, and no one is doing anything about it, you’re probably not hearing enough about the solutions that are taking place right now, and the ways people are striving to make positive change all over the world – commit to learning more about solutions and positive developments!
“Whether or not the world really is getting worse, the nature of news will make us think it is.…As numerous communication studies reveal, almost all of the news that we hear about the environment is bad. It feels like the world is falling apart.”-Steven Pinker
“Those suffering from hopelessness about the environment often have little or no notion that environmental successes exist. Because they feel hopeless, they believe the situation is hopeless.
We need to pry ourselves free from this disempowering rhetoric and situate ourselves within the positive environmental trends that are already well-established and yielding the successful results we need to grow.
Knowing what works matters. Daily exposure to posts of conservation successes changes how people feel about the state of the planet. These successes empower us.”–Elin Kelsey, Hope Matters
That’s a good prescription: daily exposure to news of success. It doesn’t mean putting your head in the sand and completely ignoring bad news; rather, it means accepting that it’s nearly impossible to keep up hope and motivation to take action if we’re only exposed to news of the ways things are getting worse. It’s calling for a more balanced diet of news intake for your own good, and the good of all those you could help if you weren’t stymied by lack of belief in the existence of solutions.
The tools and resources to support healthier learning habits are available, and many are free to access! Some resources that have been a major help to me include the books and articles quoted here, Yes Magazine, Solutions Journalism Network, Outrage & Optimism, and more.
“Learning about solutions not only gives us hope, which we need if we are to muster the will to keep going, but also helps clarify our goals.”-Liza Featherstone, The Case for Good News in Climate Coverage
Make your social media habit work for your mental health
If you spend time on social media, you can adjust your newsfeed settings to increase the visibility of empowering and inspiring content, and turn your doom-scrolling sessions into hope-scrolling.
Follow the accounts of people and organizations who are active in the movement you want to be a part of, who demonstrate their understanding of the need for empowering people to join in by sharing success stories, concrete ideas for getting involved, and inspirational messages.
Also be sure to amplify their messages and help counteract hopelessness in your peers by liking and sharing these posts! Hope and fear can both be contagious, and too much fear (without information on what we can realistically do about the problem) can cause people to shut down and tune out rather than be motivated to take action, the opposite of the intended effect! Therefore, it’s important to be conscious and careful about what we are taking in, and what we are spreading.
Some consistent and skillful content-creators in the area of realistic (not too sugar-coated) hope about climate are Rebecca Solnit’s recently-launched page ‘Not Too Late’ (Facebook, Twitter, and a website), Jessica Kleczka (Instagram), Joycelyn Longdon (Instagram/Twitter), Circularity Community (Instagram) and Katharine Hayhoe (Instagram/Twitter).
The way information is presented matters, and we can be more effective both in our actions and in keeping informed if we’re not constantly terrified.
A friend of mine schedules ‘worry windows’ in her day to dedicate time to taking in news of current events, or contemplating other serious topics. When I’m particularly busy or starting to feel overwhelmed, I schedule “me time” for activities that fully engage my mind in something unrelated to the serious topics I contemplate on a regular basis, which allows me to be more focused, positive, productive, and resilient when times are especially stressful. Several activists who manage social media accounts have modeled good self-care by announcing they were temporarily stepping away from writing and social media to recharge, knowing they would be more effective communicators when they returned.
How you arrange your time is a personal choice, but believing you need to be “on” all the time to be an effective activist will only burn you out faster. Finding ways to strategically unplug, and making a habit of it, helps us persevere and bounce back from setbacks more easily.
Volunteer – it can really help you feel better!
Volunteering can build hope and decrease overwhelm, since it gives you a good reason to attune your focus to a more limited and local set of issues, and you are more likely to see the direct effects of your organization’s efforts. Also, knowing that you are part of a solution, doing your best to make a difference and improve our future, can be a profoundly calming and reassuring effect of volunteering.
I love how joyful all the work parties are – everyone is happy to be there and believes in the power of the work they are doing. So much of what’s going on in the world feels overwhelming right now, and being part of this community gives me a lot of hope.Tegan, WMTP volunteer
The mission is clear and attainable, when the climate and biodiversity crises seem so overwhelming, it is helpful to have manageable goals and be able to see progress.Grace B., WMTP volunteer
Barrier to Volunteering, #3: We need really significant actions to fix these problems, and I don’t have the time or energy for anything but small actions.
What if your power in this fight lies not in what you can do as an individual but in your ability to be part of a collective? What if you broadened your perspective beyond what you can accomplish alone and let yourself see what you could do if you lent your efforts to something bigger?– Mary Annaise Heglar, We Can’t Tackle Climate Change Without You
Every individual action is a small action by definition, but we shouldn’t underestimate the power of that action when it’s done in concert with the small actions of others.
An action that might seem inconsequential by itself adds to and interacts with other actions in ways that contribute to a much bigger picture of change… Each individual step doesn’t have to make a big impact on its own — because we can understand that the benefit of an action may not be visible at the level at which that action is taken.–Macy & Johnstone, Active Hope
Joining an organization and taking action with a team multiplies your effect well above what it would be if you only made individual lifestyle changes. Some primary reasons for this include:
- The more people contributing work to an organization, the more capacity each individual member has to focus their efforts to the tasks that are best suited to their expertise, and the more that organization can accomplish as a whole.
- Since the overall number of hours contributed by volunteers is required information for grant applications, any hours you log as a volunteer with a non-profit improve their chances of obtaining grant funding, which can help expand their program reach.
- By being involved, and speaking out positively about your involvement, you can influence others to see getting involved as something desirable and make them more likely to consider it, even if you never realize you’ve planted that seed!
Humans are highly social beings. We look to others to see how we should behave. As more and more of us take positive climate action, more and more of us follow that example. Seeing evidence that what each of us does makes a difference, motivates us. It’s hopeful, and that hope is empowering.– Elin Kelsey, Hope Matters
Taking small actions over time in a recurring volunteer role makes it easier to keep going than if you exhaust yourself giving your all to one big action, and consistent small contributions can add up to a more significant impact than you might expect. Small actions can also add up to big hope, and snowball into bigger actions!
It’s a true positive feedback cycle. When we feel empowered to act, individually and communally, that makes us not only more likely to act, but to support others who do. It’s a very human response that has been identified again and again around the world. It also inoculates us against despair.– Katharine Hayhoe, Saving Us
Finally, reframing volunteering as less of a duty, and more an essential part of your self-care regime can make it easier to dedicate more time and energy to it. Volunteering can be part of self-care, because:
- Regularly acting on our values increases our self-esteem and confidence.
- Being part of a change-making movement increases our awareness of hopeful developments and how many other people are also taking action.
- As social creatures, we have a deep need to be part of a community to have good mental health overall. Volunteering is a great way to establish and nurture those community connections with others who share our values and goals.
The people share my passion; the events are advertised clearly; folks are friendly and positiveSue G., WMTP volunteer
As a college student not from this area, it’s been a great way to learn more about Bellingham and feel engaged with the community here.Tegan, WMTP volunteer
Barrier to volunteering, #4: I don’t live a perfectly green lifestyle or make sure all my purchases are from completely ethical companies. Won’t I be judged? Can I be a good activist if I don’t always make the best choices?
This type of judgment is more likely to come from someone who’s opposing your message and trying to derail dialogue than from a fellow volunteer. If you do get called a hypocrite for not having a perfectly unimpactful lifestyle (i.e., driving a gas-powered car, eating meat, flying sometimes, using plastic items, or not always buying organic, local, and fair trade), here’s a rebuttal for your back pocket (and that doubtful voice in your head):
Environmental writer, Sami Grover, makes a compelling argument that we are all ‘hypocrites’ in one way or another when it comes to the lifestyle choices recommended as “ethical” or “green.” We have to live in the society we inhabit, and work with what we’ve got in order to make a better world. There’s a saying about how the inventor of the motor car had to ride a horse to work. The system we have limits our choices, so to make better choices possible for more people, we have to change the system. Don’t beat yourself up for not living perfectly, because no one is.
Not only that, but a lot of that guilt you have is likely the direct, intentional, and all too effective result of campaigns over the past several decades by the very worst environmental and societal destroyers to foist responsibility for their crimes off on to everyone else, and distract us from taking action that would endanger their power and profits. Scrutinizing one another’s personal lifestyle choices, struggling to reach unattainable standards, and holding ourselves back from getting involved or speaking up because we think we’re not good enough, is playing right into the hands of those who want us immobilized and voiceless.
So, yes, you absolutely can be a good activist without a perfect lifestyle. Being conscious of your choices and making as many positive changes as you can is a good way to show you care, set an example for others by showing change is possible, and reduce some of the cognitive dissonance we all feel as we become more aware of the disconnect between our lifestyles and values. However, due to the system we live in, some changes may be so far out of reach that attempting them detracts valuable time and energy we might otherwise dedicate to more impactful activism work.
When feeling pressure to make lifestyle changes that are truly out of reach for you, it can help to remember that whatever negative impact you might have is negligible compared to the vast industrial corporations and oligarchs that are knowingly killing our planet and destroying people’s lives. Resolve to do better when you can, release the guilt, and dedicate your time and energy instead to more impactful collective action to change our system and culture, so we can bring those positive changes into reach for everyone.
Barrier to Volunteering, #5: I want to do something, but marching, protesting, direct action, and speaking in public are not for me.
Marches, protests, non-violent direct actions such as sit-ins, and famous speeches are the most visible and memorable forms of activism we see portrayed by the media, history books, and museums. These actions are also crucial ways to show the popularity of a movement, raise awareness of important issues, and cause disruption that can pressure leaders to make changes.
However, traveling to where protests are happening, joining passionate crowds, speaking in public, and potentially putting ourselves in harm’s way can be intimidating and unfeasible for many people. Fortunately, there are many other ways to help! Behind-the-scenes advocacy, education, community-building, and organizational work are activism, too. This work is as essential to change-making as vocal protest, and provides more accessible and inclusive opportunities for people to find a role that’s a good fit.
There are numerous examples of vital tasks that non-profit organizations need volunteers to make happen, including:
- conducting research
- website design/upkeep
- organizing and managing data
- photography/ photo-editing
- creating written content and art to educate people and recruit support
- donor relations
- volunteer coordination and appreciation
- partnership facilitation/coalition building
- collecting signatures for petitions
- sending letters and making calls to policymakers
- phone and text banking
- social media management, outreach, & campaigning
For those in Whatcom County, Whatcom Million Trees Project (an entirely volunteer–run organization) has roles open for more on-call photographers for our community events and work parties, opportunities to communicate with policymakers to advocate for more tree protection, project coordination, research, and upcoming work parties which will need more hands to help make light work of clearing out various park sites around Whatcom County to prepare them for tree-planting this fall!
All of these roles need only take a short amount of time each week, often have flexible schedules, and except for the photographers and work party volunteers, all can be accomplished from home. If you want to participate but none of those roles seem right, please reach out anyway and let us know how you would like to be involved!
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist, policy expert, and writer, recently published this “Climate Venn Diagram” for helping figure out what role or roles might be right for you, which could work for any area of involvement!
I love that ‘What brings you joy?’ is a main pillar of Johnson’s guide. It took me too long to realize that joy and satisfaction in activism are not only allowed, but essential for avoiding burnout, especially with work that makes you more aware of the suffering in the world.
We simply don’t believe we have the permission to dream, imagine, invent, visualize, and play as fundamental actions necessary to achieve social change.– Shawn Ginwright, Letting Go of Myths, Embracing Truths
Thank you for sticking with me and reading this far! My hope is that taking the time to recognize these internal barriers to volunteering and rethink them will make it easier for you to get involved and reap the rewards of being a positive change-maker in your community. I’ve learned so much from the many activists and psychology experts who have shared their experiences and knowledge with the world, and I’ve organized a (still-growing) collection of resources that I encourage you to check out if you enjoyed what I shared here and want to learn more.
Volunteering is a win-win situation for you as an individual, and those you can help, and far more participation is urgently needed in the change-making movements of our time, whether they are focused on confronting climate crisis issues directly, or on social justice issues which are nonetheless connected to the climate crisis. There is hope for a better world, and the more people who join in to take action, the better our chances of making the changes we want to see. It’s time to do your internal activism work and find the volunteering role for you!
Mallorey Roe has been volunteering with Whatcom Million Trees Project since January 2022, and manages social media, helps with website editing and blog-post formatting, is an on-call photographer, and makes it to the occasional work party.
She loves the Pacific Northwest and all its amazing trees, and feels very lucky to get to live right by a beautiful forest with her spouse and three cats.