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How to be an activist: getting started

We have seen an incredible surge in activism in the UK over the last few years. But turning your discontent into a practical and successful campaign that makes a difference is no easy feat. You’ll need clear objectives, armfuls of information and a dedicated and cooperative team. Which is where How to Be an Activist comes in – it’s a practical guide that explains how to identify what you want to achieve and how to go about doing it. Read on if you want to make a difference through activism!

What is your passion?

Have you ever felt so unhappy and frustrated about something, you wanted to change it? The amount of unnecessary packaging used on fruit and veg in supermarkets; government inaction on climate change; the gender pay gap; the closure of something you care about in your community; institutionalised racism; or the low-welfare farming of puppies for profit, for example? Well, you and me both. My desire to stop the practice of selling ‘throwaway’ pets in third-party retail environments opened my eyes to a whole new way to turn my passion into action. And I want to share the lessons I’ve learned along the way with you.

What do you want to change?

The first step in making meaningful change is to decide exactly what you want to achieve and why. And while this might sound simple at first, it requires a full understanding of the issue at hand and an analysis of what needs to be different to allow permanent change to happen. This will allow you to decide who or what to target in order to achieve your goal. For example, when I first stood outside a garden centre protesting about the sale of puppies there, I was unaware of how my local council’s licensing department and outdated animal welfare laws were conspiring to enable this abhorrent practice. and while I knew instinctively that an ethical dog breeder would never want or need to sell their puppies in this manner, I had little idea of the scale of the puppy farming industry both here and overseas, and the money that could be made through low-welfare, high-volume dog breeding. And little did I realise the co-dependence of one upon the other.

I also failed to understand how buying a pet in a retail environment – not unlike one where you might pick out the latest ‘on-trend’ handbag – was acceptable to so many consumers. For me, it was intuitive that purchasing a pet would be a responsible decision taken only after careful deliberation, and that it was unacceptable to keep puppies caged on a shop floor. But for many others, this was how they viewed a pet – as a commodity to be bought and sold without too much awareness or concern about its provenance. I had much to learn about the puppy trade itself and the people at both ends of the chain.

Ask yourself these questions

As I outlined above, the issues that both allowed and encouraged the sale of pets in places such as shops, garden centres, boot fairs and online via sites such as Gumtree were more complex than I first realised. And I had to educate myself as to why such places existed, why they were thriving and why people were prepared to buy in this manner at all.

The answers in this case were that the practice (perhaps unbelievably) was perfectly legal; local councils were given free reign to inspect, license and regulate retail outlets (despite being unlikely to possess relevant specialist knowledge) and the buying public lacked the information or concern it needed to realise that such places are simply the well-dressed windows of animal abuse on a massive scale. Only by thoroughly understanding the forces at play here and the relationship between them could my fellow campaigners and I really work to stop the practice for good.

Just like me, you will need to ask what laws, regulations, practices, behaviours and beliefs are allowing what you want to change to persist, unchecked. Will you need to tackle the local council or the Government? Is there a regulatory or industry body you might petition? Is it a matter that Trading Standards should be dealing with? Do the general public or a specific section of the community need educating? Who can be held accountable for a practice or activity you want to change? Do you need to change laws or perceptions, or perhaps both? Is the problem local, national or global?

Each answer will ultimately help you understand what you need to focus on to facilitate change – and how you should plan your campaign. Armed with this knowledge, you can understand your core aims, the messages you need to communicate and to whom they must be delivered.


Ask yourself:

  • What do you want to achieve? A change in law and/or regulations – or a change in beliefs and behaviour?
  • What must change?
  • How can change be effected? By a ban or better education, for example?
  • Who must you target to bring change (maybe there is more than one person)?
  • Who can you hold to account?
  • Do the general public need education?
  • What is your central message?

Who will it help?

A further consideration is: who will benefit from any changes you make? It might be the general public, local residents, parents, the disabled or perhaps the users of a local or national service. It could be a specific age, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation demographic. It could also be a combination of these. In my case, the breeding bitches trapped in puppy farms and their traumatised offspring were the immediate and obvious winners. However, the puppy-buying consumer also had a lot to gain because farmed pets often come with expensive and stress-inducing long-term health and psychological problems alongside infectious diseases, which may also require immediate and costly vet treatment. Some might even die shortly after purchase causing heartbreak to the unprepared new owners, who may have bought the puppy as a family pet, thereby unwittingly causing distress to their children.

Whatever the case, these beneficiaries are the people who will become your allies and your greatest supporters. They know why things must change and the problems that will arise if things remain the same because they have first-hand experience of the problem. They can provide the anecdotal and physical evidence you need to take your case to the authorities. They are the ‘face’ of the story that will capture the attention of the press and the wider audience. Their ongoing support will lift you to success.

Conversely, those who might lose out financially, socially or in some other way – whether that is a perceived or real loss – when you succeed, will become your biggest detractors.

What would be an ideal end point?

Alongside setting specific goals that you want to achieve and identifying targets for your message, another crucial aspect of planning an active campaign to bring about change is to consider your end point. Ask yourself what constitutes success in this campaign – is it a new law, improved regulations, a conviction, an appeal, a review or investigation or raising awareness and changing attitudes? Sometimes, it might even be a combination of these things.

An often-overlooked aspect of activism is the setting of milestones and goals, so you know exactly what you have achieved. Believe me, it’s essential for morale that you see your time and energy expenditure as worthwhile. How to Be an Activist will help you to outline an end point for your campaign, too, as well as celebrate all the small wins in between. It will encourage you to silence that inner critic and to recognise when it’s time to put away the placard and toast your success.

So, let’s get active . . .