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59 Habits of Highly Effective Activists


The New Physician May-June 2001
We know, we know. You're a physician-in-training. You barely have time to eat and sleep. But we also know many of you out there secretly think you were born in the wrong decade. So for all of you dreaming of the 1960s activist life, here's a guide to get you started. But be forewarned: It's not all protests and sit-ins. These 59 acts of activism are as varied as the causes they can be used to advocate. We hope each entry on this list-the large and the small, the personal and the community-oriented/awakens a part of your inner activist, because we know the world will be a better place for it.

Go to medical school - You may not think so, but studying medicine can be an act of activism. By becoming a physician, you have signed on to making the world a healthier place.

Wear your white coat - A symbol in itself. This seemingly simple piece of clothing says something about you and for what you stand. Take advantage of that.

Inform yourself - Stay in touch with the news and issues that are important to you. Read newspapers and magazines. Subscribe to listserves and journals. Surf the 'Net. Information can be power.

Share the news - Once you've informed yourself, share the news with others. Put up a poster in the student lounge. Post a news bulletin in the mailroom. Do this daily, weekly or monthly so people can expect to be regularly updated.

Get on the airwaves - Got a message to share and want others to hear it? Start a radio talk show. Publish a newsletter, newspaper or magazine. Create a Web site.

Cybersize your message - Take advantage of the speed and efficiency of modern technology. Start a listserve or discussion board.

Be a printmaker - Create thought-provoking designs for T-shirts, hats and buttons. Wear them. Put a bumper sticker on your car.

Be a writer - Submit articles, story ideas and news items to journals, newspapers and magazines. Don't forget about the local papersÑthese outlets are always looking for good editorial material about a community project or event. Not good at writing? Give the editor a call. You could get a reporter at your event.

Compose an op-ed - Share your opinion on your newspapers' editorial pages. For a better chance of getting your letter in print, respond to a local or national event and use that as an opportunity to sneak in a message.

Hold a press conference - Call local radio and TV stations, and print media. Tell them you have an announcement to make.

Vote - It counts.

Run for office - Many local positions are part time and volunteer. Once elected, use your position to further your cause.

Attend local government meetings - Daunted by the idea of running for office? Start by going to public meetings and speaking out during comment periods. This can help you make connections with your community, and local officials are always looking for fresh faces to get involved.

Be a joiner - Every body counts in membership-driven organizations. Join an international, national or local activist group. You don't have to be an active member to be important--just be a member.

Get on board - Membership isn't always everything--get on an organization's board of directors. Make your voice heard once you're there.

Start an organization - It can be large or small; local or national. Remember, just two people working toward a common goal can be an activist group.

Be a globetrotter - Get on a plane, ride in a car, travel in a bus ... Travel, period. Expose yourself to a variety of learning experiences, whether they be in the next state or on the other side of the world.

Be a fellow - Find and apply for
fellowships that provide money for activists to take a sabbatical and work on an issue.

Initiate a community awareness
- Connect to the community by starting local programs, fairs and other events at public places like a library, community clinic or meeting house.

Get involved in local schools - Contact the administrators, teachers and professionals at area elementary, middle and high schools. Ask if you can talk to classes or create programs to educate students on the issues you're concerned about.

Get involved at your school - Be a peer educator and offer to give presentations on a topic you care about.

Be Smokey the Med Student - Remember the impact Smokey the Bear first had on you? What about McGruff, the crime dog? Spread your message in a creative way to the young. Children could become some of your strongest supporters.

Fill the gaps - Do you see holes in the system? Fill them. Don't wait for someone else to provide that help. Reach out yourself. Be the person who organizes the clothing drive for the children at your clinic.

Attend a workshop or conference - Events like these are perfect for networking, gathering information and ideas for new activities, and getting energized. You may find a mentor or even make a lifelong friend.

Get hands-on experience - You may be feeling like you aren't "doing"
anything right now--nothing that's "real," at least. Well, don't wait for "reality" to come and find you. Seek it out yourself. Volunteer, get an internship, or find work at a place where you can be connected to the issues you feel closest to.

Write a letter - Enlist the aid of people who have the power to institute change. Lobby them by writing a letter, sending an e-mail, faxing a petition, or making a phone call. Don't be afraid of visiting their places of work, either. And if you do so, wear that white coat.

Tell them you care - Contact individuals and groups whose efforts you support. Thank them for their work and ask how you can help.

Support legislation - Hear of any legislative action you'd like to support? Contact the key parties and ask how you can help. They may recruit you to start a petition, call your senator or even testify before Congress. You don't know how you can help until you make that call.

Create legislation - Write a bill and ask your representatives to introduce it.

Hold a lobby day - Round up as many fellow supporters as you can and schedule meetings with your senators and representatives. Even if you can just get in with their advisers, take advantage of the opportunity.

Testify - Like Rage Against the Machine says, "Testify!" This could be before congressional committees as part of some legislative action. Make your voice count.

Collect signatures - Whether they're
for a ballot initiative, a petition for
a candidate or even a letter demanding change, the more names the better.

Sign your John Hancock - Don't
forget to support your fellow signature collectors.

Join a protest - Numbers really count here, so if you're passionate about an issue and want to stand up for your beliefs--join that protest or picket line. Just be sure you're aware of the risks.

Lead a demonstration - Show your parents that civil disobedience didn't die in the '60s and initiate a protest. See who can come up with the best rallying chant.

Hold a candlelight vigil - Less militant than a protest, a vigil is an effective way to share your message.

Cause a stir - Some people are better at staging publicity stunts than others, but getting yourself noticed because of something unusual you do is often a successful way to gain attention. Climb a mountain, ride a lawnmower cross-country, live in a tree, walk around everywhere on your hands.

March in a parade - Why not strut your stuff down Main Street. It's great publicity.

Act out in class - Turn one of your school projects into an act of activism.

Tailor an assignment to suit your issue - Write a paper. Conduct research. Propose a project. You may just get some extra credit, and if it's really outstanding work, you might get published.

Take it to the classroom - Suggest that a professor introduce your topic in class. Professors can be very receptive to this type of request, if you follow these suggestions: Introduce your idea in a nonthreatening way, i.e., send the appropriate professor an e-mail introducing yourself, your idea and what type of result you'd like to achieve (inclusion of the information in a lecture, etc.); offer to do the research and provide materials; if you're successful, be sure to follow up with a thank-you note and an expression of appreciation. You can also take this same tact and volunteer to give the talk.

Reform the curriculum - If you're looking for a bigger impact on the classroom, curriculum reform may be your route to take. This involves jumping through many hoops, but if you're successful at accomplishing change by creating a new course, elective or program, just think of how future students can benefit. Don't forget about new technology when contemplating curriculum reform. What about creating an online course?

Get credit for it - Perhaps there's already a course at school focusing on issues important to you. Don't miss out on this opportunity to get credit for learning about something that's dear to your heart.

Request reading material - Ask that your local or school library order issue-oriented literature so that others can be informed.

Host a breakfast lecture - We're all attracted to food--especially starving and exhausted medical students. So why not host a lecture series over breakfast, lunch or dinner? It could be a BYOB (bring your own bagel) lecture or BYOP (bring your own pop, pizza is provided) talk. Satisfying the stomach may be the element needed to encourage dialogue.

Party - No one said activism has to be dull. Host a mixer, happy hour or soiree for a cause. Celebrate a historical event, day or "win." Spread the word by having a good time.

Make music - We all know how
popular benefit concerts are these days. Host one of your own in a local coffee house, bar or even on the school lawn.

Host a movie night - Select movies that spark discussion. Don't forget the popcorn.

Brown bag it - Perhaps all you want to do is gather with fellow activists and discuss a cause. Start a brown-bag discussion group. Meet over coffee. Make late-night pizza runs together.

Car pool - Encourage discussion on the way to school or work. This doesn't have to be in a car. Take the bus or train together. The idea is to use normally wasted time to your advantage.

Give handouts - Distribute stickers, pins and leaflets--the more gimmicky the better.

Jump rope - Run, walk or ride in a
charity event. Spend a Saturday
afternoon as part of a local jump-a-thon. Make friends, get exercise and spend a couple of hours dedicated to a good cause.

Make some money - Do some fund raising for your favorite cause. Host a bake sale, sell T-shirts or wash cars. Write a grant proposal. Put your money-raising talents to work.

Spare a dime - Donate money to charitable groups. Add a quarter to the pot. It all helps.

Buy with a conscience - There are many ways to spend your money and maintain your principles. Buy charity-supporting foods. Purchase fund-raising postage stamps. Request the services of utilities that donate a portion of their profits to a good cause.

Use stamps - Want to send a message near and far with very little effort? Select appropriate postage stamps from your local post office, and use them on everything from sending letters to grandma to mailing that loan repayment check.

Donate your time - For many activists, it's the simple things that count. And for many organizations, it's the administrative things that can become a chore. So, give up a couple hours of your week to stuff envelopes, collate, answer phones,
man a table at an awareness fair,
provide transportation--you get
the picture. Your time is precious
to you and extremely valuable to

Be a mentor - In the search for the perfect medical school mentor,
don't forget to be one, too--even if it's just for an hour each week. Allow a high-school student to shadow you, tutor elementary kids or be a Big Brother or Big Sister.

Talk - Whether it's with your spouse, friends or the mailman, talk to others about your issue. Don't assume that everyone is informed.

Listen - Don't spend all of your
time talking, though. Lend an ear
to anyone and everyone involved in the issue thatÕs important to you. Someone needs to be receptive to discussion.
Rebecca Sernett is editor of and Jennifer Zeigler is a senior writer with The New Physician.