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Be the Change: Real-Life Projects to Make the World Better
When it comes to changing the world, even one person can have an impact. But when it comes to doing the hard work of working on the big issues that matter, it can often seem *so* difficult that we don't even know where to start. In honor of International Women's Day, we are kicking off Be the Change, a series of challenges to do something bold to help make a difference.
This guide features multiple hands-on initiatives that can help you start making the world better today, featuring expert tips and step-by-step advice on how to do the hard things right. And we even give you advice on an easier and harder way to get involved. So what do you want to start changing?
What do Planned Parenthood, the Girl Scouts of the USA, the ASPCA, and the American Red Cross all have in common? Maybe these are organizations that come to mind when you're thinking about causes that you care about, and they're all examples of American nonprofits: organizations devoted to supporting social causes that run the gamut from educational initiatives to scientific research, the environment to public health, and plenty more in between. Unlike for-profit corporations, nonprofits are tax-exempt organizations whose main goal is serving the public interest, versus generating revenue for the sake of amassing wealth. What's more, evidence suggests that women are the key to nonprofits' success in making social change.
In other words? Ladies, start your engines.
According to a White House Project study, 73 percent of the nonprofit sector's employees are women. Yet, disappointingly, only 45 percent find themselves in leadership roles. This gender-leadership gap doesn't just speak to a striking power imbalance — it's also a missed opportunity in helping nonprofit organizations tap into their fullest potential to support the causes they're taking on.
That's not all. With a leadership scale that tilts heavily in favor of male bosses, nonprofits risk missing out on recruiting female talent for top roles. This can be detrimental to an organization's ability to address women-specific concerns within their given mandate. By not having women at the table, half of the community that a nonprofit works for risks being underserved — and in the age of #MeToo, it's more important than ever for young women to stake their claim.
"Many of the [current newsworthy] movements and causes are related to women's rights and other issues that deeply impact women's lives, and platforms like GoFundMe, BStow, Fundly and countless others have made fundraising goals more attainable for grassroots nonprofit organizations," says Jason Chmura, Executive Director of the Society for Nonprofits. "As government funding for social welfare programs shrinks, the nonprofit sector is working hard to fill those voids, but in order to compete and make their voices heard in an increasingly noisy world, it's critical that young women with passion and expertise get involved."
Chmura and other nonprofit professionals agree that nonprofits must pair that passion with an eye toward identifying and aiming to meet a pressing need. And it might surprise you to learn that you don't need an MBA or decades of corporate board experience to get the job done.
Nadya Okamoto was just 16 when she started PERIOD, an organization that provides menstrual supplies to women in need. Throughout her freshman and sophomore high school years, Okamoto's family experienced a bout of not having a home of their own, and during her two-hour commute to school, she met many homeless women who did not have access to necessary menstrual supplies.
PERIOD has since served over 200,000 girls and women in need and has over 150 registered chapters around the world. "Being a true advocate and a full-on leader in what you believe in stems from having an in-depth understanding of what it looks like on a personal, individual level," says Okamoto. "How the system that we live in affects the people who are living in it."
Pursuing a standalone nonprofit of your own, though noble, is also complex; nonprofits often fail at a rate comparable to any new business. Ellis Carter, an attorney specializing in nonprofits, says that lending your time and talents to an existing organization can be just as effective. "The start-ups are often competing with existing nonprofits and therefore undermining the issue they are trying to solve," she says. "I would advise against starting a nonprofit unless it is to fill an unmet or underserved need. Otherwise, your time and efforts are better spent assisting existing organizations."
Carter advises anyone who is set on launching their own nonprofit to first enter into an exploratory phase. "A great way to test your idea is to work with a fiscal sponsor who can accept gifts and grants restricted for the project and pay the expenses from those funds," she explains. "In this manner, [you] can test ideas before spending significant time and resources building a board and creating the infrastructure to support that idea."
In the meantime, the nonprofit sector continues to grow, as communities, steered increasingly by cause-driven millennials, continue to mobilize around social justice: The Urban Institute reports that, between 2003 and 2013, newly registered nonprofits grew by an increase of 2.8 percent, while private giving from individuals, foundations, and businesses increased by just over five percent.
Chmura says that he joined the Society for Nonprofits on a whim, but it ended up being the best decision he ever made. "Nonprofits tend to be a more welcoming environment for creative, independent thinkers," he says, adding that working with limited resources can actually be a great way to get experience with upper management and expand your skill-set.
"If you're passionate about making a difference in the world and willing to put in the effort, the nonprofit sector will welcome you with open arms."
Here's how to get started:
Bring the cause to your community.Read More
Over the past year, there's been a monumental surge in the number of women becoming more socially engaged and politically involved. Through protests and major cultural movements, they're standing up to make their voices heard, and the historical increase in women running for — and, encouragingly, getting elected to — office for the first time proves that the status quo is no longer acceptable. Women want their concerns to become policy priorities, and are taking it upon themselves to get the job done right.
The Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University currently reports that more than 400 women are running for Congress in 2018 (a record high!), and at least 82 women are considering running for a governor seat — more than doubling the previous record set way back in 1994. According to Axios, more women (including, importantly, women of color) are running for office at every level in the US than ever before.
Of course, those numbers could change as filing deadlines approach, and, as was made all too obvious in the 2016 Presidential election, there's no telling how results could shake out in the end. But as the old saying goes: We've got to be in it to win it. As it stands, women from both parties remain majorly underrepresented in elected political office: Congress is still 80 percent male, and much of the current legislation and policies reflect that.
"History tends to repeat itself if you don’t make change," says Alexis Frank, who, at 26 years old, jumped head-first into politics with a run for Congress in South Carolina's 5th District in 2017. She, like many other women currently running for political office for the first time, felt called to action because of the 2016 Presidential election.
Following the 2017 Women's March, Frank started looking for ways to get more involved in her community and, after Googling the local Democratic party, volunteered for a short time. Uninspired by her district's candidates for the upcoming special election, she decided she could represent constituents just as well if not better than they could, and she filed to run. From start to finish, her total race time was just 54 days, and while she lost to Republican State Representative Ralph Norman, Frank didn't let her previous lack of political experience hold her back.
"It's important that normal people run — they've gotten so lost in the sauce up there," Frank laughs. She spent the six years leading up to her Congressional run working as a paralegal and, along with her husband, an active-duty Marine, raising their two kids.
Frank is one of a growing number of women who tapped into the wealth of organizations working to recruit and prepare women to run for office. EMILY's List, one of the country's largest resources for women in politics, saw a 2,100 percent increase in women who've asked about running for office over the past year. Frank's training through Emerge America was completed after her initial race.
"When women run, they win at the same rates as men, but there aren't enough women running," says Melissa Richmond, Vice President of Running Start, a nonpartisan and issue-agnostic organization based in Washington, DC.
Richmond notes that, despite not needing extensive experience or special expertise to run, women are hindered by internal barriers such as a lack of confidence in their political qualifications. External factors such as sexism and a lack of access to traditional power structures within party leadership, among donors and political insiders, are also major factors. And the barriers for women of color, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities are even higher.
"Most young women can't picture themselves as political leaders because they don't see anyone in power who looks like them," she says. "It's time for that to change."
To fill the gap in elected leadership, not every woman needs to run for office. Volunteering on campaigns, at polls, or even in the offices of organizations such as Running Start are also meaningful ways to help flood the pipeline with women ready to lead.
"Every candidate who runs for office faces challenges," Richmond says. "But former candidates, successful and unsuccessful alike, are almost unanimous in saying that running for office gave them confidence and skills they didn’t have before."
Frank, who would like to get experience on staff with a congresswoman before her next race, knows this firsthand. She's more determined than ever to push for women to become a bigger part of the public discourse.
"No one's going to hand these positions to us, and no one is going to do it for us," Frank says. "We need to throttle ourselves in."
Here's how to get started:
Refugees and immigrants are often talked about interchangeably, but technically, refugees are people who are forced to leave their home country because they face persecution, or need to escape wars or natural disasters. Put another way, refugees are people who have been pushed out of their homes against their will, and who may find themselves trying to start their lives all over in a new home where they don't feel totally welcome. This means that it's up to people and communities to reach out and bridge the humanitarian gap to make displaced individuals and families feel at home.
Since Congress enacted the Refugee Act of 1980, around 3 million refugees have fled their home countries to resettle in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center. But things have changed dramatically under the new presidential administration.
Sarah Pierce, policy analyst for the Migration Policy Institute's US Immigration program, tells us, "Trump views immigrants and refugees as a security threat to the country." Indeed, that’s the rationale the president used to drastically decrease the number of refugees the US will take in — and doesn't necessarily make for a welcoming environment for those who end up making the cut.
For the 2017 fiscal year, Trump lowered the refugee ceiling from 85,000 to 50,000, which Pierce says is the "lowest refugee number since the start of the formal refugee program in 1980." Then, for the 2018 fiscal year, Trump dropped the ceiling lower still, to allow only 45,000 refugees to resettle in the United States. Not only that, but the president actually suspended the refugee program altogether when he attempted to implement his "travel ban" last year.
When refugees arrive to the US, they face significant barriers. Often, women face unique challenges. Donna Duvin, executive director of the San Diego chapter of International Rescue Committee, an organization dedicated to helping refugees resettle, says that refugees arrive "with very few belongings and little knowledge of American culture."
For women and girls who find themselves displaced, they’re often not only fleeing extreme conflict or persecution in their home countries but also coming from countries where women have vastly unequal access to education and economic opportunities. To help get families on their feet, the International Rescue Committee secures homes for new refugees, and immediately helps connect them to services such as English-as-second-language classes, medical care, and school enrollment for children.
The San Diego site also has a program specifically for women, called Women in Action. Duvin says that this program focuses on helping refugee women to articulate and then meet goals, while also getting them acquainted with their new community and helping them figure out how to find childcare and meet other day-to-day needs.
Through the program, which lasts several months, Duvin says that refugee women are able to "have a collective experience together and become their own support group over time."
"[Refugee] families are incredibly resilient and entrepreneurial," says Duvin. "Think about what it takes to flee your home and start over with so little."
By working with refugees to provide support and opportunities, everyday people can play a major role in helping refugees shape their own future. It's up to us to help our new neighbors feel at home.
Here's how to get started:
Welcome displaced migrants into your world.Read More
Over the last few decades, "going green" has become an increasingly popular lifestyle concern as climate change worsens, but let's be honest: It can feel like an uphill battle. From extreme weather patterns to constant headlines about the serious threats climate change poses to humans, animals, and food and water supplies, it's hard not to just throw in the towel and cross your fingers for a future human colony on Mars. But we can all make lifestyle adjustments that have a real impact, and they don't need to be as extreme as, say, going off the grid or foraging for all of your own food (but kudos to you if you want to give either of these a try!).
The hard facts are, well, hard to face. A large percentage of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions are produced just by China and the United States. Data compiled by the International Energy Agency shows that the US released the second most carbon emissions from fuel combustion (including coal, natural gas, and oil) in the world in 2015, with a total of 4,997.50 million metric tons of emissions, which comes out to 15.53 metric tons per capita. China had the most emissions in 2015: a staggering 9,040.74 million metric tons of emissions, or 6.59 metric tons per capita. Compare these figures with those for Indonesia, which produced 441.91 million metric tons of carbon emissions in 2015, at a rate of 1.72 metric tons per capita.
And it's not just obvious activities like driving fuel-burning cars that are contributing to the problem. As we all know: Americans love to shop. And when people move on from that sweater or dress they just had to have a year ago and toss it into the trash, it all adds up. According to PBS, Americans throw away 13 million tons of clothes every year, comprising 9 percent of the country’s total non-recycled waste. And according to the Carbon Trust, clothing consumption around the world creates 330 metric tons of CO2.
Another source of daily contributions to greenhouse gases is the food we eat. According to a 2017 report from the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems, food consumption in the US contributes an average of 8.1 metric tons of CO2 each year. The majority of emissions come from food production, and most of the rest comes from the transportation of food. Meat products, especially beef, are particularly bad for the environment because of how much the animals themselves create greenhouse gases before they are killed for consumption. The Center for Sustainable Systems report states that "ruminant animals such as cattle, sheep, and goats produced 167 million metric tons in CO2e of methane in the US in 2015 through digestion." Livestock farts are not just a gross thing to think about; they're literally an environmental hazard.
Those greenhouse gases filling the atmosphere are what's caused the earth's climate to change dramatically. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the earth has been warmer than the 20th-century average every year since 1977. This adds up to some profoundly scary consequences for the planet and everyone who lives here.
Rachel Cleetus, a lead economist and climate policy manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists, tells us that we’re already seeing "accelerated sea level rise, increased frequency of heat waves, increased heavy rainfall events that are contributing to floods, wildfire seasons that are longer and more intense all around the world."
Though climate change is a threat to all people and wildlife, some communities bear much more of the brunt of these impacts than others. According to a 2016 report from Front and Centered, a coalition of organizations fighting for environmental justice in low-income communities, communities of color, and indigenous communities, the immediate threats of climate change are most harmful the communities they're fighting to help.
"Climate change threatens human health and well-being from increased extreme weather events, wildfire, decreased air quality, threats to mental health, illnesses transmitted by food and water, and diseases spread by carriers such as mosquitoes and ticks," the report states, mincing no words about how dependent we are, as people, on a healthy earth.
Devastatingly, communities with less wealth and social infrastructure are also likely to face the most extreme climate consequences in the long-run. "Politically disenfranchised communities have fewer resources going into events," Cleetus tells us, "which makes the impacts worse."
The Front and Centered report backs this up and explains that low-income communities do not have the resources to prepare for major disasters, such as hurricanes or wildfires, and are unable to evacuate and relocate.
"After these events drop from the headlines, these communities are still struggling," Cleetus says.
While mass-scale changes are needed in order to address the worst effects of climate change, we can do our part to mitigate our role in the process — and, more importantly, to encourage our communities to do the same.
Here's how to get started:
Illustrations by Yising Chou.