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How to Be An Activist in the Time of COVID-19

To engage in environmental activism is to engage with bad news. Sea turtles choking on plastics, birds drowning in oil – bad news is what sparks us to make change. But the inspiration to keep fighting for a better world comes from each other, from collective action, in shared dedication to the cause. As Surfrider’s California Policy Manager, nothing renews my faith as much as gathering with our chapter activists, whether at our Sacramento Ocean Day advocacy event, joining with volunteers from around the state at our annual California chapter conference or rallying at a particularly critical public meeting. 

Of course, all those opportunities for inspiration have been put on hold due to the COVID-19 coronavirus. Inboxes are overflowing with notices of cancellation, postponement. Nonprofit groups are scrambling to respond, to reassure that the work will continue – as it must. But how does one pursue social change during a pandemic? As life’s uncertainty elevates to next-level worries about illness, income and isolation, where does environmental advocacy fit in? Amid a health crisis requiring us to physically distance ourselves from each other, how do we keep the lifeblood of inspiration from drying up?

Since the COVID-19 crisis emerged, most environmental nonprofit staff that I know have responded in one of three ways:

  1. Turn all attention to coronavirus-related news stories forgoing everything else;
  2. Continue with business as usual to retain a sense of normalcy among the chaos;
  3. Attend to the crisis as necessary while adapting work tasks to this (hopefully) temporary situation.

The first option pulls a person in easily. It’s a CRISIS and we must stay INFORMED – except that work still exists and for those of us fortunate enough to have the option of working from home, that paycheck isn’t going to earn itself. Also, while the news cycle may be a 24-hour crisis-fest, one’s brain can’t be, not if we want to stay sane.

The second option, appealing as it is to cling to the comfort of routine, denies reality. At this point, with the entire state of California under a stay-at-home directive, anyone forging on with campaigns as usual is wildly out of step.

That leaves the third option, which is what Surfrider has embraced (see CEO Chad Nelsen’s “The Power of Surfrider’s Network During the Global Pandemic”). We don’t know the specifics of “temporary,” of course – that depends on how well we collectively contain COVID-19 and we surely have a ways to go before we know anything definitive. But Surfrider’s earned a reputation for being able to respond quickly and thoughtfully to political crises and we’re now invoking those skills in this health emergency. 

So here’s a guide to How to Be An Activist in the Time of COVID-19. Your own needs, experience and direction will vary.

Assess Yourself

Everyone should prioritize the physical and mental health of themselves and their families first – keep washing your hands, stop touching your face, stay six feet or more from everyone in public if you have to be out! With that in mind, assess your own capacity for engagement on environmental issues. This may be time to watch all those documentaries you’ve meant to get around to! Surfrider has put together a guide to “Movies, Books, Articles, Podcasts, Music, and Courses to check out related to Surfrider Foundation Issues During Your Time of Home Confinement and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Or you might not want to plunge into subject matter that increases your anxiety level – that’s fine, too! You’re a better activist when hope is woven into your view of the world. You get to decide where, when and how to cultivate it. Anna Borges wrote a column about what to do if your anxiety about coronavirus feels overwhelming

Know the Source

News is rampant and misinformation blankets the internet. As always, make sure what you’re referencing stems from a trustworthy source. Harvard Medical School has a guide to getting news about coronavirus that serves as an excellent reference. Californians can reference our state website as well.

Follow Guidance – Chapters and Events

Surfrider’s chapter department put together a comprehensive page of guidance, materials, updates and other resources for our activists. Utilize it as you continue to advocate for our ocean, beaches and waves from home. We’re continuing to develop new recommendations to our chapter and club networks to keep volunteers and the public engaged throughout this COVID-19 emergency period, so check back often. If you have the time and drive, this pausing of “normal” life can serve as an opportunity for mid- and long-range planning.

Campaign Communications During the COVID-19 Crisis

Regarding campaigns and media outreach, our friends at Resource Media crafted a helpful guide on how to “be responsive to a rapidly changing media landscape and identify opportunities to responsibly uplift — or hold off on pushing out — messages and content that advance our work.” The guide also makes an extremely relevant point about this current crisis that, while it may sound somewhat outside Surfrider's focus, is one way we can individually manifest Surfrider's commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in these times:

“As communicators who have social justice and equity baked into our mission, it behooves us to point out that public health crises like this put an enormous burden on people with disabilities or compromised immune systems, the elderly, undocumented laborers, gig workers, domestic workers, immigrants from impacted countries, and others. Find ways to support them by giving to response funds, join the call for worker protections, and push back against racism and xenophobia.”  

Being aware and doing good where you can matters.

Legislation and Policy

California’s legislature has paused business for the moment. A list of legislation we've been tracking can be found here, but the longer the legislature is on hold, the less likely any bills except those related to wildfire, homelessness and responding to the coronavirus pandemic will be considered. We will, as always, continue to keep a close eye on developments.

Meanwhile, on a local level, pay attention to how your city council and county supervisors are responding to the crisis. Are public meetings continuing virtually? Are topics other than COVID-19 being considered? Phone calls and letters still count if so. 

Issues and Campaigns

Let’s take a quick run through Surfrider’s areas of focus through the lens of COVID-19.

Plastics – Our colleagues at UPSTREAM and Break Free From Plastic have offered a FAQ on plastic pollution, reuse and COVID-19. You can also support your local Ocean Friendly Restaurants that are able to offer takeout, delivery or curbside pickup by making use of those services and promoting on social media channels.

Beach Access – Some counties have closed beaches and other outside spaces in order to limit exposure. If you're in a place where shared open space continues, take advantage of the physical and mental health benefits being outside offers – and make sure to set an example of proper social distancing (people should be at least six feet apart). Do your own personal beach clean-up while you’re there! By using our online tool to document your cleanup, you can ensure that your efforts assist Surfrider’s larger Plastic Pollution Initiative – just download and print the data sheet at the bottom of the page before you go! 

Water Quality – Unfortunately, all Blue Water Task Force testing has been paused. But information to share is out there! See Staff Scientist Katie Day’s post, “COVID-19 and Beach Water Quality: Updates from the Research Community,” or listen to the podcast version of it on Surfrider California’s latest episode of Protect & Enjoy.

Coastal Preservation – One of Surfrider’s key national coastal preservation campaigns is centered on the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Permanent funding for the LWCF has been rolled into “Great American Outdoors Act,” which has plenty of bipartisan support. After all the COVID-19 relief legislation has passed, the Great American Outdoors Act is expected to be next. You can help ensure that here.

Ocean Protection – As people around the world are sheltering in place, carbon emissions and other negative forms of human impact have lessened. Stories of planetary healing are flooding social media. We can use these examples to push harder for a more sustainable world going forward. 

The Big Picture Finally, even with federal and state financial relief being offered, the economic toll on our country – indeed, on the world – will reverberate into the future. Your donation to Surfrider now will ensure that our positive impacts do, too.