Careers in Social Activism--An Introduction

Social activism is an intentional action with the goal of bringing about social change. If you feel strongly about a cause and are working towards a change, you could be considered an activist. An activist is anyone who is fighting for change in society. An activist can be a student attending a rally against tuition increase, a politician fighting against international human rights abuses or a mother of a child killed by a drunk driver talking to students about drinking and driving. Social activists consider the larger picture – how can they find ways to end injustice and to create strong communities which encourage economic, social and psychological health.

While social services work addresses the needs of individuals, social action looks more at the root causes of those needs and tries to find ways to eliminate them. For example, rather than working directly with the homeless, a social activist might work to uncover the conditions that are making it difficult for people to work and afford a place to live. Instead of serving in a clinic that sees a high incidence of leukemia, the social activist works to uncover the source of toxic chemicals and to hold polluters accountable for the increased health risks to a neighborhood.

If we define social justice as the belief in an equitable, compassionate world where difference is understood, valued and respected, then we can see that social activism and social justice are flip sides of the same coin. Social action work is a way to meet the goal of social justice.

Career Options in Social Activism

There are very few careers that can be specifically defined as “activist” careers. The key to creating a career in activism is to find ways to bring your beliefs and values into your work. Just about any career choice can incorporate an element of activism if you are working towards societal change.

Combining activism with your career choice may require creativity and resourcefulness on your part. For example, you could be a teacher contributing to activism by teaching your students about environmental, human rights and global issues. As a doctor you could dedicate your career to offering medical services to children in impoverished areas. Or as the director of an employment agency, you might gear your organization's efforts towards helping homeless people find work.

Here are some examples of careers that you can pursue that clearly include an element of social activism:

Law and Public Policy - within the legal profession, areas such as human rights law and public interest law are obvious activist careers. In fact, many areas of law could include aspects of activism.

Social Work - social workers work in different capacities in both public and private sectors to lobby governments, provide counseling and participate in research, development and evaluation projects that all work to make changes in the larger system.

Government and International - lobbying the government to bring about change, both domestically and internationally, is another form of social activism. One of the clearest paths is working for the UN on peacemaking efforts.

Environmental - working for environmental sustainability is crucial in maintaining the world for ourselves and future generations. Any work that aims to protect the environment can be seen as the work of an activist.

Community Organizing - the goal of organizing is to empower and develop local community leadership and to help build a community's capacity to meet its own needs. Organizers help by forming groups to increase political power and to create a voice in improving the conditions of communities. Tactics include media campaigns, boycotts, class action suits. Organizing is about gaining access to more power.

Recommended Skills

Some of the interpersonal skills needed for social service work are also needed in social activism. It is important to be able to work with many different types of people, to have excellent communication skills, as well as have the ability to persuade. You will also need enthusiasm and perseverance. It helps to have an ability to analyze underlying issues, to be able to strategize and to envision an improved society.

Internships and Job Opportunities--Social Activism connects you to tens of thousands of nonprofit and community organizations in 165 countries; also has an excellent nonprofit career center, with hundreds of job and internship listings
United Nations offers information about working for the U.N.
Human Rights job board links to all major government and non-governmental organizations involved in issues of human rights
Amnesty International and listing of jobs and internships
Moving Ideas links to progressive websites including job and internship listings
Peace and World Security Studies locally-based site that helps you find jobs and internships in peace studies
Careers without borders jobs in international development and humanitarian relief
Human Rights Watch jobs and internships

General Resources--Social Activism

Social change master's program at New College, CA
Activist causes and organizations
Business for Social Responsibility
CARE works in poor communities all over the world to address underlying issues of poverty
Lawyers involved in human rights efforts