A Young Activist’s Toolbox

There’s something to be said about the world’s perception of youth. On one hand, we are being bombarded with phrases such as “you are the next generation; the generation that will create change,” which, by the way, is a phrase that I have complete faith in. However, on the other hand, the very same people that insist the fate of the world is now in our hands, and that they themselves are – in some twisted way – exempt from responsibility as a result, refuse to put those words into practice when we come forward with thoughts and concerns about the world we have been told is ours to inherit.

So, you see, us young’uns have quite the dilemma.

dolphins-918752_640It’s natural to have an emotional response to many of the issues our world faces today, particularly as a younger child. For me, and undoubtedly many, many others, that first emotional response came when I watched ‘The Cove” at the age of twelve. The emotion I felt at the time was quite straightforward: I loved the ocean and its creatures, and I had just been exposed to a practice that commits an injustice against both of those things.

The trouble is, there is no handbook on how to start a personal advocacy campaign. There is a plethora of advice from charities and organizations on what you can do to support their cause, usually consisting of actions such as letter writing, petition signing, etc. These actions are absolutely important, and I don’t mean to undermine their significance with what I’m about to say, but for those, like myself, who invest themselves in an issue and truly desire to make a real difference, a signature just doesn’t quite cut it.

When I first learned about the Taiji dolphin slaughter, I reached out to as many people as I could for advice as to how I should proceed with fighting for the cause. Being twelve years old at this time, most people didn’t take me seriously. They told me that I should stay in school and eventually specialize in an area in post-secondary education that would help me fight the good fight, and for the time being support ongoing campaigns with simple, day-to-day actions. They were absolutely right, this was all good advice, but it just didn’t sit quite right with me, as I was determined to do more right then and there – without a fancy degree.

Having been a bit let down in the advice department, I took what I thought was the main theme from ‘The Cove’ and ran with it. To me, what stood out the most was that the world didn’t know what was happening in the waters of Taiji, so I decided to do what I could to help give the issue some exposure. After I did my homework, I created a web page detailing each aspect of the hunt and the problems associated with it and shared it with as many friends and family members as I possibly could. I took what I thought was one of my strengths, being research and presentation of information, and used it as best I could contribute to the cause, and that is all it took to get the ball rolling.

I found that once I got started, more and more opportunities became available for me to further my contribution. I was invited to give presentations on the topic by my school and a few smaller local events to begin with, and as I gained more experience I was asked to present at larger events and venues such as the Canadian Network for Environmental Education’s annual conference, TEDxVictoria, and was even flown down to San Francisco to speak on a panel at a conference held by the North American Association for Environmental Education.

Over the years, I’ve had the chance to meet environmental advocates such as Rob Stewart, Sylvia Earle, Fabien Cousteau, and the cast of Blackfish just to name a few, all stemming from a small, yet determined attempt to play my part. The reality is, young voices are powerful once they are heard. The trick is finding a way to make the world listen when the odds are against you.

So, if you have fallen in love with a cause that you don’t know how to support, I want to offer you my best advice from trial and error over the past five years that I’ve spent as a young activist. Whether you are five years old, or fifteen years old, regardless of passion, there should be a little something for everyone in this toolbox.

1. Find your passion

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CC0 Public Domain

For some people, they’ve always had it. Some people stumble upon it by accident, and others have to do a little searching. Regardless, the first step in any form of activism is to find what it is that you truly care about. The more you delve into your passion, the more you will find that many of the issues our world faces today are intertwined, and you’ll likely discover a new found importance in areas you previously knew nothing about.


2. Do your homework

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If you truly want to be a successful advocate, surface knowledge is not enough. We live in a world where information is more accessible than it’s ever been, so take advantage of that!

The internet it a wonderful source for information, but bear in mind that information that is not strictly scientific data should almost always be taken with a grain of salt, as both sides may present information with a heavy bias. You will never be done with this step as there is always something new to learn.

3. Find your strengths and cater to them

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While I didn’t know how to be an activist when I first started, I did know what I was good at. For me, that was the ability to synthesize arguments and then present that to an audience, whether it be live or online. Public speech is my personal strong suit but isn’t by any means the only direction to go in. Those who consider themselves artistic may take an approach that allows their passion to influence their art and musicians may choose to write and compose pieces about an issue they would like to expose, just to name a few. For YOU to be successful, find what YOU are good at, not what you’ve seen other people do successfully. Everyone likes a personal twist.

4. Don’t dismiss the opposition

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This one is incredibly important, and often times the most difficult. When you truly care about an issue, it’s easy to point fingers at the opposition and immediately label them as the bad guys. Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t people who you may fight against that
have committed some serious atrocities, but the ability to empathize is a strong trait in many situations, and will likely serve you well. It’s always best to consider what the opposition’s
concerns may be for two main reasons:

  • The ability to control your emotional response puts you in a position of strength
  • You will be more likely to reach a conclusion if you are able to find a compromise.
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5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, but don’t give up if you can’t find it

If you have no idea where to start, reach out for advice! There are tons of experienced people out there that want to support others when they are just getting involved with a cause. If you don’t get the desired response right away, don’t give up, because you will find it. Should you struggle with finding good advice, still stick with it. I certainly did, and it became one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. You will find inspiration.


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6. Seize every opportunity, even when you’re scared

In my first year of truly being involved in activism, it felt as though opportunities were popping up left, right, and center, and I had only just begun. This was, in some ways, nerve-wracking because I didn’t feel as though I was qualified, or even interesting enough to
be speaking at some of the events that I was invited to. Looking back, I was very young, and even if the raw information I was presenting at the time wasn’t always revolutionary, I was still able to provide a different perspective than many of the other presenters, which gave me an edge. If an opportunity presents itself, TAKE IT!

The more you put yourself out there, the more likely it is for further opportunities to continue to appear.

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7. Network

The power of networking is incredible. Each year I find new and inspiring people that bring something different to the table. I could never have imagined that five years after I started my journey in activism that I would have worked and collaborated with many of the people that inspired me to become involved to begin with. Go to events and conferences that have to do with your interests, and while you are there speak to as many people as you can! You never know who you will meet.

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8. Advocate from a place of strength, not weakness

When you’re trying to convince the masses that your passion is important, the best way to do so is to present yourself as a strong force. Emotions are natural and even important, but acting rashly from an emotional standpoint puts you in a weak position. Advocate with PASSION, absolutely, but don’t forget the importance of logic and knowledge. Emotion captures people’s attention, but reason is what will hold it.

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9. Stay updated

The world is a busy place! New things are always happening, and progress is always being made. As an advocate, you want to be an expert on your topic, which means that you should do your best to stay updated on the latest news pertaining to your passion.

10. Commit

This tip is pretty self-explanatory. To be successful, you have to commit! Dedicating yourself to an issue doesn’t have to be your sole purpose in life, but it will certainly give you a purpose.

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When I first started out, all I wanted was to be taken seriously. I wanted to be given advice that would help me create a meaningful impact, but the reality of our world is that it often requires age, credentials, experience, or the latter to receive that.

There is no perfect formula, but for my fellow youngsters who want to give more, I hope that in reading this you have found some inspiration, or even just a starting point when it comes to supporting a cause that you feel passionate about. They’re right, we will inevitably inherit today’s world, but more importantly I have faith that when that day comes, our efforts will have put us in a position as such that we will inherit quite an incredible planet.

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About Ella Van Cleave

Ella Van Cleave is a prominent environmental and animal activist, known in certain circles for her thoughtful arguments against cetacean captivity with four years of activism under her belt. She’s one of the foremost voices on the subject — and at 16, she’s also one of the youngest.

Van Cleave, a Tennessee native now living in Victoria, Canada, was first thrown into the world of activism at the storied age of twelve, when she saw the Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove,” the film that exposed the brutal dolphin hunt in Taiji, Japan. Since then, the only career she’s envisioned for herself is conservation. As she told The Dodo, that film “opened the floodgates” for her advocacy career.

“Since then, I’ve been heavily involved in supporting an end to cetacean slaughtering and captive holding for entertainment purposes,” she said. “From there, you start to become aware that the particular issue you’re advocating for is just a small piece of the puzzle, and once you get a glimpse of the larger picture you’ve seen enough to know that you can’t just stop there, and that there will be a lifetime of work in all sorts of different issues ahead of you.”

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Author: Ella Van Cleave


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