Workshop creates citizen activists

By Clayton Norlen

When students observe disparities or injustices in the world, they can do something to change it, said Melissa Larsen. All they have to do is ask how.

A group of 10 students and community members attended a workshop Monday to learn how citizens can become activists and work toward changes they would like to see in their cities and the world.

Larsen, executive director of the Planned Parenthood Action Council, taught participants how to approach their representatives and share their views. Student activists also shared their experiences as advocates and talked about different approaches to promoting a cause in the public sphere.

The workshop titled “¡Sí Se Puede!” was hosted in conjunction with Women’s Week at the U.

Larsen said she was discouraged that few students attended the event and thinks the message of activism is one every student and citizen should hear and practice. She said although many people feel their individual opinions and votes are meaningless, the opposite is true in local politics because votes do count and elected officials want to hear from their constituents.

“I don’t think that people realize that it is their right to talk to the public officials they elect,” Larsen said. “But how can their representatives be informed if their constituents aren’t telling them how to vote?”

During the workshop, Larsen told the group it’s easy to maintain communication with local lawmakers. She stressed that through letters, e-mail and phone calls, citizens can take the initial steps to becoming activists and ensure their voices are heard on issues that impact them and their communities.

But being politically engaged can go beyond just voting and informing representatives on how to vote on specific bills and regulations. Citizens can become publicly engaged thorough grass roots and political activism organizations as well, Larsen said.

Students who spoke at the event agreed that people must champion topics in which they are personally invested.

“I can tell you about issues going on, statistics and my narrative,” said Dhiraj Chand, director of the Associated Students of the University of Utah Diversity Board. “But activism has to come from here, with passion if it will happen,” he said, pointing to his heart.

Activism is seen in parades, marches, protests and handbills, but for student activists, advocacy doesn’t stop there — it is a part of everything, said Bonnie Owens, a senior in gender studies.

“Activism is everyday for me,” Owens said. “Social justice is my life, and I can’t get away from it. With activism I have a passive relationship, but it has an active relationship with me.”

Regardless of other forms of civic involvement, Owens said “just talking” is the most successful tool she uses. Those in attendance discussed how everything people do is political, even going to the grocery store. Because of the personal nature of politics, Larsen said people need to forget the long-held idea that talking about politics is impolite and need to inject political discussion into all parts of their lives.

“I was inspired today. Even if you don’t have the time, you can do something to get involved,” said Chrisella Sagers, a senior in political science. “Find your passion, and change the world from there.”

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Aaron Schwendiman

A citizen lobbyist training session was held at the Saltair room in the union building on Monday. Lobbyist and executive director of Planned Parenthood Action Council for Utah, Melissa Larsen, discussed many ways to get involved with the local government.