Are you interested in getting involved with a cause you care deeply for, but you’re not sure where to start? Or do you wonder if you have enough resources to make an impact? I have some good news! If you can set aside a little bit of time, you have all you need to give back through community engagement — participating in an organization for the betterment of the community. I’ve found this to be one of the best ways we can make a difference where we’re at right now. As a bonus, this type of engagement can be uplifting and empowering if entered into thoughtfully. I’ve learned some dos and don’ts over the years that shape how I engage today. Here are the top 5 principles I’ve discovered that help me to thrive while effectively pursuing this work: 

1.) DO: Take Action – As you learn about needs in your local or global community it’s easy to feel paralyzed by the scale of them, or even by the sheer amount of needs all around you. How can one person make a difference? Push that doubt aside, but don’t push down those feelings of frustration or sadness. Instead, channel them into positive action. Find a community to engage with. Go to that NAACP meeting, volunteer at your local church, start collecting essentials for refugees about to arrive in your city, join the board of a non-profit you admire. Find what moves you and get involved — take action and do something. Start by stepping out and showing up.

2.) DO: Listen & Learn – Once you find your community, don’t assume you have all the answers. Don’t get me wrong, you bring a unique set of skills and perspective to any group you join, but when we go into a situation assuming we can immediately solve everyone’s problems, we tiptoe into condescension at best, and saviorism at worst. As you get acquainted, ask questions, listen carefully and think critically. This is a good lesson for people starting out, but it’s also crucial to keep this posture of respect as long as you are engaging. Everyone is your equal and has something valuable to teach you.

3.) DON’T: Overlook Self Care – The concept of self care has almost become a cliche at this point, but hear me out — it really is crucial to this work. If you don’t set healthy boundaries, the positive work you’re doing will begin to have negative effects on both you and your ability to impact the community you are trying to serve. Self care isn’t all bubble baths and staycations, although hey, those are fun! For you it may look like setting aside times when you won’t take meetings or answer emails and calls. Some people make sure to be home for family dinner every night. It’s also important to know yourself and your triggers so you avoid participating in ways that may harm your mental health. Figure out what it will take to avoid burnout and prioritize that at all costs. Block out times on your calendar or schedule self care as needed.

4.) DO: Find Your Niche – The point of community engagement is to help make a difference. If you’re attending meetings and going through the motions, but not really making an impact, it will eventually feel like a waste of time. Once you get involved, part of listening and learning is figuring out where you fit best. Try out different roles, but settle in once you figure out where your community’s greatest need fits your unique skill set, and invest most of your time there.

5.) DON’T: Overcommit – As passionate people it’s easy for us to find countless communities we want to engage in. For me living in a busy city like Los Angeles, in pre-COVID times I used to be overwhelmed by all the events and activities happening every day. At one point I had one full time job, two part time jobs, and was engaging in four separate communities. I also can’t leave out how I tried to invest in my family and friendships, and still go to as many concerts as possible — my favorite pastime.

I learned the hard way the importance of saying “no”. While trying to do the bare minimum for all that I was involved in, I started getting behind and feeling completely overwhelmed. Maintaining my chaos left no time to make any impact anywhere. Once I got pregnant I knew I had to take my mental and physical health seriously and step back. Today I’m strategic about how I spend time engaging, and I’m able to help in greater ways while feeling so much more fulfilled. Don’t get me wrong, I still get FOMO every time I have to say “no”, but I know I will get to engage with new communities I love when the time is right. By committing intentionally I’m able to show up with my full self, and the experience is much more rewarding for everyone involved.

About the Contributor:

Michelle joined the fight against human trafficking during her undergraduate years after watching the documentary Call + Response. She graduated with a B.A. in Business Administration and a M.A. in Management from Azusa Pacific University, and worked in the tech industry for a decade. During that time she co-founded The Tote Project with her best friend to support survivors of trafficking through fair trade accessories. She always dreamed of working to fight trafficking full time, and recently joined the Dressember Foundation as Director of Operations. Michelle and her husband live in Los Angeles with their daughter Nelli and their goofy rescue pup Jean Valjean. She loves a well formatted spreadsheet, reading, going to concerts, baking cookies and foggy days. You can find her on Instagram as @michelleforgood, where she shares ethical fashion and advocacy tips.