Who bears the responsibility to act?

This week I have been wondering, who bears the responsibility to fix human beings’ mistakes? What does it mean to be responsible for something? What does it mean to take responsibility? Can you “be responsible” for something without taking responsibility? Can you “take responsibility” for doing something about a problem without being responsible for it? Why are most of the world’s injustices and crises being worked on by people who did not cause them? 

Over the past two summers, I have had the privilege of working with extraordinary teenage activists at Youth Empowered Action Camp. Young people come from all over the world to spend part of their summer working hard with other activists, attending workshops, and learning how to be the most effective change-makers they can be on the issues that matter most to them. Many campers are working on environmental protection, and one of my mentees is starting a school club to get high school students mobilized to stop climate change and make the connection between factory farming and the massive harm that animal exploitation wreaks on the environment (more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector combined!) One of my 12-year-old campers in Australia (yes, she came to the USA from Australia for activism camp!!) is working to end live export. Since camp ended just a couple of weeks ago, she already has been gathering petition signatures, met the director of Animals Australia (!), and made progress on planning her animal rights-focused YouTube channel. 

Another camper is working to change the name of her school so it no longer honours a confederate leader. It was named after this person in protest of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling against segregation. (Both links above include more info about the problems and petitions to support the campaigns.) 

Another camper, a young woman originally from the USA but currently living in Beijing, is working to improve the air quality in China and get children access to masks. Did you know that the pollution is so bad now that children have to wear masks to go outside? And if, like many children, they don’t have access to masks, they have to just stay indoors because it is not safe? The latest exciting news on her project is that a company is donating 500 masks to her school. 

These young people are standing up and taking action not because anyone told them to but because they are compelled by their own sense of justice and urgency. Here is an account by a camper I worked with last year who named YEA Camp as the coolest thing she had ever done, and came back as a mentor this year: http://yeacamp.org/2016/02/read-this-teens-answer-to-the-question-what-is-the-coolest-thing-youve-ever-done/
These teenagers are so inspiring to me and show us the future that can be. Too often, potential activists fall prey to the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility: Sometimes the more atrocious and urgent the problem is, and the more onlookers there are to the problem, the less likely someone is to actually intervene, because we each assume that somebody else must be taking care of it. What does it take for someone to step up and do something? What makes us choose to act on certain issues over others? Please engage with these ideas in the comments, and I would love to hear: Do you consider yourself an activist? What inspires you to take action? What are some obstacles that have discouraged you from taking action on an issue or issues that matter to you? What resources and support would you need to make the difference you would like to?  

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