First Steps: How to start changing the world

Wanting to change the world but unsure where to start? Here's a rough guide to taking your first steps in activism, political engagement and community work

Feature by Jodie Leith | 08 Sep 2021
  • First Steps in Activism

As the world finally re-opens after a rather unconventional period of university (and life) for countless students across Scotland – marked by isolation, at-home learning, and facemask-wearing – positivity is beginning to be restored for many. However, the last year-and-a-half has emphasised complex and intense issues faced by many worldwide, and fuelled discussions of humanitarian assistance and social justice in the face of adversity. 

Now, more than ever, many students are motivated to make a positive change to the world in which they find themselves. While this may feel daunting and slightly hopeless – as prevalent issues such as the climate emergency require large-scale transformation from numerous conglomerates – self-made changes and efforts, while only helping so much, can set individuals forth on a positive, personal journey of world-shaping that will last a lifetime.

It may be no easy feat, but the historical impact of students in activist movements globally isn't to be sneered at.

Getting involved with activism

Causes like the climate emergency, racial justice, LGBTQ+ rights, human rights, homelessness, and feminism are at the forefront of society today and increasingly the subject of daily discourse. While these are all huge social issues to tackle, organisations including Greenpeace, Stop Hate UK, Stonewall Scotland, Amnesty International, Homeless Action Scotland, Girls Against, and Women's Aid are a perfect place for Scottish students to get started with activist involvement.

Whether it's attending a protest, raising funds, or promoting awareness of the issue on social media, participating in organisations among like-minded individuals rallying for a cause is an extremely gratifying and important aspect of activism. 

Engaging with politics

Find your local MP or MSP by simply entering your address at the UK Parliament or Scottish Parliament website and subsequently use their contact information to write a letter, send an email, or attend surgeries to complain or discuss relevant issues – this is a perfect way to persuade your constituency representative to petition for change on your behalf. Otherwise, you may decide to join a political party yourself to support a leadership you feel best reflects your interest on a larger, governmental scale.

Finally, beginning a petition nowadays is extremely easy to do with websites like and the Parliament website dismissing the need for an old-fashioned, door-to-door campaign, allowing others to share your petition virtually. The more signatures in favour of a cause, the better, so get signing!


Joining a union allows multiple individuals to develop a united voice against a larger employer or academic body. In the workplace, Unite Hospitality works to avoid exploitative workplace practices and protects the rights of hospitality workers, a large portion of which are students working part-time alongside their studies. Furthermore, a university's student union is composed of students who are often elected by classmates, who represent and voice the opinions of fellow students. Members of student unions may also host events, volunteer for charity, and campaign for diversity and equality within student bodies – holding the university accountable for issues such as financial support, accommodation, protection of students, and more.

Living Rent is a Tenants' Union that advocates for the protection of tenants' rights. They campaign for an end to forced evictions and the reintroduction of rent control to allow a fairer market for renters – an issue particularly important for many students across the country who find themselves seeking accommodation for term time.

Find your voice

Spending time researching the causes that are best aligned with your personal beliefs is a perfect way to shape your activist voice and carve your path to world changing. Growing an online social presence, speaking to fellow activists, and following accounts that discuss causes that you are passionate about is a brilliant way to educate yourself while scrolling when out and about.

Engaging Instagram accounts to follow include: Young Friends of the Earth Scotland (@yfoes), a "community of young activists across Scotland campaigning for environmental and social justice"; Bikes for Refugees Scotland (@bikes4refugees), a charity which "supports New Scots with free travel through the distribution of free bicycles"; Refuweegee (@refuweegee), a community-led charity welcoming refugees to Glasgow; and The Black Curriculum (@theblackcurriculum), an organisation promoting the teaching of Black British history in UK schools.

Offline, locations like Edinburgh's Lighthouse – a queer, women-owned bookshop full of educational resources – and the soon-to-open Pink Peacock in Glasgow – a queer, Yiddish, pay-what-you-can cafe – provide community-driven, educational spaces ideal to educate students on activism and relevant social issues. 

For extra activist education, an ideal way to spend down-time is listening to educational podcasts like Sooo Many White Guys, in which host Phoebe Robinson features guests discussing social issues including race and feminism, or 99% Invisible, in which host Roman Mars dives into lesser-known topics, including architecture and infrastructures that reflect social issues and spur activist discussion and reflection.

Volunteer in the community

The best way to get to know your local community is to immerse yourself in local events and projects. Whether it's helping to litter-pick a park or volunteering at a food bank, community-focused events are a fantastic way to meet neighbours with a similar outlook on inciting change in the area to connect and develop. Reaching out to local organisations has never been easier, with many charities and events using social media as an essential means to unite residents. Volunteering in the community is also perfect for students who have moved to a new location for university and are keen to get to know their local area!

Alternatively, many societies at university including charity fashion clubs, refugee/asylum seeker solidarity societies, and BEAT societies to support students dealing with eating disorders, work to unite like-minded students in rallying for change. Fundraising, event-hosting, and campaigning with fellow students is an ideal way to forge new friendships and widen knowledge of the community with many off-campus events.

Individual accountability

Worldwide change undeniably requires an overwhelming, large-scale movement, however smaller changes undertaken at home can have a massive impact. By making smaller lifestyle changes, such as sporting a sustainable wardrobe and shopping for vintage or second-hand clothes, students can combat the negative impact of large-scale clothes donations, greatly worsened by fast fashion, on the global south and instead support local textile production which struggles under large markets of donated and discarded items.

Additionally, selecting a renewable energy provider, and avoiding unnecessary car use by taking public transport, walking, or biking can all work to massively reduce carbon footprints and encourage a greener lifestyle during a climate emergency. Carbon footprint can also be reduced by reviewing the age-old student diet of Pot Noodles and attempting to consume locally grown, seasonal vegetables and reducing meat intake where possible. Meat Free Monday, an initiative founded by Paul, Mary, and Stella McCartney in 2009 promotes a 'flexitarian' outlook on cutting back on meat. It encourages even the most devoted steak-lovers to consider the environmental impact of continually neglecting meat products for just one day a week – an ideal method for those who try (and fail) their hand at vegetarianism. 

Practising self-care

Finally, taking time to ground yourself and alleviate any stress or anxieties is invaluable in an increasingly chaotic world. While 'mindfulness' may seem like an  influencer buzzword, the term is on the rise in popular discourse for great reason – understanding yourself and protecting your mental health is key, especially when feeling overwhelmed in the face of complex social matters.

Acts of self-care great and small can provide a well-needed break. Creative classes, such as life-drawing or pottery painting, can offer much-needed entertainment while also working as an excellent way to meet new people; meditating, picking up a hobby, meeting with friends, grooming, or even a daily walk all provide a positive step to prioritise the self and recharge the mind and body. 

After all, changing the world is a pretty exhausting full-time job. Now, about that essay due next week…