Making a difference, from a bed or a chair

By Bernadette Meaden
May 17, 2016

The term ‘armchair activists’ tends to be used in a rather pejorative way, implying that people who campaign through social media are not doing anything that has significance or impact in the real world. This does a disservice to many people who, perhaps because of health or mobility issues or caring responsibilities, are unable to take part in things outside their home, but have as much to contribute as anybody else. Advances in technology now mean that without leaving home, people can do things that make a real difference – and may even save lives.

The best example of this came with the recent earthquake in Ecuador. The citizen-science network Zooniverse set up a dedicated website on which volunteers around the world could view thousands of satellite images of the earthquake zone. They were asked to classify images and identify where the damage was most severe, in order to give rescue teams on the ground the information they needed. The response was such that within hours, around 25,000 square kilometres  had been checked by thousands of people, helping rescue workers to map which areas were most heavily damaged, and which roads were passable.

It is early days for this type of project, but Zooniverse is well established and has numerous opportunities for ‘ordinary’ people to contribute to real research. ” You don’t need any specialised background, training, or expertise to participate in any Zooniverse projects. We make it easy for anyone to contribute to real academic research, on their own computer, at their own convenience.”

This can include viewing and classifying images produced by space telescopes, so helping to discover new comets or classify galaxies. Or you can view images from an electron microscope to help build detailed models of biological molecules. Or identify individual humpback whales by looking at the patterns on their tails, identify animals in the Serengeti…there really is a wide range of research in which you can get involved.

If arts and humanities are of more interest, you can transcribe handwritten documents from Shakespeare’s contemporaries, or annotate First World War diaries.The possibilities really are very wide and varied. Start by exploring the projects available here

But if sitting in front of a screen does not appeal to you, there are still practical ways you can make a difference, without leaving home. There are many projects which use people’s sewing and knitting skills to help others. Knitted Knockers provides free hand-made breast prosthesis to women who have had mastectomies or other breast procedures. They are lighter and more comfortable than the conventional prostheses, and can be adjusted to suit the individual. There is also Knit for Peace, and Saga has a comprehensive list of charities which are looking for volunteers to use their knitting and sewing skills.  

If you like baking, Free Cakes for Kids needs volunteer bakers to make special home-made birthday cakes for children who would not otherwise get one.

And as for political campaigning, most MPs will take note of a thoughtful letter or email from a constituent, particularly if they get several on the same subject. They should, if necessary, be willing to visit you if you request a home visit. If you feel strongly about something, don't just sign an online petition, write to your MP and make your views known.  You can find their details here.

It really is time to dispel the idea that people who don’t go on marches or attend lots of meetings are not doing anything real, and aren’t making a difference. Behind our own front doors, we can discover a comet, give comfort to a breast cancer patient, or even potentially save a life. We can all make a difference.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.