By Spencer van Vloten
If you are a follower of community events and social calendars, you might know that there will be more than 365 days in 2022—in fact, there will be far more.
The UN recognizes more than 150 international awareness and advocacy days, weeks, and months, and there are thousands more nationally, covering issues as broad and abstract as human solidarity and freedom to more particular causes like foot health and tick-bite prevention.
The “something” day craze has reached such heights that in 2021 there were at least six UN-designated international days jammed into a single Sunday during a seven-day stretch claimed by at least five awareness weeks—in a March being used for more than 15 awareness months.
Chances are you have participated in some of these: maybe you changed your Facebook profile picture to a pink ribbon for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, retweeted a hashtag for Movember; or affixed a green pin to your shirt for World Mental Health Day.
These are nice gestures for good causes, so why am I about to gripe?
For one, too many of these campaigns prioritize the mere spread of information rather than actually doing something with the awareness and enthusiasm this might generate.
Acquiring and sharing knowledge, such as the number of persons with a certain medical condition, is treated as an end to itself rather than as a preliminary step required to trigger something bigger.
People who could be powerful agents for change are thus reduced to conveyors and recipients of facts, memes, and hashtags that are interesting or catchy but on their own limited in impact.
It is unsurprising, then, that plenty of evidence suggests the changemaking impact of awareness days is questionable.
A second concern is that these occasions can be turned on their head and used against the very interests they aim to promote.
It is all too convenient for policymakers to self-servingly use them for tokenistic gestures and language. While people highly engaged with an issue may be able to see through these performances, to the average person they can seem pretty convincing and garner political actors undeserved credit.
Indeed, these days are regularly used as PR opportunities to claim successes and depict the fact that the government is commenting on the occasion to be an example of their commitment to the issue.
Let’s look at one example.
December 3 marked the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. Right on cue, policymakers stepped out to give speeches and issue statements expressing unconditional dedication to people with disabilities.
From Ottawa, Prime Minister Trudeau stated that “we commit to continue to work to identify, remove, and prevent barriers” and listed the supposed things his government had been doing for Canadians with disabilities, with his statement being reported, retweeted, and celebrated.
Here in British Columbia, BC Place, the province’s largest venue, was illuminated bright purple to recognize the occasion.
It sounded good, looked good, and got attention—but what was accomplished?
Did purple lights improve the conditions that force one in six disabled Canadians into poverty?
Did a speech expedite the passing of the Canada Disability Benefit, which was touted as a remedy for disability poverty only to be left to die before it could help one person?
And the last issue I will raise is what we might call awareness exhaustion or overload (Information (Overload Day is a real thing, by the way).
With each new date added to the social calendar, the others lose a bit of significance, diluted in the flood of awareness. When every day is supposed to be special, it becomes harder to consider any of them serious occasions, makes them harder to track, and minimizes the cause.
For all these reasons, I have grown tired of hearing that today is “Something Day” this or “Something Week” that.
But there is a bright side.
The abundance of these occasions shows an appetite to tackle important issues. And while awareness and enthusiasm mean little by themselves, they can be harnessed by connecting them to specific, clear, and achievable calls to action.
These can take several forms: raising money; contacting elected officials; holding events; volunteering time, resources, or expertise; and many others, varying by cause.
Instead of asking supporters to just retweet a message, also ask them to share how they took action that contributed to change.
Establish clear metrics through which impact can also be measured. This doesn’t mean just counting retweets but whether, for example, more people received mental-health support, extra money was raised for cancer research, or policy change was initiated.
And to all who want to make a difference in 2022, ask what impact your actions will have and how they are connected to tomorrow and the bigger picture.
Seize the day through making it count, not by counting the days.