Fuel Your Fire: Overcoming the Cult of Powerlessness

Elizabeth Mogford, Western Washington University


"Fuel Your Fire" is one segment of the process through which I hope to help a student bridge learning and action by identifying their personal relationship to the changes they want to see in the world. It is applicable to any discipline, but in this case, I use it in a class that focuses on population health disparities (i.e. the sociology "big idea") and global citizenship (i.e. the sustainability "big idea").

"Fuel Your Fire" has to do with interviewing our heroes, our mentors, or people who inspire us to find out what keeps them motivated. One outcome of this activity is that students (and instructors) will see how they aren't all that different from their heroes. Another outcome is to build a personal toolbox of ideas, activities, people, etc that students can lean on when they need encouragement and inspiration.

Learning Goals

The "big idea" in sociology is "social change." The big sustainability idea is "global citizenship." The union of the two is becoming inspired to be a social change maker. The goal of this teaching and learning activity is to conduct a series of activities (including readings, interviews, discussion, reflection, and the optional creation of a zine) that aid the student in the development of his/her own strategies to stay inspired and motivated in his/her activist efforts.

The goal of "Fuel Your Fire" is to develop strategies to stay inspired and motivated in our advocacy efforts and not be overcome by the enormity of the world's problems and the sense that there's nothing we can do about it. "Fuel Your Fire" is about learning how we can use our friends, heroes, and like-minded people as fuel to maintain our efforts. It is my opinion as an instructor that we don't discuss inspiration and motivation enough in academic settings. We typically take for granted that some people are very passionate and appear to have endless energy and enthusiasm to be activists for their cause, while others are not "born" activists. Too often, I think that students don't see themselves as people who can and should work for the global commons to make positive change in the world (i.e., as engaged citizens or activists). At the same time, I have found that my students are hungry to discuss what they can do about the global problems they learn about in their studies. Often they are eager to discuss values and find a bridge between theory and action. Furthermore, most universities include in their mission and objectives a commitment to foster engaged citizens. For example, one of the strategic objectives of Western Washington University is to develop "leadership, civic engagement, social responsibility, and effective citizenship." What I am calling "activism" might also be called "civic engagement" or whatever word people feel comfortable with.

Context for Use

"Fuel Your Fire" is appropriate for courses that focus on action, advocacy, activism, service learning, or anything else that gets students to consider (and hopefully to do) engaged scholarship. Prior to conducting this activity, it would be helpful to spend time discussing advocacy and activism with your students. For example, I am using "Fuel Your Fire" in a class called Population Health Advocacy, which is a course that teaches advocacy skills in combination with academic research and culminates in an action project. Since students in my class will conduct an advocacy project as a part of the course, we will spend time discussing what it means to be an activist and will work towards developing specific advocacy tools (such as persuasive letter writing). "Fuel Your Fire" is one of a set of activities related to what I refer to as "finding your compass." In the "compass" section of my course, class discussions, readings, and activities focus on students' identifying their passions and values, considering how they want to be an activist, and assessing their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats in achieving their advocacy goals.


"Fuel Your Fire" is best conducted in the latter half of the course, when students feel comfortable with each other and when they are engaged enough in the course issues to have developed their own "fire" about a topic(s).

The amount of time needed to conduct the set of activities is variable. At a minimum, you will need a class period to introduce the activity, a week for students to work on an out-of-class interview(s), and then a class period to discuss student's findings. Ideally, after the class discussion about their interviews, students would spend another class period developing a zine (which could include another outside assignment).

Description and Teaching Materials

The Assignment

"Fuel Your Fire" is one segment of the process through which I hope to help a student bridge learning and action by identifying their personal relationship to the changes they want to see in the world. It is applicable to any discipline, but in this case, I use it in a class that focuses on population health disparities (i.e. the sociology "big idea") and global citizenship (i.e. the sustainability "big idea").

"Fuel Your Fire" has to do with interviewing our heroes, our mentors, or people who inspire us to find out what keeps them motivated. One outcome of this activity is that students (and instructors) will see how they aren't all that different from their heroes. Another outcome is to build a personal toolbox of ideas, activities, people, etc that students can lean on when they need encouragement and inspiration.

By the end of the "Fuel Your Fire" module, I hope that my students will
  • Develop a concrete "tool kit" of ideas, strategies, people, and books to help them stay inspired to be engaged citizens / activists.
  • Realize that their heroes and the inspirational people in their lives are really just like the students, themselves. In other words, there's nothing particularly unique about heroes - they, too, struggle with motivation, experience doubt, and feel that they aren't always doing enough. However, they have developed techniques to stay inspired, and by learning what those are students can begin to develop their own techniques.
  • Realize that they can't expect motivation to "just happen" - that like any other discipline, they need to practice and apply strategies to develop and maintain their passion to advocate for social change.
  • Recognize that it is difficult to be an activist in isolation. Building a network of allies helps people use each other to fuel their fire.
A series of written assignments and class discussion (outlined in the next section) will indicate achievement of these goals. This is a group process with a lot of time for students to share their thoughts and discuss the big ideas of global citizenship, advocacy, and how and why they should be involved.

Learning Activity

Preliminary readings:
  1. Excerpt of Soul of a Citizen from Utne Reader. http://www.paulloeb.org/articles/Utne%20Reader%20Excerpt.htm.
  2. "An Instinct for Altruism" by Daniel Goleman (this is a chapter in the book Social Intelligence).
  3. Short segment of 5th grade speech by Rachael Corrie: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fUGjzxG5r9Q&feature=related
Activity 1: Define and Identify Heroes / Develop Questionnaire
Part I. In-class discussion of our heroes and mentors.
Part II. Thinking through interview questions

Time: One class period - 80 minutes)
Part 1: Define and identify our heroes / inspirers - 30 minutes to 1 hour
This activity is a consensus based exercise in which the students define what they think a hero is, based on their own reflections. In this activity, the class will think deeply about what qualities make up their inspirers / heroes. It can take from 30 minutes to over an hour, depending on how much discussion you decide to have. If you don't have time for the whole exercise, you can skip steps d-f. It's a great way to get everyone participating and sharing their ideas.

A) First ask the question to the whole class: "What is a hero?" "How do you know one when you see one?" - discuss very briefly - this is just a quick warm-up. Discuss for a couple of minutes.

B) Next, have students spend 5-10 minutes writing down people they are inspired by - who are their heroes or people who motivate them to be better citizens in the world. These can be living and non living people. After making a list of people, have them make another list describing why they are heroes - the qualities that make them that way.

[meanwhile, you (facilitator) put 3 big notes on the board that say "one idea per page" "write big" and "five to seven words"]

C) 10-15 minutes. Now divide students into groups of three and have them share the ideas they came up with. Out of their combined lists, have them star three qualities that they think really get to the heart of the qualities that make those people special.

While students are doing this, walk around to each group and give each group a few post-its (big ones - 5" by 7") and pens. Have students write the three most essential elements on three separate post-its (remind them: one idea per page, five to seven words, write big).
Now have them look at their three ideas and ask them to pick "the one that you don't think any of the other groups thought of and then go put that one on the board." The board will be filled with different qualities - some overlapping, some not.

D) As a group, review all of the ideas on the board and walk the students through coming up with pairings - "can any of the ideas go together - either the same thing, or very dependent on each other, or really related somehow?" etc. Start with pairs, then put the rest in clusters, until all of the ideas are accounted for (some may be stand alone ideas).

E) Put symbols on all the clusters to identify them - like a star and a heart and a flower, it's arbitrary; just give them all a symbol. Have the students: "look back at your two remaining ideas and put the symbol that corresponds with it, if there is one. If not, leave it blank. Then come put it on the board."

F) Now the facilitator stands next to the symbol that has the most ideas in it. Read the ideas and ask the class: "Let's name this cluster. Think of yourself as a newspaper editor. What headline would you put on this? What is it getting at?" Label them all in this manner. In the end, the students can look back at their personal list and see if all the items in their list are covered. If not, add new labels on the board.
When all of their ideas are exhausted and labeled, ask a few questions.
  • Which quality is the most essential? Or is any one essential?
  • Which is the most common / most rare? Etc.
Potential questions to segue into the next part:
  • How do you think your heroes got these qualities? Were they born with them? Did they learn them?
  • Who do you think inspired them?
  • How do you think they stay inspired?
  • What can we learn from heroes? Why are they important?
  • How can their stories be translated into relevant experiences for us?
Part II: Interview questions
The assignment that students will leave class with is to interview one or two of the people they identified who are living and available - i.e. they can actually talk to them on the phone, email, chat, etc, to ask them some questions.

Spend about 30 minutes developing potential questions that they could use in a qualitative interview. The purpose of the interview is to find out from the students' mentors/heroes/inspirers these kinds of things. Let the students come up with their own questions, but here are some ideas of things that might be included:
  • I see you as having these inspiring qualities (whatever they are): how did you get this way?
  • What do you do, personally, to stay inspired?
  • Are there people in your life who helped you become this way?
  • Who are your own heroes or mentors?
  • What do you do when you start to lose motivation or hope? What are your personal strategies?
  • What advice do you have for me in my efforts to be an advocate for social change?
  • How do you use your relationships with people (friends, family, mentors) to keep you inspired?
  • How do you use learning opportunities (talks / events/ documentaries / books/ etc) to motivate you?
  • Have you ever given up? What happened?
During this discussion, have a volunteer be a "live" scribe - open up a PowerPoint document and create the questions while the discussion is going on. Then email that document to the class. The goal of the interview is for students to gather evidence of strategies that their inspirers use and learn from those.
Activity 2: Gather evidence
Out of class assignment. In this assignment, students will interview a living hero/mentor using the questions they developed (how they stay motivated, stories of specific activism, key qualities identified in describing why they are heroes).

The interview could be recorded or not. A verbatim transcript is not necessary. The goal is to learn about the individual, learn some stories of how they became who they are, and find out what they do to stay motivated.

Based on the interview, the student can produce a reflective paper that tells this story. The questions listed below, in the "compile and share" section, could be used as a guideline and grading matrix for the reflection paper.

Activity 3: Compile and share

In class activity. Individual students now have a set of stories and strategies. The goal of this class period is for them to share their ideas, get inspired by them, and come up with a group-produced zine that incorporates their "fuel your fire" ideas to fuel your fire. It is a living document, based on the research and reflections of all of the class members. Everyone will have this to take with them and add to in the future.

Conversation cafe style group reflection activity. Ideally, you'd have several round tables with seating for about five people, and paper tablecloths. In a typical classroom setting, you could get the chairs out of the way and create cafe tables on the floor, using a large piece of butcher paper as a tabletop. Have pens available so students can write while talking.

Start with the students each at a table. The activity is based on answering four questions. Each question gets about 15 minutes discussion time. Students can write on the paper or not, as they desire (they can draw pictures, doodle– the paper is just there to help their creativity flow). After the first question, all but one student moves to a new table (don't change the paper). The student who stays behind serves as the "reporter" for the previous discussion - they report to the new students how the previous questions' discussion went. Then the group moves into the discussion of the second question.

Write the question when it is time to discuss it.
Question 1: "What did you learn from your interviews that you can use as your own techniques/strategies for motivation?"
Question 2: "What might you do differently as a result of what you learned in the interview?"
Question 3: "How can you capture these examples and put it into some living form that you can use / add to/ and be inspired by?" (in other words, what would be a way to record the examples and develop a toolkit / zine that you can take with you) Think of words/pictures/images/etc.
Question 4: Create the zine "What will you bring to the table for this living document? Give yourselves an assignment."

Should you decide to actually create a zine for the group, then this T&L activity will have one more step. Students will go out and do what they decided and then come back together one last time as a group to compile the zine. This part of the activity is optional. Alternatively, you could just compile a list of activities, etc based on the discussion and send them out to everyone.

Teaching Notes and Tips

CAVEAT! I have never taught this exercise, so I am sure that it will change once I actually do it.


I have not developed a formal assessment for this activity. I think it can be based primarily on participation.

References and Resources

Below I list some book titles and websites that might be incorporated into this assignment. I listed some preliminary readings above, but even those are optional.

  • There is a "My Hero" Web based project that has some potentially useful documents to check out - tips for interviews, etc. For example, there is a document with helpful interview tips that can be found at: http://www.myhero.com/myhero/go/theteachersroom/viewLessonplanlist-print.asp?id=682.
  • The Soul of a Citizen, by Paul Loeb
  • The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Hope in a Time of Fear, by Paul Loeb
  • Getting a Grip: clarity, Creativity and Courage in a World Gone Mad, by Frances Moore Lappe
  • Hope's Edge, The Next Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances More Lappe
  • Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, by Rebecca Solnit
  • Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World, by Laurent Parkes Daloz et al.
  • How to Save the World in Your Spare Time, by Elizabeth May
  • Doing Democracy, the MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements, by Bill Moyer et al.
Quotes that I find inspiring:

Alice Walker on change, using the analogy of the torch. Quoted from an interview by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, November 11, 2008. This is also the segment in which she read aloud her open letter to Obama.
"This is how change happens, though. It is a relay race, and we're very conscious of that. That our job, really, is to do our part of the race. And then we pass it on. And then someone picks it up and it keeps going. And that is how it is. And we can do this as a planet, with the consciousness that we may not get it today, but there's always a tomorrow. And Barak Obama's election is one of those tomorrows that was so longed for, and so sweated for, and so believed in, and so hoped for. And it's an incredibly moving affirmation of where we have been and who we have been and how we have kept so much of what we believe."
Bill Ares on education in a democracy. Quoted from an interview by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, 14 Nov 08, Min 49:
"We don't educate for obedience and conformity, we educate for initiative and courage. We educate for imagination and hope and possibility. And we recognize that the full development of each person requires the full development of all people. This is a shifting of the frame."