Birthday Activism: Making Each Year Count

By Michael Parrish DuDell   |  16Comments|

In the past, I wasn’t particularly keen on celebrating my birthday. As a child, of course, it was always exciting to commune with friends over plates full of greasy pepperoni pizza and frosting-covered yellow birthday cake. But as I got older, the thought of organizing a party to celebrate yet another passing year just seemed…well, sort of unimportant.

Then I turned 25, and everything changed.

My 25th year of living was perhaps the most exacerbating time of my life. Full of disappointments, setbacks and life-altering tragedies, it was as though the Universe had sent a Category 5 hurricane to devastate the very foundation of my existence. At the time, I tried with all my might to resist the brutal storm, to hold on to the few remaining precious scraps of truth that had once sheltered and protected me so. But the world is stronger than the individual. Eventually my grip gave way, and I was thrust violently into a whirlwind of chaos and destruction, left only with a prayer that I would emerge unharmed and with a greater sense of purpose. I’m happy to report that the prayer was answered.

When the winds let up and the darkness faded, my perpetual uncertainty had been replaced with clarity, determination and pure, unleaded gusto. I knew deep down that my life had been clear-cut to make room for something greater than I had ever known. Sometimes destruction must occur before creation can ensue.

Some call what I experienced a quarter-life crisis, but for me it was greater: it was a bloody war brought on by an internal regime change; a personal reformation of the highest order. It was the forced carving of the first sentence of the second chapter of the rest of my life: “And when he awoke, he saw the world for what it was: a vast plain of endless possibilities, a canvas from which to freely create, a world in which to forever change.” It was then that the tradition of Birthday Activism was born.

Birthday Activism is quite simply the act of leveraging one’s special day to help further a cause and create change. And since my 27th birthday is on Monday, April 12, I thought I’d share my homemade recipe for Birthday Activism with you.

Here’s how it works: about two weeks before the big day, start thinking about issues that you find meaningful. For me, veganism is the cornerstone of my ethical make-up and the nucleus of my belief system. I’m also incredibly passionate about the power of citizen action, volunteering, and effective change. So, naturally, I chose to highlight those ideas for my birthday.

Now that you’ve identified your cause, start brainstorming about projects that might complement your issue. Remember, it’s YOUR birthday! This gives you incredible bargaining power with friends and families. You’d be surprised at what individuals will do when asked the right way.

For Birthday 25, I got a large group of friends to volunteer at a local soup kitchen in New York City. Birthday 26 was spent learning about the plight of farm animals at Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary. This year, I asked all my Facebook friends to go vegan for the day (so far over 200 have agreed), and I got a group of 15 to attend an orientation at New York Cares, thus empowering them to volunteer throughout the year.

The third and final step is to promote your birthday activity. Use Facebook, Twitter or make a few good, old-fashioned phone calls to get people excited about the project. Don’t feel bad about asking anyone and everyone to take part. Volunteering is a lot like getting a massage: it feels fantastic and everyone knows they should do it once in a while, but rarely does one take the initiative. In fact, by participating in Birthday Activism, you’re not only receiving a gift, but also giving one equal in value.

Now, don’t worry—it doesn’t have to be ALL about service. After the project, I always make sure there’s something fun planned nearby at a bar or restaurant. But truth be told, years later my friends aren’t talking about the vodka soda they had that night; instead, they’re reminiscing about the lives they helped touch and the good they helped create.

We may not be able to control how many birthdays we get in this world, but we do have the power to make sure each and every one of those special days truly counts.

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16 responses to Birthday Activism: Making Each Year Count
  1. I love your writing and your positive approach to promoting veganism. Thanks!

  2. I love this idea! I’m starting with my own birthday activism my next birthday. :)

  3. kim said on April 9, 2010

    beautiful! it’s my big sis, bro and mother’s birthday this month! great idea! i’ve always thought of getting gifts for others instead of the other way around… but now others can gave to the world as well :)
    thank you for writing this :)

  4. I adore your writing! I hear you about how catastrophic change can open the door to some pretty positive awakenings and changes. When I was 25, I too had my first big wake up call… and since that key occurrence I have learned to see perceived hurdles as shining opportunities to find myself. I am now embarking on one of those opportunities again… but I feel I can handle these things better now, thanks to my ‘training’ and I am very excited to see the end result and how it will shape my path..
    Thanks. :)

  5. Love your idea! I do not allow my ten year old to attend many birthday parties. The over-the-top parties with too many gifts for children who have too much anyway bothers me. I am proud that my daughter agreed to have her guests bring toys and treats for our local SPCA instead of presents at her recent birthday party. The children told my daughter how much fun it was to gather things and the moms seemed to like it too. Instead of unwrapping gifts, the kids had fun looking thru the bags of treats and toys. As a Thank You, we gave a sticker book of dogs and cats to each guest. No candy take home bags! One guest decided she was going to raise money for an upcoming WALK FOR LIFE instead of gifts for her upcoming birthday. Wouldn’t it be great to see this happen more often?

  6. Brilliant! Love it, will do it!

  7. I really think we should create a community of birthday activists. I’d be willing to put together a blog or website if people are willing to let me post about their activist birthdays. We can inspire eachother and others to be more involved.

  8. Oh and, anyone interested can email me at

    Also, Michael, let me know if I am crossing the line here, using your idea and all.

  9. All- Thanks for the lovely comments. I’m happy to hear you’re all a fan of Birthday Activism!

    Jessica-Great idea and not ‘crossing the line’ at all. The more the merrier! You have my blessing!

  10. What a terrific idea! As someone who usually makes fun of ‘grown-ups’ for making a big deal of their birthday, I love this idea! And actually, what’s better than celebrating another year of life by doing something for others. Thanks for this!

  11. Oh, and Happy Birthday!

  12. . . . and just when I was wondering what kind of birthday party will my soon-to-be-15-year-old will want this year? Thank you, thank you, thank you. This is a GREAT idea!

  13. This is a great article! Very inspiring! For my 30th birthday, my husband asked all my friends and family to sponsor an animal or animals from Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. He then made a book of all the animals that were sponsored for my birthday and gave it to me as my birthday gift. I’ve never received something so meaningful in all my life. They donated almost $1,000 for the animals at Best Friends! It was the best birthday ever!

  14. ABSOLUTE GENIUS!!! As someone who has been feeling the worry about not having achieved enough as a soon to be 30 year old, this post could not have come at a better time! I’m totally nicking your idea if you don;t mind?

  15. I love this post, thank you! and it came just at the right time as we were planning my long distance birthday party, the online version is on my blog. Wishing love and ethical birthdays for all,
    Grace and Linus xxx

  16. YYIIPPPPEEE!!!! Thanks for this. Hope you had an awesome birthday. The rest of your 20’s will be great. I guarantee it. The 30’s… so much to celebrate here. 😉 cheers!