February 27, 2018

Thoughts on activism

A long Facebook thread started by a friend of mine focuses on people’s jusgement and (mis)understanding of activism. This post is based on my reply.

When I’m asked what I do, I often answer “I help motivate and inspire Quakers to get involved in justice work.” That’s my way of avoiding people’s judgment about “activists,” as well as their lack of understanding about being a “community organizer.” I have been hurt so many times by Quakers who say to me, “But I’m not an activist like you are.”

One person shared their perception that it seems like people who are activists must have privilege. In fact, among liberal groups, it’s often the least privileged/most oppressed groups who are the most activist.  Look up CTUL, a group of predominantly poor/working class custodians of color... Standing Rock and indigenous rights is another example. And of course there’s the whole Black Lives Mattee movement.  The media might sway our view of who the activists are by what protests they cover and who gets air time, etc.

I want to address protests.  I’ll say upfront: protests and marches and rallies are only one tool among many types of actions that bring people into justice work. It’s among the most visible because of how it grabs media attention; it’s among the easist to get involved in because it’s low risk, hard to be singled out as an individual, and seldom if ever requires a long-term commitment.

Other traditional actions for activists: phone banking, door-knocking, petitions, letter writing, and visits with elected officials. If you’ve ever done any of these, I would say that what separates you from activists is that maybe you don’t have a long-standing concern that you are tracking and doing regular work on. I do: racial justice, racism, and whiteness, especially among Quakers.

Another missing piece from many conversations about what activism is or isn’t: grassroots and building capacity for meaningful change. Writing letters and signing petitions seldom build capacity of a community. That’s because these activities seldom create new relationships and instead keep us isolated from one another. And if we’re isolated, then I won’t show up for your issue and you won’t show up for my issue because we don’t know each other well enough. My faith community turned out for over a year to push against the proposed marriage amendment because they personally knew most of the GLBTQ folks among us who were targeted. Yes, find a single cause (at first) that matters to you and then get involved *in an organization* that addresses it and take note of the relationships that are created.

I’m feeling some kind of way as I write this.  But I’m glad that here’s a space where I can say “I’m an activist. I’m a community organizer, with some training and some experience. Ask me questions.”

Or read about community organizing, like Rinku Sen’s book Stir It Up or Adrienne Marie Brown’s book Emergent Strategy.

Most important, perhaps: when you find yourself dissing activism, consider that maybe you are supporting the status quo unintentionally. And if that makes you uncomfortable, I hope you’ll sit in that discomfort and see if it teaches you anything.


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