Does Activism work? The call for social change.
There is a new surge of activism happening right now and it is stirring up the mix, challenging the propaganda and drawing attention of the many. But the question is, will it do anything? Will it inform people, will it raise awareness, will it empower democracy, will it change the minds of those in decision-making positions, will it help to change the way things are?
Activism… is mostly seen as people protesting against something. It lends itself to a picture of activists as angry, opinionated extroverts. It leads people to thinking activism begins and ends at the gathering where everyone shouts about how terrible a situation is. It does no justice to the real grafting of activism, the work that sits at the heart of change.
Change... usually involves pain and/or grieving, as it involves giving up what has gone before, the benefits (often to many), the security of the known, the modifying of old behaviours. Social change is no different, even where people, animals or the earth are clearly suffering, people will still be unwilling to embrace social change for these reasons.
If you take the very simplistic version of activism, protests and highly charged debates, it is very unlikely that social change will happen. It simply isn’t that easy. It's a start but it is only a start. To achieve social change, means going way beyond awareness and expressing opinions, it means activating a new way of doing things and getting people to respond until it becomes the ‘norm’.
Effective activism is, therefore, more than just challenging a corrupt system or unethical behaviour, it is also about understanding and implementing what is needed, i.e. it is activism ‘against’ and activism ‘for’. In practice it means we need activists ‘against’, who are well informed, clear about the basic need not being met, standing up and saying so strongly and who understand they are responsible for ensuring their work in inextricably linked to ensuring what comes next – the action ‘for’. They are not people who keep arguing the same point over and over again, or revel in being outspoken, or relish any opportunity for self promotion.
If we are to achieve change we need to be inundated with activists ‘for’. They are the practitioners that secure the future that people felt wasn’t there before. They set out what is possible and what they know can be implemented. They know based on experience, expertise and connection with those in need. Activists 'for' take activism beyond awareness and theoretical debates and demand attention for what ought to be in place and ensure it happens. They are not usually the people who are well recognised but are critical to action for change (they are do-ers rather than talkers). They will be all manner of people with all manner of approaches and methods. They will be neighbours, colleagues, family members and you.
Like activists ‘against’, activists ‘for’ can be anyone anywhere and it is almost limitless as to what they can do. Activists ‘for’ can be volunteers of community projects, they can be guardians of our land, they can be lawyers that strengthen laws/legal rights, they can be parents who set up support networks, or truly representative politicians setting new standards. They are the people that show how hope can translate into positive action.
If we want changes in the world it is time that when people hear the word ‘activist’ it evokes images and thoughts of people acting constructively, both against the unethical/exploitative behaviour and for the change that is needed.
The balance of having activists ‘against’ and ‘for’ keeps activism moving on from distracting arguments played out by those who exploit or are unethical. Too often debates are played out for months or years on television, social media, in communities, neighbourhoods, and nothing moves ahead. Having an abundance of activists ‘for’ also helps to raise the game in terms of what is possible. Unfortunately those that are insistent on unethical, exploitative practice will lower the standard of practice to such depths that people feel grateful when they raise it a little. Activists ‘against’ say enough is enough, then activists ‘for’ come in and demand the standard and the practise that must be met for humanity, for basic human rights, for the kind of world that children ought to grow up in. They show the ‘how’ and then ensure it is done.
If we are truly to achieve change, everyone needs to understand that they can be an activist. Not in the old-school, limiting picture of an activist, but in the empowering definition of activists ‘against’ and ‘for’, standing up against exploitation and breaches of humanity, and implementing change for the better.
It must also be noted that it is a myth that by highlighting an issue the situation will change. I have never seen this happen. Highlighting issues almost always puts the heckles up on people in decision-making positions and the reaction that follows is rarely one of embracing a different way of doing things – they are more likely to challenge your intentions or manipulate the issue or just ignore it and hope it goes away. Implementing change is painful after all. Raising awareness, increasing understanding of issues, providing independent information, is just the start of change - it always requires going further, doing more.
If you want to see an activist who is a genuine social change maker, look for the person who is saying how an issue or a need can be addressed - if the person is always complaining or simply pointing our what others are doing wrong they are not the ones who will lead the way of change. The people who say 'This is the situation, there is exploitation here. This is why it is unacceptable, this is what is needed in its place. This is how we are already addressing this situation and the needs of those exploited. Do this to help...' are the most likely activists achieving real social change. Look for them, be critical of the activist label, be skeptical of people who oversimplify the problem and 'solutions', and be wary of those who only blame and never seem to take responsibility for how things can be better.
Avoid thinking of activism as simply protesting. Activism doesn't have to be noisy, in fact, in my experience, activism for social change is often quietly and effectively achieved by people prepared to do the grafting. Do be smart about how you act and keep social change as your end goal. And please, if you're going to stand up and protest at a rally, utilise this coming together of people to do something 'for'. Help those already doing the work but are not well known with a donation, sign up volunteers for proactive work, get a list of people who would like to represent communities and follow-up with support for them to do that. Take the step beyond talking and do something to change the ways things are.
In the world today, activism has never been more relevant. Change does not happen by itself – it needs actions ‘against’ and then ‘for’, every time. It requires everyone seeing themselves as potential activists to ensure the world is a better place for all, to stop exploitation, corruption and other seriously unethical behaviour. We have to shift from simply praising or disparaging each others viewpoints and activate ourselves to do something for the better, to say what isn’t right and to show what can be done.