Too often, the definition of activism is far too narrow. This is because people have certain ideas about activism lodged in their head. They think activism means a certain thing, when in fact it can and does mean many different things. Part of what I do as an educator is to help my students see that activism has a plurality of meanings. I also try to help them see that what they are doing is activism. They may not think it is activism because they are not giving themselves credit for the justice work that they are already doing.
What comes to mind when people hear the term “activism”? Oftentimes people think of demonstrations, rallies, vigils, street marches, sit-ins and hunger strikes.. They think of lobbying their state or federal senators and representatives. They think of testifying before legislative bodies and calling or writing their elected officials. And if they are not doing these particular things, it means they are not an activist. Now, I have done all of these things and they are in fact important parts of activism. But they are far from the only part. I think we need to cast a wide umbrella and see the work that people are already doing as activism. When they receive credit for this labor, they will begin to take part in other activisms and stretch themselves to further social, economic and environmental justice.
Some of the less traditional activism could include many things, such as: interrupting bigoted “jokes” and comments; writing a blog; wearing a pin, patch or t-shirt that supports a particular cause; working with ones family to educate them; calling attention to privilege and oppression within one’s sphere of influence; working to make an event or a space more inclusive or accessible; making political statuses on Facebook, Twitter and other social media; making activist art; taking part in craftivism; boycotting or supporting certain businesses; culture jamming; hacktivism and many more.
I am not a fan of terms like “slacktivism” or “keyboard warrior” that make light of the activism that people are engaging in. For some, the only activism they can engage in is online due to disability or economic status. It can be ableist and classist to cast aspersions on people’s activism. I prefer a big-tent approach and an approach of encouragement and cheer-leading. There is so much endless criticism about what we do or don’t do. It is easy to interrogate and finger point. But what we really need is an atmosphere that challenges people but also rewards them and encourages them to continue to do the work.
People need encouragement because activism is very, very, very hard work. If it was easy, we would have solved the problems a long time ago. The problems are enormous and well-entrenched. Going against the status-quo requires courage and determination. Because of these realities, self-care is of the utmost importance. I am glad in recent years there has been more discussion of self-care, because it is simply not optional. Activism can literally send people to an early grave. As activists we need to practice self-care, we need to pace ourselves and we need to know that it is okay to walk away. We need to give ourselves credit for the work that we ARE doing and stop beating ourselves up because we believe we can or should be doing more.
Activism has a steep learning curve. We must be gentle with ourselves while also challenging ourselves to climb higher and fight harder. The causes we fight for are way too important to abandon and thus the struggle continues!