Forward on Climate in Washington, February 2013

One of the last big climate marches, Forward on Climate in Washington, February 2013.
Photo: Milan Ilnyckyj, from the Flickr groupCC BY-NC-SA 2.0

What The Heck is Activism Anyway?

We need to broaden our understanding of activism – without stigmatizing good old protests in the street.

The People’s Climate March is happening in New York City this Sunday, September 21. I’m working with Toronto 350, GreenPeopleTO and Emily Hunter to organize the buses heading from Toronto to the march, and it’s got me thinking about what activism is.

The People’s Climate March is happening in New York City this Sunday, September 21. I’m working with Toronto 350, GreenPeopleTO and Emily Hunter to organize the buses heading from Toronto to the march, and it’s got me thinking about what activism is.

Activism is alive and well but increasingly protests and protesters are seen less as citizens exercising their given rights to assemble and have their voices heard, and more as dangerous threats to national security. The stereotype of activists as simply sign-holding loudmouths has become impressively pervasive, so much so that research studies are showing people are less likely to act if what is being requested of them is even connected to the idea of “activists.”

A few weeks ago, I sat in a room of high school students who were asked what they think activism is. Their answers varied but generally they agreed that activism is taking action to push for a cause you believe in, unknowingly hitting upon the central problem with defining the word.

What they came up with is basically what you would find in a dictionary, but this broad definition includes a large portion of the population, many of whom don’t look the part. It would include military personnel, members of proselytizing religions and even business lobbyists fighting for more corporate freedom.

For some reason, regardless of one’s stance on activism, that broadly inclusive definition feels unsatisfactory, but why does it feel wrong to include these people into our understanding of the word activist?

The answer is summed up well in this powerful piece from the Guardian, in which Gary Younge argues that “riots are a class act.” Now obviously not all protests are riots, but Younge’s argument can apply broadly. The piece contends that the reason you don’t often see richer members of societies out taking action in the streets is because they have other ways to access power, that poorer and even middle class folks do not.

This helps explain why the image of a typical ‘activist’ is so skewed. The often more effective forms of activism exercised by those with greater access to power take place over fancy meals or a golf game, rather than in marches and riots seen on the news. Thus we are overwhelmingly exposed to the types of activists who have no other way to be heard than to voice their concerns loudly in the streets. The end goal is the same – to exert your influence towards an end you wish to achieve – but only some methods are seen by the general public. Power brokers’ golf games and fancy meals don’t draw news coverage.

It is also important to note the role that so-called typical activists have to play in shaping the public’s view of the word. Those joining the march in New York this month would likely oppose the notion that they are doing the same thing as a paid lobbyist, and in many ways they would be right.

A second reason it feels wrong to include lobbyists and the like in the definition of activist is that the “cause” they’re pushing for is often the either the status quo or an extension of advantageous rules that already exist, not progressive social change. And yet, if you run with the definition given by the high school students, there would be no distinction.

The pressure to pigeonhole activism that exists on both sides of the issue allows for activists and activism to be seen as the harmful stereotype identified earlier. Accepting that there are inherent differences between marching-in-the-street organizing and lobbyists is important, but must be accompanied by work to destigmatize traditional (louder, lower-class) forms of activism.

The second half of this series – coming after the People’s Climate March – will delve into what I learned from the process of planning, organizing and participating in the march, and how being involved impacts one’s understanding of the underlying tension between the textbook definition of activism and how we, the public, understand it. But for now, I’ll sum up what I have learned so far, which is that activists spend dramatically more time responding to emails than they ever will yelling at a march and more time bringing people together than they ever will holding a sign. “Activists” don’t change the world, people do.

Stefan is the co-founder and executive director of the Green Society Campaign and one half of Green Majority Media, whose work focuses on using media, culture and community to bring environmental issues into the forefront while promoting like minded groups to support the movement as a whole. He graduated from the University of Toronto School of the Environment in 2012 and has been working on environmental issues and media since 2010.