6 Things I Need Activists to Stop Doing Now

I have been an activist my whole life, even before I knew what the term meant. A socially conscious and emotionally sensitive child, I often cried when I watched the nightly news….disappointed in the world and fearful of my future in it. In my teens, I led unsuccessful campaigns in my household to get my family to recycle and become vegetarians. Something in me has always felt a responsibility not only for myself, but the world as a whole. I understood, on a very spiritual level, the connectedness of all life. My current work is the result of a natural evolution.

And although, I feel fairly comfortable in saying that I am fulfilling my purpose in life, it has not been without stumbles, falls, fuck-ups, and hard learned lessons. Activism, like any other path, is one that can quickly be undermined by the many frailties of being human. Ego, unconscious drives, self-sabotage, and personal turmoil can create barriers that stop our activism from being truly effective.

Below is a list of things that I wish us activists would stop doing…right now. I emphasize the term “us” because I have been guilty of all of these at some point throughout my 10+ years in this field. This blog is not an indictment, but rather an exploration of how we can wade through the dross and truly manifest what activism is about.

I wish us activists would stop:

1. Being Contrarians

I get it. Activism is, essentially, taking action to bring about change. And the pre-cursor to changing something first lies in recognizing that something is wrong. So, I understand how this happens.

But I cannot tell you how frustrating it is to run into those people who think that “pessism” and “activism” are synonymous. These activists have become so enmeshed in finding what’s wrong that they cannot celebrate the victories or acknowledge the things that are working. Contrarians pride themselves on going against the grain and tend to do so….even when it’s counterproductive to do so. There is an acerbic tone that tends to permeate conversations with contrarians and in extreme cases, a resigned hopelessness…

Every idea is shot down because it’s “not going to work.”

Every triumph is tempered with a “but the work is not done yet.”

The contrarian exists in a bleak landscape…one littered with bitter experiences and general dourness. And although, she/he doesn’t probably intend to, she/he turns people off to doing the work. Activism must be based on hope and optimism. If every idea is doomed from the beginning and every victory postponed until all victories are achieved, then what the hell are we doing this for?!

2. Being Self-Righteous

Okay, so you have an afro that’s the size of Kanye West’s ego,  you own several Che Guevara book covers in varying hues, your tampons are made out of 100% pure, organic, hemp, you attend every demonstration, rally, and protest within a 50 mile radius of your crib and you’ve ingested nothing but Boca burgers, Silk Soy Milk, and clove cigarettes for the past 6 years. Congratulations. You are an eco-social-politico-cultural warrior.

However, much of this is less relevant if you spend your time pointing your smug little finger at other people who have made different choices for themselves. And understand that when I say you, I mean me too. I, like so many activists have fallen into the trap of self-righteousness, questioning the motives and commitment of people who didn’t make the same choices I made or who didn’t show up at the gatherings that I attended. Well, of course, if he cared about the children, he would be at this Education Reform rally, right?! And if she truly cared about revolution, she would be tweeting about Egypt instead of music, no?!?!

Look, Gandhi knew what he was talking about when he urged us to BE the change we wanted to see in the world. Notice that he never mentioned anything about policing other people to make sure that they’re “being” what we think they should be. I think it’s very important to keep in mind that we all have different priorities. Right now, there is a mother who is leaving her children at home to take to the streets because she is deeply committed to creating a safer and more just world for them. Across town, there is another, equally committed mother, who is not at the protest because she is at home with her children undoing all the damage that the school system and our cultural matrix has done to them. She is teaching them how to be critical thinkers, how to be engaged citizens, how to  live a fearless life. Both of these mothers are critical components of true revolution and each is playing her part. How divisive and counter-productive would it be for these two to accuse each other of not “doing enough”?  There is also another mother, who is not at home with her kids or at the rally because she has to work 3 jobs just so her kids can eat. And the truth of the matter is, it can be pretty hard to be politically active when you’re a paycheck away from starving.

Activists,  play your part and quit judging people. If you have the time and resources to do more…do so. Do it for those who don’t. Go to the rally for the mother who cannot be there.  Don’t waste time speculating about what kind of person she is. And don’t make the mistake of thinking that all of your actions are the best ones.

Often times, we don’t know why people make the decisions they make. We also don’t know the sum of their activities. In a much quieter, but equally impactful way, someone could be doing more than what we THINK we’re doing. So, get a grip, Captain Planet.

3. Thinking You Have to be Poor to be a “Real” Activist

I grew up in poverty. I know what a trap it is. Poverty, is  maintained by both social constructs and the adopted mindsets of those who exist outside of and within poverty. And while us activists tend to focus very heavily on eliminating the social/political barriers that deny access to wealth, we fall a little short when it comes to examining how our own attitudes about money perpetuate poverty.When we grow up poor, we adopt certain rituals, habits, and behaviors that help us navigate the world of capital with very little money. And while these habits help us to survive as poor people, they don’t help us break out of poverty. In fact, they help insure that we stay impoverished.

These practices are further encouraged by the elements in our society that profit tremendously from the exploitation of poor people.  What makes this whole thing even more insidious is the fact that most of this happens on a subconscious level. In many ways, people who have never had a lot of money start to internalize this notion that they don’t deserve it.

Activists are no different. When I started doing the work that I do now, it was very hard for me to ask to be paid. I was doing what I loved. I was working to create change in my community. This is what I was supposed to be doing, right? So, why should anybody pay me? And when I did see fellow activists being compensated fairly for what they were doing, there was a part of me that questioned their intentions.  My envy, admiration, and suspicion entangling to the point where I couldn’t tell the difference between them.

And, obviously, this has implications on both a personal and collective scale. Today, as I mentor young activists, I strongly urge them to adopt a social entrepreneurship model. Social entrepreneurship is the process of creating a business that carries out a social justice mission. It puts forth this crazy notion that we can do well individually…and help others do well at the same time. Yes, you can be a CEO who cares for, feels connected to and strengthens the very community that you serve. It operates from a philosophy of abundance…one that says none of us should be poor because there is enough to go around.

If we want to help youth see the benefit in community activism, we have to show them that it doesn’t have to mean living on Ramen Noodles and stained futons. Achieving some financial prosperity as an individual also means that you have more disposable income to invest in beneficial things for the community.  You can also share with others the strategies that you used to break out of poverty. Once you get it, you can help others get it. It’s very hard to be an effective activist , working to strengthen the collective, when you’re struggling to stay afloat as an individual.

Personally, I don’t like being poor. I’m OK with that. You should be, too.

5. Not Having Clear Goals

There are a million causes I support. Because I understand how systems work, I fully recognize the inter-relatedness of racism, sexism, environmentalism, classism, capitalism, ageism, etc. They all work to reinforce each other in many ways and sometimes, us activists, have a really hard time figuring out where to begin and how to best expend our energies. I am constantly falling into this trap!

Essentially, we want to “change the world.” And this is where it gets fuzzy. If we’re truly waiting on a Utopia to spring forth out of this bullshit before we declare victory, we might as well throw in the towel now. People need to see tangible results. What good is an activism that that is so broad, so unfocused, that it barely makes a dent? How can we entice people to take up activism, if the goal is always shifting, changing, and is never reached? Or if the goal is so nebulous and unclear to begin with, that halfway to it, people start to realize that they’re not all working for the same thing. Take Egypt. They had one clear goal – get Mubarak out of office. It was a goal that was possible…so possible, in fact, that it was accomplished in 2 weeks. The Egyptian people committed to this one, singular, goal. And the impact was felt around the world when they achieved victory.

Global change is achieved by hitting one mark at a time. Scattering energies and shifting agendas only creates confusion and disillusionment within any movement. This is not to say that you can’t support multiple causes. While my particular focus is on youth and social justice, I can still donate time and/or money to environmental causes, global relief efforts, and a number of other causes. I also stand in solidarity with colleagues who have taken up the mantle of championing these causes, supporting them in their efforts, even if my energies are expended in other arenas. The hardest lesson for activists to learn is that we can’t do everything…and be effective at the same time.

6.Macro Vision and Micro Action

A good friend of mine once expressed his exasperation at people who focus on things that they can’t do while completely ignoring the ways in which they can create change. How many of us are the activists that “wish we could afford to go to Micronesia to help people have access to clean water” while completely ignoring the fact that many families in our very own city will no  longer be able to afford water due to price spikes? How many of us idly dream of an unattainable activism?

This type of activism is frustrating because while it is rooted in very good intentions, it is ultimately, ineffective.  The truth of the matter is, you’re a college student. You can’t afford to go overseas to spread your goodwill and activism all over the world. So, should you just throw up your hands and give up?  Why not apply that passion to where you’re at?

While I definitely promote a global consciousness, to do so at the expense of a localized action relegates activism to the fantasy realm.

And no, I’m not falling into the trap of self-righteousness (see #2 on this list) by judging people for what causes they attach themselves to. However, I am encouraging ALL of us (myself included) to be as effective as we possibly can and to not get so caught up in the exoticization of activism that we plunge it into a state of inaction and irrelevancy.  If you can’t get to Micronesia this year, don’t fret…there is plenty of work for you to do right outside your own door.

In conclusion, I write this blog out of love and out of a deep admiration for those people who have elected to not only work through the labyrinth of their own existence, but who have also dedicated their lives to the collective cause. There are easier paths to choose. And yet, activists continue to walk a path of service to humanity, not because it’s easy but because they believe that it’s the right thing to do. I truly love and admire everyone who has chosen this path and I respect the various ways that people choose to walk it. My activism doesn’t have to look like yours. I have finally learned that.

This blog is as much a tribute to activists as it is a push for all of us  to truly heed the old Chinese proverb that says:

Before preparing to improve the world, first look around your own home three times.