Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Activism and Organization

I have more thoughts about activism in my car than I do in my job, the supposed locus of academic freedom and liberal activity.

For the past three years, I commute to work and every day I pass two terrifyingly unorganized intersections of traffic. In my three years, I have witnessed probably 6-8 horrific accidents. Two of them, I guessed from brief glances, had to be fatal. The cars were smashed by with what looked like Godzillas’ fists.

A year and a half into this crazy commute, I began called the Department of Transportation in my district, always being transferred to someone else once I identified as, “a concerned citizen wanting to know the process and chain of communication to put a stoplight in a dangerously unguarded intersection.” When I finally spoke with a bored voice, our conversation when something like this:

“All I want to know is who I can write a letter to or call about this. I have a legitimate concern!”

“Unless you want to privately fund a new traffic light, there is no one to speak with.”

“There’s no one? Am I hearing you correctly? As a tax paying citizen wanting to ask a simple question, you are saying that there is no one I can speak with about a public intersection where I believe I have seen an obscene number of traffic deaths? There’s no one who I can address a letter to voice my opinion?”

“No, there isn’t.”

I hung up and screamed BULLSHIT.

That was just for traffic safety.

One of the problem with everyday activism for everyday citizens like myself is that I don’t sit on big budget boards, I’m not a consultant on a council, I don’t make a lot of money, and I sure as hell don’t know the “right” people. All I am and all that I WANT to be is a passionate writer and cultural critic. That doesn't exactly fly with most people. I can’t sit through any more books that tell me how to carry on the fight or different ways I can write an op-ed piece in the newspaper. When I hear about my friend's punctured car tires who works at Planned Parenthood or when a pro-life identitified activist gets spit on during a march in D.C. by a bystander, I can't help but wonder, "Is this the best we can do?"

An activist exists to improve a situation, a cause. An activist witnesses a need for improvement and attempts to find outlets to actualize this vision. Sometimes it’s an environmental issue (ending global warming), sometimes it’s a community vision (electing a local official). Regardless, the psychology and emotional tolerance of an activist is normally overlooked. It is overlooked because a true activist is so rare these days. A true activist is someone, in my opinion, who is simply and truly alive. An “Active” person who feels things, deeply, so deeply she feels compelled to use physical, emotional, and psychological strength to overturn a law, protest a decision, empower the survivor, or influence the voter.

What's odd is that an Active person is often looked at as superhuman. Because she does something that most people wouldn’t normally consider (being “active”), this role shadows the reality that, in fact, activists are really examples of what we all are born to do: be active, react, and feel. The role “activist” creates an air that makes the reality of tiredness, vulnerability, and agitation difficult to see. The very thing that motivates the activist is also the very thing that gets winded, sometimes permanently. We think that just because someone already as the nerve and agenda to be active, they must have emotional cores of steel. Sometimes yes, but not for eternity. Activists are made of bone and skin,too. Our hearts gradually age with the best of them.

We’re open to criticism and accusations of short-sightedness, idiocracy, falsehood, and malicious, thoughtless agendas. Activism is simply draining because too few people will do it, whether out of fear or laziness, who knows? On one hand, Activists are feared but also, paradoxically, they are put on a pedestal because they dare and risk what most will not. They feel what most don’t care to understand beyond the media’s explanation. In a way, the existence of the activist is needed to balance the homogeneity of the majority. As long as there are a few that disagree, let them! And, darn it, don't we just love that they have the freedom to engage in acts of civil disobedienc so we can go along with our merry ways because someone ELSE is doing the feeling, the work, the shit that no one wants to do? Activists don’t just improve the situation for the better, they make apathetic people feel better about their own complacency. As long as someone else is doing it, I don’t have to. Fine job they do, those activists. They speak for me. I don’t know how to hold a picket sign. I can’t write like that. What if everyone looks at me that way, too?

Activists will never be satiated. They do not dream of perfection, they’re not that na├»ve, but they do dream of peace. They dream of actuality, and palpable justice. The only problem, “activists” are grouped as a minority group. Should I remind what happens to vociferous minority groups who challenge the system?

It is time to dispel myths of activism so we ALL can actively live:

Activism is for "liberal" people.
Only non-profit folks and grassroots tree huggers are cut out for that work.
You have to know about everything about anything before you can articulate an "anti-" or "pro-" opinion.
Attending protests sits at the top of the activist's priority list.
College educated citizens/students are the best organizers.
D.C., NYC, and coastal cities are the only places to be heard.
Complete allegiance to one of the binay perspectives of an issue is needed.

You can give seven big fat ass NOs to those statements. Most people tend to believe stereotypes about activism and activists to excuse themselves from the scene. Sorry to burst your bubble, but "the scene" is life. So unless you find the planet an unsuitable place, I'm afraid to tell you that there are no exit doors. We're all here, together. And with a lucid brain and heart, there is much to be done, and much can be accomplished.

The word liberal is no longer a word. It is a label. My mother and father are Bush dynasty fanatics. They called me the day of the 2004 Presidential election from their community Republican offices, asking me who I voted for. Now, my parents know full well I voted for John Kerry, but they wanted to engage me, once again, as to WHY I would not vote for Bush. While the memory of that phone call makes me throw up a little in my mouth, the point is that my parents were active. Granted, they were for the other side and helped elect a baffoon to lead our nation, but their own action, their movement, their passion in what they believed was best for our country was undeniably clear. I cannot be acidic with my Republican family. I'm tired of drawing lines between myself and those who I truly do love. It can be infuritating and it has probably taken at least 4 years off my life, but I understand where they are coming from. My parents are activists, we're just not on the same side.


come time to discuss the nitty gritty details of legislature, the toll of the Iraqi war, and the role of the United Nations, and my mother's head will tilt as she listens to me, ask questions, and then say she'll go back to her prayer group and ask what they think. She'll call and say that many of her church peeps agree with me, but they still choose to vote the other way.

They still choose to vote the other way.

There is something very exciting about respectful, energetic disagreements. Something about it does give me hope. Going head to head with other activists in my own living room is more daunting and empowering for me than dancing in the streets outside Fort Bragg in Georgia when I protested the School of the Americas with thousands of people surrounding me. They are both large scale, just in different ways.

Activists must be translators. They must be adaptable to different populations, tongues, and reasons. It's not a small order. Very few people I know are well-versed and fluid in connecting the local and global communities with hard-pressed issues. They possess an ability to admonish the simplicity in the complex situations, but also simplify the complex. Again, these aren't the most sophisticated folks or those with an entourage of letters after their name. They are the ones who took the energy to best understand a situation and then apply it to daily life.

My dentity as an Activist has evolved over the past ten years. It's gone through many phases and permanently resides in my everyday encounters. I take the time to learn and react. I train myself to be patient. My activism roars when it needs to but also understands the dynamics of planetary change. I can appreciate a thoughtful activist across the line and that appreciation neither neutrilizes or furthers my devotion to change; only visions of justice and equality can do that.

I was happy when a new traffic light was installed in one of the two dangerous intersections that I raised hell over. Does that make a dent in vast cave of social and political issues of life? Or will that affect the "real" issues that I regularly take up - women of color feminism, racism in higher education, poverty in developing nations, sexuality and religion? It most certainly does not. Will it save a life or two this year? Perhaps.

That possibility alone makes it all worth it.


  1. Hey, did you want to submit this to the Carnival of Radical Action? I think it'd be perfect. :-)

  2. Thanks, FF.
    Just did :)


Hey there,
Before you leave a comment, just remember two things:
1. You are taking responsibility for a public comment
2. Anything that resembles racism, homophobia, classism, ableism, or anything based from religion, citizenship, or ethnic bias - don't bother commenting, you'll be deleted.