I have been thinking about the topic of activism all summer long. I have been wanting to write about it for a number of reasons. I have also been hesitating as I grappled with it myself, not just for writing, but for my own personal activism and participation.
First, it’s 2020 and the U.S. is in the middle of a divisive presidential race. We are in the midst of COVID-19 and life is very different than just a few months ago. There are protests going on all over the country about ongoing racism and police brutality. Wildfires across the west are “reminding” people about climate change.
My social media is filled with people doing anti-racism work and gathering resources for the ongoing protests and other activism. There has been a lot of discussions about the privilege of those who remain silent and when that silence becomes complicit. There is the incredulity and outrage of some who have been fighting these battles for years, wondering how is it that others are just now noticing these issues.
Before you cringe and stop reading, please know that I am a white woman and I am not attempting to talk about anti-racism work. It’s not my expertise and no one needs my voice on this topic, except when it comes to my own personal activism. In fact, what has been part of the big discussion this summer is amplifying other voices that don’t often get heard, despite their expertise and perspectives. There have been complicated debates on when and how to raise one’s voice and when to just shut up and listen to other voices. There have been uncomfortable arguments among people who are just waking up to certain issues, or feeling the draw to activism. Some are making first steps while not taking into account the issues of privilege and “savior-ism.” I have been having some of those difficult conversations myself and at other times just sitting back to listen as others share.
What am I trying to talk about? I have been struggling to write about activism and participation and finding one’s way. I often tell myself that I am not worthy to write about or to speak up about something, and I usually have a case of impostor syndrome. (We could sit on the therapist’s couch and unpack that one, and maybe I’ll write about that on a different day or just explore that one on my own.)
Activism and participation, however, are topics that I am well-versed in, and I am going to even venture out into saying that I am an expert. I get that there are different models of activism and different types of leadership. I also get that my particular activism and expertise is very different from folks working in and leading movements today. I was never a leader, more like a small cog in lots of different wheels. I was an environmental studies major in college, particularly focusing on the social-political side of things while connected to the science of it all. I spent years studying community organizing and working in education and advocacy on environmental issues. I had my professional work and then needed to figure out what my own personal activism looked like and what issues that I wanted to focus on. I liken it to traffic lanes and that people are all going different speeds, and not always in the same direction. I had to find my lane. I realized that I was particularly good at the education and teaching, and then worked in environmental education where I actually had to make sure that my teaching within the schools was not about advocacy or activism, but strictly the science-based lessons. Professionally, I found my lane. Personally, I struggled at times finding how and when and where to be involved, sometimes volunteering as an activist and organizer to the point of exhaustion and then vacillating to periods of very little participation beyond voting. Sometimes I wasn’t sure where my little droplets of participation could combine with other’s rain to contribute to the larger waves.
When I was first studying community organizing, my mentor warned me that many are not able to maintain a long-term career of organizing due to high levels of stress and burnout. He talked about his own changing activism and organizing over the years. I had a different lane than my mentor and some of my friends who were studying with me.
Some people are on the outer lanes, really leading movements or expanding the viewpoints. Some people are more comfortable being in the middle, and others bring up the rear. Being in the head, middle, or back of the pack doesn’t necessarily mean someone is ahead of another. Obviously, there are beliefs that can be tied up in those levels of participation and some argue about whether or not compromise dilutes the power and mission of those larger movements. Regardless, though, I learned that convincing others to participate at any level had a lot to do with helping them find their own lane, or in getting out of their way so they could find ways to participate and activate. A big part of the community organizing training that I came from was the model where the organizer was not the leader, but instead the one to support while the group found its own way. Other activism methods might draw on masses of people moving slowly. Let’s not forget that there can be power plays and uncomfortable alliances drawn for convenience or out of necessity in activist groups. Personal and organizational politics are often used to maintain the status quo. Some are there for the cause, some for their egos. I often struggled to find both healthy organizations and healthy people to work with.
Looking back, I can see how there were failures along the way, not expanding the circles of participation and realizing that those who stood at the front of the room often didn’t look anything like those who were behind the scenes. Why was it that a very different group of people showed up for environmental justice rallies when it was about high levels of pollution in a so-called minority neighborhood compared to those who showed up to speak up about purchasing land for open space and trails?
I was and still am particularly interested in how people work together to accomplish larger things. I am interested in these citizen movements and how they fit together or don’t. How do different movements fit together? How do different approaches come together? How are activism models chosen? How do movements begin and change over time? Why are some more successful than others? What are the points when a movement stretches past traditional boundaries? I have worked on and read about this stuff for years, but this past summer made me think about it differently. It’s not just an academic exercise that someone has written a book about, it’s the history of our country and what we have failed to address over the years. Why do some things get called revolutions while others are called riots? How do outside factors come to play? Where does morality and a sense of right and wrong fit in? How do beliefs and knowledge come together in an individual’s view of the world and their place in it? How is it that we pick up speed and find our lane?
The events of the last few months has made me think once again about my lane, my perspective, my privilege, my passion, my morals, but not just in an abstract, reflective way. How am I participating? How am I creating space for others? Where am I showing up? Am I finding my lane of participation out of comfort? Am I forcing myself to look at my discomfort and pick another lane for participation? How does my activism look now in the fall of 2020 compared to my activism in college? How is it influenced by my age? How is it influenced by my training as a community organizer in the 90s compared to tools that are available today to organizers? How is my activism influenced this fall by the people I love, even ones who I disagree with? How is my participation influenced by really examining my morals, when I can dissect them and see my own failings? How have my definitions of activism have expanded?
How do we find our lanes?
I think we have to begin with finding our comfort levels and discomfort levels. What feels easy? What feels difficult? Who needs to pass on the baton while they rest? Who needs to lead? What does participation look like to me? What does it look like to you? What does showing up look like? Is it calling a local politician? Is it signing a petition? Is it bringing the megaphone? Is it gathering supplies for donation? Is it giving refuge to the organizers? Is it confronting a company? Is it boycotting? Is it mass protests? Is it using social media to share a view? Is it reading a few books and then going in for more? Is it listening to a friend? Is it looking in the mirror to confront oneself? Is it finding ways to support organizations and people who are in different lanes than we feel we can be in? Is it helping others register to vote? Is it researching not only the top of the ballot, but also examining the local funding and elected officials up for election in other levels of government? Is it sitting down and listening to someone else’s opinion, not to go into a debate, but just to listen to a different viewpoint?
Election Day is a few weeks away, but these issues are ongoing. Have you found your lane? Do you need to pick up the baton from someone else? Do you need to pause in your lane to take a breath? Have you found a way to get involved in the issues you care about? There are a million issues to care about and a million lanes and ways to get involved. I am finding my lane, yet again.
We can help each other and make way for others in their own lanes. Our democracy, our republic, is only as strong as those who show up, who participate.