words by Kénta Xiadani Ch’umil
Activism. Once a daunting word, it now steals mainstream media’s headlines. We are all familiar with the traditional definition of activism: “an action or actions of using vigorous campaigning and other techniques to bring about social or political change.”
As youth, we are taught that activism is taking to the street, going to polls, casting votes, picketing, chanting, boycotting—taking an action to effect change. But as our issues evolve, our definitions must evolve with them.
The age of digitization and social media has transformed not only how we communicate and consume information, but also how we interpret these often polarizing messages, and, ultimately, how we act on them. In this blurring of public and private spheres, we have become inundated with information, misinformation, and disinformation.
Unfortunately, “activism” has devolved into a buzzword, its value undermined in our rapidly changing world. We must update our knowledge, thought processes, and ideologies surrounding activism—what it is and is not. As a whole, we must redefine and adapt our language to be inclusive and accurate.
So with that I say: activism is not solely an action.
What is Activism?
Activism is not a monolith, nor is there a “one size fits all” formula for participation. Activism is a personal journey in which you are both the student and the guide. Activism is intentionality with proper execution. It is multiple decisions made over and over again.
Activism is (self)reflection, critical thinking, and is never ending with countless ebbs and flows. There is no single conversation that must be had, but rather continuous dialogues that may be painful and ugly, but necessary.
Activism is demanding and tiring, but is also healing and loving. Activism is like love. It’s not a single action or thought process. Rather, it’s continuous, constantly growing, changing and reforming itself. There is more than just a duality to it—more than a spectrum, even. Activism can look, sound, and exist in a plethora of divergent forms and manners.
Activism is something that moves our world toward something else, something better. It’s advancing a movement, pushing a goal forward social, political, economic, or environmental reform. Activism can manifest itself countless ways, and in a variety of forms, but not all of these forms, or expressions, are created equal.
Beneficial Activism: Micro-Activism & Macro-Activism
Micro-activism is a smaller-scale form of activism done on an individual level. Macro-activism is implemented through large-scale actions. Both are equally important, despite the misconception that micro-activism is less impactful.
Examples of Macro-Activism
Attending a civil disobedience training workshop and applying those tactics
Doing movement work on the frontlines
Rallying & rioting in the streets
Organizing a sit-in
Examples of Micro-Activism
Announcing your pronouns in a public space
Boycotting certain products or businesses
Cooking/providing food for protestors
Writing letters to politicians
Creating & sharing art, links or posts
Social movements take time to grow and gain strength (although change can take root overnight, as witnessed by the changes made amidst the coronavirus outbreak) and it’s important to remember that even if what we do is small, micro-activism is important because it can lead to macro-activism.
Whether it’s a $5 donation, or an hour of your time, individual actions make a difference. We must take care, however, not to succumb to self-serving and, quite frankly, lazy forms of activism like slacktivism, and its online counterpart, clicktivism.
Harmful or Damaging Activism: Slacktivism & Clicktivism
Coined by Dwight Ozard and Fred Clark in 1995 at the Cornerstone Festival, slacktivism is a portmanteau of “slacker” and “activism.” It is the feel-good practice of supporting a social or political cause by means of showing support with minimal effort or commitment. The “action” usually has little to no real life effect(s) other than to boost one’s ego and make the person(s) doing it feel satisfied that they have “contributed.”
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by what you think you should do, or how you should help, only to like an image or share a post online. Utilizing social media and other online methods in activism is not inherently bad; it can be a great tool to spread awareness, engage with a wide audience, and organize large-scale events as it unites individuals in their world views to form online communities despite distance in time and space. However, when clicktivism—liking and sharing social posts—is the sole form of activism it becomes meaningless, unproductive, and potentially harmful.
Slactivism is the feel-good practice of supporting a social or political cause by means of showing support with minimal effort or commitment.
Not only do these self-serving forms of faux-activism have no real world effect and completely fail the goal of bringing about social or political change, slacktivism and clicktivism can potentially take space and resources from other, more beneficial forms of activism.
Any form of activism driven by ego, greed, or selfishness is inherently violent and harmful; any activism for clout and social or financial gain is performative, regressive, and weak.
Existing As Activism: Occupying & (Re)Claiming Space
We all live within societies that have their own multiplex of systems and structures of oppression. Some benefit from these systems of oppression, some are the oppressed, and for others, it is an amalgam of both—regardless of personal choice, belief, or actions. We must recognize the distribution of privilege and benefitting from systems of oppression is not as clean cut as it may seem; nuanced complexities of both our chosen and born-into identities can blur these lines.
Our visibly queer and trans siblings, our disabled and nuerodivergent kin, Black, Indigenous and Brown individuals, and other minority communities facing a system seeking to disempower and eradicate us are activists. Our presence is a radical act of defiance against these systems set in place to silence and harm us.
This isn’t to say that existing is enough — it’s more complex than that —but our existence and occupation of spaces that try to rid themselves of us is just the beginning.
The Myth of the Ideal Activist
Now, after reading and attempting to digest all this potentially new information, you may be asking yourself What does an Ideal Activist look like? How do I become one? I am here to tell you the “ideal activist” is a myth. There is no one-size-fits-all type of activism. There is no ideal activist.
To communicate candidly, this is where things get confusing. As previously mentioned, activism is a multiplex set of systems full of nuanced complexities. It can be confusing and overwhelming at times, and it doesn’t help that we must assume the role of both student and guide.
There will be moments where you have to assume a learning position and you must learn to be comfortable with learning and unlearning—a position where you will mainly practice active listening.
You also have to choose the manner in which you will guide yourself—ideally, in the least damaging, least harmful, and least violent way you can. We all have the potential to either effect positive change or collateral damage. It is our social and communal responsibility as individuals to learn to distance ourselves from causing harm while reducing as much damage from our engagement with activism as possible.
The most important thing to keep in mind here is that your impact is more important than your intention. It doesn’t matter how positive one’s intentions might be if the actions that follow have a negative impact—or no impact at all. If your intentions are truly in the right place and actions are taken for the right reason, your efforts will manifest positively.
This requires hard work, self-guidance, learning, unlearning, and, of course, distinguishing the forms of activism (as either beneficial or harmful), all of which heavily rely on ethics, morality, exposure, knowledge, experience, and privilege.
Stewardship & Tending to Our Community Garden
We are all born into our respective communities with predetermined privileges and disadvantages that we have no control over, but must be recognized, understood, and utilized.
Imagine a garden. When you are born, you are born in your own garden. You have no say in the size, location, or altitude. You have no control of the weather, or the soil you get your nutrients from, but you must tend to the garden so that it can flourish and (continue to) grow.
Your friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and fellow human beings are also born into garden plots of their own size, soil, etc. These environmental factors influence the type of flora that can grow in each garden. Some flora can grow in one garden but not in another. Species that once bloomed in our garden might stop growing and be replaced with new species. Other flora could be harmful in one garden, while that same species might be beneficial in another.
It is our responsibility to be conscientious of how we steward our garden and tend to the flora—not only for our own garden but for the ecosystem as a whole. We must learn how to work with our given environment so that we can nurture and grow the species that benefit the garden best. We mustn't grow weeds that take up space and nutrients from the flora, and we must be mindful that different folx from different gardens steward their flora differently because of their environment and fixed conditions.
You are born into a garden. You have no say in the size, location, or altitude. You have no control of the weather, or the soil you get your nutrients from, but you must tend to the garden so that it can flourish and grow.
Now, imagine that each species is a different form of practical application of activism. It is our responsibility to learn to be conscious of how we personally engage with activism and how we practice different forms of activism because of our environment—the privileges and/or disadvantages we are born into.
We must remember to utilize our environment, learned knowledge and skills, and privileges in practical applications of activism. It is our duty to distinguish between helpful and harmful activism; what is beneficial to someone in a particular movement might be harmful or violent to another. What may be considered macro-activism for one individual, may be micro-activism for another because of accessibility, and differing privileges or disadvantages.
We must also advocate for our own communities’ struggles while keeping in mind parallel communal struggles and the layered complexities of intersectionality. If you want to advocate for communities or movements you are not a member of (or born into), you must make yourself aware of the pre-existing activism already in place so as not to co-opt features, take up space, or cause harm.
Whether we realize it or not, whether we intend to or not, whether we believe it or not, our individual actions affect the community we are born into, and our community affects other communities.
Education, allyship, and solidarity are all forms of necessary activism. Go out, educate yourself and others, do self-research, and learn (or unlearn) from different communities and movements (without co-opting aspects). Hold dialogue with folx, fight for not only your rights, but for the people most vulnerable to violence — typically the most intersectionally marginalized — in our larger community.
It’s important to remember that as we educate and learn with the aid of academia, we must also make sure to keep our activism accessible to everyone. Activism must be empathetic and compassionate with all peoples. There is no space for gatekeeping or policing in activism. Inaccessible activism is not activism.
We must not be neutral in the face of oppression. For if we do, we have chosen the side of the oppressor. Activism will become easier as you gain new knowledge, experience, and exposure.
Now, I turn to you: What do you want to see bloom in your garden? How will you tend to it to see it blossom?