Monday, May 4, 2009

Activism--Part #1--Some Definitions

If I'm going to raise a topic for discussion, I should begin with a definition of terms, so that all discussants will actually be discussing the same things. Therefore, let me state what I mean when I use the terms "activism" and "activist."

First, the definitions according to the dictionary. Activism: "the doctrine or practice of vigorous action or involvement as a means of achieving political or other goals, sometimes by demonstrations, protests, etc.; The use of direct, often confrontational action, such as a demonstration or strike, in opposition to or support of a cause." Activist: "A proponent or practitioner of activism; an especially active, vigorous advocate of a cause, esp. a political cause."

Two parts are key to the dictionary definitions: first,vigorous action is being taken and second, such action is public in nature, rather than private. This is where I part company with the dictionary. While it is true that SOME activism was open and confrontational during the 60s, a lot of that activism had a non-public element as well. Some activism was openly confrontational and direct, and some activism worked behind the scenes, so to speak.

Let's start with the parts of activism. First and foremost, identify something that you believe needs changing or abolishing or that needs support so that it won't be changed or abolished. Thus you can be activist in support of something, not just against it.

The key to identifying something to be activist about is to look around you. Far too many people look at the world but don't really see it. Observe carefully. When you see something that bothers you don't just file it under "Nothing can be done about this," but move on to the second step of activism.

The second step is analysis. What are the elements of the problem you have identified? Can the problem be broken down into parts? What avenues of help may already exist that could be utilized to solve this problem?

The third step is to ask what approaches can be used to solve this problem. If you believe that others are not aware of the problem, then how can you make them aware of it? If others may be aware of the problem, then how can you get together with these others to solve the problem? Are there already established commissions/organizations/governmental bodies who should be approached first? What is the best way to do this? If those bodies are themselves part of the problem, then what means can be used to get a problem out into the open and in front of the citizenry?

Now to the fourth step. In the last paragraph I used "get together with others." This can be a key to activism, although personal activism is possible. When a problem is too large for only one person to be able to make a discernable difference, then numbers are needed. How are you going to draw these other people together? What do you need to say or do to convince them that unity will solve the problem?

There is a fifth step. Being media savvy is also part of activism. Groups of protestors get media coverage. Large groups of protestors get even more media coverage. And huge groups of protestors get the most coverage. Size can count. Advertise what you are trying to accomplish, particularly to those who might join in with you. Don't forget about the well-placed phone call or letter or email. And when that letter is letters from multiple people, and those calls and emails as well, then recipients are going to have to pay attention or suffer the consequences.

The next step should be obvious but isn't always. Be prepared to get out there and publicly protest if your behind the scenes or relatively private negotiations don't work. You can't use a threat of going public about a problem unless you are actually willing to go public. And don't assume that 1/2 hour on a Sunday when you weren't going to be doing anything else anyway may be sufficient. Sometimes you have to know that you are going to be in something for the long haul. You know that old saying about "Rome wasn't built in a day"? Well social change may not come about in a day either.

What do I mean by public? Many people believe that the activism of the 60s was all played out on the vast public stages of our country. Some was, and a lot wasn't. Some protests by college students were national in scope; some were strictly localized. This is important to remember, particularly for those who might be considering becoming activist on behalf of a problem in Klal. What public venue is appropriate or the best venue for the activism you have in mind? If you have a problem with school X, located in community Y, then a protest march down Fifth Avenue is not going to get you what you are looking to get.

Another point to remember about activism is that petitions can and do work. Putting your name down, making it clear in black and white that you are in favor of something or against something, is both personal and public activism. Sometimes change is a number game, and the more signatures you can gather, the larger the impact you might make.

In short, being activist is taking an action, and repeating that action for as long as may be necessary. Activism isn't what the other person does; it's what you and that other person can do together.

And here is perhaps the most important point: activism and activists are not afraid to rock the boat. They believe that the boat is sinking or might sink. Maybe they feel the boat should have been scuttled long ago. Maybe they feel that those steering the boat can't see the shoals in front of them. Maybe they are tired of being relegated to steerage class.

Frankly, a lot of the reasons given for not being an activist today are just plain laziness speaking, a lot of cases of "let the other guy do it" in evidence. Then there are a lot of people who suffer in silence because they are afraid of what "they" might do, they are afraid of social ostracism. And that's a potent tool in the arsenal of those whose interests are to keep the status quo just as it is. It's been my experience, though, both in the past and today, that activism is an even stronger tool.

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