Last week I spoke to summer hires, a group of young teens, at a local nonprofit. It was the end of their six week jaunt with a youth AIDS organization, and my goal was to inspire them to stay involved in activism after they left the program.
But activism can look like a lot of different things. If I was going to entreat them to be activists, I decided, I needed a working definition of what, exactly, that means. I boiled it down to three things: You are an activist if you pay attention to the world around you, imagine how it could be better, and do something about it.
1. Pay attention to the world around you.
I already wrote a post about the importance of paying attention. That doesn’t just mean looking at what’s already in front of you; it means going out of your way to educate yourself. There are a lot of personal stories and news stories that aren’t represented in the mainstream; you’ll never reach a fuller understanding of the world unless you make a conscious and continuous decision to seek it out.
Reading is a great way to introduce yourself to topics that might make you uncomfortable or defensive, because it gives you the space to reflect on the content without any immediate need to respond. And thanks to modern technology, it’s super easy to access information outside of the mainstream media. Heard about some social justice-related complaint? Google that shit! Activists are writing their experiences all over the damn internet, and it’s all just waiting for you to read it.
And while we’re on the topic of learning about other peoples’ experiences: learn to value other people’s experiences, and be humble enough to realize they know more than you do about what it’s like to be who they are. And remember not to be a dick when asking questions.
2. Imagine how it could be better.
This is the fun, creative part. So, you just got all sad/angry/overwhelmed by all the horrible shit that’s happening in our world? We all do, I think. This is the antidote: imagine what a better world would look like.
For starters you can just imagine a world where that problem doesn’t exist (“Imagine if I weren’t harassed when I walk down the street”). The more challenging and joyful level, however, is to deconstruct the problem to its root causes, and think about what positive changes would eliminate them (“Imagine a world in which we teach boys that masculinity means being respectful”).
Imagine a world in which masculinity and femininity are considered equally professional ways of presenting yourself. Imagine a world where interpersonal problem-solving and peace education are taught in schools! Imagine a world in which we give our children a consent-inclusive pleasure–acknowledging comprehensive sexual education. A world with socialized childcare to help single parents, low income parents, and young parents trying to continue their education. A world that values protecting women from violence above the deportation of undocumented immigrants. A world in which the stories, experiences, and identities of the characters in our fictional media represent the diversity of human experiences in the real world. A world that encourages girls to engage in STEM.
Let your imagination run wild!
Do something about it.
This is the kick-in-the-pants part. You know how the world is messed up. You’ve created a vision for how to improve it. Now do something about it.
I like to imagine that there is a club of people trying to save the world. It’s a small club, but it’s not an exclusive one: all you have to do is sign up for it. Put your name on the list of “People Who Are Doing Something About It.” And live up to it.
It requires a shift in perspective. A lot of people learn about an issue and just think, “Oh, that’s interesting.” But I love the people who think, “What can I do about that?” Those are my people.
Engage in civics and politics. Speak out when someone says something oppressive. Tell your story and spread the word. Ad-bust. Join a community group working on a local issue. Protest. Boycott. Write letters. Write novels. Design awesome video games. Draw a web comic. Start a vlog. Practice radical consent. Signal-boost. Practice fair hiring and salary choices, keeping in mind your subconscious biases. Communicate openly and build healthy relationships. Build something with your hands, with your voice, with your mind. Offer support and love to your fellow activists.
Put your name on the list, because we need that list to be as long as possible.