What Is An Activist?
Interviews with Teju Adisa-Farrar, Solonje Burnett, Bonnie Wright
In the age of social media it seems as if everyone is an activist. During the last five years, we’ve witnessed youth-led Climate Strikes, the struggles and successes of water protectors at Standing Rock, and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. But what, really, is an activist—and who gets to be one?
When we think of activists, some people who pop into our minds are grassroots organizers like Cea Weaver of Housing Justice For All and artist-activists like Xiuhtezcatl Martinez of Earth Guardians. We also think about the friends, family, and folks we look up to who use their platforms to speak up about what they believe in and use their time to participate in campaigns for change.
Not everyone has the ability to walk out of their classrooms or offices to march in the streets, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways we can all be activists. We see activism as a practice, similar to slow living or anti-racism, that takes constant intention and re-commitment.
In order to learn more about what that practice looks like, we asked a few folks who inspire us to talk about activism and what it means to them. Teju Adisa-Farrar is a Jamaican-American writer, geographer, and poet whose work focuses on environmental justice and mapping Black futures. Solonje Burnett is a community leader, humanist, and co-founder at Humble Bloom, where she advocates for underrepresented people in the cannabis industry. Bonnie Wright is an actor, film producer, and environmental activist who uses storytelling to amplify issues of our time.
WHAT IS ACTIVISM?
For Teju, activism is broad and can be difficult to distill down to one definition. She explains that “activism uses myriad methods—including direct action and awareness building—to shift or transform violent, exclusionary, and oppressive practices in our societies. Activism embodies the intention and gives the proactive, continued push to change realities legally, socially, and environmentally for those of us who are subjugated by power.”
Teju also pointed out that “activism is responsive to the times.” Between the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, important elections, and the ongoing pandemic of racism and white supremacy, 2020 has shown us the need for activism, and the power of activists. Black Lives Matter protests have caused cities around the country to reevaluate police budgets and partnerships, worker-led walkouts at Amazon have gained PPE and hazard pay, and the #CancelRent movement in New York has gotten the endorsement of influential lawmakers.
In Solonje’s eyes, “activism is an opportunity to course correct injustices intentionally created to benefit a few while oppressing many. It’s a humanist-centered moral positioning” that calls on us to “awaken to the transformative power of the collective” and act not in self-interest, but in the interest of the greater collective.
“[Activism is] the belief that we can do better and I must contribute to the betterment of the global us. It’s to go beyond yourself. It’s #usnotme. Activism is humanism. It’s advocating for an innovative, sustainably balanced, and harmonious forward-thinking future for all.”
In a capitalist society that values rugged individualism over community, activism can be an uphill battle. But as Rebecca Solnit reminds us, “what lies ahead seems unlikely, when it becomes the past it seems inevitable.” The things that activists have fought for have always seemed impossible at the time, but their successes prove that fighting for a better future is not a futile effort.
One expert who studies revolutions and protests has found that civil direct actions engaging at least 3.5% of the population “have never failed to bring about change.” That means we need at least 250 million people around the world to engage in activism.
WHO GETS TO BE AN ACTIVIST?
“To be an activist is a great privilege. To have the time to invest into these issues, to have access to make changes in my own life to reflect my values is a huge privilege.”
Anyone can be an activist, but not everyone gets the privilege of being recognized as one. Black leaders from Marcus Garvey to Martin Luther King Jr. to today’s Black Lives Matter organizers have been continuously met with FBI investigations, violence, and vitriol. And for Indigenous land and water protectors around the world, the risk of being murdered for their activism is alarmingly high.
As Teju points out, historically, activists “who are made underprivileged have been the ones fighting the hardest to make the world better for everyone. In some cases, activists are are called other names, such as 'agitators,' to make their organizing seem destructive or unimportant"In general, if you can call yourself an activist without feeling like your life is in danger—that is a privilege.”
Having privilege doesn’t disqualify you from being an activist, but it does mean that you have certain responsibilities. Solonje says “I believe it is the duty of those with more [privilege] to amplify the voices of those directly affected by systemic institutionalized capitalism fueled oppression. These unearned entitlements permeate all things from environmental, physical and psychological safety, unjust carceration, access to housing, healthcare, education, the list goes on and on. I recognize my privileges and do all I can to help those who cannot or need added assistance.”
One way that activists with privilege can help propel movements forward is not by leading, but by listening. Bonnie Wright reminds us that: “the effects of climate change disproportionately affect lower income neighborhoods and people of color, and to respect my place in the story, I take the position of the listener. What support do frontline communities need from their wider community and government? Whilst the climate crisis is more threatening than ever, we have to remember people have been fighting to protect the planet for decades, and I think it’s important to respect what’s been done before and listen to others before forming an opinion.”
When asked about the relationship between activism and privilege, Solonje told us that “intersectionality is the first thing that comes to mind. The term coined by Black feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw shows how interlocking systems of power through the lens of social and political identity affect society’s most marginalized.” Solonje cites intersectional feminism, which “acknowledges that all womxn have layered identities and therefore experiences.”
SLACKTIVISM & COMPLACENCY
Both Solonje and Teju pointed out some aspects of what activism is not. Teju notes that “in the U.S. [activist] is increasingly a positive label that people feel drawn to, even when they are still quite new to the ‘active’ part of activism.”
In June, our Instagram feeds were full of solidarity statements from brands, organizations, friends, and family who may have never posted about social justice before. The response to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis helped the movement for Black Lives because it raised awareness and put the fight at the forefront of the national conversation. But the more important work has yet to come, and it’s unclear whether white allies who posted black squares and joined anti-racist book clubs will continue to show up.
“I do think there can be some sort of privilege associated with deciding you are an activist on social media or benefitting from that identifier when throughout history (and currently) many activists are demonized and constantly putting their lives/livelihoods at risk.”
Social media can be an excellent tool for communicating, organizing, and mobilizing our global communities to action. But stop there, and it’s slacktivism.
To go beyond performative activism, Teju advises that people “try to be responsive, not reactive. We don’t need to respond to every single incident that happens. I find that it is more important to consistently expose the systems and structures that allow for these incidents rather than constantly reacting to them. Social media encourages us to constantly react to and reproduce (repost) these incidents. This can sometimes overshadow the need for persistent community organizing, systemic thinking, and being intentionally responsive to priorities rather than moments.”
Responsive actions include joining an organization, volunteering for political campaigns, organizing mutual aid, educating yourself on past and present systems and changing your own mindset and actions. Often it is this less visible work that lays the foundation for long-term movements. Solonje said that activism is “action over intention, or worse, distraction.” Having good intentions is a start, but you need to actually act in order to be an activist.
COMMUNITY, SELF-CARE & IMAGINATION AS ACTIVISM
Solonje spoke a lot about activism and humanism, saying “I draw on my Blackness, womanhood, continuous curiosity, questioning of ‘authority,’ and understanding that self expansion or growth is necessary for revolution. I rely on my love of people and community as well as my resilient self sufficient creative warrior lifestyle. I hold dear my foundational elements like being a first generation child of a Grenadian single mom whose strategic, bridge-building nature molded me while growing up in a town where no one looked like me.”
Another important part of activism for Solonje is rest. She says “the work can be draining, take time to rest. I believe radical self care is essential for healing work. You can’t do your best work running on empty.”
This relationship between self care and activism is something we hear from activists online all the time. Making time for healing, introspection, joy, and rest is a way for activists to process the weight of their work, honor themselves as human beings, and replenish their energy. Community care is also self care, and a too-often overlooked form of activism that can be powerfully effective.
“I've heard more than a few people say: It's not the revolution if you're doing it by yourself.”
Caring for community through mutual-aid networks and local initiatives helps us build sovereignty, resilience, and strength. Community is the basis of solidarity and grassroots movements, because it relies on a group of people who share a common interest or goal rather than hierarchical structures of power.
For Teju, community is the basis of her activism: “I work from my strengths and try to find collaborators whose skills complement my weaknesses. I’m centered around being in community, connecting the dots between issues and meeting people where they are at—encouraging them to move through their discomfort into expanded perspectives. I struggle to balance theory with practice and developing sustained professional collaborations. I don’t see this so much a weakness, but rather a continued search for accomplices.”
Solonje also talks about the importance of community in her activism, saying that “caring for community is a huge part of my value set and a lot of what fuels my activism. I was the kid who cried until her mom gave the homeless person food or money. We are part of a global ecosystem and only as strong as the most vulnerable. We need to centralize community compassion.”
Teju spoke about the importance of mindset in activism, saying that “activism is a way of seeing better futures and knowing that the only way to get there is by challenging the way things are—not accepting this world the way it is. Activism can start individually, but eventually leads to community and shared visions of change.”
The rise of the Green New Deal shows how imagining better futures can make an impact. Instead of following the tradition of making laws based on regulation and reaction, this policy framework presents a proactive solution and vision for an abundant future for all. Thanks to this difference in message, the Green New Deal immediately made a splash when it was first brought to Congress by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement in 2018.
Activism can look like a lot of different things, but it’s clear that in order to be an activist, one must make a commitment that goes far beyond posting on social media or marching in a protest.
Teju notes that “activism is a state of being for those of us who refuse to accept the continual devaluation of all forms of life and the marginalization of difference.”
Activism is something to embody; it constantly evolves. Or, as Angela Davis put it “you have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world, and you have to do it all the time.”
photo: Jacki Potorke
The Meow Meow Tweet blog is a collaborative thought project between the founders of Meow Meow Tweet, Vera Kachouh, and Faye Lesser. This post was written by Faye Lesser.