Activism: An Introduction

2017 has been marked by political division and turmoil, policies that seek to set our society back a century, and a rise in hate crimes. Countless articles have been written about the terrible state of the world and our hopeless situation. It is easy to buy into the message that we are all doomed. And that is exactly what man in the establishment, aided by the mainstream media, would like you to do—believe that this doom and gloom course is set and unalterable. If you believe that then you won’t resist. But people (mostly women) have been resisting. From highly visible events like the Women’s March to gatherings in homes like Verve’s Prosecco Think Tank, people are getting active.

Women's March London

In fact, 2017 has had the greatest surge of activism in my lifetime. Emily’s List, which tracks Democratic pro-choice female candidates in the United States reports that in 2017 over 14,000 women are ready to run and almost 7,000 people have signed up to help. There are hundreds of Indivisible groups and “huddles” across the United States. There have been dozens of marches on a variety of issues on an international scale. All this gives me reason to hope and convinces me that the panicked cries do not represent the state of the world. Very serious things are going on and action is necessary but all is not lost.

My guess is that if you’re reading this blog you’re at least mildly interested in how to be active so let’s talk about what activism is and what it is not.

Activism involves regularly engaging large numbers of strangers face-to-face, asking them to take a practical step within their capabilities towards a concrete campaign goal. This is the foundation of activism. If an activity doesn’t include this, it isn’t activism. There are lots of supporting actions that make up activism that aren’t face-to-face or that are one-time events like postcard writing or marches. Every element of activism needn’t meet all these criteria but this is the foundation.

There are some things that might be worthwhile but are not activism, like sitting in a coffee shop with your friends criticizing the government. Or arguments on the internet. Satisfying, yes. Activism, no. However, if you are sitting with friends criticizing the government and then put together a plan for how to lobby your representative on your issue then you’ve engaged in activism (assuming your follow through on the plan). And if you serve Prosecco then you’ve hosted a Prosecco Think Tank.

Let’s look at each step a little closer…

Step 1: Choose your campaign. I’d recommend choosing an issue that inspires you because steps 2-4 are hard if you don’t feel committed. Many times people think of activist in broad terms such as “environmental activists.” Thinking about activism on this broad of a scale is overwhelming. The most effective activists devote themselves to one campaign at a time on a much more local level. Think Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich

Step 2: Engage strangers. This is the face-to-face part that is so critical. Posting on social media might be an easy way to get your message out but it is not as effective. I had read many articles about the refugee crisis but it wasn’t until I spoke to people working on refugee issues that I took it on as my issue too. Canvassing door-to-door to talk about your issue is one of the most effective ways to convince people to make your issue their own. The stranger part is important too. You may also be talking with friends and family but your target has to be larger than that.

Step 3: Ask people to take practical steps. Make sure that what you are asking people to do is manageable for them. Asking a student for a donation or a working mom to volunteer might not be practical. But flip that and ask the student to volunteer and the working mom to donate and you can start to make progress. The practical step should also be useful. It might make people feel good to start an online petition but if it isn’t likely to have an impact on the campaign then it isn’t a good use of anyone’s effort. This step may also include non-face-to-face actions like letter writing campaigns.

Step 4: Repeat steps 2 & 3. Make it regular. The world is not changed by one-and-done actions. In Painesville, Ohio a group of activists are  putting pressure on the City Council and City Manager to change their police policy as it relates to the Latino community and cooperating with federal immigration enforcement officers.  They’ve shown up at three City Council meetings, sent postcards, had individual meetings with individual Council members, held press conferences, made phone calls. The City Manager is now forming a task force to revise the policy which will include members of the activist group. If they had stopped after the first City Council meetings they would not have had this success.

Women's March

These four steps are what are needed for activism but every activist need not be involved in every element of a campaign. An organizer (a very specific type of activist) might be involved in all aspects, or at least the planning of all aspects, but there are many activists who aren't organizers. In fact, most activists aren't organizers. If an organizer puts together a campaign that includes all these elements but you as an individual are only working on one step, you’re still an activist. Don’t feel like you have to do everything. Jumping in can be a little intimidating at first but as somebody once said, “A comfort zone is a beautiful place but nothing ever happens there.” 


- Claire E. Ryder

Director of Refugee and Immigration Affairs

Women's March PA