Since I first joined Facebook in 2005 and Twitter in 2008, I’ve mostly used social media as a tool to share information about issues I care about, try to persuade others to care and believe as I do, and often to express my general frustration about the state of the world. What I’ve realized is that this behavior says more about my own mental and emotional state than it does about how “messed up” the world is. And, importantly, it probably rarely achieves either of the first two purposes I mentioned above.
I recently read an excellent article that pits our modern notions of activism against long-practiced concepts of organizing. “Against Activism” by filmmaker and activist Astra Taylor laid bare a distinction that I have thought about and struggled with over the years.
To be an activist now merely means to advocate for change, and the hows and whys of that advocacy are unclear…today, the term signals not so much a certain set of political opinions or behaviors as a certain temperament…many activists seem to relish their marginalization, interpreting their small numbers as evidence of their specialness, their membership in an exclusive and righteous clique, effectiveness be damned.
The fact is, I do care about political and policy issues and current affairs, certainly to an unusual extent and quite possibly to an unhealthy one. I was born with a certain amount of passion for fairness. When I was a kid, I was always the one who would point out even the smallest inequities with a hearty, “That’s not fair!” In seventh grade, I wrote my first letter to the editor of the Jena Times, our hometown weekly paper. After my letter spurred a curricular change at the junior high school – my intended reaction – I was hooked on activism. From that point on, though perhaps somewhat subconsciously, I was convinced that I and every person possesses a basic level of power. I’ve reasoned that this power can be exercised at my discretion by, among other actions, speaking out about things I care about. And as my junior high experience showed, such actions can often serve as catalysts for significant, positive reactions. But in my experience as an online activist, I fear both that I’ve sometimes come across as pompous and self-righteous and that my efforts were ineffective or even counterproductive.
Today, anyone can be an activist, even someone who operates alone, accountable to no one—for example, relentlessly trying to raise awareness about an important issue. Raising awareness…can be extremely valuable (at least I hope so, since I have spent so much time trying to do it), but education is not organizing…
Organizing has played a central role in most of the societal progress in the United States over the last century. Workers organized into unions to fight for fair pay and better working conditions, and as a result, we have weekends, sick leave, a minimum wage, and many other protections and benefits as American workers. Courageous ministers organized their congregations and neighborhoods to fight for racial equality, and their efforts contributed to the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act. I would challenge you to name an advancement associated with fairness and justice in which community organizing didn’t play a major role.
I have participated in progressive civic and political organizing since 2004, the year after I completed college. Over the years, I’ve probably sent tens of thousands of emails, been on hundreds of conference calls, and given up countless evenings and weekends for “the cause.” I’ve met and worked with many amazing folks, including some I consider my closest friends today. I’ve experienced tremendous personal and professional growth through my involvement and, I believe, helped motivate others to take actions and lead in ways that they might not have otherwise.
It has always been easy for elites to dismiss those who challenge them as losers and malcontents, but it takes even less effort to ignore a meme. Successful organizers, by contrast, are more difficult to shrug off, because they have built a base that acts strategically. The goal of any would-be world-changer should be to be part of something so organized, so formidable, and so shrewd that the powerful don’t scoff: they quake.
But as union power began to wane in the 1980s, political progressives moved away from the principles of organizing, failing to apply the tested, successful practices to build power for the long term even as the political balance of power began to shift. As technology advanced in the 1990s enabling new methods of communication, liberals began to connect and communicate virtually. At the political grass-tops, the “third way” centrist political theory was gaining ground and pushing the Democratic party toward the center. Around the same time…
Conservatives were busy executing organizational strategies during the last third of the twentieth century—launching think tanks and business associations buoyed by corporate largesse, inflaming the ground troops of the Moral Majority, and laying the foundation for a permanent tax revolt by the 1 percent—even as the left was abandoning its organizing roots.
Conservatives made smart, strategic decisions based on a solid understanding of power and with a concrete vision for the future. Both a benefactor and a participant in those early investments was a young, emerging operative named Karl Rove. Conversely, activist politics emerged as the centerpiece of grassroots Democrats, and many self-identified liberals ran away from the negative connotations ascribed to that term and began to call themselves progressives instead. The new activism was fueled by emerging interest groups and technology, and collectively, these trends pushed progressive politics further away from organizing. Instead, young progressive folks (like me, apparently) spend hours online pouring their passion for change into clever posts and calls to action and believe that they’re making a difference. These same young people generally can’t be asked to go door-to-door for a candidate or attend a 2-hour planning meeting with like-minded partisans.
Yet organizing is what the left must cultivate to make its activism more durable and effective, to sustain and advance our causes when the galvanizing intensity of occupations or street protests subsides. It is what the left needs in order to roll back the conservative resurgence and cut down the plutocracy it enabled. That means founding political organizations, hashing out long-term strategies, cultivating leaders (of the accountable, not charismatic, variety), and figuring out how to support them financially. …Organizing is long-term and often tedious work that entails creating infrastructure and institutions, finding points of vulnerability and leverage in the situation you want to transform, and convincing atomized individuals to recognize that they are on the same team (and to behave like it).
There’s so much good stuff in this paragraph!
Unlike activism which is narrowly focused and often self-centered, organizing is built on shared interests and mutual investment and sacrifice.
Unlike activism which often manifests as passion with no discernible goals, organizing requires identifying and agreeing upon desired outcomes with others.
Unlike activism which can be undertaken individually or among small, loosely-connected groups, organizing requires building actual, authentic relationships – the nuclei of strong communities – sometimes between very different people. Together Baton Rouge offers a good example of what’s possible when citizens band together, identify shared issues, and pursue a common agenda. Their organizing process starts with one-on-one relational meetings – instances where people connect on a human level rather than a transactional one.
Does all this mean that I’ll give up my online activism entirely? Probably not. But as Louisiana struggles with poor leadership and the terrible public policy choices of the past several years, this lesson resonates. If I am to be part of sustainable, progressive change in Louisiana, I have to learn that relationships matter. Working across lines of difference matters. Planning for the long-term matters. Investing in new leaders matters.
Organizing matters. Without it, we should probably assume that our passion and our efforts may just be going to waste.
(Want to respond to this piece? I’d love to publish your thoughts – fewer than 500 words, please. Let me know!)