What lies ahead?

I have never been much for New Year’s resolutions. Unlike my former father-in-law, who took the end of each year and the start of the next with very traditional Scottish seriousness, I prefer to go to bed early on December 31st and wake up on January 1st treating the day as I would any other.

However, these are strange and troubling times in which we live and, as 2017 draws to a close, I find myself thinking about just how I want to engage with the world around me in the upcoming year. What will my activism look like in 2018? What will yours look like? What will I resolve to do?

To try to answer these questions, I start by looking back.

Baby activist

I have been an activist since I took it into my head, when I was a kid, that I needed to “do good.” This initially translated into organizing my younger brother and sisters, unwillingly at times, into helping me put on backyard fairs where we took nickels and dimes from neighbourhood kids that went to charitable projects in the far-away place we just called AFRICA. I had no real idea what my money was supporting or what was going on where I was sending it, but I had the notion that I was helping out with something important.

Over time, I like to think, my understanding of social justice and activism became somewhat more nuanced. I have learned, among other things, that activism does not look like one thing; there is not one right kind of activism, either for us as individuals or for the social change we are trying to create. There is no magic formula for being an activist.

What works for one issue will not work for another; what works in one time will not work in another; what will work for one group of people will not work for another.

Then, I look to what others have had to say about activism.

What’s the point?

Nathan Heller explored the question of whether there is any point to protesting in The New Yorker earlier this year:

“Is protest a productive use of our political attention? Or is it just a bit of social theatre we perform to make ourselves feel virtuous, useful, and in the right? . . . Or maybe direct action is something to value independent of its results.”

I want to argue for the position posed in his final question. What matters is that we engage, individually and collectively. The act of resistance and protest is what matters, even if we don’t immediately see the impact of that act.

As L.A. Kauffman wrote in her book Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism:

“Sometimes you protest just to register a public opposition to policies you have no hope of changing.”

We need to become activists because, in the words of Gloria Steinem:

“Activism leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories – out of our heads and into our hearts.”

What does it take to be an activist?

And so, how do we go about the business of becoming or remaining activists?

First, we have to care. Then, we have to believe that, working with other people, we can make a difference.

We need to be willing to step outside society’s images of what it means to be a well-behaved citizen.

We must have the courage to stand up for ourselves and others even in a very bad situation, be able to thumb our noses at propriety, have the strength to defy the odds.

We have to be prepared to challenge ourselves, to grow, to try things we have not done before, to do things that scare us.

We need to be able to measure ourselves against the activist we think we should be and that we believe we are capable of being.

But will there be dancing?

Is being an activist easy? Not always. Will we have doubts? Almost always. Is it fun? Sometimes.  Is it challenging? Yes. Will it make us angry? Sometimes. Will it make us sad? Sometimes. Can we dance? Definitely, and paint and write and sing.

Would it be easier to do nothing? Only if we don’t think.

2017 has presented us with lots of reasons to become activists. It has also provided us with a lot of inspiration for the possibilities that activism offers.

So, in the end, what is my resolution for 2018? To hold on to hope, no matter what, because, with hope comes the possibility of change.

One thought on “What lies ahead?

  1. And we need to model resistance for those who come after us. Even if – maybe especially if – the resistance brings no change we can see.

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