What kind of activist are you?

I’ve never been a very proactive, aggressive activist. I’ve never been the one to join marches or picket a government building. That’s just not my way.

And over the past few days, I’ve been directly and indirectly criticized for my assertive (though some others would call it passive) stance regarding University of Portland’s Fr. Bill Beauchamp and his Fireside Chat, the non-discrimination policy, and the role of GSP on campus. I’d like to respond to those criticisms by clearing up some things about activism. Keep in mind that this is just my personal opinion, so you can take it with a grain of salt.

1. Activism is a fluid concept. Not everyone defines it the way you do.

Sit ins.
Human chains.

These are just a few social activist demonstration techniques. Some people define activism as go out and do something. Historically, these techniques get results. The Civil Rights Movement is an excellent example of this. No one can argue the validity and success rate of peaceful protest and civil disobedience. I support and applaud those who are willing to take it to the streets and push for equality. But, the reality is that this is not the only way.

Some people prefer a less – for lack of a better word – invasive method. Not everyone wants to get in your face and make you listen. Some people prefer letter writing campaigns, petitions, cyber activism, open forums and debate over the go out and do something method. This doesn’t diminish their passion for the issue or their devotion to the cause, and to imply that it does is not only wrong, but frankly, insensitive and invalidating. This leads me to my next point:

2. Realize that judging someone based on their method of social activism is, in and of itself, a form of prejudice and an act of microaggression.

In the realm of social activism, one sentiment rings true in the hearts of everyone involved:

We are all equal. We deserve to be treated equally, with fairness and respect.

If we all truly believe this – which I’m sure that we do – then every comment we make, every action we take, should be with this statement in mind. Am I putting my opinion above another’s? Am I putting someone down for their beliefs? Would I want this said to me?

To belittle another activist based on their techniques, directly or indirectly, promotes a mindset completely contradictory to the equality movement value system. To have equality, we must respect the beliefs of everyone. This includes respecting the fact that some members within your own movement may not want to demonstrate in the same capacity that you do.

So, before you say things like, “That’s a nice thought, but it’s not enough,” or “That’s too small of an act to really mean anything,” take a look at who you’re explicitly and implicitly addressing. Statements like these are hurtful, even if they’re not meant to be. So ask yourself, what kind of activist are they?

3. A movement can work in parts, at different paces and different levels of activity.

The belief that a movement will only work if everyone is doing the same thing all the time is just too simplistic and does not account for human uniqueness. The reality is that everyone, be it in a work, school, or social movement environment, works at different paces and excels in different roles. It’s just not practical to say that everybody should be doing X, Y, or Z.

And it is even worse to say “If you aren’t willing to do this, or you can’t keep up, you can just sit this one out.” To make someone feel excluded because they can’t make it to a planning meeting or demonstration is a step backwards in the move to equality.

Encourage multiple activities in a movement, large and small, with long and short time frames. This is will bring more people in, instead of phasing people out. Make people feel that, regardless of the size of their contribution or the amount of time they’ve devoted to the cause, their addition matters.

Everyone joined this cause for a reason and they should never feel that they just aren’t passionate enough.


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