Personal Voice: The Struggle Within the Struggle
After reading "Calling Activists to a Higher Standard" by career activists Gavin Leonard and Adrienne Maree Brown, I was compelled to write about a different type of activism -- the work of volunteers. I was amazed by the set of solutions that Gavin and Adrienne suggested, drawn from their professional experiences. But I would like to add to this conversation by addressing both challenges and opportunities for young people that -- for a variety of economic or social reasons -- are not professional activists but want to stay engaged as effective volunteers.
Any person can be involved in the movement for positive social change. I am a full-time student, work as a cab driver and volunteer part-time at various nonprofits. I attend protests and participate in different campaigns. For me this is the balance that I need to strike in order to be most effective while maintaining the level of commitment that I can afford at this point in my life.
Volunteers are the backbone of the nonprofit sector and progressive activism in general. I would like to see professional activists encourage more people to devote themselves in any way possible and accept those who may not have the option of dedicating 40 hour weeks to a cause. Empowering people to volunteer at a level that they choose and that works for them -- not one dictated by organizations -- is one way we can engage potential lifelong volunteers.
In my life I have struggled to stay engaged in work for social change without becoming disheartened over the constant cycle of defeats and victories. Since 1999, I have volunteered my time for campaigns such as the School of the Americas Watch, protested the GOP, been to countless anti-war demonstrations, ridden critical mass and worked for bicycle advocacy, rallied at the FCC hearings for more local news and worked with a group called Tikkun Community to encourage more acceptance of spirituality in the progressive left.
These are a few of the many "activist-type" things that I have done in my life, but I don't consider them to be all that radical -- I do not volunteer to feel like a revolutionary or to be hip. Advocating for positive change is fulfilling in that modestly virtuous kind of way -- I am making change that is helping people but do not expect recognition or rewards.
For some people it is all too easy to fall into despair and succumb to the infamous "activist burnout." Activism is a constant ping-pong match between hope and despair. My experience with the 2003 mayoral campaign in San Francisco was a clear example of how disappointment can make you give up on a good thing. The mayoral race was one of the closest in San Francisco's history. It was between Gavin Newsom, a Democratic Party prominent and Matt Gonzalez, a Green Party public-interest lawyer. I went to all of the fundraisers, put stickers on everything I owned and sloganed everyone I talked to. I had more pep than any cheerleader, but alas, Matt lost by a few percentage points, so I gave up on civic participation and went into an emotional coma for a few months.
But once you have that spark of hope in your life, it is infectious. When you start doing work to change policies, social constructs, paradigms, art, music, you really feel that changes are starting to take place and it is intoxicating.
I am not an expert, but I have found a few simple things that have made my life as an activist easier and more effective. To stay focused on the positive side of activism, I treat it like any other type of work. I pace myself, budget my time and focus my efforts. One organization, let alone one person, can't take on all of the problems of the world.
Pacing myself cuts down stress and can be as simple as using one of those nifty slingshot organizers. It is a great, simple way to budget your time. More importantly, I remember to set aside some time for fun, love, music, creativity and friends. When it is time to relax, I leave the ethical dilemmas behind.
Another thing that I have done to be more productive is started choosing my battles. Pick one cause and stick with it. The bulk of one person's organizing should be focused on just one issue. To do something well, it helps to be a specialist. Some issues are so nuanced that only someone who works solely on that thing will possess the necessary background to make a sound suggestion for practical change.
Progressives often get caught in ethical dilemmas, which are stifling to action. One solution is to separate the theoretical ideals from lived ethics. I find too much indignation and intolerance in activist communities. Sometimes we shame those that we think do not hold as high of an ethical standard as we do. It is very hard to live an ethical life of all the time; we should not use manipulative shaming to bully people. If people are riding bikes to reduce oil consumption, working at a queer rights nonprofit and eating McDonald's hamburgers because they can't afford organic, who are we to shame them? Why not allow people to take these life changes in stages? Black-and-white intolerance only causes more internal divisions in a movement that, more than anything, needs unity.
For me, being an activist is sometimes like walking through a minefield -- you have to be careful where you step. There are so many reasons that people give up, and most of these reasons are incidentals that could be avoided with some planning and a little caution. The sign of a veteran activist, I think, is one that thinks of activism as a job, and stays organized and healthy so that she can go to work for the rest of her life.