Activism 101 What Happens When You Care So Strongly That You Can't Not Act
November 12, 2002
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Author: Ben Gore
“Protest” gets talked about a lot in the Opinions section of this paper. Unlike in normal venues, the issue is often not the issues but the tactic itself. These columns are written by self-satisfied members of the actively apathetic who think they’ve seen it all before, that activism on college campuses is simply a boring cliché. What few people take the time to look at is the broader context within which these activities take place. My aim in the next 700 words is to give you a more complete view of the process of activism.
First let’s make an important distinction. “Protest” is often used interchangeably with the term “demonstration.” To protest is simply to disagree with something vocally. It is by necessity reactive. A demonstration, on the other hand, is a useful tactic within the context of issue advocacy.
The ultimate goal of activism is to implement your policy goals. Due to the unresponsive nature of our so-called democracy, issue advocacy is one of the main ways in which public policy is made. There are a number of ways to pursue issue advocacy, from working at a think tank writing scholarly papers, to community organizing, to grassroots organizing, to electoral politics. I’ll talk about grassroots organizing on environmental issues because this is where my background lies.
The first step in grassroots organizing is to find an issue. For the most part issues find you. For instance, a development company recently bought the rights to build houses in the woods behind my neighborhood where I played as a child. Sometimes, more often in college, a group of people will have a general idea of the world they would like to see and choose specific issues that will advance them toward that general goal. An instance of this would be global justice activists working on a campaign to boycott World Bank bonds. This approach often seems like “protesting for the hell of it.” I assure you, from experience, that it is not. It is simply finding an appropriate outlet for deeply held beliefs.
The next step is to identify short-term and long-term goals. Short-term goals should always lead you towards accomplishing your long-term goals. Once you have short term goals you identify a “strategic vehicle,” the tool that will actually achieve your goal. Oftentimes this is a piece of legislation or something similar. In the case of my woods it was a moratorium on residential building in my town. From here you figure out who your primary target is: who can give you what you want. Then you identify secondary targets: who can influence the primary target. Finally, once all this is laid down you figure out who your audience is, that is, who can influence your targets. In our current case the primary target was the mayor, our secondary targets were our city council members and our audience were the stakeholders in the surrounding school district who would be affected by the proposed development.
At this point you get to tactics, of which a demonstration is often the last resort. More likely you’ll start with lobbying elected officials, collecting petition signatures and other mundane things. In the case of my woods, we lobbied our town council, set up stakeholder meetings and canvassed door to door to collect petitions.
Doesn’t sound terribly glorious, does it? It’s not. The people that do grassroots organizing do it because they care so strongly that they can’t not act. In this case we never had to have a demonstration; we accomplished our goals in the context of town meetings. In cases where you meet more obstinate opposition, it is often necessary to put physical and public pressure on your targets with public demonstrations.
Grassroots organizing is by no means the only way to affect change in the world. There is service, electoral politics, mass movements and armed revolution as well. Each of these methods has its own set of tedious prerequisites that ensure that the people who undertake them are people that care deeply about their work. Each of these methods has its place and none are inherently better than the others.
So the next time you see an angry demonstration in the paper, think about the context in which it is happening that isn’t getting covered. Think about the thousands of man-hours that went into exhausting every other option. When you’ve really thought it through, then feel free to judge the message. If you attack the method, you simply join the ranks of the actively apathetic, a group more despicable than any other.
Ben Gore ’04 is an environmental studies major with a concentration in creative non-fiction. He is the media coordinator for Middlebury United for Peace and the chair of the Executive Committee of the Sierra Student Coalition, the student-run arm of the Sierra Club.