By Jim Selman | Bio
In a recent New York Times op-ed column, Bob Herbert challenged all of us to get down out of the bleachers and take on at least one of today’s intractable problems. He pointed to the courage of many Civil Rights activists in the ’60s and ’70s, including Andrew Goodman who was murdered by the KKK and of course Rosa Parks. We remember these individuals and many like them because, like revolutionaries everywhere, they put their lives on the line for something worth dying for. They stood ‘in front of the tanks’ in Tiananmen Square; they faced British soldiers in India; they campaigned for unions when children were dying in sweatshops in America; they managed ‘underground railroads’ during the US Civil War, World War II and the ‘dirty wars’ of South America in the 1970s and 1980s; they are fighting today for the environment against oligarchs and big corporations; and they are the last line of defense against wholesale corruption and greed in many parts of the world. Collectively, we call them ‘activists’ because they operate within the rule of law, but without relinquishing their commitment to change.
“Activism” is the penultimate resort to bringing about change when people lack the power to make policy—a form of non-violent war to change a system from within the system. One activist strategy might be some form of insurgency where the only goal is to destroy the status quo without any real vision for change and very little possibility for success. Another is to physically stand between the oppressors and the oppressed. The real power of activism, however, lies not in particular events or in confrontations. The real power of activism is in creating widespread awareness of a larger possibility and the unacceptable and unworkable nature of the status quo. When a critical mass of individuals shares the larger vision and is committed to change, then the context or culture shifts for everyone and a new ‘reality’ emerges.
In almost any historical example of large-scale change, the number of activists are relatively few compared to the larger populations that are affected. Just as a few individuals can undermine and destroy a system, so can a few individuals be a catalyst for bringing about a positive change. Margaret Meade once said to never underestimate the power of the individual or a small group to make a difference—indeed, that is the only way it ever happens. The key to how positive change happens is, in my view, a function of movement’s leaders being clear about their vision—what they are they standing FOR. If this isn’t clear, then more often than not, the ‘new generation’ ends up recreating the very things that they want to change. Fidel Castro was primarily AGAINST oppression and wanted to overthrow the dictatorial Batista regime. Martin Luther King was primarily FOR equality (as distinct from just opposing discrimination).
I remember a conversation with a prominent friend of mine in Mexico around the time of the Chiapas uprising. We were talking about how difficult it is today to launch an effective reform movement. No sooner do a few people like the Chiapas leaders attempt to mobilize a campaign than a government or corporation counters with an avalanche of money and/or media that effectively buries the revolution before it begins. I asked him what he thought happens when large numbers of impoverished people who are disenfranchised and who lack power no longer have recourse to the political or economic mechanisms for bringing about change. His response was very clear: they must resort to criminality.
Not all of us are activists. But all of us are affected when the activists fail (just as we are affected when they succeed). In a world of ever accelerating change, instant connectivity and universal access to information, it is no longer feasible to remain neutral or pretend we are not affected by what is happening around us. We can’t continue to deny that our world and our future—indeed all of civilization as we know it—is at risk. No one has ‘the answer’. What is certain is that each and every one of us has a choice about which worldview will govern our actions.
These are times in which everyone matters. Whether it is a choice to recycle or not recycle, to vote or not to vote, to attend a rally or not attend a rally, to write a letter to a congressman or not write a letter, everything we do or don’t do has a consequence. What we choose matters.
We may not all want to change the world. But we are changing it every day whether we think so or not. What we can do is stop for a moment, set aside our ideological fervor and consider what our real values, commitments and priorities are. If we are empowered and satisfied with the way things are going on around us and our lives are working, then we should continue doing what we are doing. If not, then we might consider that it is time for action—any action—that can move our communities and us forward in a positive direction.
We aren’t all going to be ‘activists’. But we can all be active in creating the future that we want—a future that works for all of us.