In the week leading up to the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend, I was in a state of chaos.
I just started a new job, had been attending several evening meetings for direct action planning, and was working up against several academic deadlines.
By that Thursday, it was clear that I was getting irreversibly sick and needed to sit myself down, despite several upcoming marches and actions taking place throughout the week.
I argued with myself as my body temperature continued to rise, willing myself to feel better.
Eventually, I surrendered this futile battle to days of rest, rehydration, and Toni Morrison – my favorite revolutionary novelist.
And as I watched photos and articles emerge via social media with a mixture of disappointment and pride in my community, I pushed aside the voices that kept popping into my mind.
“You’re not doing enough for the movement,” the voices said. “You should be out there. If you’re not out there, you’re not impacting people.”
I’ve internalized pressure to participate in this very specific, public, and physical way, not only because of its importance and historical roots, but also because of the shaming that can sometimes occur in activist communities towards those who do not participate out in the open.
I have witnessed the impact of marches and actions in my community and across the United States – raising public consciousness and bringing together coalitions of all people protesting injustice.
It is powerful and transformative.
It is also one of many possible contributions – one of many ways to involve ourselves – but often the one we consider “true activism.”
But there’s also the work that is happening offline that we often neglect to speak about or acknowledge – work that is equally important to the success and longevity of social justice struggle.
We – as social justice activists – need to explore beyond thinking of the very public, non-violent demonstrations as the sole means of radical change.
Who is included in our idea of “activists?” In which ways are we unintentionally excluding folks in this vision? How can we incorporate self-care and reflection into our movement? What other platforms are activists using to raise awareness about injustice?
Let’s talk about it.
1. It’s Ableist To Assume Everyone Can March
In the demonstrations that I’ve involved myself in, I have felt the power of dozens, hundreds – sometimes thousands – of people, gathered in solidarity and protest.
But less often have I considered who is not present: folks with physical (visible and invisible) disabilities and elders who cannot march, those with social anxiety or who are overwhelmed by masses of people, people who cannot afford the threat of arrest, and countless others who cannot or choose not to be present in this specific way.
Recently, a friend of mine who has an invisible disability and chronic pain recalled an experience at a mass demonstration.
She had stepped away from the marchers and onto the sidewalk because her pain levels were flaring up.
A passionate demonstrator came up to her, asking, “What are you doing over here on the sidewalk!? You need to be out here marching!”
If we are critiquing how and when folks are choosing to be involved, we also need to be sure that our practices as activists are not exclusive – this is divisive and antithetical.
If we are truly committed to advocating for social justice and equity, that must include all folks, not just the ones that “show up” in the specific ways we want them to.
This specific example of marching implies that marching is the thing to do, and that “if you’re not out there, you’re not impacting people.” It is ableist in the assumption that folks can and should march.
If we are not more thoughtful and inclusive in our definitions of activism, we may unintentionally exclude folks, the same folks who get excluded over and over and over again in our oppressive society – and that is the exact opposite of our goal!
2. Taking the Time for Self-Care Is Critical for Self-Preservation as Marginalized People and as Activists
The place of self-care and reflection in radical movements is not a new one, but it does need to be ongoing and complicated.
My decision to rest and take care of myself, rather than choosing to ignore the signals my body was giving me in order to participate in demonstrations, was better both for me and my long-term involvement in the movement.
I was able to eventually accept this decision (and others like it) because I knew that MLK weekend was only one moment in my lifelong commitment to social justice and anti-oppression.
But too often, we disregard the signs our bodies and our spirits are giving us – begging us to rest, or reflect, or to sit with the feelings of what is happening around us and to our people.
We go from meeting to protest to demonstration to action after another with little or no time in between and wonder why we are starting to feel sick, or sad, or burnt out.
Action is important – but equally important is being able to rest, recover, reflect, and debrief difficult emotions with those close to us.
Journaling every day is an offline contribution toward the movement.
Giving ourselves messages of self-love and acceptance as oppressed people who face physical and psychological violence on a regular basis is an offline part of the movement.
Sitting in the impact that we may have on others because of our privileged identities is an offline part of the movement.
Not only is self-care vital to continuing our strength in eradicating oppression – self-reflection is also necessary to our effectiveness in those struggles.
3. Incorporating Anti-Oppression Work In Our Everyday Work Counts as Activism
The everyday work or office setting – for those of us with employment privilege – can be another place where radical change is possible.
I am fortunate enough to be in a career that, despite being located within a large bureaucratic and capitalist system, allows me to make change, however small, on a daily basis.
I have intervened and supported students through suicide ideation; have facilitated dialogue on privilege, power, and oppression; and have helped move my students out of their academic bubble and connect them to the happenings of their surrounding communities.
Although this “everyday work” is usually not the type that makes headlines, it is crucial in chipping away at the institutions that continue systemic oppression – one conversation, workshop, or campaign at a time.
4. We Need To Support Different Expressions of Activist Voices In Order To Engage All Different Types of People
Having been raised with the images of revolutionary giants like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X in my mind – the product of a standard, public K-12 education – I both admired and envied these leaders.
Because I was painfully shy and quiet, I never pictured myself leading chants into megaphones or inspiring crowds of people with powerful words.
All that I had been shown taught me that only charismatic, outgoing, and fearless leaders could be the change-makers – and I certainly did not identify with that description.
Social media, artistic expression, writing, and online magazines – to name a few examples – have each provided additional avenues that activists are challenging oppression and organizing their communities.
Though social media and technology activism (commonly referred to as “slacktivism”) has been the target of much skepticism and naysaying, it has also proven to be a useful tool in uniting communities across the US and the world in ways that are not otherwise possible.
For example, the think tanks behind the #TWOC and #GirlsLikeUs hashtags have hosted online Twitter and video chats discussing the violence against queer and trans women of color.
Online platforms have the potential to provide a sense of community for those who may not have it.
Writers can provide perspective to wide audiences who may have no prior concept of privilege and oppression. Artists and musicians can share works that spark inspiration and discussion of contemporary issues.
Each of these examples challenge the concept of the loudest, most charismatic leader being at the forefront of the movement.
5. No, It’s Not “I’m More Radical Than You!” – It’s “We All Play Important Roles”
We live in a world that loves to regularly remind oppressed folks across the board that we are not enough, and it can be disheartening to witness how this mindset is perpetuated within some activist communities.
This idea that so-and-so is “not radical enough” because they were not at that protest or did something other than what aligns exactly with a particular philosophy should be examined and questioned at times.
In some circles, there can be a tendency to dispose of people who do not agree with us entirely or whose form of activism looks different than our own.
The sense of importance that we feel in our organizing is valid – we are important. But how do we get to a place of acknowledging that we are all important in our various forms of change-making?
Where is the balance between giving ourselves a pat on the back for every single thing we do – from attending a protest to calling out oppressive language – and respecting the diverse contributions that are being made?
The notion that one form of activism – in this example, protest – is the only “true act” of revolution is not only outdated; it also dismisses the many intangible acts of change and allyship that are happening “offline.”
The non-Black, person of color organizer who creates an affinity group to raise awareness about anti-Blackness and police brutality. The musician who shares a song about the Chapel Hill shooting of three Muslim students. The organizers behind the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. The teachers working within their school districts to challenge the school-to-prison pipeline.
If these individuals aren’t real activists, then please tell me: Who are the “real” activists?
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MJ is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. They are a Black, queer, and genderqueer educator, activist, writer, and musician based in Oakland, CA. They believe in the power of storytelling, vulnerability, allyship, and artistic expression to build movements and community.