Love Letter to New Activists
As each new protest march helps more people become engaged, it also garners not only backlash from those who favor the status quo, but reasonable and reasoned doubts from long time organizers in social justice, who know what the nitty-gritty of working for specific political goals looks like, and are skeptical about what can be achieved with any one event.
Almost a month out from the People’s Climate March, you may be asking yourself a string of questions, like “What did the march achieve? Are street protests a successful tactic? How do we define success anyway?”
People who study protest movements and creative non-violence have some answers. To begin with, taking the long view on how to define success and when to look for greater positive response to mass protest may help. Some protest movements that are now held in high regard were not supported by the majority of the public at the time. For example, the civil rights march on Washington garnered only a 16% favorable opinion of the planned protest in a national Gallup poll, and the Vietnam War protests only had a favorable rate of about 18% of those polled during the demonstrations.[i]
In an article in 2014 talking about the popular perception that the Asian protests of that year, the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong and the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan were not successful because the protestors’ demands were not met, the author, Jolan Hsieh, argues that the long-term, residual effects of such protests lie in their ability to encourage a questioning mindset and to draw people in through participatory learning. Such movements, he suggests, lay the groundwork for re-envisioning and working collectively to develop pathways for social change.[ii]
In Rolling Stone, Sarah Jaffe, author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, quotes Tobita Chow of Chicago’s People’s Lobby saying that participating in a protest “… expands your sense of freedom about what you’re willing to do and what you’re capable of doing. It has a really liberating effect on people.”[iii]
Participatory learning matters, but while the effects of joining in civil disobedience may be incalculable, certain factors do help predict concrete success in affecting repressive regimes. Erica Chenoweth, Professor and Associate Dean for Research at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, and host of The Rational Insurgent, suggests that these factors include:
- mass participation (of more than 5% of the population, some suggest)
- diversity among the protestors
- a mix of dramatic, higher-risk and lower-risk tactics (think: street marches vs. blue flu), and
- avoidance of violence.[iv]
Sarah Vekasi, M. Div., well knows what it is to be on the ground organizing for social justice. As a member of the national network of trained facilitators of The Work That Reconnects, created by Joanna Macy, and a long-time engaged environmentalist, Vekasi addresses the importance of a mindful approach to the path ahead that recalls the title of Thich Nhat Hanh’s book on walking meditation: The Long Road Turns to Joy.
Dearest new activists:
I love you and I see you. Welcome! We need you, and you do not need to have everything figured out. One step and then another. Please find that seed of outrage and grief and nourish it – this is your need for justice, your love of community, democracy, science, it is your heart yearning for equality and liberation for all, etc., and these seeds are so precious. It is important to let them get nourished with water and sunlight (compassion for self, measured reaction time, breaks, and most of all—willingness to grow).
As someone who has been engaging in community organizing and direct action for over twenty years, I want to let y’all in on a few secrets of how we keep it up. These are fiercely held secrets shared across movements, so listen closely: we have potlucks, music nights, shared story circles, art projects, long walks, sharing circles, and cultural work in all its glory. ❤
There is room for everyone in this time of great unraveling.
We also figure out what our passions are and focus more there. Some of us love spreadsheets and logistics, others love being on the front lines stopping destruction with our bodies, others love writing, others love speaking to the press, while others thrive cooking for large groups and chopping firewood. Some of us enjoy legislative action, others direct action, others building alternative structures and schools, others helping our hearts and minds shift…and we need it all. There is no superior way to engage in change. We waste precious time fighting over which strategy is the most important, or engaging in something we think we should be doing instead of the thing our heart yearns for. The key is to stay connected and work together.
New organizers—make sure there is time for music and getting to know one another at the postcard parties and phone banks. Creating friendship and building trust is what keeps us going. Soon doing resistance work and spending time with your favorite people will be the same thing! Imagine that!
Being a part of active resistance means so many things, including being more vigilant than ever about making time for art, exercise, healthy eating, taking on only so much, finding more friends to share the load, and taking care of your body—this in itself is a revolutionary act.
There is no superior way to engage in change.
Re-remember or learn to meditate, to pray, to make time EVERY DAY for spiritual practice. This can mean anything appropriate for you, but I mean engaging in some form of practice centered on that which is greater than yourself and transcends the mundane, (or sacralizes the mundane). This is another secret to renew yourself every day. Find your passion, explore your intention, engage in action, and acknowledge that the results might outlive all of us. Spiritual practice can help you find that bigness and help you find the courage that is needed for the long haul.
There is room for everyone in this time of great unraveling. Together we can turn the tide into a truly diverse, intersectional great turning. Thank you. I look forward to working with you, and watching this resistance grow and thrive.
[i] Going Too Far: The American Public’s Attitudes toward Protest Movements[ii] The Unseen Effectiveness of Social Movements and Protests[iii] Why Anti-Trump Protests Matter[iv] Creative Nonviolence Can Defeat Repression