Activism in the 21st century
We often think of movements or even advocacy in general as something visible. If we can’t see it, we don’t feel it’s happening. Oftentimes movements are visible or at least have some tangible components. What do you remember about the civil rights movement? Probably Rosa Parks refusing to be moved from her seat, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We hardly ever think of all the preparation and invisible, deliberate actions that fueled the movement. It was not simply a series of random events.
When we hear “advocacy,” the first things that come to mind are usually sit-ins, picket signs, walks and other forms of visible, tangible protest. The University of Michigan is especially known for these. These forms are important but not always accessible. They often require someone in a position of power or with the physical ability to spearhead them. So what about other forms of advocacy, what about invisible protest?
You might be wondering how any change could come to be with invisible advocacy. Invisibility doesn’t mean that no actions are taken but maybe those actions appear minuscule, yet they add up. To me, it means choosing NOT to do something and rather to do something else. By that definition, it is the other half of visible protest. It is the decision to not support causes we are against. The decision to not use violence. The decision to not give our time, energy or money to corrupt businesses. These decisions can be just as powerful as their counterparts. Especially, when they are given the same weight. What I mean is, often times people are called out for not being active enough, for not attending the sit-ins, walks or other protests. I don’t think that’s fair. It doesn’t consider how hard it may be for someone to be physically or emotionally present in those spaces, which aren’t always the most welcoming.
As a Black woman who practices Islam — and yes in that order from my most to least salient identity — I never feel comfortable at the front lines of protest. I feel like I’m expected to act a certain to correctly portray my identities. Advocates love to talk about the burden of labor and how the oppressed shouldn’t have to explain how they’re oppressed to their oppressors but then still expect them to participate in the labor of protesting. I used to not consider myself an advocate because I never attended protests. I felt more emotionally drained than uplifted by the thought of the masses participating in the same activity. I would rather write down how I feel than yell it in a march.
I think we’ve forgotten about the less flashy forms of advocacy. We are in the age of instant gratification. If it’s not headlining the news, gone viral or trending on social media, we don’t know it’s happening. We take movements and turn them into convenient hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter only for them to be repurposed and their meaning stripped away into something like #AllLivesMatter. Once it’s out of the spotlight we forget about it. Without a documentary here and a movie there, we wouldn’t know that Flint still doesn’t have clean water along with 32 other cities across the U.S.
We volunteer, which is great, then post a picture to validate our labor. We give our money to the most popular GoFundMes over causes that need it more. We’d rather follow the masses in pursuit of one injustice than search and speak up for the ones that need us more. I write this to share my frustrations with my very own generation. I share my thoughts because I believe they can be just as powerful as your actions. I hope we haven’t forgotten the intricacies and delicate planning that goes into advocacy.
When I think of the civil rights movement, I am mesmerized by Martin Luther King Jr.’s use of style to make his audiences feel exactly the way he wants them to. I ponder over all the planning Rosa Parks did and the bravery she had to sit in the front of the bus. I commend the leaders who contemplated how they could make the most impact by purposefully not giving into the system and realized not giving busses Black business would hurt the system the most. And I try to recognize the leaders who played a prominent role yet aren’t regularly celebrated like Bayard Rustin who organized the March on Washington, where King gave one of the most recognized speeches of all time.