The Daily used the word “activist” in over 80 separate articles in the 2011-2012 academic year. We have left-leaning activists, social activists, radical activists, civil rights activists, community activists, activist spirit, feminist activists, sustainability activists, LGBT activists, labor, student, social justice, environmental activists and activist families.
Clearly activism is a large part of our culture at the ‘U,’ but what do we mean when we use this term? What are the actions that these people take? What makes you an activist? Some of the catch phrases used for illustrative purposes like ‘take a stand’ and ‘politically active’ are a little too ambiguous to provide a guide. Let me briefly try to catch some activists in the act by reviewing some past reporting.
A March 24, 2012 piece covered a panel discussion of the activist backgrounds of a few of our faculty. These were the operative phrases: “acted as cross-cultural mediators,” “authored,” “aimed to translate,” and “worked to mobilize.” Additionally, the words of the panel speakers implied dynamic action. Kristen Hass and Matthew Countryman, associate professors of American Culture, discussed the acts of thinking about the social good, thinking about “the problem of language,” and considering the counter-intuitive fact that a simple set of keystrokes actually allows supreme empowerment.
Another article detailed the on-campus component of the Million Hoodie March in support of Trayvon Martin last spring. The piece implies that the event had an “activist spirit,” but refrains from explicitly calling the 150 students and community members that marched ‘activists.’ However, in a report on the Take Back the Night march that took place last April, the acts of walking, chanting, and holding signs are further bolstered as signs of activism. In the article, the reporter uses the term “feminist activist group” to describe the student organization the F-word, whose members were encouraged to join in the marching.
Last March, Vidhi Bamzai, a former public policy senior and chair of the South Asian Awareness Network, wrote a viewpoint about activism. Bamzai stated that she considered herself an activist, but that she never would have done so if the leaders of his organization hadn’t challenged her to think differently. Actually, in her words, one of the largest drivers of her shift of identity as an activist was that her SAAN co-chairs “forced [her] to accept things as they come.” However unintuitive that may be, Bamzai learned a key lesson in adaptability which ultimately led to her identification as an activist, initiating lots of action in the meantime. At the close of her article, Bamzai suggested that this change in thinking and the general mindset that he brought away from her time in SAAN impacted her career choice, her day-to-day decisions and even her leadership style.
A quick tally: walking, chanting, authoring, thinking, translating, mediating, mobilizing, tapping a keyboard, holding signs, changing your mind.
How many of these things do you do?
Though I’m aware – sometimes painfully so – of wrongs that need righting, institutions that need guidance, lessons that need translation and liberation, relationships that need mediation and at times have taken action, I’ve not considered myself an activist. Taking a look though at that list of activist behavior, I’m struck by how many I already employ, and I furthermore know that I strive to do more of each of them. With the case of Vidhi Bamzai, the identification as an activist came first, while huge, meaningful action followed. Perhaps it is time for me to change my mind as well. Done. I am an activist.
On the other hand, I’m no futurist, but I will venture this: huge positive cultural change is coming in our lifetimes. It’s true that it’s really not much of a stretch, since many flavors of activism. already reside in our campus community. We know that the Leaders and Best take care of business. What’s left to speculation is what role we each will play. We all keep in mind specific domains in which we would dearly love to see positive change – there is room for all of us to “take a stand.” So, do you consider yourself an activist?
Michael Smallegan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction Appended: A previous version of this article misstated Vidhi Bamza’s gender