Time to sit down and put on our “Let’s Be Honest With Each Other, Because What The Hell Else Are We Here For” hats. (It’s a very large hat — it’s fine.)
Activism, political engagement, and community building require some character traits that many people find unbearable: Earnestness! Commitment! The ability to talk to other people about serious matters! The ability to talk to other people, period!
Which is why I can anticipate your aversions: I don’t think I can make a difference against such powerful forces; being snarky and disengaged keeps me sane; I’m shy; I’m too self-conscious to embrace a cause; my foot hurts.
Let’s address each of these in turn to overcome paralysis and cynicism. And look, I’m no Emma Goldman, so I talked to L.A. Kauffman, veteran activist and protest historian, and Eva Cardenas, a program coordinator with The Ruckus Society, to provide the following advice.
I don’t think I can make a difference against such powerful forces
When so many mind-boggling, enormous things are falling apart, it can be wildly tempting to give up and go to bed forever. Kauffman says: Read about movements that have worked before, and the individuals involved. Civil rights. AIDS activism. Abortion. Women’s suffrage. They didn’t happen without the people showing up to make them happen, and each one of those people probably overcame a powerful urge to stay in bed.
Being snarky and disengaged keeps me sane
Direct all your cynicism and disparagement toward those in power who are screwing things up, Kauffman advises. Regarding the desire to be detached: “Nobody looks back at the great conflicts of history and admires the people who stood on the sidelines,” Kauffman says.
Cardenas, in eight years of organizing, has run into a lot of self-identifying “shy people.” So many of them, she says, have blossomed and come into their own through involvement with activist movements. “It’s not just people who are risking arrest who have a place,” she says. “From the person who answers the phones to the person who’s delivering water, there are so many ways to be involved. Bring whatever you think you can offer — even if it’s baking cookies! Nobody minds cookies.”
I’m too self-conscious to embrace a cause
No one looks at the world and thinks: “Yes, this is all good. Wouldn’t change a thing.” Have you ever read a Yelp review of a Chili’s? We can’t even stay calm about fast-casual restaurants. Which is why Cardenas recommends asking yourself, “What would I like to see in the world?” And then: “Work toward that — because it really just takes caring about issues and standing up for things.”
My foot hurts
I already told you to wear comfortable shoes. Can’t help you here.
If you’re still making excuses (look, I can even give you very specific shoe recommendations), listen to Cardenas’ advice: “Be gentle with yourself — understand you might not know everything, and that is OK. Be comfortable with privilege, understand what it is — it’s not a bad thing, when we are aware and know how to use it, that that’s actually the best way to push for liberation. And question the hell out of things.”