A Wannabe Activist’s Guide to Real Societal Change

Our campus teems with the idealism of dozens, if not hundreds, of wannabe activists. I will be the first to implicate myself with such a title. We attend the Forward on Climate Rally, Power Shift, and Mountain Justice Fall Summit, among numerous other demonstrations. We wave our hand-drawn signs and attend workshops and become appalled and indignant about how the human race and the world is progressing. As one of you, I would like to posit a few analyses of these activities, the way the world functions, and ways to engage it.

I will define the adversary, “systems of oppression,” as being institutions, organizations, and patterns of action and thought in society which methodically exploit people and re- sources, typically to the end of a small group gaining wealth or power. Exam- ples of such systems would include the paper industry’s practices of deforestation, the school-to-prison pipeline, the underpayment of immigrant labor in

American agriculture, and the destruction of watersheds and communities from mountaintop removal coal mining.

The next step on our journey beyond wannabe activism is recognizing our own contributions to these systems. I turn on a light, which uses electricity created from coal from a now-demolished mountain. I pay taxes out of my wages, which fund drone strikes in Pakistan. The list continues; nearly every item I consume has an element produced by the exploitation of impoverished laborers. Minimization of this consumption is a good step, but ulti- mately is a fallacy. It comforts us into believing that we are no longer contributors to oppression.

Rally events are a common and popular response once one notices these systems. At their best, they act as awareness-raisers to specific problems and ways to become involved. At their worst, they are a form of ethical masturbation; a short-term, low- commitment engagement that accomplishes little more than a flurry of social media activity.

Power Shift is one example of such rallies, which garnered almost 8,000 activists in Pittsburgh this month. The biggest positive of Power Shift was its ability to inform thousands of people of energy issues. However, it also catered to a narrow demographic of wealthy college students, and failed to appropriately address hometown issues such as longwall coal mining, among a host of corruption allegations against the organizers, Energy Action Coalition.

The Mountain Justice Fall Summit had its own set of benefits and pitfalls. As a smaller event of 150 attendees, workshops were accessible, regionally applicable, and modifiable for audience relevance. Besides having a smaller impact, another con is the divisive dynamic of bringing out-of-state activists to engage in a very localized, controversial issue.

Both of these events, and others like them, have their place in activism. They serve as a conduit for entry-level information and channeling interested participants to active organizations. However, we cannot stop our involvement at participation with surface-level rallies of like-minded people. In my experience, the most effective opposition to systems of oppression comes from locally-based community organizations. They are close to the source of oppression, run by residents both knowledgable and impacted by the nuanced situation, and are familiar with effective and ineffective methods of opposition. After information of systems has been absorbed, we must integrate ourselves among the people affected by those systems.

We cannot merely stand on the outside, waving our banners and citing statistics, if we expect to make changes. At the end of the day, we go back home and eat Cheez-its and work on homework on laptops, and the cycles perpetuate.

Instead, we have to immerse ourselves in longer-term commitment against a specific front, and live with those who have the most familiarity with the problem before we can begin to understand it. Only then are streams cleaned, legislation passed, investigations begun, and sustainable alternatives built.

-Randi B. Hagi, Co-Editor In Chief

Categories: Opinion


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