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4 Lessons in Activism from an Apprehensive Activist (And a Difficult Call to Action)

4 Lessons from an Accidental Activist
iStock/AlexanderGouletas

Chances are, if you are reading this, you are, like me, a white, well-educated woman.

I identify the majority of my readers because considering your audience is one of the most important lessons I learned in activism. So, here’s lesson one: Know your audience. I’m speaking to you, white, well-educated women.

Like many others, my first dip into activism came about recently and unexpectedly: after the 2016 presidential election. I arranged a gathering for peace for hundreds of people after Trump stole the White House because I couldn’t sleep from the horror and anxiety. I didn’t know what else to do.

Like so many other white, well-educated women, I also invested in an IUD  (grab that, Drumpf). Like so many others, I didn’t talk to my father for the first month after the election, because I felt betrayed by him for supporting you-guessed-who.

As an amateur organizer – “activist” as people started to call me – I made the mistake of planning my gathering for peace at a local park. Hugh MacRae Park is one of the largest, most beautiful parks in Wilmington, North Carolina. It also just happened to be named after a white supremacist who promoted the lynching of black people.

I didn’t know the history of Hugh MacRae. I quickly learned it when I received a stream of public and private messages berating me for planning to have the event at a racist park. Four out of five angry messages were from white, well-educated women. I felt terrible and quickly changed the event location.

I had an idealistic aim, but I am, deep-down, an idealist. The news emphasized the story that we weren’t having an #ImWithHer party, but it wasn’t a Drumpf-themed gathering by any means, either. We welcomed everyone. Mostly, progressives came. They also started a new organization to pull together disparate leftist groups called the Wilmington Progressive Coalition. And this is what I love about progressives in my area: They are legitimately welcoming, they listen to their audiences, and they act accordingly. They know activism.

Lesson one: Know your audience.

My audience was the entire community – everyone needed to feel welcome.

Your audience is one you have either been ignoring, openly detesting as a whole, or at the very least, keeping at a comfortable distance: other white people who aren’t as well-educated.

I’m talking about the guy who is buff and gorgeous but also, as you learned the hard way, a Trump supporter. The guy you may have unfriended after an unsuccessful conversation that turned into a rant. I’m talking about the neighbor you got along with so well – until you saw them put the Make America Great Again sign out on their front lawn.

Our country is fractured, and hatred breeds best in cracks between different people and points of view. Realize this: the people you don’t really want to talk to are the people you probably need to talk to more than anyone else.

Lesson two: Listen to your audience.

I carefully listened to my community’s concerns about the event location. And this translates in all activist pursuits. Ask yourself: Is it my goal to be well-educated and correct about politics and to educate other people on how correct I am, or is it my goal to make lasting, positive social change?

Lesson three: Take what you’ve learned, and act accordingly.

I changed the event location. Simple, right?

Use your resources to forge connections rather than create divisions. Make sacrifices when it makes sense. And above all, make every effort to act for the greater good.

Lesson four: Invite your detractors (or challengers) to work with you.

I didn’t want people protesting a peace gathering. So, after I changed the location, I also reached out to those who had (rightly) called me out. Unfortunately, the majority of the detractors who said they’d work with me if I moved the location mysteriously disappeared when I asked them to join me.

Nothing shuts down an angry, armchair activist more than inviting them to pick up a shovel and start digging ditches for peace. But it also makes your life much easier (less work, more networking, more outreach). Armchair activism is easy. Actually doing something isn’t. Sometimes, though, you can convince people to become involved. And when you do that, everyone wins.

Activism: How You Can Actually Do Something

As an apprehensive activist, what interests me most is creating lasting, positive social change. In my research, I discovered intergroup conflict theory (ICT). Put simply, ICT is placing people who disagree in the same room and making them hold a conversation (you can read a great primer on ICT here). Since first tested out, numerous groups have self-reported reduced prejudices as a result of ICT. Activists, policymakers, and peacemakers around the world use ICT.

For an extreme example of ICT, consider Daryl Davis, a black man who befriended numerous KKK members with one simple question in mind: “How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?” Davis successfully convinced Roger Kelly, the former Imperial Wizard of the KKK, to quit the hate group entirely. He’s also converted at least 12 other KKK members.

Like so many others, Davis showed that it works. While shallow conversations help make a dent in prejudice, it’s deeper connections – like the friendships Davis goes out of his way to forge – that research has shown make the most lasting change.

A Difficult But Necessary Call to Action

After putting together my own Gathering for Peace, reading up on intergroup conflict theory, and attending my own local YWCA’s Potlucks for Peace, I have a difficult but necessary call to action for you: try to connect to other people in the hopes that this connection will reduce prejudice and hatred.

Using the lessons above:

  1. Invite someone you disagree with to a neutral and safe place, like a coffee shop or Potluck for Peace.
  2. Listen to them: Before you meet this person, check in with yourself. Then, listen to how they feel, what they value, and where they’re coming from.
  3. Find what you have in common with this person.
  4. Invite collaboration: Invite this person to volunteer with you for a cause you both care about. Ignore the impulse to lecture or educate. Show what you value by example first. Try to connect. In time, the tough conversations will come.

In your new life as an activist, remember to also take care of yourself. Know when to walk away (at least, for a while). Activism is tough work, and real change takes time to create. But keep coming back. Peace and love are worth trying for. What other choice do we have?

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