Slow Activism: 3 Key Habits for Long Lasting Social Change

Fear not the title, dear readers - activism is not an elite word, I promise - stick with me.  I don't know if you have ever been put off by or intimidated by that word, thinking "yeah sure, I care about stuff but I'm not an activist". Me too, and I'm on a mission to claim it back for the everyday person.  Here's how the dictionary defines it: noun especially active, vigorous advocate of a cause, especially apolitical cause.

Oooh, those words 'especially active' and 'vigorous' don't sit well with me - not in light of what I want to cover in this post today.  They glorify only the doing side of activism but today I want to open that word up, spin it about and hopefully give you some food for thought.

As I said before in the intro to this series on slowing things down, I'm a natural do-er; someone who when presented with an issue, likes to have a clear vision of what the action to take is and then sets a path to take it.  This slowing business isn't my natural rhythm but it's one that I've come to value and see the importance in so I hope that in dialoging with you through here and on facebook and twitter we can all, myself included cultivate and give ourselves permission to slow down and be more mindful.

I was raised as an activist.  My parents might not have seen to label their parenting in that way but I was definitely born into a family tuned into advocacy.  It was hard not to be when your parents were actively involved in social work from before you were born; welcoming all kinds of interesting and desperate people into our home, involved in a church that was practical and outward focused.  It was a vibrant childhood and they modelled compassion and inclusion so much so that it feels like part of my DNA.  I guess it's hard to tell when the activist in me really came to life because advocating has always felt natural.  I say that more as an observation of how I grew up than any kind of pious claim.

Och, would you look at us here - the 80's were kind to no one...

Having been involved in 'activism' for many years, both passively by observing the way my parents did life and then actively in my teen and adult years,  I'm really keen to explore it's many facets - and am particularly drawn these days to look at activism through the lens of 'slow';  to reflect on how maybe, if we can harness our energy for caring about stuff, and give it some mindful, purposeful legs we can actually see the world changing in a more long-lasting way.

I thought I'd start by sharing what I've identified as 3 key habits of slow activists that lead to long-lasting social change:

Slow Activism: The key long lasting social change

1)  A slow activist isn't deterred when the hype or lure of a mainstream issue or campaign dies down because they are in it for the long haul:

Let me take you back a few years to 2012.  This was the year that KONY 2012 hit our screens.  The world woke up one morning to a video by the charity Invisible Children going viral about Joseph Kony, leader of the Lords Resistance Army in Uganda and the war he was waging in vulnerable regions, forcing children to take up arms and become soldiers, raping women and taking over land.  I think by 5pm that night, every single person on my facebook had shared or mentioned the video campaign, including me.  We were fired up by this video and by the common outrage was kind of breathtaking to watch unfold.

In my vigour, I called my friend John.  John is the person who had first introduced me to the situation of child soldiers and war in Uganda and the DRC and has committed most of his adult life to being educated on the issue.

"Right John, so what are we going to do...?"  I asked him, thinking of all people John would be ready to 'cover the night' with me, rallying our mates and plastering Lurgan in posters about Kony and his tirade.

"Yeah Mel...I don't know about this..." he said cautiously.  In this excerpt from his 2012 blog he explains a bit why:

Overall the Kony 2012 campaign was entirely surreal to me. My major interest, research and passion over the past number of years has been on raising awareness about children who have been affected by war and attempting to provide the best possible assistance to them. I have heard hundreds of stories from young people about killing, rape, mutilation, looting, beating and grief.  Many evenings over pints with local friends in Uganda and the DRC I have asked questions about the political, spiritual and cultural forces that have caused this trauma.

It was meeting victims of the LRA in northern Uganda that helped me decide to quit teaching and study for a psychology doctorate. In 2010 we worked in Gulu, northern Uganda, with over 200 former child soldiers and other war-affected children. After that we spent a couple of years designing interventions that to the best of our ability were evidence-based, culturally-appropriate and effective in treating trauma and psychological distress in former child soldiers, sexually-exploited girls and other war affected children. We spent 3 months in the Democratic Republic of Congo delivering and evaluating this intervention. 

I mention these things not to compare or draw attention but rather to show my amazement at the great power of a 30-minute video clip in getting people talking. Our own travels and work pale in comparison to the 30+ years of life that has been dedicated by other amazing people who have quietly lived for others through the worst years of the wars in Uganda and the DRC.

Africans are not helpless, hopeless victims. They can find solutions to their own problems. We can support, as we would with any country, but we can’t do it for them. 

John is a slow activist.  Long after the buzz of KONY 2012 died down John was still there, plugging away at research and methods to protect and reduce vulnerability in some of the most fragile regions of these countries.  I give you this example to highlight how it is only really through long-term investment in issues that we care about that we can see proper impact.

Sure, these high profile awareness campaigns can be an entry point for so many people, bringing them into a place of knowledge and hopefully then committed action, but there are many drawbacks to thinking that these are the best ways to really effect change.

Are we willing to be satisfied by millions of people knowing a tiny bit of a large complex issue or are we willing to take the time to carve out an access route that can engage people in issues consistently and with depth and meaning?  It's a tough one.

2) A slow activist sees connection in everything and is able to champion activism in the everyday:

A year or so ago we launched a campaign at Freedom Acts called 'Everyday Activism' in a bid to dispel the myth that activism was only for the big gestured people, the ones who chain themselves to gates of big corporations, lie down in front of bulldozers or join in the big rallies.

However sometimes activism looks like calling out sexism on twitter.  Sometimes activism looks like respecting the rights of your children when they are in a tizz.  Sometimes activism looks like staying up late baking for a cake sale fundraiser.  Sometimes activism looks like going out of your way to buy ethically sourced coffee; like asking your local council to start a cloth nappy incentive scheme; like using your bicycle or two feet for shorter journeys.

It's not that these things are making a massive difference immediately (although I could definitely plead the case for respecting my child's rights making an immediate difference when he is in a tizz), and some of them may even go a little or entirely unnoticed.  Visibility doesn't make something more or less important.

The Craftivism Collective movement is a great example of this:

"Craftivist Collective was founded in 2009 when after years of marches, signing protests and working on campaigns for large charities, experienced activist Sarah Corbett had begun to doubt the effects of some conventional activism. The time felt right for a different, less aggressive approach.

A love of cross-stitching led her to Craftivism. Its appeal as a gentle, respectful and more targeted plea for social change was a perfect fit, and although as a principle ‘Craftivism’ already existed, it took no time for Sarah to develop her own unique strand. One focused on putting the contemplative moments spent stitching to work exploring global issues and using craft for critical thinking, questioning and considered creative activism."

All of these small every day things connect us to bigger picture issues and that kind of slow, everyday consistent activism builds foundations in our culture that eventually become norms.

3) A slow activist celebrates small victories, even when the weight of the burden still tips heavily the other way.

It is likely that if you consider yourself an activist, that you think deeply about things and sometimes in the midst of the heaviness of issues so demanding and complex, we fail to recognise the importance of small victories.  The Harvard Business Review did a study on small wins, and how breaking major goals down into smaller milestones “reduces fear, clarifies direction and increases the probability of early successful outcomes.”  It is so much more emotionally healthy for us to work this way - to feel mobilised instead of paralysed by the magnitude of need.

It is estimated that over 30 million people are currently being exploited in some form of modern slavery.  That's a statistic that's hard to swallow, and has the potential to daunt people into reactionary action (throwing money at the problem) instead of responsive action (finding a more sustainable way to have an impact).

From April of 2015 to now (Jan 2016) there have been 46 precious human beings recovered from being exploited in some form of modern slavery here in Northern Ireland.

That is 0.00015% of a dent in the issue.

Is it much?  No.

Is it worthless?  Absolutely not.

It is another increase on recovered victims from last year.  It indicates a better grasp than before - by police, by communities.  It is always worth marking this kind of small victory because it gives us the motivation and direction to keep moving.

If we are only ever wowed by huge changes; by implementation of laws or policies, then we are doomed to lose steam.  Those kinds of changes are hard won, they take time, endurance, and investment on many levels.  So many of the things that I long to see different in the world I will never see in this lifetime and I'm OK in that understanding because I know I am building on work that other people have started and if I do my part, there will be many that will pick up the reigns long after I'm gone.  We must not undervalue the small milestones that indicate we are on the right track.  These are our fuel on the long road to change.

I feel like there is so much more to say on this and I certainly haven't exhausted my thoughts.  I might come back to it over the year, giving examples of other slow activists that are deeply and intentionally shaping a culture to bring lasting change but now it's over to you - tell me:

+  Can you see how slow activism has the potential to bring about lasting change?

+  Do you feel less intimidated by activism when seen through this slow lens?

+  How can we champion this type of activism more in our culture and community?

I'd love to hear any and all of your thoughts so please do feel free to share this, leave a comment here or over on my blog facebook page so we can encourage each other.