The Modern-Day Activist
By Kaitlin Schluter | Journalism major
In today’s activism, people of all ages and social classes are not only ditching picket signs for social media, but also finding community among change makers.
Activism is changing face in today's society. (Photo by Jon Dickson)
Your neighbor could be one, as well as your barista. The same goes for your pastor, your tattoo artist, your roommate, or even, your grandparents. Although the label “activist” doesn’t seem common, a national study reveals that approximately two-thirds of Americans have engaged in some form of activism.
“Most people think, ‘well that’s not quite like me. I have a family, or I have a job, or I’m a student. I don’t really have the time for that,’” said Catherine Corrigall-Brown, Ph.D., who published her findings in her 2011 book “Patterns of Protest: Trajectories of Participation in Social Movements.” “But the point is that most people, two-thirds of people, have at some point gone out to a protest event or been involved in a social movement group.”
College students aren’t exempt from this cluster of change makers. Corrigall-Brown found that this age group has advantages making them more available for activism, these being access to time and social networks. Variables like marriage and children act as barriers to consistent involvement.
Her research delves from a two-part study, which includes a survey by M. Kent Jennings that analyzed the protesting patterns of 1,500 individuals over a 32-year period. As well, she interviewed 60 past members of four social movement groups, which included the Concerned Women of America and a Catholic Worker group. While participants varied in social makeup, they were able to connect their personal issues with larger social problems. And, like past activists, not all need power to impact others.
“If you believe in something, you can actually make a difference in society,” said Corrigall-Brown, who teaches sociology at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. “You can actually change the world and it’s happened before. It’s important to get out there and get involved.”
TECHNOLOGY AS A TOOL
That’s what Douglas Schatz did upon graduating from Hampshire College last spring. He’s now the assistant-organizer for Fight for the Future, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting technology as a “necessary human right.” He found the job posting on Craigslist, and began his introduction to public activism.
“I sort of felt like I needed bolstering credentials to help somebody and to get involved with a lot of these organizations,” said Schatz. “I think that if you go out and really ask for what you want, a lot of times, at the very least, you will receive help and advice on how to get there.”
Through his experiences meeting with “monolithic online corporations,” he found that organizations are typically responsive when they meet someone who cares about mutual issues. Such conversations led to the largest online protest in history. Fight for the Future joined other groups to advocate against the Stop Online Privacy (SOPA) and Protect IP (PIPA) acts. Major Internet players participated, including Google and Wikipedia. In total, more than 115,000 websites and 13 million Internet users participated, blacking out their websites for 24 hours and directing visitors to Congress.
“I think that activists who sort of scoff at the idea of an online sit-in or online protest can use the model of the SOPA and PIPA protest to create a new way to spread information and use it to even affect change in some way,” Schatz said.
David Meyer, Ph.D., author of “The Politics of Protests: Social Movements in America,” is still trying to wrap his mind around the ways technology has impacted protesting as a form of expression. In his observations of the recent Occupy movement, he witnessed participants utilizing Facebook, Twitter, and live streams to get their messages out. The Tea Party movement, which attracted an older crowd, used similar means.
Meyer, who is a sociology professor at the University of California in Irvine, described a common scenario of a student who was recruited by a friend to be active through a Facebook group.
“I don’t think that’s an unusual story anymore,” said Meyer, who recognized that protest movements also tend to polarize. Most people who join movements, he found, tend to enter with conflicting ideas concerning the ultimate goal.
“That’s what makes protest politics so exciting and unpredictable,” said Meyer. “It’s also what makes people disappointed about what happens because you don’t get everything you ask for. Even the successful movements don’t get everything we ask for.”
WHEN FAITH MEETS ACTIVISM
Occupy Claremont member, Andrew Mohr, is among 300 to 400 supporters still advocating for the 99 percent both nationally and locally although media hype has lulled. He had been camping out since last November at a site started by two Pitzer college students. A city ordinance forced the camp to relocate in January.
Mohr, who had never been involved in activism previously, was surprised that the movement wasn’t just about picket signs but it was also a community.
“There’s not just a political side to it,” said Mohr. “There’s also a philosophical side, a part of it that’s actually trying to offer a paradigm shift in the way we think and how we deal with one another.”
He said those in the camp embraced community, sharing both food and financial resources. “It actually surprised me that the Church is not more involved in it,” said Mohr, who is a pastoral assistant at Claremont United Methodist Church. He is currently continuing to camp to support Occupy Claremont’s push for anti-poverty programs.
According to Bret Mavrich, a missionary who directs the Concentration in Justice ministries at the International House of Prayer, Christians should practice discernment in activism.
“I think we have to really pay attention to what is a divergence between the struggle for democracy, the struggle for political freedom, and the struggle for the Kingdom of God,” Mavrich said.
He critiqued the Occupy movement in his article, “How would Jesus Protest?” which appeared in Relevant magazine last October. Jesus is often included in what Mavrich calls the “holy trinity of civil disobedience,” being Gandhi, King, and Christ. But in lieu of Occupy, he recognized a general hesitancy to admit both the wealthy and poor as part of the problem. Injustice, Mavrich believes, points back to a greater spiritual core.
“The greatest injustice in the Earth, greater than human trafficking, greater than abortion, greater than one percent of the world’s wealthy courting the 99 percent of the world, is that Jesus is not worshipped,” said Mavrich, who sees prayer and intercession as the highest levels of protest and justice that Christians can practice.
But among types of social movements, Azusa Pacific University sociology professor Nori Henk notes there is no magical formula that connects them all. Social movements don’t exist in a vacuum, according to Henk, but rather among those involved in the movement. The process of socialization has prompted people to believe that confrontation is a bad thing. But Henk sees activism calling out that bluff, a socialized belief that to be a member of society means going along with it.
“In sociology, we always say discontent is ubiquitous,” said Henk. “Things aren’t really what they should be. But at what point does this discontent become actionable, become mobilizable toward actually doing something about it? I think we can complain all we want but the fact is, everyone needs to actually step up and do something.”