Like all professions, there is a certain set of jargon that comes with working in the community, especially where social justice is involved. And as inherent with language, some of the terminologies elicit generally positive reactions (e.g. organizing, equality, history) while others bring forth disdain (e.g. gentrification, racism, oppression).
There is one word, however, that seems to exist right in the middle of this spectrum, where I do not think it belongs. The word is “Activism” and I want to claim it for the good side.
I heard this word many times before realizing that I have no clue what it really means. People often pause and take time to explain “social justice” or “civil rights” and in those explanations you might hear the word “activism” being used to mean an agent of change or a method through which people can achieve goals of equality. Rarely does anyone define activism. Even rarer does anyone ask.
Most people already have a preconceived notion of what activism is. For some, it is the power of the people to effect change. It is being at the forefront of the movement, to push the boundaries, and to make their voices heard. It is a force to be reckoned with.
For others, like me, it is a method where one has to be loud, rebellious and sometimes—as evident by the 1999 WTO protests—violent and chaotic. It is intimidating and only reserved for those who are bold and courageous.
Adding to that, these characteristics are attributed with the people often cited to exemplify activism. Figures like Uncle Bob and his Gang of Four, Al Sugiyama with the Oriental Student Union, and Cindy and Lynn Domingo for their work in the Filipino community are brought up as quintessential models of what activism looks like.
Those I mentioned above have no doubt rightfully earned the respect and admiration from the community. They are indeed bold and courageous. Their work and leadership that have brought so much to the community are not in question. On the other hand, I think about other leaders whose struggles and successes are just as great and wonder why they are not included in the picture.
Dolores Sibonga, the first Asian American to sit on the Seattle City Council. Gary Locke, the first Asian American governor of Washington State. Velma Veloria, the first Filipina American elected to a state legislature in the continental U.S.
Are these people and so many like them not as bold and courageous? Have they not pushed boundaries and brought great changes to the community? What are they if not activists?
“Activist” has somehow become a “badge of honor” bestowed upon those who possess a certain style leadership and use specific methods to address issues. To be an activist is to hold rallies, to be disobedient, and, recently, to occupy. To be an activist means risking arrest, braving tear gas, and bearing assault.
At the same time, writing, advocacy, community building and organizing, leadership development, and similar work are not recognized as activism. In this era of social media and digital networking, even bloggers and journalists in front of computers are taking the same risks as those leading protests on the streets.
This line of thinking continues to prevent activism from becoming a truly positive idea that everyone can embrace. We need more activists, not less.
I say it is time to break the stereotype of what activism is and who activists are. Activism is not what you do to promote change. It is whether you do ANYTHING.
From now on, I will consider anyone who takes actions—be it loud or quiet, up front or in the background, radical or cautious—to be an activist, whether they like it or not.
I will start with myself.