Reassuringly Restless 1: So, You Want To Be An 'Activist'?

(Blog post one of twelve)

I have always felt a bit restless with the world, let down even, for as long as I can remember. I guess that’s what drew me into activism/advocacy/campaigning. The words are often used interchangeably, but sometimes it’s helpful to know the subtle differences: 

Campaigner - a person who takes part in organised activities that are intended to change something in society 

Advocate - a person who speaks on behalf of another person or group 

Activist - a person with the intentional action to bring about change 

All of these can be within a social, political, economic, environmental change/justice) context.

 
I get the sense that more people want to do something, they’re just not sure what. Or some people are sure, they’re just not sure how. This blog series is mainly for you. For anyone thinking about going into campaigning, activism or advocacy, here are some reflective pointers that may help with your journey. 

 
Officially, I would say that I have been a campaigner since I was 18 (through student movements and HIV advocacy). I am 29 now. My mum (a human rights lawyer) has been taking me to marches and protests from an early age though, so unofficially the activist in me has been going strong for a lot longer! 

Times are tough. As a Black woman, I would not say that they are the toughest they have ever been, but they are tough nonetheless. Between the global rise of the far right, (denied) climate change, gender-based violence persisting, police brutality, unequal access to healthcare, state-sanctioned violence of indigenous people (and more), it can get really overwhelming. Lives are unjustly lost and taken hourly.  

There’s been a rise in awareness of this. I get the sense that more people want to do something, they’re just not sure what. Or some people are sure, they’re just not sure how. This blog series is mainly for you. For anyone thinking about going into campaigning, activism or advocacy, here are some reflective pointers that may help with your journey. 

 

What are you passionate about? 
Is there something that you have a burning desire to see changed? What frustrates you every time you watch TV, scroll through social media or read the newspaper? What are people not paying attention to? What do they not care about that they should? What do they misunderstand?

Start with the answers to those questions.  

 

Focus
To keep yourself sane, it’s helpful to focus further. For instance, I am involved in HIV campaigning and activism. There are many cross-cutting themes and issues (including poverty, gender-based violence, transphobia, racism, HIV prevention, treatment access and so on). If I tried to specialise in them all, it would be incredibly overwhelming. 

I typically concentrate on stigma (both internalised and structural), ethical engagement of young people (internationally) and women and Black people (nationally). I don’t ignore the list I have just mentioned above, but I have a focus. 

  

Does the cause affect you directly? No
It’s always great to have allies and advocates – thank you.  

Learn from those it does affect. Go to events about it, read about it, learn more. Whatever you have chosen, understand that the issue is not singular. Remember to actually do the work yourself though, especially if you are dealing with social issues. Commit to learning more rather than accosting one person who has the lived experience. They are not your personal human encyclopaedia and will likely want to be seen as more than a single social injustice issue. 

Be careful not to overtake the conversation. It is unlikely that you are going to be able to come up with the solutions, but you can support in their creation and implementation.  
 
You will never know everything. Make peace with that, but seek out opportunities to learn more. 

 

Does the cause affect you directly? Yes
Love it. The personal and lived experience should always be centred in any social movement. People first.

Look after yourself though, especially, if you are dealing with social issues. Know your red line(s) and no go areas. Just because you are affected by an issue, does not mean you have to give your whole self and talk about it (in another post I will talk about self-care and staying psychological safe in activist spaces). 

You will bring a wealth of understanding to this. You may find that an experience you thought was solely yours, draws so many parallels with other people’s. Remember though: your experience is not the only one. If you are going into activism to speak on behalf of a group that you identify with, remember that as a collective, you are not a single thing. Always remember who is not in the room, remember and speak to the people who are affected by the issue but in different ways to you.  
 
You will never know everything. Make peace with that, but seek out opportunities to learn more. 

 

Seek out a community
This applies to both online and face-to-face. Read about the challenges and opportunities for change; make a note of the people and the organisations who are named and are actively trying to make progress. This includes those that you disagree with. The more you delve into activism spaces, the more you will find that although people may agree on the goal, there may be opposing views on how to get there! 

I would encourage you to go to the grassroots, to the people on the ground (who really know what’s up day-to-day). This means talking to community organisers, going to independently held campaigns and events (not just the national ones with large funding investment).  

Having a community will help you to understand the causes of the issues, possible solutions, will keep you connected and is a much needed release (activism is tough). For me, campaigner/advocacy/activism is about systemic change and no-one can do that on their own. 

Finding a community of campaigners will keep you energised, focused and in the know. 

Can activism really change the world? I think it’s the only thing that ever has, but we need to be strategic with it. This is the first of a monthly blog series (next one will be available on Thursday 28th February). If there is anything that you would like me to discuss in future blog posts, please email admin@bakitakk.com   

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Bakita Kasadha (aka BAKITA:KK) is an HIV activist, associate trainer, researcher and writer. She serves as a board member on the Global Network of Young People Living with HIV. She is interested in self-care, ethical engagement and power dynamics within social movements. Through this blog series, she aims to share some insight to navigating activism and advocacy spaces, for those thinking about it and for those figuring it out. All opinions are strictly hers.

Artwork by Camilla Ru