Ground Activism: Expectation vs. Reality
Before I began defining myself as an activist, I had the idea that "activism" meant organizing a protest, shouting at people through megaphones, throwing blood over fur coats, etc. I thought of activism as this loud, attention-grabbing, invasive way of spreading a message. It wasn’t until I attended RAN’s Palm Oil Action Leaders Summit in March, 2015 that I realized my definition of activism was really wrong. Today, I define activism as any means of immersing yourself in an issue, setting a goal, and working to achieve that goal. Anybody can be an activist, and there are so many ways to design non-violent direct actions to achieve your goal.
Starting a Team
After attending the Leaders Summit in San Francisco, I returned to my home in Boston and created the Boston Palm Oil Action Team. The group is comprised of dedicated activists who work together to raise awareness in our community about the global palm oil problem. As a new Boston resident, I was so excited but also so nervous about building my own team, hardly knowing anyone in town. I learned that it’s best to start with your close circle of supporters. If you’re thinking of starting your own team or gathering a group together to call attention to a particular event, there’s no reason why you should go out of your way to find people to help you. Always start by reaching out to your friends and family. Reach out to the people that you’re comfortable with and who you know will support you, even if it’s not really “their thing”.
I don’t think I could’ve organized my first action for the Boston Palm Oil Action Team if I didn’t have my dear friend Shannen with me. Shannen is this spunky, outgoing, and relentless information machine. She’s truly a fun-sized powerhouse. I’m naturally an introvert, so going outside to talk to people I don’t know about something that they probably don’t care about was super nerve wracking for me. Having Shannen by my side was a constant comfort. I can’t tell you how much easier and more fun it is when you have an ally by your side.
For my first action as the Boston Palm Oil Action Team leader, we stood outside the Park Street stop on the Boston Common and asked people to celebrate Earth Day with us by taking a picture to raise awareness about the palm oil problem. It was definitely awkward at first, and there was some initial clumsiness as we got into the flow of asking people to chat with us, but it was ultimately a success. It was a fun day, but it wasn’t without its challenges. As I’ve continued to organize different actions for the team, I’ve realized that there are always these general expectations I have going into an event that always give way to reality...
Expectations v. Reality
Expectation: People will be excited to get involved!
Reality: People will go out of their way to avoid eye contact with you because you’re a stranger and they think you’re selling something. This is OK. The people who you’re trying to talk to, who ignore you, are more uncomfortable than you are – remember this.
Expectation: People will care about the cause.
Reality: Some people will genuinely care. They’ll look you in the eyes and have an awesome conversation with you. These people make the whole thing worth it. A lot of people will seem interested, but won’t follow up or really understand the significance of what you’re talking about. At least you tried. Then there are the people who stopped to talk to you because you hassled them enough and they don’t really care about what you’re doing, they just want you to shut up. These people can be useful; don’t count them out.
Expectation: It’s going to be a great day and I’m going to have a blast.
Reality: It‘s always a great day and I always have a blast, but I also have to check myself constantly. It’s so easy to get frustrated. It’s so easy to mumble mean things to yourself about the people who dismiss you like you’re not even human, but you can’t let that consume you. Do what you have to do to move on from rejection, but don’t wallow in it. If someone rejects you or ignores you, take a deep breath, remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing, and put your smile back on.
When I moved to Boston, my first gig was as a street canvasser for Children International. It was literally my job to stop people on the street and ask them for money. It was uncomfortable and awkward and embarrassing, but it was such a valuable learning experience. I’ve taken so much of what I learned as a canvasser and directly applied it to raising awareness about the palm oil issue. As an activist you do a lot of the same stuff as canvassers, except most of the time you’re not asking for money, you’re asking for action. Just like how I’ve come to recognize my expectations for activism, I’ve also come up with a few tips and tricks to help along the way.
- The crazies will find you. They will try to engage with you. Smile and respectfully withdraw from the conversation. Physically relocate yourself if you have to - they will go eventually.
- Stay positive. People gravitate toward happy, excited people. No one wants to be hassled by an angry, frustrated activist – no one.
- Check yourself and check your partner and/or teammates. Take breaks. Huddle together and rant for a bit. Do whatever you need to do to remember why you’re out there doing such an uncomfortable thing.
- Set realistic goals. Being excited is great, but don’t overestimate what you can do by creating a definition of success until you really know what you’re doing and what you’re up against.
- On the ground activism can be really hard. In this digital age it’s like pulling teeth just to get people out from behind their computers. But if you’re out in the world, making personal connections and engaging with people you would have never engaged with otherwise by sharing your passion about an issue, you’re doing it right. There’s no way to go wrong.
My biggest piece of advice to anyone out there is to find the cause for which you want to advocate. What’s the issue that keeps you awake at night? What’s the thing that sets your heart on fire? Find it and fight for it.
I have never been as motivated or dedicated to anything like I am to the palm oil issue. It's what I wake up thinking about, it's what drives me throughout my day, and it's the reason I get such little sleep at night. It's just this big bubble in my brain, growing bigger every time I get a new idea or make a new connection. What motivates me to keep going and to keep pushing for the end to conflict palm oil is the fact that I feel like I can honestly make a difference in this fight.
That’s the great thing about activism: whether it’s asking people to sign a petition, make a phone call, take a picture, or donate to a cause – you make a difference. I am by no means an expert activist. What I am is a passionate fighter for the palm oil cause. I’ve learned what I know now through a series of trial and error, but it’s all been worth it. I’m so excited to be sharing these experiences with the Selva Beat community and to continue to learn more, fall more, and to get back up again and share these stories with the world.