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Teaching Everyday Activism

January 19, 2010

This post is written by Ashley Lauren and is cross-posted at her blog Small Strokes where she regularly blogs. You can also find Ashley on Twitter here.

I wrote a post a little while ago about teaching everyday activism to my sophomores.  I was so energized at the end of this two-day lesson – totally jazzed that they had caught on to the concept of activism so well that they had started talking about what they could do to speak out and raise awareness for their personal causes.

As interesting as it might be to follow my students’ activism, I think it is equally interesting – and important – to discuss my students’ original perceptions of activism.  In my original post, I mentioned that I put a list of actions on the board and asked my students if they considered each “activism.”  The following is the list again, but this time, I’ve put the number of students in each of my three classes respectively who believed each action is considered activism.  There were 22 students in my first class, 28 students in my second class, and 17 students in my third class.

Which of these are “activism?”
1. Donating money 4, 12, 2
2. Writing an article 1, 5, 2
3. Discussions 17, 14, 8
4. Signing a petition 17, 22, 17
5. Writing a letter 3, 5, 1
6. Protesting 17, 28, 17
7. Creating a petition 17, 23, 17
8. Blogging 5, 3, 1
9. Risking your life for someone 15, 14, 8
10. Going against what people think 16, 23, 17
11. Being a lawyer 3, 4, 11
12. Being a teacher 2, 2, 5
13. Being a doctor 7, 4, 11
14. Volunteering 18, 18, 13
15. Starting a group 17, 18, 12
16. Adopting a pet 3, 4, 3
17. Adopting a child 3, 8, 6
18. Making a speech 17, 14, 11
19. Making a sign 6, 10, 6
20. Talking to a friend 4, 3, 4

It is interesting to note, here, that discussions, signing and creating petitions, going against what people think, volunteering, protesting, starting a group, and making a speech were all highly recognized as activist activities, whereas very few students thought of writing an article, writing a letter, blogging, being a teacher, adopting a pet, adopting a child, and talking to a friend as actions of activists.

I was not surprised that my students thought of petitions, speeches, discussions, protests, and volunteering as activism.  After all, they are taught that activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr. give speeches and do interviews and hold discussions.  And in this day and age, protests are probably the most common form of activism students see on the news, and petitions are probably the most common form of speaking out in which students have participated.  I was, however, surprised that writing an article or writing a letter was not seen by them as activism.  So, I asked them why.

I started by grouping together the actions that had the highest number of votes, as I did above, and asked them what all of these had in common.  Every class said the same thing: In order for an activity to be considered activism, it must involve other people – an audience, a group, several signatures, etc.  When I asked them if articles and blogs had audiences, they said yes, but activism must be loud and directed.  Protests are directed because they are stationed outside of the building of whatever company is being protested; discussions and speeches are directed because people are talking about one specific issue.  When I mentioned that blogs have wide audiences, they replied that this may be true, but anyone can write a blog about anything, which makes it unreliable.  To protest or discuss or create a petition, you can’t hide behind a computer screen writing a post or an article.  You have to be out there, literally taking a stand for what you believe in.

While I still believe that blogging and writing are important forms of activism, my students have reminded me of the importance of literally taking a stand for your cause.  We can write and comment and share all we want, but it does not take the place of active activism – actually doing something.  As I pointed out to my students, Miep Gies actually did something, and what she did was not only the action of an activist, but the action of a hero.

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