Different Sorts of “Activism”

From Grace Yukich, “Who Gets Left Out When We Talk About ‘Activism’?” Mobilizing Ideas, Sept. 2, 2015

Though activism could be broadly conceived as work for social change, in social movement scholarship, it is typically defined as public, disruptive action involving “collective claims against outsiders.” In my book One Family Under God: Immigration Politics and Progressive Religion in America (Oxford, 2013), I examined how interfaith coalitions are working for immigration reform and for greater acceptance of immigrants in the nation’s religious communities and wider culture. I studied social movement organizations who did a lot of things. Some were easily identifiable as “activist.” They organized public protests, public vigils, and press conferences. But they also met to pray for immigrant families being split up by deportation. Group members accompanied undocumented immigrants to their check-ins with immigration officials to prevent their detention. They held interfaith religious services, and group members babysat the children of immigrants while they attended group meetings.

In other words, many of the things they did were private acts with no megaphones, microphones, or police officers in sight. Taken by itself, babysitting would not typically be defined as activism. Should it be, in this case, simply because it is part of the work of a social movement organization? Or should it be “activist” because those involved are doing it with the intention of creating social change? According to dominant definitions, praying, accompaniment, joint worship, and babysitting are not “activism” because they are not “disruptive.” But might they, in fact, disrupt the status quo? Can seemingly everyday activities do that by changing the hearts and minds of others just as effectively in some situations as a peaceful march or even a violent riot? This is what the activists in my book, many of whom had long histories with movements and marches, believed and explicitly intended to do. They targeted not only the state but also the hearts and minds of their own neighbors, friends, and members of their religious communities in seeking to create social change.

Of course, I am using the term “disruptive” differently from how it is typically used. Here, it is more individual and communal rather than societal. In babysitting the children of an undocumented immigrant, perhaps a U.S. citizen’s emotional status quo is disrupted enough to force that person to see immigrants differently, to treat their immigrant neighbors differently, to correct their relatives’ misconceptions of immigrants, and so on. Yes, it might also change how they vote. It might ultimately change immigration policy. But most scholars now agree that the state is not the only target that matters. It is not the only set of institutions and relationships that shape people’s lives on a daily basis. So, in that sense, disruption on an individual and communal level might be significant if the result is a shift in the balance of power in relationships and communities.

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