Activism makes me feel alive, connected and meaningful.
Since November, 2016 I have dived pretty heavily into grassroots activism, supporting a wide range of progressive human and environmental protection campaigns and actions. A turning point in my activism came the day after the presidential election when I participated in a protest and march through the streets of Chicago on the evening of November 9th, 2016. On my Facebook page the next day, I wrote the following post to express the meaning that event had for me:
Joining the Chicago march against Trump last night that rallied some 10,000 protestors and thousands more spectators was one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever done. Hearing the distant roars and chants of thousands of marchers as they echoed off of the skyscrapers and filled the city center with sound and energy is something you just can’t capture on video. You have to be there in the moment to fully appreciate its power. If you are like me, someone who feels angry, sick, devastated and yet unwilling to submit to a dangerous charlatan president, but you’re not sure what to do, join a protest, march, demonstration or something like it.
If you are like me, someone who will not sit back idly and watch the dismantling of what modest protections we have on pollution, climate change, the environment, wildlife and animals in general and safeguards for the most vulnerable groups in our society, then this is the time to get active. As for those who object to activism in favor of “unity,” you should know that if we don’t do something about climate change, there will be no groups to unify. If we submit to Trump’s absurd position of ridicule and denial over the social and environmental problems we must responsibly face, then we allow tyranny and ignorance to destroy us.
My strategy for encompassing other species rights into the broader progressive change movement is to build bridges with leaders of other progressive grassroots organizations and make the case for why we are stronger together in our fight against a common oppressor. At the Midwest Animal Liberation Convergence in Chicago in September, 2017, I gave the following speech on the subject:
6 Sources of Empowerment and Inspiration for Activists
- Ourselves We too often fail to recognize and honor our own power as activists. Our audience does not have the insights or experience or vision or understanding of liberation to tell us how to carry out our work. This must come from us, from introspection as well as brainstorming with our peers. It’s up to our own vision, creativity and ingenuity to decide what the end goal looks like and how we will get there. It’s up to us to make a compelling case for change that rallies ordinary people to our cause. Unfortunately, our corporate/consumer dominated culture trains us to follow rather than lead, to consume rather than create. It teaches us that “strategic” thinking is adopting the mindset of marketing. Marketing starts with the question, what do people want? — Cars? Flesh products? Casinos? Game of Thrones? — then shapes a strategy around fulfillment of that fantasy. In this sense marketing is, not a tool for activism, but instead a barrier to social progress. In contrast, activists ask, what do people need to know and how do we compel them to care about it? It is activists who must discover the answers to these and other important questions.
- Beliefs If there is just one lesson that we must take from food brands, it is that ideas and beliefs matter enormously, and the reason why they spend billions of dollars on appealing to our beliefs about consuming animal products. It works. It is spectacularly successful. The evidence is all around us. As journalist Naomi Klein says, “Core American brands became powerful precisely because they understood that they were selling ideas, not products.” The lesson for activists is clear: Beliefs must be challenged. Contrary to what some activists profess, “ideology” is not in conflict with “results” and “effectiveness.” This is a false dichotomy. The opposite is actually true. Activism is most effective when theory and action function harmoniously.
- Learning from others We can find inspiration and empowerment in the vast body of knowledge and experience of other highly successful grassroots activists and movements that have spearheaded meaningful changes in the past and in the present.
- Truth In an age of unprecedented fake news and propaganda, truth is under attack, which makes it all the more important. Only when truth is the essence of our activism can we effectively: • expose the lies that keep animals oppressed • establish trust, relationships, credibility and integrity • debunk fictions and deception that hide injustice • appeal to the 80% of Americans who care about suffering.
- Connection For those of us who live in or near an urban center like Chicago, we are at the epicenter of change. In his new book, Reclaiming Gotham, journalist Juan Gonzalez tells us that close to 70% of the population live in urban centers. He points to the shift in more progressive local city officials due to local grassroots efforts. We are part of a broader struggle for justice that encompasses other species rights, human rights and environmental justice. As activist Aph Ko eloquently states, “[W]hile racial oppression and animal oppression are often thought of as two distinct and separate forms of oppression, we see, in fact, that it’s not a matter of comparing and contrasting the way the two groups are treated, but realizing that we have a common source of oppression.” We must find creative ways to mobilize with other grassroots activists and movements around a common oppressor.
- Storytelling Stories that embody all of these other sources of empowerment can be enormously impactful at changing hearts and minds. A powerful story often:
- embodies “ourselves,” — our own personal, eyewitness experience,
- challenges existing beliefs,
- builds on what we learn from others,
- embodies the truth,
- and reflects our connection with a broader struggler for justice.
“We are all storytellers. We all live in a network of stories. There isn’t a stronger connection between people than storytelling.” — Jimmy Neil Smith, Director of the International Storytelling Center