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October 24, 2021

By Houda Kerkadi

The Activist™ is your local, overworked and probably underpaid activist. Their social media, if they have any, is dominated by political content and infographics for various humanitarian causes. They’re usually well-known in the community organization scene, probably working in an underpaid non-profit or as a copywriter in a startup. The Activist™ complains about people not caring enough but also about performativity. The Activist™ is a leftist, quotes Mao and occasionally refers to Karl Marx by some affectionate name. The Activist™ is familiar to us – they’re either someone you know or, in some cases, are. 

The fact that the Activist™ can be so neatly organized into a role, is what I think is wrong with activism today. 

In the five years that I’ve been in Montreal, I’ve had a running joke with a friend back home who answers every call with “what are we protesting today?” As someone who was once involved, if not devoted, to activist culture, the role of Activist™ is one I embodied. With one radicalising university degree, writing paper after paper on topics ranging from revolutions to race theory, four years volunteering in a Palestinian human rights group, and eventually, with a career in non-profits, it’s easy to outline the role of the Activist™ because I was the Activist ™.

We’ve come to rigidly conceptualize activism as a role specific only to a certain type of individual – a role that you need credentials for. This role is one that requires resources (time, opportunities, finances, educational background, etc.) to be involved as we ironically rendered a role that aims to fight for accessibility, inaccessible. 

Until very recently, I couldn’t see what was problematic about The Activist™ or even see that there was a problem in the first place. However, one pandemic later, that shed a much needed light on thousands of unspoken barriers, I have begun to renegotiate who is an activist, and more importantly, who is able to be an activist in the first place.  

There are several problematic barriers in modern-day activism. First, activist spaces that we create, such as social justice clubs, weekly protests and door-to-door initiatives, are often, unsurprisingly, unpaid and require countless hours of volunteerism and organization. This initial barrier of time alone excludes countless folks, particularly BIPoC, who do not have this luxury. Those who do end up finding time between their jobs, studies, or families, usually end up experiencing burnout due to lack of support. Social media activism is often painted as a solution to the constraints of time. However, it too invites its own set of problems, because it can easily fall into ‘slacktivism,’ if it does not leave the online space and to concrete changes.

Second, modern-day activism is usually limited to two spaces: university or association-linked activism that is centered around protest culture, tabling and the like; and paid (sometimes unpaid) non-profit work, which is usually gatekept with degrees and the “right kind” of experience, that is typically gained, wait for it, in university settings. 

Both of these spaces do not cater to those who simply do not have the resources. If you have a 9-5 job, or have 4 kids, or are a caretaker of some sort, then volunteering isn’t really accessible to you. Also, if you are completing a demanding degree in Science or Technology, then non-profit work isn’t really up your alley. In this way, our approach leads to two options: 1) having zero involvement in activism due to a lack of time and resources, and 2) dropping everything to focus on activism full-time. Both of these options come with their own set of drawbacks, where the first option characterizes you as apathetic to social justice, and the other often leads to being overworked and often underpaid, if paid at all. Both options are counter-productive in the fight for equity and social justice. 

This limited binary in how you can be involved in activism also forces us to become rigid in our expectations of what an activist should be and leaves no room for creativity. We voice the same opinions, do the same things and organize our protests and events in the same way. It is this monotonous and routine approach that sculpted the creation of The Activist™. It’s important to understand that to stand for a collective cause is not to advocate for it in solely one way; after all, one and three equals four but so does two and two.

The real drawback of our current framework of activist culture, is that it has rendered our own liberation to be painted as unrealistic. A prevalent mentality among BIPoC, in response to protests and social media trends, is “that’s not really going to change anything” or “what’s the point?”

Although change only needs to start with one person, activism needs everyone. It needs youth, busy adults, people in low-income brackets, the rich, the retired – people from all walks of life. We have put too much emphasis on these ‘traditional’ forms of activism and dismissed any other form that doesn’t fit the mold. Therefore, I propose that we start to think of activism as a way of life, rather than as a role or personality type. Activism should be in the way you talk, act and treat others. Activism can be easily incorporated into your life: it could be educating a family member at dinner, setting your boundaries at work, offering advice in your corporate job to a peer, or even picking up trash in your street. Often, these small individual acts are dismissed as unimportant, and not really ‘revolutionary.’ However, activism, at its core and stripped of preconceptions, is about helping people. If we encourage others to take on small acts of change, rather than gatekeep activism to only protest culture, then we ultimately push towards a revolution.

If we can see activism as independent from our current constraints, and instead as a way of living, then we are able to adjust and prioritize the big picture and long term vision. We don’t need to attend protests if we don’t have the time, but we can spread the word and raise awareness. We don’t need to create infographics, but we can read and share them. Encouraging these small acts does not dismiss or undermine the important work of protest organizers or people who mobilize in the streets, but every step towards achieving equity must be considered and carried through. 

However, the responsibility to reduce the barriers in activism must also fall on community organizers and non-profit workers. Often, our organizations re-create spaces that only invite people that fall under the trope of your traditional Activist™. We must understand that we can’t dismiss the general public by thinking “oh they just don’t care about social justice” and must learn to differentiate between what apathetic attitudes towards social justice are and what is inaccessible to people. It is critical we create diverse programs and initiatives that cater to different types of individuals and lifestyles. If we were to host an event to educate and raise awareness about a current issue, we have to ask: is the language accessible to your average person and not just those with a background in the subject? Is the event being hosted during work hours? Is it child-care friendly? Is it wheelchair accessible? Can it be live streamed on social media? While we sometimes do not have the budget to address all barriers, we have to at least be aware of the ways our social justice initiatives can be exclusive, and start to slowly address them, since our work in liberation will have to invoke everybody. 

As a community organizer, who is paid to do this kind of work, I understand all the ways this approach is slow and can be difficult, but it is so important as it guarantees the very thing that many social justice movements lack: sustained momentum. Our movements begin with high passion, with everyone involved, as we all get excited to spend a Saturday in protest, or to sign a few petitions. As explosive as the movements start, they end. This is why inclusive activism must be the norm, and if we are able to paint the path to equity as such, then no one is absolved of their part in it.  The barriers and excuses of having no time or no financial resources to spare would no longer exist, as this new activism would adapt to your lifestyle, whatever it may be. 

As Leila Khaled once said, “Revolution must mean life also. Every aspect of life.”

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  • Houda Kerkadi

    Houda Kerkadi


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