Making an Impact: Are You an Activist?

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Megaphone spirals(Image: Megaphone spirals via Shutterstock)Who are the “real” activists? How do they make a difference?

I never considered myself an “activist,” per se. Activists were hardcore people who literally put their lives on the line against injustice. Don’t get me wrong, I get fired up when I hear of environmental or social wrongdoing – I write letters to elected officials, make calls, attend community meetings, or boycott a product – but regularly march in the streets, or risk being thrown in jail? That’s just too intense for me; that’s reserved for “real” activists.

It took me some time to realize that the “small, simple” actions I was taking against oppression in my own daily life, even if simply raising an important issue with my friends, family and colleagues, added up to more activism than I thought, and it was just as real and impactful. In fact, I came to realize that we’re all activists to varying degrees; it just depends on how you look at it. After all, who hasn’t at some point in time in some small way stood up against injustice – especially when it becomes personal?

Perhaps, then, I have to redefine my definition of activism. Who are activists anyway? People who have nothing to lose? People who have everything to lose? People who feel a sense of right and wrong more so than others? What I’m coming to realize is that activism comes in all shapes and sizes and can be witnessed in the most unlikely of places.

Classic Political Activism

Take Martin Luther King, Jr., for example. Most don’t refer to Dr. King first and foremost as an activist, although he very much was, standing up against racial oppression and discrimination during a period in American history when racism was rampant. What about John Lennon? Singing for world peace and tolerance, particularly during the latter portion of his career, John Lennon was the musical mantra of a war-ridden generation. And Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, deemed the spark of the modern-day environmental movement, spawned an earth-focused revolution that influenced the first Earth Day in 1970 and a national landscape of environmental law and regulation soon to follow.

Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon and Rachel Carson weren’t necessarily identified as “activists ” – they embodied a sense of responsibility and awareness outside of themselves that is activism. They were people who cared enough about something bigger than themselves to speak up and, most importantly, they inspired others to do the same.

Celebrity Activism

Hollywood celebrities like Mark Ruffalo and Matt Damon have recently entered the mainstream activist community, stepping up against fracking in particular, through local community efforts and film. Similarly, director James Cameron aligned with the likes of Harrison Ford and Jessica Alba (among other celebrity big name draws) to produce a new series, “Years of Living Dangerously,” a Showtime documentary highlighting the dire impacts of climate change through various stakeholder stories from around the world.

Sure, Hollywood celebrities don’t typically spring to mind as ruckus leaders, yet their wide-range influence is undeniable, and their ability to inspire others is priceless. So, Darryl Hannah, Robert Redford and Angelina Jolie, keep up the good work.

Corporate and Political Whistleblowers

Activism and corporations don’t often go hand-in-hand, and let’s be honest, they typically don’t get along by the very nature of their inherent roles: Activists keep corporations in check by demanding accountability, while corporations are primarily focused on sales, production and their bottom lines. There are those within corporations, however, who, against all odds, push for increased transparency and change from the inside out.

Take Edward Snowden. Snowden literally put his life on the line one year ago by leaking various intelligence surrounding British and American surveillance practices. It’s recently been acknowledged in high places that Snowden’s efforts may have “had a point,” although he still risks arrest and severe ramifications for his actions should he return to the United States.

Forbes recently came out with an article on the need for corporate whistleblowers and their important public role. The author specifically highlights Michael Woodford, former CEO of Olympus, who, in 2011, blew the whistle on $1.7 billion in fraud.

Interestingly, a Wall Street Journal article reported that while corporate whistleblowing remains rare, “Activists have gained one or more board seats at 16 US companies this year, up from nine companies last year and the highest since their success against 21 companies in 2009.”

Humanizing Activists

As global environmental and social issues become more and more of a pressing concern across the world, it’s imperative that all types of activists work together, no matter what socioeconomic class or background they may come from. Listening to and understanding one another isn’t just necessary, it’s critical. The Earth has never felt smaller as we come together to solve massive issues like climate change, and everyone will need to do their part. After all, the process of large-scale change isn’t short term, and it isn’t about working in isolation: It’s about working across party lines, not against them; it’s about protesting, but then getting in the door so your voice is heard; it’s about humanizing issues and doing everything possible to protect our planet for generations to come.

That’s the common thread that links all activists – whether rich or poor, famous or not; it’s the issue at hand that’s most important and what ultimately unites us. When we’re faced with daunting threats to the very planet we live on, there really is no alternative: Work together to improve the system, or we all go down. The stakes are higher than ever. So, let’s lose preconceived notions of who an activist is, drop the demonization and get to work solving the issues at hand.