Activist vs. Volunteer

As I’ve been taking long, frigid walks with gloves on the beach, strolling hand in hand with my overactive brain, our conversation has occasionally turned to this blog. In thinking about its purpose and content, I realize it’s largely been focused on volunteering; in particular, my experiences volunteering in Philadelphia, and learning more about myself in the process.

As I’ve been thinking about Civicization 2014, I’ve been wondering – is volunteering the only form of civic engagement we want to explore here? What about learning more about civic systems? Being an advocate, or activist? What else could comprise a civicization?

The question of “activism” always strikes a funny chord with me. When I got college, I thought I would get heavily involved in activism. It was a place much different from the rigid private school I had spent thirteen years in – here, people had dreadlocks. They had piercings. They could choose their own course of study and there was no core curriculum. There were more interdisciplinary Humanities courses around the intersectionality of human rights/history/cultures/religions/psychologies/philosophies  than there were dorm rooms (which, Bard College, you might want to look into).

When I actually got to college, it was a different story. I had two experiences with “activism.”

#1: Girl who lived in my dorm and who had kissed my boyfriend before he was my boyfriend in the second week of freshman orientation (ah, college), asked me to come to a meeting where we would be sending letters to our Senator around women’s reproductive rights. When I arrived,  I was handed a crayon (truly) and a form letter, petitioning for the removal of fiberglass from tampons. As I sat horrified, squirming in my chair, she came over and stood above me.

“Hey Justine,” She seemed surprised to see me, although she’d asked me to come.

“Hi.”
“Thanks for coming.”

“Of course, it’s my pleasure.”

“I didn’t know you were into this kind of thing.” She smiled sideways, and walked off to refill a cup of crayons.

As she walked away, I tried to understand whether she was surprised that I was into the Private Idaho of Menstruating Vaginas, not having fiberglass in genitals, or writing letters to Senators. All options left me less than thrilled.

#2: Friend who was very into the man-bangs/all black clothing/Joy Division/smileless hipster aesthetic of 2002 comes back from a summer at home transformed into a Biking Activist. He goes to live in their co-op on the edge of campus. He gets a bike gear tattooed on his elbow. He wears Palestine hankercheifs around his neck and attends anti-Israel protests. This bolsters my feeling that we shouldn’t advocate for things we don’t know much about, doubting that he and his compatriots learned enough about the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over summer vacation to take a vociferous and angry stand. In retrospect, perhaps they did; but the sudden costume/ identity change left me cold.

Part of why I started this blog was that I wanted to become more of an “activist.” For myself, I defined this as someone who:

1. Is focused on advocating for a particular cause

2. Is knowledgable about the laws, policies, and programs in support or against this cause

3. Who regularly participates in events advocating for that cause, and other ways of spreading awareness

4. Who takes initiative and leadership in organizing others around that cause

In my life at the moment, there are three ladies in particular who fit this definition.

The first is Anna Aagenes, who is the Executive Director of GO!Athletes in her spare time, when she’s not running the office of State Representative Brian Sims. GO!Athletes works to create environments in high schools and colleges where LGBTQ issues are part of the discussion in sports; where young LGBTQ athletes are supported and nurtured; and where the culture of athletic departments/athletes around LGBTQ issues becomes more accepting. She has gone to speak at the White House on this topic. Enough said.

The other is Colleen Kennedy, who is obsessed with reforming the Upper Darby School District. She has created SUDA (Stand Up Demand Action) and works tirelessly to organize parents, advocates, friends, neighbors, to help the school district get back on its feet, reinstitute programs like music and art, and keep corrupt politicians from scratching each others’ backs at the detriment to children in the area. She is extremely focused, committed, tenacious, and laser-like in her cause. And did I mention she’s currently in college? Yeah. You can go bang your head against the desk now; I already did.

The third is my friend Rebecca Frantzis, who I see as an activist in a different lens. She is passionate about food and health; outside of her day job as a designer, she reads everything humanly possible about food policy, knows the chemical and nutritional composition of every plant, herb, and wayward edible substance I’ve ever heard of; has taken on a full course in Integrative Nutrition; attends lectures and courses and classes and talks about beta carotene and GMOs and ashwaganda; and is working to help others learn to make educated health decisions through food choices via a website and beautiful materials she is creating to help folks like me who are so overwhelmed by the deluge of DONT-EAT-THAT!!!! in the media that I spend ten minutes giving side eye to a bok choy in the produce aisle wondering if it’s going to kill me.

So all three of these ladies are, in my mind, immediately connected to a cause, and they are activists by my definition: they are focused, advocates, actively engaged in attending events, promoting awareness, and organizing/helping others.

I think of myself as never being able to be an activist. Why?

1. I cannot be monogamous with a cause. I find myself constantly drawn to polarities, to dualities, to polygamous relationships with activities, jobs, identities, etc. Much as I have tried, I can’t find one cause that really stirs me more than another.

2. I am horrible at remembering facts. This might seem unrelated to you, but to me it feels central. The people I know as activists are able to cite research, studies, quotations, percentages, policies, and recent events as they discuss their cause. They can summon data in the face of a dissenter. They can prattle off laws and historical moments of topical significance at a dinner party. I resort to things like “I just read this fascinating article by someone whose name I can’t remember, who said that this is a really big problem.” Without information at the tip of my tongue, I find it extremely difficult to do #2 & #3 – be extremely knowledgeable and spread awareness.

Why does this even chew at me a bit? Well, I suppose I feel there is a difference between a volunteer and an activist; perhaps I see them in a hierarchy, where an activist is more involved, more of an evangelist for the cause, and creates change on a macro-level. I have daydreams of being an activist – someone who could be interviewed about one particular subject, and through sharing knowledge help to educate and rally others to the cause. It feels like being an activist is where the real change perhaps is made.

As I write this, I see it’s the same struggle I had as a teacher, talking to my colleagues about the changes we could make in the classroom, vs. the changes one could make working in the government on Educational Policy; both are vital, but extremely different. The scale and nature of the acts are so different. One is not better than the other – but they are very different enterprises.

I worry that in my own activities, the spread-out nature of them waters down the efforts. And, as with all things that lie outside the realm of what comes naturally to us, I want to be able to do that-thing-other-people-I-respect-can-do.

So, what do you think? Are you an activist? Do you know folks who are? Do you have a different definition for activists? Does the distinction between activist and volunteer even matter, in your opinion – or is there none?

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