Longtime activists… why do they do it? How do they cope?
By Michelle van Schouwen
What possesses anyone to become an activist for a progressive cause? And what induces anyone to stay with it for years or even a lifetime? “Putting it on the line” or devoting substantial time and energy for positive change may sound heroic and gratifying, but the experience of many long-term change-makers is that it can be exhausting, discouraging and even isolating. At its extreme, or in the wrong environment, activism can get you arrested, hurt or killed. A newly outspoken activist may discover that old friends are no longer so friendly or that family conversations around the holidays have become uncomfortable (some activists stick to small talk around the holiday table, or maybe skip the whole event). Perhaps worst of all, it’s common for cause-driven advocates to become discouraged about – or disgusted with – much of humanity.
Grim as this sounds, the only way to make a difference is, indeed, to make a difference. From the point of view of the veteran activist, silence or inaction is no better than complicity with whoever or whatever is causing the problem. Once a conscience-driven progressive becomes deeply aware of problems and injustice and accustomed to speaking out, he or she is inextricably engaged… as an advocate, activist or change-maker.
The drive to make a difference can start young. Many budding activists recognize early that things are not as they should be. Decades-long multi-cause activist Claudia Petruny recalls that she was first awakened as a young adult by seeing television coverage of the Kent State massacre. Mark Auerbach realized as a young person that he was gay, and became acutely aware that gay people were often not treated fairly either legally or socially. My sister, longtime social justice advocate Jennifer Leonard says, “I remember conversations at home as our parents shared what they were reading. I learned about ideas and issues, and I remember wanting to be part of it somehow. I remember a strong sense of THIS [the 1960s] being an important moment in time. The civil rights movement and Dr. King made an especially strong impression on me; this was my earliest memory of realizing that there were important things going on in the wider world.”
My own awareness came early, too. I was active on two fronts, the environmental and feminist. As a preteen and teen, I saw the dirty rivers and intense smog of the late 1960s and 1970s and wanted to change the way we treat our planet. I became involved in Earth Day, and with pollution-reduction activities and campaigns. At the same time, I became aware of the legal and cultural limits placed on girls and women, and resented these laws and conventions enough to speak out, sometimes in ways that were not appreciated by adults.
Others have later life-changing experiences that inspire them to become deeply committed to a cause. Jennell Jaquays, a transgender woman, found that coming out and making the formal transition during her 50s influenced her to reassess her early-life politics (primarily conservative), religion (evangelical Christian) and even long friendships with people unable to accept her transition. Today, she is a prominent transgender advocate. Jaquays’ advocacy includes mentoring transgender people going through their early struggles, providing an ear and support. She writes about her own story as a transgender woman, describing what it means to be transgender, including as one of the most visible women in the games industry. Jaquays is also a moderator for an online support group for families, friends, significant others, and allies of transgender people, sharing information and, when asked, advice on how best to deal with the transgender people in their lives, encouraging continued, lasting relationships.
Extraordinary world events can galvanize a person to new levels of action and response. In 2016, Jeanne Yocum recognized that her broad awareness and empathy also required her to hone her activist focus. She says, “When Trump was elected, I realized that I was going to have to choose the issues on which to focus my energy. It was apparent, and of course has been borne out, that we’d have new reasons for outrage every day. I chose to focus primarily on preserving the free press, feeding the hungry and women’s rights.”
Becoming an activist requires both having the awareness or empathy to observe and care about what’s wrong in the world, and then summoning the energy and courage to do something about it. Gina Sears, whose work helps provide psychiatric care to Native American people mired in poverty, poor education, high unemployment, and high rates of health issues including substance abuse, says, “I started thinking about activism as a teenager, which is when I first became aware that not everyone had the same comfortable existence I enjoyed. As I became more interested in inequality, I looked for opportunities to meet and become involved with people from other backgrounds. While in high school, my first volunteer opportunity was as an after-school tutor for children living in a public housing project that was oddly situated in the middle of my decidedly upper middle class enclave. It was a real eye-opener for me to meet children who came from homes where there were no books, where children had to share a bedroom with siblings, and often did not even have a bicycle. Their families did not go on vacations, to restaurants or even the movies. They did not attend summer camp, or tennis or horseback riding lessons. I realized that I had completely taken these things for granted, and it was then that I started to become aware of privilege and the opportunity gaps.”
LGBTQ activist Auerbach concurs, saying, “I always believed that if one took from the community, one had to give something back.” He has done so extensively. “I became politically involved as an activist in the early 8Os, when I saw friends and colleagues dying of AIDS. I got involved with DIFFA, Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS, as a volunteer, fundraiser, and later chair of their Western Massachusetts chapter. I spoke out as an out reporter. In my work with AOL’s Community Leaders Program, I worked with the LGBTQ hosts to provide support and resources for people coming out.”
The need to work for positive change often comes from from deep within the heart, as it has for activist Petruny since 1970, when she saw the news report about four students killed at Kent State. She was shocked by the fact that her government had shot into a crowd of unarmed college students. Four months pregnant, noting that one of the murdered students was named Allison, she decided to name her first child after the student. Petruny’s daughter Allison is now 48 and her mother has turned her attention to the environment, including Florida’s toxic algae and related water issues.
Longtime activists may employ any number of tactics in pushing for change. Participation in protests, marches or strikes provides visibility and encourages public participation in a cause. Activists often form or join cause-driven groups, but may also advocate alone. Campaigning for like-minded political candidates; running for office; writing articles, op-eds, blog posts, or letters to media; making and publicizing videos; speaking to groups or media outlets and conducting concentrated social media outreach; and making lifestyle choices including diet, consumption of goods, where to live, professional work, and more, all allow activists to advocate for change. Committed change-makers say truly “walking the walk” is key to making a difference: working among the poor or disadvantaged, teaching people how to reduce their carbon footprints, offering counseling and support for victims of crime or abuse, or helping young people who identify as LGBTQQIA, (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, and allies), for example.
Social justice advocate Leonard takes a holistic, long-term approach. “Most of my energy goes into practical work. As a consultant I support networks of school and youth programs. As a volunteer I work directly with youth (a science program, a gardening program, church youth programming, and other roles). The organizations I work with are pretty ordinary – state agencies, public schools, and local nonprofits. Most of my time is spent on day-to-day work, but when for some issues, I will also write letters, attend meetings, sign petitions, and join in discussions and study groups as well.”
Leonard adds, “When I was in my early 20s, first getting involved in community work, I had experiences that were disillusioning, seeing how much many politicians and community activists were hypocritical or ego-driven. As a result, I value genuineness: your own work and lifestyle should reflect and reinforce the ideas and policies that you advocate. I support others in community and public sector work, because younger people getting started in social action may have similar moments of disillusionment and may need time to explore and find the right platform for their work.”
Disillusionment is commonplace. In addition to discovering that not all allies are sincere, activists learn lessons about public attitudes and traits, sometimes including apathy, selfishness, unwillingness to learn or to change in the face of mounting evidence that change is needed, ignorance, and even hatred. Much of what’s wrong with the world is deeply entrenched, and making waves is often unpopular. Demanding difficult change from people gets their backs up. The people one most wants to persuade are as convinced of their ways of thinking (or legislating) as the activist is of hers or his.
While some intrepid activists trudge forth daily to do their good work, never stopping to rest, vacation, weep, rage, or drown one’s sorrows in alcohol or some other oblivion, others become discouraged and take breaks from their work, or simply back away, defeated. The New York Times ran a recent article about the too-frequent incidence of activists dying young, often from apparent depression-related causes. It can be argued that this is a chicken-and-egg situation (the person who becomes an activist feels the pain of some segment of the world, is highly sensitive, and therefore is susceptible to depression). On the other hand, the work itself can be discouraging, akin to banging one’s head against a wall. Either way, it’s important to understand the risks. People who have been activists for years are not immune, but may have adopted coping skills or simply learn to respect their own limits. (As my husband reminded me when I was particularly frustrated about an environmental issue, “It’s not your responsibility to fix this single-handedly.”)
As with everything, there is a season. Some veteran activists keep a watchful eye on the next generation of change-makers and encourage their passion and their coping skills. New activists can be especially susceptible to the stress of trying to make change in an often uncaring and hostile world. For example, the Parkland Florida student activists seeking new gun laws have expressed frustration at the intransigence of elected officials and much of the public. Of course, it’s fortunate that these students are impatient, unwilling to wait for change, and that they are taking matters into their own hands. Parkland activist Emma Gonzalez tweets (@Emma4Change), “#InOurLifeTime we will fight for and alongside victims of gun violence, and we will prevail. Forget our kids, our Neighbors shouldn’t have to worry about this.” But as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cautioned back in 1993, “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” Sad but true.
In the face of the long, hard work, the resistance and the often unkind response of community members and opponents, formal support for activists is becoming more readily available. This includes specialty therapists as well as online and in-person support groups and retreats for change-makers. Integral to this support is the recognition that making change can be heart-wrenchingly difficult.
On the positive side, the work of change-makers has a multiplying effect. Clearly, it’s important to recognize the value and the sacrifice of all peoples’ efforts toward creating a better world for everyone, including for those who cannot or will not – for whatever reason – lend a hand. If yours is among the global chorus of voices promoting a better, kinder, less corrupt, less polluted, healthier world, thank you, today and always.