The underbelly of activism…what we don’t talk about

An activist is someone who works for social or political change. It’s a label that we are quick to bestow upon those who are passionate for change and we applaud those who live the activist lifestyle. We admire their courage, their bravery, their moxie and yet too many times aside from verbal accolades, we rarely think about the lonely existence of the activist or the emotional, physical, and even economic toll of activism on those who work for change.

Thus—while I am in awe of the Parkland shooting survivors and all the young people who have activated against gun violence in this country—I am also deeply worried too.

As the young people from Parkland have already discovered, there are people in this world who are vile—people who have no compunctions about mocking survivors of violence, insulting them, and even issuing death threats. Here in Maine, Leslie Gibbon, a now-former Republican candidate for the Maine House, went online and verbally attacked Emma Gonzalez, a courageous and outspoken survivor of the Parkland shooting. The one upside is that Gibbon had until that point been running in an uncontested race and decided to abandon the race after his comment created a media firestorm—and he suddenly found himself in a contested race as someone else was so offended by his comments as to be moved to run against him.

This past weekend’s March For Our Lives was a beautiful youth-led event across the nation. It was uplifting and inspiring to see our youth exhibiting the type of moral conviction and courage that is increasingly lacking within our adult population. One young lady in particular caught my attention: a dynamic and passionate Black 11-year-old by the name of Naomi Wadler who spoke in our nation’s capital on the specific gun violence that disproportionately affects Black women and girls and who also reminded us all to #SayHerName. Her words brought tears to my eyes and then a quiet rage that an 11-year-old Black girl must lose her childhood so early because of society’s failure to protect our youth and for society’s refusal to see the humanity of Black women and girls.

Given the current climate and the cowardice that runs rampant, I found myself wondering, who is protecting this child and are her parents ready for the attention that no doubt will be paid to this precious and precocious child?

My own daughter will be 13 soon and given my own work, I have intentionally worked to protect her innocence and joy in the world. Our world steals the joy away from our young far too early and it is stolen away from children of color even sooner. We rarely discuss my work in our home. She is aware of it, but it is not a central talking point. My daughter is always broadly aware of what’s happening in the world—but the details? I rarely have those conversations because once she fully starts to grasp how society sees her, something will be lost that can never be returned. Having an adult child and looking back on how I had to steal his childhood away in order to keep him safe as a Black male, I am not anxious to have to take that action though, at almost 13, the window of unbridled childlike joy and amazement is quickly closing.

In recent years, as social media has become woven into the fabric of our daily lives, we are able to look into the lives of those on the front lines and see the high moments and the tense moments. But rarely do we see the real and lonely moments. Rarely do we see those who live on the front lines scraping to make ends meet; the post traumatic stress that is often part of being on the frontlines in the streets. The death threats that become so normal that you easily forget that death threats are not everyone’s norm.

Several of my recent speaking engagements have required private security to ensure my safety. Something shifts in you when a walk to the bathroom requires hired professionals to keep you safe.

This piece really gives one pause about what it means to be an activist. Untimely death, stress, fractured community, and the list goes on. Too often as activists we give so much of ourselves that there is little left over and there is a gulf between the reality of living as an activist and what we often envision. Despite our commitment to change and our continual drive, what’s left for ourselves can be dysfunctional and downright unpleasant.

Hence why the elevation of young people and particularly Black and brown girls and young women who must be wise beyond their years does not sit well with me. Historically when we look at the movements in this country, it is the women who are often forgotten and left to pick up the pieces. We love to venerate our dead changemakers but then revise history so that we leave out the struggles they faced when alive. Social change should not demand our physical bodies and souls.

If you were heartened this past weekend at the sight of young people leading the charge, perhaps you need to ask yourself how you can support these activists. How can you ensure not just their physical safety but their emotional and mental well being too? That requires intentionality and action. While not everyone is not meant to be on the front lines, we have a responsibility to provide whatever resources we can to the larger movement beyond empty words. Back up your words with actions.

I have been involved in movement work for over 25 years now in one form or another, so my words come from a place of lived experience. I am someone who is intimately aware of the high price of social change, I live it every day. Even now, I am still affected when hateful words are directed at me as a result of my work. If you are involved in movement work, how can you ensure your own well being while working for larger change?

We are living in a moment that requires the courage and conviction of the many if we are to push back against the few who wish to hold us all hostage for their own selfish purposes. We can longer wait on someone else; we must become the change that we wish to see. These kids are brave so let’s show them that we too are brave. Let their youthful vigor and poise propel us to the next level.


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