What it Means to be an Activist — Advaya

Activism & Leadership

What It Means to Be an Activist

Article with India Burgess on Thursday 25th February 2021

India Burgess explores different forms of activism and how we can each be empowered to contribute


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10 minute read

Activism is enacted and experienced internationally, and manifests itself in an array of methods and mediums. We can understand activism in a thousand ways: inspiring or opposing change; believing in something different to the status quo; solidarity for the achievement of justice. Appreciating activism in its many forms is essential for creating an environment of respect and support among all of us who are acting every day in the name of the causes we care about. This encompasses forms of activism rooted in knowledge, solidarity, building coalitions, relational activism, and visible resistance.

This piece will consider visible and relational activism, assess the growing role of social media, and emphasise the importance of creating and sharing knowledge among activists. Solidarity and coalition building will be addressed, followed by a celebration of transformative justice. At its core, the article is a small attempt to recognise and draw attention to activism in its different enactments, and to remind us all to feel empowered in our own activism.

Trade Union Activism – Activism in the Public Eye

When someone says activist, any number of scenes may come to mind. From a striker on a picket line calling for fair pay, to a student partaking in a university campus protest against an imperialist war. These are more often than not visible, formal, and public manifestations of activism, and are rooted in the history of labour and social movements. Photos and videos of protests, crowds of individuals calling for social and political justice, are memorable. To name just two battles for justice, the Suffragists and the Civil Rights movement used civil disobedience and public displays of opposition to challenge oppressive structures and achieve institutional change.

It is undeniable that trade unions, protests and revolts, and radical political parties have played huge roles in achieving institutional and social change in favour of the majority.

However, it is important to not restrict our conceptualisation of who an activist is to individuals who partake in protests, trade union strikes, or the activities of political parties. In doing so, we ignore the activism of the private sphere and sections of the Global South.

Decreasing Space for Visible Activism

Activists’ participation in formal activism has decreased over the past twenty years. In India, MJ Vijayan has documented how trade unions have been weakened as a result of the deregulation of labour, a process which has also occurred across many other neoliberal economies. Additionally, activists are increasingly making a space for themselves outside of formal settings, such as NGOs and the international development sector, noted by Adams Oloo in Kenya and Özge Zihnioğlu in Turkey. As a result, there has been an increasing balance between elite civic and grassroots activists, and growing attention paid to more individual and independent acts of resistance. The growth of the internet, and its avenues for blog posts, sharing protest art, and alternative media sources has contributed significantly to this process.

The decreasing role of visible activism was felt strongly in the breakdown of the labour movement in Western high-income nations throughout the final decades of the twentieth century. In a 1999 article, Clawson attributes the decline of the trade union movement in the United States to neoliberal forces in government and the economy, leading to deregulation, a weakening of labour rights, and the globalisation of supply chains. Looking at India, Gooptu extends this analysis to argue that the casualisation of labour and threat of unemployment in Kolkata throughout the early 2000s, driven by neoliberal economic policies, has led to disillusionment among the labour force with political activism. The industrial working class rejected political parties and their affiliated trade unions as a reaction to the perceived betrayal of the political elites in the face of anti-labour economic policies.

Activism in the Private Sphere - Shifting Cultural Narratives and Values

Considering activism in the private sphere, public displays of opposition are deeply dependent on informal actions. Passion for a cause does not materialise the night before a protest, or the week before a strike takes place. Activists within a community and within a household work endlessly to build resistance, both public and private. Education, empowerment, support and security, confidence; these are all important elements of an activist’s outlook and are all developed and protected privately.

In her book Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins analyses activism among Black women throughout the 20th century. She argues that there were two main forms of activism among oppressed groups during this period. First, the struggle for group survival and undermining the spheres created by oppressive structures. Second, struggles for institutional transformation, building coalitions and fighting for social justice. Among Black women, ensuring group survival included upholding African-American cultural traditions, sustaining independent consciousness, and undertaking small acts of opposition whilst protecting their livelihoods and those of their families. Similarly, Hafsa Halawa outlines how today, via closed Facebook groups, women in Egypt support one another in their efforts to lead more independent lives against the pressure of an oppressive state. In private spaces, these women are able build coalitions in their struggle to augment their rights, thus undermining oppressive systemic forces through their defiance of hopelessness.

Unseen activism also plays an undeniable role in shifting cultural narratives and values. Conversations between friends and family members have lasting impacts on our understanding of the world, and can ignite passions or shape perceptions. In an analysis of influences on the activism of Palestinian youth in the 1980s and 1990s, Spellings et al found that parental influence via their own activism or expectations for their children’s activism has the largest impact on the youth’s own activism out of the factors assessed. Other factors considered included general family influence and broader social ecology. Private interactions between parents and their children influence how young people understand the world around them, their belief systems, and issues that they care about.

O’Shaughnessy and Kennedy, in a paper on women’s environmental activism, name actions of unseen activism as ‘relational activism’. They argue that conceptualising environmental activism as existing solely in the public sphere obfuscates the actions that innumerable individuals undertake in their communities and households. Using the term relational activism centres the importance of communication and private networks in achieving long-term cultural, social, and political change. Relationships are the locations through which change occurs, and every day conversations within a family or among friends undoubtedly contribute to collective values.

Social Media

Since the early 2000s, social media has grown as a platform utilised by activists. While organising protests is the most obvious form of activism that social media is cited as being used for, it provides platforms for many manifestations of resistance. People with common interests are connected, information is shared and learnt, and virtual activities such as reading groups or cultural exchanges are facilitated. Matteo Cernison explores how online activism increases access to participation, due to the reduced importance of geographical location. Özge Zihnioğlu explains how social media is used in Turkey due to a lack of faith in the mainstream media amongst groups in opposition to the state. Additionally, increasing state restrictions on acts of activism in public spaces has contributed to an increased used of social media.

However, a number of issues with ‘clicktivism’ have been documented by activists and organisers. In the context of an oppressive state, online avenues of activism are threatened with being shut down by the forces they are being used to oppose. This has been documented globally, including in Egypt, India, and Kenya, as described by Hafsa Halawa, MJ Vijayan, and Adams Oloo. The power that companies and states possess for data collection and control can severely constrict avenues of activism. This is well-documented in Hong Kong’s struggle for democracy, with the Chinese government imposing restrictions on internet usage, or removing access entirely. The same has happened very recently within the Farmers’ protests in India. We rely on online platforms for the majority of our communication, yet with insufficient regulatory frameworks on a national and international level, activists are left vulnerable or incapacitated on a daily basis. In this context, work being done to protect the privacy of and access to the internet and communication mediums is vital for all causes of resistance.

Another problem with online activism relates to commitment and access. Marisa von Bülow, writing about Brazil, explains that social hierarchies continue to be perpetuated through online activism. Lack of access to the internet or information technology equipment can exclude certain spaces and income groups from participating. Short-term commitments are also a drawback. Symbolic acts such as sharing a post can fail to create a dedicated organised base which can then be mobilised at future points in time. Pieces of information become disassociated from their original source, whether organisations or individuals, and thus fail to unite people over a longer period of time.

Localised Activism and the Space for Research

Local activism is global and has been vital for communities throughout history. Over the past several decades, local activism has been witnessed responding to various causes globally, including in Egypt, Brazil, and India. Causes range from oppressive states and disillusionment with the international development community, to reactions against the individualism of capitalism. Coalitions are built between different groups to protect local areas against various threats. This is not unlike group survival activism undertaken by Black women throughout the 20th century as discussed by Patricia Hill Collins, and includes Saturday schools on indigenous knowledge, cross-community expeditions to protect an environmental site, or mutual aid groups providing food or mental health support to neighbours.

Resisting displacement is also an expression of activism, relating to group survival, and reinforcing a sense of empowerment and the right to exist in a space (Loren March and Susan Moore). Local acts of defiance against oppressive economic, political, and social systems serve as great a purpose in building oppositional mindsets, empowering communities, and creating coalitions and solidarity as any public protest.

The sharing of information between organisations, communities, and social groups is an important form of activism. Research, the source of many forms of information, empowers individuals with knowledge about the injustice they are fighting against. Carrying out research into a specific situation and potential injustices committed there undermines the acceptance of a situation by demonstrating a level of doubt in the status quo. Loren March and Susan Moore emphasise how the communication of information between and within groups manifests as a form of resistance. As a community fighting against an external force, being armed with knowledge about the threat, our rights, and the context of the situation can be vital.

Movement Solidarity and Intersectional Activism

Activism manifests in coalitions between different movements. Causes, which at first glance appear to share little in common, support one another in expressions of solidarity against both overarching systems of injustice and group-specific oppressions. Such intersectional activism has been documented between immigrant and LGBTQ+ groups in the United States, by Adam in their 2017 essay. Similarly, Terriquez analyses the activist networks built between LGBTQ+ groups and the undocumented immigrant youth movement in California. They discuss how the adoption of the language of ‘coming out’ was utilised my undocumented immigrant youths to empower their understanding and relationship to their legal status, whilst simultaneously raising awareness of LGBTQ+ causes among the migrant community. In discussing reciprocal solidarity, Sa’ed Atshan and Darnell L. Moore, consider their mutual allyship as a queer Black man and a queer Palestinian man. They see this intersectional solidarity as being dependent on friendship, reciprocity, struggle, love, and storytelling. Solidarity across movements can serve to build coalitions and unite struggles to challenge systems of oppression which affect us all. However, as Adam warns, groups must remain aware of the risk of perpetuating exclusionary hierarchies across movements. Creating a collective identity, through mutual love, reciprocity, and a shared oppositional force, is key to maintaining support and solidarity.

Transformative Justice

Transformative justice overarches all of the forms of activism discussed above. It is a process of achieving justice through means which actively prevent further violence and intend to transform the conditions which enable injustice to occur. Transformative justice looks not only at the acts of violence or harm, but at what led the individual to commit that act, considering their economic, social and mental positioning. It then works to alleviate the pressures which lead to violence and harm being committed in the first instance. In short, transformative justice is a system which looks at the root causes of upset within a society to achieve justice, rather than just the symptoms (which our present police and carceral systems assess). Stop and Search within the United Kingdom is a prime example of the State using methods of violence to ‘tackle’ knife crime, whilst ignoring the economic and social impact that a decade of austerity has had on Black British communities around the country.

This form of activism encompasses forms of activism rooted in knowledge, solidarity, building coalitions, relational activism, and visible resistance. Often originating in indigenous and oppressed communities, transformative justice promotes healing, education, mental health support, counselling, and accountability. It acts in opposition to forces which react to violence with further violence, such as prisons and the police. This form of activism is enacted within and between communities, through the creation of support networks, campaign groups, and community centres. A more in-depth explanation of transformative justice is available on the Transform harm website, written by Mia Mingus, which I would highly recommend looking at. For an example of how transformative justice could manifest in the United States, we can look at Nocella’s paper on hip hop activism. They write that alternative skills and systems must be built to replace the police and carceral systems. Developing skills in communication, active listening, empathy, and community teamwork are vital, they argue, in addition to systems of community-based conflict resolution, peer-mediation within schools and workplaces, and sufficient economic and health support mechanisms. The role of activism in this space is undeniable: individuals acting on small and large scales to transform the conditions of oppression which facilitate injustice. Whether that be a teacher providing after school support sessions for struggling students, a mother starting an activity group for their child and their friends, or even a mutual aid group chat via social media.

Resisting Defeatism

Hafsa Halawa emphasises that activists in Egypt have begun to increasingly focus their efforts on what is felt to be achievable at the present moment. Feelings of fatalism and defeatism pervade all social and political movements, and finding areas of activism, large or small, that inspire continued feelings of hope is essential. In Egypt, Halawa explains that dreams of constitutional reform since the Arab Spring and the increasingly oppressive regime of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi have faded. In their place, activists focus on individual empowerment, to enable them to challenge issues in their local communities and daily lives that most affect them.

Finding activism in our everyday is extremely important. Many of us feel passionate and motivated in the face of injustice but are constrained by time, immobility, location, family commitments, and political or economic conditions. Others may feel powerless, lost for ways in which we can help or make a difference. In the face of this, understanding that being an activist is not restricted to joining a protest, striking, or being a member of political party is paramount. This is especially true in the context of the pandemic, with worsened economic strains and limitations on movement being experienced internationally.

We must all identify, appreciate, and feel empowered by our own acts of resistance. This could be through conversations with friends and family, reading material on the causes you care about, creating art, researching a topic, running errands in your community, preserving a cultural tradition, protecting and raising a family, joining a group on social media, watching videos, or financially supporting an organisation that aligns with your passions. Your actions matter and are appreciated, and you must feel validated as an activist regardless of the routes your resistance take.

We can build solidarity and unity not just at the heart of a protest march, but through communication, community, and coalitions in person or online. It may be that through research, online groups, or sharing art that you meet others with similar interests, and discover in-person meetings or campaign activities that you have the time to support. If you do not have the time, that does not make your beliefs or commitment any less valued. Alternative and diverse ideas and beliefs must be preserved and promoted internationally, alongside the communities built around those ideas.

We might not change a thousand people’s minds on an issue we care about, but if each of us continue to believe in and carry out our own acts of resistance, each one challenges the system of injustice we are living under.#


  • Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought, 1990 or 2008
  • Nancy Naples, A feminist revisiting of the insider/outsider debate: The “outsider phenomenon” in rural Iowa, Qualitative Sociology volume 19, pp.83–106 (1996)
  • Richard Youngs (ed.), GLOBAL CIVIC ACTIVISM IN FLUX, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2017
  • Matteo Cernison, Social Media Activism: Water as a Common Good, 2019, Amsterdam University Press
  • Loren March and Susan Moore, ‘Community, activism and engagement: A commentary’, in Bunce et al, 2020, Critical Dialogues of Urban Governance, Development and Activism: London and Toronto, pp. 289-296.
  • Carolyn R. Spellings, Brian K. Barber and Joseph A. Olsen, ‘Political Activism of Palestinian Youth: Exploring Individual, Parental, and Ecological Factors’, Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 74, No. 5 (October 2012), pp. 1084-1100 (17 pages)
  • Erin M. Adam, Intersectional Coalitions: The Paradoxes of Rights-Based Movement Building in LGBTQ and Immigrant Communities, Law & Society Review Vol. 51, No. 1 (MARCH 2017), pp. 132-167 (36 pages)
  • Sara O’Shaughnessy and Emily Huddart Kennedy, Relational Activism: Reimagining Women’s Environmental Work as Cultural Change, The Canadian Journal of Sociology, Vol. 35, No. 4 (2010), pp. 551-572 (22 pages)
  • Dan Clawson and Mary Ann Clawson, What Has Happened to the US Labor Movement? Union Decline and Renewal, Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 25 (1999), pp. 95-119 (25 pages)
  • Nandini Gooptu, Economic Liberalisation, Work and Democracy: Industrial Decline and Urban Politics in Kolkata, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 42, No. 21 (May 26 - Jun. 1, 2007), pp. 1922-1933 (12 pages)
  • Veronica Terriquez, Intersectional Mobilization, Social Movement Spillover, and Queer Youth Leadership in the Immigrant Rights Movement, Social Problems, Vol. 62, No. 3 (August 2015), pp. 343-362 (20 pages), Published By: Oxford University Press
  • SA’ED ATSHAN and DARNELL L. MOORE, RECIPROCAL SOLIDARITY: WHERE THE BLACK AND PALESTINIAN QUEER STRUGGLES MEET, Biography, Vol. 37, No. 2, LIFE IN OCCUPIED PALESTINE (spring 2014), pp. 680-705 (26 pages), Published By: University of Hawai’i Press
  • ANTHONY J. NOCELLA II, CHAPTER THIRTEEN: Transforming Justice and Hip Hop Activism in Action, Counterpoints, Vol. 453, From Education to Incarceration: Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline (2014), pp. 210-223 (14 pages)

India Burgess #

India is an Analyst working in international public sector reform.

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