When most of us think of activists, we think of the Nelson Mandelas, the Malala Yousafzais, and the Greta Thunbergs of the world. But where does that leave the rest of us? Where does that leave those with passion and ideas, but those who may also be shy, lacking resources or who perhaps just haven’t found their platform yet?
“I firmly believe that the world will be saved by all of us doing our part as activists, and I know that often that can be intimidating for people. That's why I created this program,” said Omkari Williams, a speaker, writer, podcast host and coach for activists who led her “Activism For the Rest of Us” workshop on Drexel University’s University City Campus on Oct. 27, as well as virtually. The program was hosted by the Pennoni Honors College and supported by The Center for Black Culture, the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design and the College of Arts and Sciences.
Williams’ coaching focused on what it looks like to be an activist in one’s day-to-day life, as she feels it’s important for everyday people to see themselves as activists. Read on for some of her tips to not only jumpstart your own activism around the key issues that interest you, but how to sustain it, grow it and find the best approach for your unique activism archetype.
1. Stories are foundational
The most recognizable names in activism today would be nothing without their legions of supporters, which is just one of the reasons why all of us can be activists, Williams said.
“If there weren't millions of other people sitting in solidarity with Greta Thunberg, she would have just been a kid sitting outside the Swedish Parliament on Fridays by herself,” she said. “What made Greta Thunberg have the platform that she currently occupies is that she was able to inspire other people to join her in this really important mission.”
That mission to address climate crisis stemmed from Thunberg’s “origin story” of inspiring her family and other local school children to speak out and take action. Tapping into their own personal stories will also help aspiring activists build connections and inspire others to participate their cause.
“Origin stories are the things that got you interested in being an activist in any way, shape or form in the first place,” she said. “They can be really big events that happened in your life, or they can be really small events. [What have] you witnessed or read about that made you say, ‘I need to do something about this thing?’
“… If you can connect to the story of why you're interested in the activist issue that you're interested in, it will help keep you going.”
2. It all comes back to antiracism
Along with using stories to inspire change, Williams said it’s also important for activists to keep in mind that antiracism should remain foundational to all activist work. That’s because all of our societal ills can be traced back to the belief that a small part of the population knew better and deserved more than everyone else.
“Understanding that means you have to factor that in when you're thinking about whatever work you're doing. You have to factor in, how does racism play into this so I can have a complete picture?” she said. “It is the structure of our society, and you do need to be able to see the structure if you want to make changes in it. You have to understand what it is you're trying to shift.”
3. What you’re for is just as important as what you’re against
In today’s world, and because we’re conditioned to respond to threats, it can be easy to get focused on and invested in what we’re against. But Williams warns that’s not a sustainable approach to your activism.
“What you're against is sort of this hot burst, and then it dissipates,” she said. “What you're for will keep you going over the long haul.”
An example Williams provided is that she is very against child immigrants being detained at our country’s Southern border.
“But I am ‘for’ children growing up with a sense of freedom and safety and security and the belief that they can do whatever they want to do if they're willing to work hard enough for it,” she said. “That ‘for’ is actually way more motivating for me than the thing I'm against.”
These things we’re for are also likely to shift and grow as our world and activism do, Williams said.
“You don't have to feel like ‘I said I'm for this and I'm locked into this, and I can only do this.’ That's not the way it works,” she said.
4. Mistakes are just part of the process
Another way to sustain your activism is to not be afraid of making mistakes, though that may be easier said than done, especially given our current social climate.
“We'll make a mistake, or we'll be afraid of making a mistake, and it can just stop us in our tracks, especially in the world of woke culture,” Williams said. “We do not do ourselves any service when we do that, because it shuts us down to the possibilities of learning and growth and change.”
The best thing to do is accept you’re going to make mistakes, and when we do, “learn from it, clean it up and keep moving,” she added.
“We're never going to be perfect. It should not be the goal. The goal should be to be a lifelong learner and to always be growing and doing better,” Williams said.
5. Ignore the toxic culture of big impact
One idea that can be crippling to achievable activism is that everything we do has to have a huge impact, and that small actions don’t matter. Williams likened the idea to buying a meal for a homeless person on the street.
“That matters,” she said. “It doesn't have to be 100 people that you feed. One person matters. And so, I think it's extremely important to not get caught up in the idea of scale and scope.”
In fact, activism tends to scale up on its own “if you’re doing the right thing in the right way,” Williams said. And while keeping all this in mind, it’s also important not to compare our activist self to others, especially by how things seem on the surface.
“What we're really doing is comparing our internal experience to someone else's external appearance. And that is just so unfair,” she said. “Comparing your insides to someone else's outsides is completely a losing proposition. We don't know what anyone else is experiencing internally. Sometimes we don't know what we're experiencing. So just do your work as best you can.”
6. Take into account who you really are
Comparing types of activism can be a losing proposition also, as well as having unrealistic expectations of ourselves. For instance, Williams spoke about a longtime friend who’s very quiet, but very passionate about a spectrum of issues, and also a visual artist. She creates beautiful postcards every week to encourage voters in local elections.
“Even though her form of activism does not get her off of her kitchen chair and table, she's doing something consistently that has an impact, and that matters,” Williams said. “I want you to just keep that in mind when you think about an activist, because I think my friend is an activist, even though you will never see her at a march.”
So whether you have a lot of time for activism or just a little, or whether you welcome or dread things like public speaking, it’s important to embrace your own form of activism. And Williams even created an activist archetype quiz to help you discover what that truly means.
“The way you show up for anything is pretty much the way you're going to show up as an activist,” she said. “You are who you are, and trying to decide that you should be someone else, it isn't to anyone's benefit and it's actually kind of punitive to yourself. So, please don't do that. The point is to discover and embrace your way of activism."
7. Pick two
While you should embrace your own way of activism, Omkari warned against embracing too many different causes despite one’s desire to make the world a better place in a variety of ways. Her advice is to pick two things to focus on with your activism at a time. She calls it her “Noah’s Ark Rule.”
“There are a ton of things that are wrong in the world. If you watch the news, you can ping-pong back and forth from one crisis to the next,” she said. “But we cannot take on all of those things. It's not in our capacity.”
Your two causes can always change, she added, but adhering to this rule will help activists keep from spreading themselves too thin. Part of this is knowing there are others working on your same causes, and toward your same goals.
8. Find a community and practice self-care
In that vein, Williams also implored activists to find these similarly minded people — people to celebrate with, to commiserate with, and to lean on when you need to.
“This is hard work to do. It's hard work to do it alone,” she said. “Find your people, find them, and keep doing the work with them.”
Working with and relying on others can also help relieve the burden on ourselves. Williams said it’s important for activists to listen to their bodies and put themselves first, even when it feels counterproductive to do so.
“You need to sustain yourself if you're going to do this work on a consistent basis,” she said. “You cannot serve people from an empty well. You just can't do it.”
Williams added that it can be beneficial to use the archetype quiz to find an activism buddy who may have a different approach than your own.
“Start. Keep going. Be kind to yourself and others,” she said, encouraging fellow activists. “Do the work as if a just world depends on it, because it does.”
Want to learn more from Williams? She will participate in the next Pennoni Panel, “Authentic Activism or Woke Washing,” from 3:30–5 p.m. on Nov. 11. RSVP here.