Reframing “Radical” and “Activist”

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Process: On a blank page in your Joyality Journal do a quick free association with the word “radical”. Just write whatever words or phrases come into your mind when you say the word radical, don’t censor yourself, write as many as you can think of.

When you are finished do the same thing for the word “activist”.

When you are done with both, look back at what you have written down.

What words came up? Common ones might be “crazy”, “angry”, “in your face”, “passionate” or “unrealistic”. The words “radical” and “activist” have come to carry negative connotations for many people and can produce a lot of discomfort and a desire not to be associated with these identities.

In order to creative rapid, effective, and positive change in the world it is crucial to redefine what words like “radical” and “activist” mean to us. The word “radical” literally means “of or going to the root”; the radicle is the first root a plant puts out when it germinates, and anchors the plant in the Earth allowing it to grow. The word “activist” simply means someone who acts intentionally to bring about social, political, economic or environmental change. It doesn’t specify that one must stand on street corners badgering pedestrians or march in the street waving signs in protest. These are all legitimate ways to be an activist, and we need those people out in the streets, but if that’s not for you, it’s okay, you can still be an activist.

Are there any other words that feel better for you to identify with, that describe your motivations and actions to make the world a better place?

Reflection: Just allow yourself to sit with  the following statements, say them to yourself, either silently or out loud:

  • “I am an activist.”
  • “I am radical.”
  • “I am …. whatever alternative labels you came up with … changemaker, change agent, advocate, etc.”

Just notice your feeling state, scanning your body and focusing on your feelings and sensations, in response to each one.  Adopt one for your own personal use … the one that feels most empowering and nurturing for you.  But also practise feeling okay about the other words, in case other people label you that. Breathe and be. Know that they are all just labels, socially constructed reality that, to some extent, we can choose.

Free write in your journal if that feels good.

Know that we are all active in some way, even if we don’t see ourselves that way. Even if it is only as consumers, that still makes us activists for the economy, and for a particular type of economy at that. We cannot escape the fact that our choices and actions, however small, have rippling effects across the globe and throughout the planet’s ecosystems, even though we do not personally see or feel them. Our extractive and globalized economy ensures this fact.

We see then, that one does not have to march in a protest waving hand-painted signs or stand on a street corner aggressively asking people to donate to this human rights organization or that environmental protection group. We all know those activists, and though their intentions are good and their passion is inspiring, they usually do not succeed in convincing us to support their cause. This is because their strategy touches on our guilt and our privilege, and more often than not this causes people to avert their eyes, walk faster, feel defensive, and try to put as much physical, mental and emotional space between themselves and those starving children or drowning polar bears. This does not have to be what activism looks like. In fact – if we want to create rapid, positive and inclusive change – this style of communication is often not the most effective strategy.

Source: Written by Rachel Taylor, based on a process created by Eshana Bragg for her ‘Action for Social Change’ workshop, SIT Study Abroad ‘Sustainability and Environmental Action’ program (2008).


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