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Five things I've learnt about activism

Sep 17

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The Armchair Activist's Handbook

Guest blog: Ruth Stokes on what she learnt while writing her new book

Back in late 2010, I set myself a challenge – to build an arsenal of alternative activism approaches that would fit around a busy life. My new book, The Armchair Activist's Handbook, is an account of the ideas I came across, the people I talked to along the way, and the ways in which I decided to take action.

The thing that prompted my mission was simple: I'd never really felt at ease with the chants-and-banners protest (which was what I thought of as the typical approach to activism). While I knew this type of action could be valuable, I didn't think it was for me. I wanted things that I felt comfortable with. It turned out I wasn't the only one.

In my search, I encountered a whole range of unusual, creative and exciting approaches to bringing change. Perhaps most importantly, they were also practical. Here's some of the key things I learnt in the process:


1) It doesn't have to be all or nothing

I used to think that if I was going to take action on something, my efforts needed to have spectacular results; that anything less than saving the entire world would be a failure. But the activists I've met during the past few years have shown me what a difference the little things can make.

Looking at the big picture can be pretty overwhelming, so sometimes it makes sense to start small. I now see that making a difference is about doing what you can, when you can. And you never know, that something small might just grow into something bigger.


2) Activists should work to their strengths

If you can combine what you're good at with your cause, then your actions will be all the stronger for it. A number of the activists I met had been successful precisely because they had chosen to do things their way.

A great example is Sarah Corbett, who started using her crafty skills to get her message out there. Her actions were originally accompanied by a blog called The Lonely Craftivist, but because people loved what she did and wanted to get involved, the movement spread. She now heads up the Craftivist Collective.


3) Online 'slacktivism' is a valuable tool

'Slacktivism' – that word for internet actions requiring little time and involvement – has a pretty bad rep. And it's true that it can be ineffective. However, dismissing this type of approach altogether is dangerous; by doing that, we cut off an important avenue of communication. I've come to believe that things such as online petitions and social media tools can be really useful, and they're at their best when used in conjunction with other approaches. At their most basic level, these tools help activists get the word out there, gather support for their causes, and connect with like-minded people geographically distant from themselves.


4) Activism can be fun

Many big changes that have taken in the world have often been the result of much hard work by activists. But there is also a solid argument for choosing approaches that you find enjoyable or fun on some level. For many, a week at work leaves us craving time to do exactly what we feel like doing, so getting involved in actions that you actually find fun makes a lot of sense - you're less likely to end up feeling drained, and much more likely to stay the course.


5) Authenticity is essential

You can shout about something until you're blue in the face, but unless you stay true to those values in your own life your words will hold little weight. This is why I feel it makes so much sense to start at home when it comes to changing the world. For me, making an effort to consume in an ethical manner is a crucial part of this. For example, I don't think that you can campaign against the unethical practices of the fast fashion industry but continue to keep buying from the fast fashion brands on the high street. And this goes back to my first point, about how little things matter. How you live day by day is a vote for the type of world you want to inhabit.

Ruth Stokes is a freelance journalist and author of The Armchair Activist's Handbook, published by Silvertail Books, which features Ethical Consumer.






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