5 Lessons That We Can Learn From Experienced Activists

This past September, the ITC team attended the Climate Reality Training led by Al Gore. Throughout this week-long event, we participated in various discussion forums that focused on capacity building, community networking, and idea generation. Each discussion group was filled with a diverse body of seasoned activists- ranging from scientists to educators. Many of these individuals shared their knowledge and expertise with those new to social and environmental justice. Below, we have compiled a list of the best advice that we heard from these discussions, with a particular focus on promoting inclusive, effective, and sustainable activism in our society.

1.) Find Kindred Spirits- Don’t Do Activism Alone

Activism can be a thrilling, energizing, and life changing experience. However, dedicating considerable energy to a cause over a long period of time can create “activism fatigue”. In particular, many activists start to feel mental burnout if they are not careful. By fostering a network of like-minded individuals, activists can find the mental and organizational support they need within an altruistic community. This approach allows activists to achieve results over a sustained period of time- ultimately leading to more effective work.

2.) Reject a Culture of Perfectionism

An interesting study by the Harvard Business Review demonstrated that greater cultural importance has been placed on perfectionism in Western culture over the past 25 years. Researchers found that, “Recent generations of young people are more demanding of themselves, perceive that others are more demanding of them, and are more demanding of others.” Unfortunately, perfectionism can actually stand in the way of productivity, as it propagates a fear of failure and risk taking. In the context of activism, demanding high levels of perfectionism by volunteers and fellow activists can actually deter participation in various movements. Luckily, activism is not a competitive social currency; everyone has something imperfect they can offer. 

3.) It’s More Important to Change Laws than Light Bulbs

2020 has been an incredible year for social, environmental, and economic reckoning. In part, what made this year particularly exceptional was the cultural emphasis placed on altering systemic issues through law and policy change. In recent decades, ideological movements to modify behaviours and practices at the individual level have become increasingly common. Unfortunately, these movements can actually detract focus from making meaningful and substantive change at larger scales. Scientists, researchers, and activists all agree that in order to save our planet and transform our societies we need to continue holding governmental institutions and large corporations accountable for their malfeasance. To accomplish this task, we must maintain the momentum that has been generated for systemic transformation this year and guide it towards actionable outcomes by our federal government in the months to follow

4.) Determine Our Shared Values

It can often be difficult to establish an informative, thought-provoking, and mutually beneficial conversation between diverse stakeholders. For activists interested in reaching new audiences, determining the values of their intended audience can be a beneficial exercise in public outreach. In his recent Climate Reality Leaders workshop, Al Gore recommended that before holding a presentation or meeting, activists should attempt to research and identify the shared values of potential interest groups. By doing so, activists can integrate key talking points, ideas, and world views into their presentation and ultimately create a more persuasive narrative. Al Gore said he accomplishes this task by personally phoning or emailing attendees that have RSVP’d to his events and ask them “What interests you about this topic?”.  

5.) “True Leaders Don’t Create Followers, They Create More Leaders.” – Tom Peters

Fostering a community composed of passionate individuals that are eager to learn from one another’s knowledge and expertise is one of the most useful things a leader can accomplish. In the realm of activism, this means sharing the information and experience that facilitated the success of various initiatives-from political lobbying to coalition organizing. Ultimately, a leader’s goal should be to train others so well, that if the leader is not around the organization functions just as successfully as when they are. Moving towards an open-source framework of leadership, that prioritizes capacity building and knowledge sharing can be invaluable to forming effective and sustainable movements.

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