Stop Making Your Activism About You

For many of us, our career aspirations are built upon a foundational want to effect change. How can our talents be best utilized to “make a difference?” How can we use our energy and our time to influence the people around us? How can we leave our mark in the world, before we die? Though I won’t impose a need to stir political/societal change on every profession or individual, wrestling with these questions is often common ground experience amongst all of our lives—the only difference: intention. For some, this questioning is for the purpose of developing into a genuine activism, activism deeply devoted to political change, while others ask these questions simply to cope with anxieties surrounding purposeless lives and unlived legacies.

For most of my life, I have, unfortunately, been a part of the latter group. From the very moment I was awarded my first 4.0, I daydreamed about the next academic success, the next high honor roll certificate, the next medal, the next National Honors Society invite, the next honor cord. Since the first day I nervously claimed the title of “feminist,” I have been consumed by my own individual potential as a strong, educated, and motivated woman. Now as I approach the final months of my undergraduate degree, my myopic thinking has only become more overbearing—which is no surprise given the post-grad motivational speeches everyone seems to be offering on silver platters.  “Your future awaits you,” they say. Your days of climbing the corporate ladder are right around the corner, they reassure you. Soon your dreams will be your new reality. To save you some time, the list of “yours” and “you,” are truly endless. And I accepted this encouragement, because I so deeply believed that I was doing good by the world, by investing in my own interests and passions. After all, my end-all goal was to be a writer who spoke out against sexism, and racism, and homophobia/heteronormativity. Wasn’t this enough? Weren’t my dreams enough to rightfully claim the title of “activist.”

It was Charlene Carruthers keynote, however, that was finally able to interrupt this thinking. Carruthers in a recent keynote I attended, acted as a catalyst for conversations about Dr. Martin Luther King’s achievements, offering unique (and even unusual) insights about the March on Washington. One particular soundbyte that stood out was “Martin did not make the movement, the movement made Martin.” This, naturally, led to a conversation about movements not being made or broken by an individual. Carruthers  reminded the crowd that a movement needs “MANY strong leaders.” Which, while radically unsettling, was exactly what I needed to hear. For so long, I have wrongfully believed that I could change the world single-handedly. I have believed that my writing, my degree, and my academic efforts, would be enough activism to get me by. In my mind, my scholarly achievements would fuel my personal activist machine for the rest of my life.

But as Carruthers defines it, activism is not about fluffing one’s ego, or alleviating one’s anxieties about death or purposeless lives, it’s about “taking action on behalf of issues [one] cares about.” Despite this, I am not afraid to admit that I study long hours for myself. I strive for a 4.0 average for my own personal glory and gain. I have devoted my life to my education for me and me alone. I say this all unabashedly. I am not embarrassed to admit that I have reserved extra energy for my life, my wants, my needs, and my goals. Because this is MY life. If I don’t take ownership for my passions, who will? If I don’t prioritize myself and my interests, will they ever be prioritized?

But this issue of developing authentic and effective activism, is not about abandoning pride for your accomplishments, nor is it about ignoring your worth as an individual. It’s about braiding this thinking of commending our own success, with friendly reminders that our successes don’t exist in a vacuum. Without the devoted energies of academic mentors (teachers, professors, school counselors, academic advisors), my success would be nonexistent. Without the support of strong familial ties, I would have crumbled in the face of adversity (academic or otherwise). Had I not been surrounded by a group of friends who valued education and good grades like I did, I could have never dreamed of graduating Summa Cum Laude. Though I refuse to devalue my accomplishments (academic or otherwise), for anyone’s sake (activism's included) I also refuse to ignore the harsh reality that our visions, our dreams, and our goals are no lesser than our neighbors’, our classmates’, or even perfect strangers’. My aspirations to study feminist theory and publish material pertaining to women’s rights, sex-positivity, and sexual liberation do not deserve any more praise than one’s decision to be an advocate for traditional marriage and abstinence. Just as my work in sexual liberation efforts is no more important than the other thousands of authors, who also discuss issues of female sexuality in their published works.

With that, zooming into a very specific example, I am completely aware that my dream of completing a book on the intricacies of modern sex culture, would not be possible without the research participants, and interviewees. After all, a book that is never read cannot change the world. You are dependent on your community, whether you’d like to believe it, or not. You are a part of a unit, and always will be. Though this may be a scary thought to some, to others it is wildly comforting. No one is ever truly alone. Everyone is accountable to someone. Clichés and all, there is no “I” in team.

Because of this, I urge you all to dedicate your activism to the disenfranchised. Work to give the unheard a voice. Explore your passions both for you, and for the impoverished and victimized communities your activism is directed towards. Remember their faces. Humanize the subjects of your research whenever possible. Protest in the names of those who are treated unjustly. Whatever you do, do not let your own desires consume you, because if you do, your activism will not only be faulty, but destructive.

Please visit Charlene Carruthers official website here, and show your support by following her on Twitter and Facebook. Also check out her book Unapologetic: A Black Queer and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements, for more information on productive activism. 

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