by Dawson Vosburg
I remember when I was in high school, thinking that I would have traded anything to have been alive at the time of the Civil Rights movement. The moments, protests, boycotts, and freedom rides have been immortalized as nearly inevitable events in the constant march towards progress and human freedom, and I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to be able to say “I was there.”
Aside from the rather sunny view of human progress, my desire to go back in time follows the tendency that we, young people seeking a just society, are often saddled with. It’s the pull toward something else and something big. I don’t think I heard a single person say they didn’t want to go to Standing Rock this fall. The women’s march drew hundreds of thousands. When news spread about the contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, many people responded by sending case after case of bottled water. And I wanted to go back in time, to join the daring members of the Civil Rights movement.
The problem is that all these movements seem to be in the past: the women’s march and Flint’s water crisis have long disappeared from the headlines, and the last of the Standing Rock camp was burned weeks ago. All the fervor, it seems, dissipates with the end of the news cycle. Obviously, these movements are incredible, and the problems they are addressing are big, real, and meaningful. And no one can be faulted for wanting to see these injustices righted. But when activism is marked by a desire to go somewhere else in order to do something big, we reveal more about our own self-interest than our desire to participate in real change.
The draw toward big, sexy movements produces dangerous blindness: not all important social problems are big and sexy, and none of them can be addressed sustainably by participating in big, sexy action. Protests and mass movements in the streets do accomplish valuable change, but they are far from the only necessary means of change. The Standing Rock pipeline resistance, for example, had a singular and particular goal: to interrupt the construction of the pipeline and to give voice to the Native American people who have been ignored. It did not necessarily provide a platform for long-term change in the way the United States relates to the climate or to Native American people. That work is largely done in desperately underfunded and understaffed institutions and by exhausted tribe elders who know the full pattern of history. They think in terms of decades and centuries, rather than months, in regards to real social change.
Furthermore, the draw to big, sexy movements distracts from what is small, immediate, and unsexy: the problems that exist in the communities we inhabit. During my third year in high school, our class took a trip to St. Louis, working with an organization that addressed homelessness and poverty. Later, I discovered that a tent city had been running for years in the abandoned factory building next to our school and was just cleared out by local authorities. Our class had traveled five hours to see the homeless in tent cities in St. Louis, none of whom we would see again, but we failed to even see the tent city or to know the lives of those struggling day in and day out within sight of our classrooms.
It isn’t evil to participate (or to want to participate) in big moments of activism. However, it is important to understand that the public, visible moments are not the full story, but a small part of a much larger work. Getting to know your neighbors, working for a non-profit where you’ll almost certainly be underpaid, and committing to local civic and even religious institutions is often exhausting, and there aren’t nearly as many who stand up to do it. But there’s always room for one more.