What if I still want to be an activist after I graduate?

Feminist Gal and I decided to post on activism this week in hopes of getting a conversation started. While she laments “missing a huge part of myself without the activism I became so engrossed in throughout college” and recounts starting a blog to fill this void in her post, I will attempt to offer some reflections as to why activism is harder outside of a college setting and, most importantly, why it needn’t be…

College campuses are often hives of activism. Many students who have not awakened to their innate activist do so during their college years. Those students who came into post secondary education as activists already often become even more active. College is a space (or is supposed to be at least) to question received knowledge, to learn new ways of looking at the things, to envision the world as it might be rather than as it is.

When my Women’s Studies 101 students learn about the required activism project in my course, they are rarely filled with enthusiasm. However, by semester’s end, many have caught the activism bug and go on to advocate for world changes and protest the status quo in various ways, both large and small.

Yet, I hear lamentations from graduates that activism is harder once you leave the environs of a college campus or town. With their campus support systems gone, political engagement and activism becomes a thing of the past for many – a blip on the screen of their lives that was great while they were in college, but one that they no longer pursue. Perhaps this is why so many look back upon their college years as so pivotal, so energizing, and with such a keen sense of nostalgia. It is not only because college often involves lots of new experiences – of the intellectual, sexual, and partying variety – but also because college is the time for many where they are the most engaged with the world and the most fired up to change it.

Alas, the same people who marched, picketed, campaigned, founded organizations, and raised money for various causes all too often seem to become mere cogs in the corporatist patriarchal machine once they graduate. They do, after all, have to pay the bills.

So, what to do if your own activism has gone stagnant? Well, I think it is key to remember that activism does not only happen on the streets of DC, nor must it always involve signs, chants, signatures, and fists in the air. Nor, might I add, does it need to be given to you ‘assignment style’ in a Women’s Studies (or other social justice discipline) syllabus.

Activism is a way of life – an attitude – that can be woven into everyday life. It is about refusing to accept things as they are and doing whatever you can to foment change. It is about realizing that the fabric of our world is sewn each day, not sewn anew mind you, but either reinforced or weakened by the collective actions of the human race. Each day, our actions either reinforce the fabric of governing social norms and expectations, or begin to cause tiny tears in the normative schema. (For a theoretical take on how the fabric of gender is maintained each day, see one of my all time favorite theorists, Judith Butler).

By how we carry ourselves each day, via the language we use, the things we consume, the knowledge we gain and spread, we are participating in the ever changing circus of life. If we choose to perform as trained animals that never resist or question the rules, we will remain caged within the normative strictures of society. However, if we refuse to perform the normative script, even if only within our own little lives, we can bring about profound change.

“But, I don’t have time to be an activist,” I hear some of you saying. “Between work and home and family, I can barely keep juggling all the musts in my life let alone add anything more into the mix.” Well, hate to tell you, but saying you don’t have time for activism is like saying you don’t have time to care. “Sorry, can’t think about poverty, I’ve got bills to pay.” “Sorry, can’t protest war, I have to get to the gym before work.” “Sorry, can’t fight for wage equity or racial equality, the laundry needs doing.” This treadmill mentality is a big part of the problem. We act as if we will fall behind in the race of life if we don’t earn enough, buy enough, exercise enough, yet we forget to exercise our abilities to reshape the world we live in. By doing so, we capitulate to leaving things as they are – to being strapped to the sexist, classist, racist, homophobic treadmill of social norms, rules, and expectations…

If you are the type of person that needs inspiration to light (or rekindle) your activism wick, you can certainly turn to history to read of killer activists such as Ida B. Wells, Emma Goldman, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Mary Edwards Walker, Mourning Dove, Frances Perkins, Cesar Chavez, Helen Keller, Jeanette Rankin, Bella Abzug, Mike Davis, June Jordon…

Or, if you prefer present day activism to float your boat, consider the work of Cindy Sheehan, Jennifer Schumaker, Fernando Suarez del Solar, Angela Davis, Wilma Mankiller, Jackson Katz, Peggy McIntosh, Dolores Huerta, Eve Ensler, School of the Americas Watch, Znet, CodePink, International Socialist Organization, Feminist Majority Foundation, NARAL Pro-Choice America, Queer Nation, Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press, Feminist.Com, We Are Change, Minutemen Unvarnished, Class Matters, Feminist Campus, Women in Media and News, and so, so, so many more…

If you feel like you need to read an activist primer or something to you get fired up about a particular cause, try out some of the following books:

  • The Fire This Time: Young Activists and the New Feminism, The Activist’s Handbook
  • A Promise and a Way of Life: White Antiracist Activism
  • Troubling Education: Queer Activism and Anti-Oppressive Pedagogy
  • Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism
  • The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle
  • The Color of Violence: The Incite! Anthology
  • Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade–and How We Can Fight It
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex
  • Sweatshop Warriors : Immigrant Women Workers Take On the Global Factory
  • Full Frontal Feminism
  • He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut

(These are only few activist focused books – please hit up your favorite library/bookstore to find many more…)

With all this past and present inspiration, what are you waiting for? Heck, if you don’t need any more inspiration or already have your summer reading list all lined up, there’s no reason you can’t start being an activist right now, right at your very own desk! The opportunities for internet activism are numerous and grow by the day. However, should you ever choose to tear yourself away from your beloved screen, here are 10 ways to be an activist out there in the non-virtual world to get you going:

10 ways to be an activist everyday

  1. Choose your words carefully – Think about how ‘you guys’ makes women and transgender folks invisible and find a substitute (remember that ‘you’ can be both plural and singular), work to weed out sayings like ‘that’s so gay’ from the social lexicon, avoid terminology that indicates some people (by virtue of a penis, white skin, body size, or sex practices) are better than others…
  2. Be a conscientious consumer – Know about the businesses you give your money to and aim to support companies that have some sense of ethics (if you don’t know why so many progressives girlandboycott Wal*Mart, find out why – start here and here)
  3. Think while you listen – Rather than singing along to lyrics such “super soak that ho” or ‘shake that monk,’ seek out lyrics that are not degrading to women and don’t promote racism, homophobia, body negativity, etc. All genres have their offenders and their musicians with a social conscious so it’s up to you to THINK about the lyrics rather than polluting your mind with oppressive junk just because it has a good beat…
  4. Be mindful of what you watch – Don’t forget to don your feminist lenses as you watch television and movies. Look out for sexist, racist, homophobic, pro-imperialist, backwards-ass patriarchal messages and don’t let them soak into your brain! It doesn’t mean you can’t watch – but watch with a critical eye.
  5. Speak out – Use your voice to shut down sexist jokes, to not tolerate racial slurs, to not let negative stereotypes fly, to complain when you see social injustice at the grocery store, the dance club, the pub, or the park…
  6. Be a good friend, parent, sibling, lover – Intervene when you know a friend is in a dangerous situation, listen when a friend needs to rant about the queer bating at his school, tell your sister she doesn’t ‘need’ to diet, tell your parents they don’t need to buy into ageism (or that they need to lose their homophobic attitudes), tell your lover not to buy into the jealousy-ownership-romance matrix, etc.
  7. Always wear your thinking cap –Don’t tune out. Don’t allow the lull of the ipod to distract you from social injustice. Think about and analyze the world around you. Resist the temptation to be a mindless consumer or no-questions asked patriot/citizen
  8. Read, read, and read some more – Know the world you live in, seek out independent media and news, spread the word, read books/mags/blogs that stretch your mind.
  9. Teach children well – Almost everyone comes into contact with children now and again. Remember these children will grow up to either conform to the world as it is, or they will learn to see injustices and just might be inspired to make the world a better place. Don’t say idiotic things such as ‘boys don’t cry’ or ‘ladies don’t act that way’ to children (or in front of them). Teach the children in your life or those that you come across in public that all humans are equal, that bodies come in all sizes and abilities, that words matter, that there is more to life than the latest video game or fashion trend.
  10. Question authority – This saying adorns t-shirts, bumper stickers, buttons, and posters for a reason – it’s a crucial directive. With authority comes power, with power comes corruption. Hence, questioning authority (and the inevitable hierarchy that serves as authority’s sidekick) is crucial. Question your boss, your teachers, your parents, your city council members, your state leaders, your national government. Heck, even question that wonderful feminist professor of yours. 🙂 If you don’t question authority, who will?

Finally, remember: if you are not an activist, you are an accomplice.

Now, get activating for change people!

And…when you can take a break from your breakneck activism antics, please post activist suggestions, links, ideas, reflections in the comments section here at Professor, What if…? as well as at Feminist Gal’s Oh, You’re a Feminist.


14 thoughts on “What if I still want to be an activist after I graduate?”

  1. wow! great work with this! thanks for all the activism books, i’ll admit that i have some reading to catch up on…

    Also, your tips are wonderful, i think it’s crucial to find managable things to do daily in that fit in our already busy lives, you made some great suggestions (and ones that we should live by every day).

  2. Ah yes, it was so easy while still in school to become and stay active. The best thing that I have done for myself to continue is to start my own group of friends and acquaintances who are also interested but busy. We get together once a month and share what we have done or read or are concerned about. It keeps us “awake” to the things that we care about and it also introduces us to new solutions. We also bring reading material…Ms.; Ute, Sierra Club, flyers, etc to recycle and give others that are interested.
    The greatest side effect to getting together is the support that we feel from each other to go out and be an example. You don’t have to be a demonstrator with a placard to get your point across, you have to make decisions about your own behavior and express it openly for others to know about. When my friend takes the Coaster from Solana Beach to Encinitas to meet me for yoga, I am reminded to take public transportation whenever possible.
    For a gift recently, I packed up a bin with all of the natural ingredients to clean a home that included baking soda, vinegar, lemons, castille soap, an empty spray bottle and directions for all cleaning needs. I can teach at the same time that it reminds me to do the same.
    I am an activist. If I identify myself as such, every day, I will find a way to express it by living consciously, outloud.
    Thanks for the blog,

  3. good stuff. i had no idea that i was an activist! accomplices make me sick! and racist jokes make me militant!

    “backwards-ass patriarchal messages”

    preach it! okay, i’ll stop using exclamations now. but one thing that i would like address about the point you made on post-college life activism. companies these days will can you in a heartbeat if they feel you don’t live up to their standards. meaning they don’t want their employees’ ideologies to conflict with their PR. yea, i know the HR people do it, but they shouldn’t be snooping around on your myspace and facebook pages to see what you did or said. and if you blog about your politics, then it gets a bit more complicated. so i guess what i’m trying to say is that the real world doesn’t lend itself to activism. and that’s a sad story to tell.

  4. Feminist gal — thanks!

    Patt — thanks for all the great comments. I love this line in particular: “I am an activist. If I identify myself as such, every day, I will find a way to express it by living consciously, outloud.” Inspiring!

    Minority Militant — Very good points about workplace surveillance. Sad we live in big-brother-on-steroids society. The real working world is difficult to navigate while an activist, but not impossible. You need to be crafty! This is one of the reasons I am not a fan of myspace or facebook — they seem to much like sites trading in surveillance and popularity contests to me…

  5. Great blog! This one really hit home with me recently, but I absolutely agree with you that activism for graduates is still possible! Most people are activists and they don’t even know it…although “resources” and avenues to volunteer may be fewer (obviously no more campus events, etc.) there are still so many ways to be involved. The last five years of my life have been nothing short of life-changing, inspiring, eye-opening, and a big time reality check! By applying all that I have learned throughout the years, there is no way I could not be an activist…and I think that can ring true for most people as well. There is a website called http://www.volunteermatch.org and I have found a few volunteer opportunities through there that I am involved with. That is only one of so many potential resources to keep people involved.

  6. I like your ideas for activism… For whatever reason, the specific stuff you suggest is a bit skewed toward activities that mostly have to do with consciousness-raising and individual actions, rather than collective organizing. I think consciousness-raising is key (why would I be a blogger otherwise? And heck, I organized a whole big v-day performance extravaganza not too long ago…), but I also think we need to be doing the kind of activism where it is clear whether we won or lost–you know, did we get the institutional change made or not? The great thing about this kind of activism is that consciousness-raising is a natural byproduct of the campaign you do to rally people around a given effort.

    In one sense, it’s hard to get involved with people who are doing really concrete stuff, like encouraging specific legislative change or working on impact litigation and whatnot. That work tends to be done by nonprofits that have limited budget and resources, and they can’t really use you (except for your money) because volunteers suck up a lot of managing effort. On the other, the possibilities for local activism are endless. In my experience, it took three semi-random women in a dorm room to hatch a plan that led to a full-scale student movement that won a new sexual assault prevention program on our campus. Eventually we created a nonprofit that has helped hundreds of students do the same kind of activism. Grassroots stuff is the one area where we can spin circles around conservatives. It really is just a matter of picking the right goal and going for it.

    Rock on with your bad activist self.

  7. Thanks for the reflections, Artmiz!

    Ashley, Thank you for the comments. I agree that my everyday activism ideas are of the consciousness-raising variety. But, the collective activism you mention often grows out of this type of cr.

    However, I do agree with you that collective action is very important and that it is nice to work on causes where you can measure change. I do think, though, that change can be measured even with everyday activism — ie, has my brother stopped saying ‘ho’ all the time, etc. I think of activism as a continuum — and all types are needed!

    Your comments on grassroots activism are great. Congrats on the achievements at your campus!

    “Rock on with your bad activist self.” Thanks — and right back at ya!

  8. Thanks for reminding us how to be activists every day!

    I am also a strong supporter of volunteering whenever & wherever you can. Find a great organization that needs help in whatever your talent is (grant writing, event planning, data entry, etc.) and do as much or as little as you can.

  9. Great Post
    I like the way that you pointed out that activism does not necessarily mean carrying a protest sign. Due to physical limitations that would be out of the question for me and so I practice activism by blogging and teaching my children to look through a lens that is less socially constructed. If people really stop and take the time to think there are so many small ways that you can make a difference in this world.

  10. I really found this helpful, especially the ten steps that we can do to remain activists. I think it’s funny that this mentions the idea of getting the activism bug, because i have it! Thanks to my WMST 101 course-it’s amazing. It’s so invigorating knowing that you are making a difference.


  12. Andi and Maria,
    Thanks so much for reading and commenting!
    Glad to hear you have both caught the activism bug!
    It’s wonderful to hear that WMST 101 inspires young women like yourselves to become lifelong activists.
    Keep fighting the good fight!

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