Social Activism: If you don’t know who it is, it’s probably you

Social Activism: If you don’t know who it is, it’s probably you

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By Jonathan Emmett ‘14

Everyone knows that person who will vocally express a view on just about every topical issue, but never seems to do more than talk (as the old adage goes: if you don’t know who that person is in your group of friends, it’s probably you).

Depending on whom you ask, the three common culprits for this apathy are identified as:

  • Inertia
    As lives have become busier, moving individuals to action has become increasingly difficult. Being busy is a substantial impediment to mobilization of communities – as Sheila Blanchette stated in her article Not Backing Down: “It’s hard to be an activist in America while you’re trying to pay the bills, mow the lawn and save for the kids’ tuition.” Successful activists point to prioritization as key to achieving impact, but how can community movements successfully motivate individuals in the face of an ever-increasing array of issues that demand one’s time and attention?


  •  Ignorance and information overload
    We are in the information age, characterized by new heights of communication and transparency: for example, social media has been extremely effective in providing a rapid communication method for community mobilization (see the 2012 Obama campaignor the role of social media in the Arab Spring), while individuals can track breaking news stories on multiple platforms as they develop. With this abundance of information, our ability to filter that information is increasingly well developed. How can community mobilization organizations bypass those filters and both educate and motivate their constituencies?


  •    Active opposition
    Proponents of this line of thinking will refer to everything from the various lobby groups in Washington and the Super PACs to the Illuminati and conspiratorial shadowy cabals. Some will go so far as to believe that they have a personal responsibility to take action to stop these interest groups. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, what is clear is that the incentives of economic groups and social advocates often are at odds. Much is written about the role of business in promoting the “triple bottom line” of people, planet, and profit, but what are the roles of the private citizen and local communities in that ecosystem?


Whatever you believe is responsible, it seems that being all talk and no action is a part of how we’re wired and the lives we live. So how do some very successful organizations manage to get disparate (and often contrarian) pockets of people to take an active role in society, using the momentum of large groups to promote social change?

Join us for the ‘Organizations for Change’ panel at 1pm on Friday 4th October to chat with thought leaders who have been successful in mobilizing communities around critical issues. Hear from Laura Olin about how the Obama campaign successfully got people to be active participants in their democracy, and from Peter Lehner of NRDC about how the organization is effecting real change through getting millions of people passionate about environmental issues.

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