Why “Activism” hurts the movement, or leave your ego at home
Biko Mandela Gray
583

Just came across this article while searching “ego” and “activism”… Thank you. I think, if anything, being Leos makes us ego-conscious, like how class-crossers are especially class-conscious. This discourse reminds me a lot of the distinction I’d like to draw between “activists” and “organizers”: the former is about self-expression, the latter movement-building. I began volunteering in immigrant-rights protest campaigns in the mid-1990s. Having grown up in a restaurant, I was already accustomed to doing the quiet grunt work: paint signs, data entry, lifting heavy objects. And I did notice that the talkers rarely ever did the grunt work. Years later as a TA labor union organizer in grad school, it became strategic for me to be a leader, as I was from Engineering, an immigrant, and spoke some languages. All the subsequent campaigns I’ve taken a myriad of movement roles while keeping my day job as an engineer, occasionally a union organizer.

But through it all I felt the most effective I’d been was being the one-to-one organizer: talking to complete strangers who might not agree with me, taking rejection, breaking down defensive-positional barriers, and moving people. There’s the usual active-listening skills involved to be sure: search for points of agreement—childhood experiences or even TV shows we have in common — and move the conversation toward to a political agreement. And there is also some “Zen-slacker” skills involved: let go, be confident enough in what I believe to allow myself to be persuaded by the other person’s opposite position. They will not move if they even subconsciously sense your unwillingness to move.

In my 20s I resolved to become wise as quickly as I can. But at the risk of sounding condescending, I’ve found the activist-to-organizer transformation to be a rite of passage. I wouldn’t have understood the need to build movements if I hadn’t spent my 20s expressing myself and ineffectually preaching to the choir. As for folks who’ve been in the Movement for decades and haven’t figured it out yet… those are the narcissists that the Movement can do without.

Thanks again for the article!