What is Activism?

Activism, in its most holistic sense, is taking action to effect social change. It is a doctrine that emphasizes direct action, particularly in support of or in opposition to a particular social issue.  This can occur in a myriad of ways, from speaking out for a cause, to signing petitions, to educating yourself and those around you about an issue. Activism can be led by individuals, done collectively through large social movements, and everything in between.

With so many possibilities under the activist umbrella, many people with many different passions and areas of leadership can define themselves as activists, which is a good thing. For the purposes of this guide, activism will refer to smaller-scale, grassroots organizing concentrated on college campuses and their surrounding communities, particularly that oriented around social justice issues.

Grassroots Organizing

Budding activists are often intimidated by popular conceptions of what activism is: a big, ethereal entity done by powerful, radical people whose goal is to change the entire globe. While some activists may fall into this category and activism does take this form for some people, some of the most influential and important activist work happens at the local level. This is what grassroots organizing is all about: making change at the local level by empowering communities and building personal connections.

Grassroots activism, like activism itself, can take many different forms, including helping with local voter registration, organizing a protest in response to a local event, lobbying campus officials to institute policy changes, putting up posters for a cause, and much more. What separates grassroots organizing from other types of activism is its reliance on interpersonal connection and local volunteers as opposed to larger, more traditional power structures (a national women’s rights group, for example). And it is important to note that the local nature of grassroots organizing does not mean that it is not capable of bringing about wide-scale change. On the contrary, work done on the local level can often travel and inspire work in other communities, creating a chain reaction resulting in widespread change. Additionally, the individual people touched by activist work in local communities can carry that spirit of change with them as they move from place to place, spreading the legacy of local movements across the country and the world.

Social Justice

This guide, while applicable to many different types of activism, is specifically geared toward social justice work, which is a specific genre of activism that describes movement toward a socially just world. As such, social justice is based on the principles of equality and human rights, and social justice activists fight to end oppression and break down structures of privilege such as classism, sexism, racism, and homophobia. While there are many other types of activists (such as environmentalists, animal rights activists, etc.), social justice activists are unique in that their activism focuses solely on human interaction and social inequality.

Social justice work, like other forms of activism, can be done at many levels, from the very large (international) to the very small (local). On the local level, for example, a student could work to educate other students about issues that affect diverse communities, they could work with university administration to create policy changes to better meet the needs of diverse communities, they could make a poster campaign to spread awareness, and so much more. The possibilities for social justice work are basically endless, ensuring that just about every student interested in social justice activism can find something that interests them.