How to be a good activist? How to be an effective activist? What is the measure of one’s activism?
Thank you – what a beautiful question. I approached it at first with such enthusiasm, only to realize it may be way over my head; I am no expert on the subject. But then I remember that I’ve met many great activists, whose fine examples are more than enough to fill a response.
Let me tell you a story.
Years ago, I had a chance to see a group of community organizers in action, in a fishing village a few hours away from Manila. They would get up as early as 4am to be on the boat with locals, and help out with such chores as sorting the catch, making dried fish and shrimp paste, and even cleaning up at home. In the afternoon they would lead discussions, talking about current events over the crackling sound of fish being fried, entertaining questions well into the wee hours of the morning, at times over a shot or two of lambanog.
I watched one of these organizers, a middle-aged man, effortlessly convey the essence of Lenin’s State and Revolution to people he’s never met before, in less than five minutes. Soon the listeners began nodding the nod of someone who now understood: they had every right to fight for their livelihood, governments are not neutral institutions but keepers of peace, defenders of the status quo. It was a precious thing to witness. Later I heard him tell the person on the phone, presumably after being asked when he’d come home, “Kapag ako’y di mahuli, sa makalawa. Kung mahuli, eh di hindi muna!” He was smiling as he said this.
I should add that this man has been repeatedly threatened with arrest, and his son was in prison for organizing among the farmers. Yet he took everything in stride, choosing to spend his days as the situation calls for. That is, to be with the people, speak their language, and learn how their plight could be improved.
As a good activist friend so eloquently articulated, this is what makes a revolution: the constant decision to meet people where they are and join them in their struggles, patiently explaining what they do not understand, and asking them to explain what you do not understand, repeated ad infinitum. It takes discipline, commitment, and sacrifice, the kind that could only be honed through years of practice.
It would not be enough to know what’s wrong. As Baldwin writes in “A Letter to My Nephew,” of Americans who saw the ills in their society: “Many of them indeed know better, but as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger.”
To act is to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger. We know this all too well in the Philippines, where the threat of being jailed, or worse, killed, hangs over every activist’s head, simply for speaking up against injustice. To keep showing up anyway, despite the hardships and risks, is to me the fundamental hallmark of a good activist.
The struggle demands this amount of self-denial, rooted in the understanding that the Cause is so much bigger than ourselves. Once this becomes our anchor, everything follows: we form the discipline to eat and sleep well, so our bodies can take a beating and we do not become a burden to others. We learn to accept criticism with grace, because it’s not about us but about improving our ways. We strive to broaden our knowledge and cultivate our strengths, building an appetite for whatever will make us better revolutionaries, and embracing any opportunity to apply them in real life. This way, we can give of our best, each and every time.
Allow me to end this by recommending the brilliant work of Jodi Dean titled Comrade, and the good old Araling Aktibista, which remains a favorite text.
Have a great week, and good luck on your journey as an activist.