Recent discussions with our members at the Human Rights Consortium have frequently led to the concept of activism – what is it exactly and how do you get people involved? Like many things, once you start thinking about it you hear about it from all directions. Activism is by no means a new concept, but it seems that suddenly everyone is talking about it.
So what exactly is activism? According to Wikipedia activism consists of ‘intentional efforts to bring about social, political, economic, or environmental change’. But who engages in this activism, what exactly are these intentional efforts, and why do they want change? Motivated by a number of inspirational sources I’ve attempted to address these questions in an ‘activist-brick road’ – it’s a short journey as there’s only four bricks.
Brick 1 – Do things need to change?
Northern Ireland today is by no means a perfect society. Yes we have come a long way in terms of the enjoyment of rights but human rights abuses still persist. Child poverty, for example, is an abuse of a child’s right to a standard of living that is good enough to meet their physical, social and mental needs (Article 27, UNCRC). Children’s Law Centre and Save the Children, in their joint submission to the Bill of Rights consultation last year, highlight the fact that 29% of 122,000 children in Northern Ireland live in poverty and 10% of children or 44,000 children live in severe poverty.
People with disabilities are also not adequately protected; despite the fact that Northern Ireland has a disproportionate amount of people living with disabilities compared to the rest of the UK (21% of adults and 6% of children have at least one disability – Disability Action), disabled people still have huge difficulties accessing basic services such as public transport, healthcare or banking.
Pensioners and vulnerable groups continue to suffer from fuel poverty – which may actually affect half of homes in NI this winter due to the recent electricity price hike, as the Consumer Council has recently warned.
The situation is only due to get worse with the nearly £4 billion cut to the NI budget over the next 4 years wreaking havoc on our public services. And the community and voluntary sector, which according to David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ idea is in a better position to provide services to communities, will also experience intense funding cuts. Already we are seeing charities closing, projects ending and services unable to continue (see NICVA’s Cuts Watch for some examples).
If we look further afield the human rights abuses are even more devastating. We live in a world where the richest 20% own, control, and consume 86% of the wealth and resources, while the poorest half of the planet own just 1% of the wealth. Corporations tear through communities committing human rights and environmental abuses with impunity. 925 million people do not have enough to eat, 98 percent of whom live in developing countries. Wars continue to devastate and destroy – over 8,000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan in the past four years and over 100,000 civilians have died in the Iraq war. The list of human rights abuses is shamefully too long but for further examples see Amnesty’s 2011 State of the World report.
If you agree that these things shouldn’t be happening then you’ll agree they need to change.
Brick 2- Why should I try to change things?
If our own human rights are being abused then the motivation for action is clear. Perhaps the motivation for action is even stronger if it is the rights of a loved one that is being abused.
However, if you are fortunate enough to be living in dignity and peace and your rights are being fully respected you might ask why you personally should do anything. But will this always be the case? What if you get old? Acquire a disability? Lose your job and cannot provide for your family? What if you wake up one day and suddenly find yourself ‘vulnerable’? It might be too late to take action.
Martin Niemöller’s poem about the inactivity of German intellectuals following the Nazi rise to power is an eloquent illustration of this point:
First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
However, human rights activists would argue that you do not need to imagine a day where you could be vulnerable before you fight for the rights of those already in that position – as one of the great rights activists Martin Luther King states: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’. Should our compassion for our fellow human not be our motivation to act? If we are not part of the solution are we part of the problem?
Brick 3 – Can I change things?
If you have decided that things need to be changed and you should try to change them, the next question you may ask yourself is – can I actually change anything? I am only one person – what can I do?
First of all, acknowledge that things can change – ‘the greatest lie we have ever been told is that we cannot change the way things are. Everything can change.’ Fergal Anderson, Via La Campesina. Secondly, acknowledge that you can have the power to change things; Sarah Clancy describes activism as ‘taking ownership of our own power’. Every large movement was made up of individuals, every ideology was constructed by individuals, and all the inspiring leaders from our history have all been individuals, like us. Seemingly unchangeable situations: slavery, women denied the right to vote, apartheid in South Africa, were all changed because of individuals coming together to demand change. So I suppose the next question is how?
Brick 4 – How can I change things?
If we look at the world and all it’s problems it’s easy to get overwhelmed. At which point many people switch off or block out the troubled world outside our own sphere. However if we start small, concentrate on the positive things that we can do using the gifts we each have, it starts to appear a little less daunting. ‘Do what you can with what you have where you are’ (Theodore Roosevelt) is a good phrase to calm a panicked activist.
There is not one comprehensive list of what you can do. We all have different talents and we all have access to different resources. And each situation, each campaign, requires a tailored approach. However, we can look to what has been done before for inspiration.
Amnesty International started in 1961 by one man calling out to the public to join him in writing letters calling for the freedom of two Portuguese students who were imprisoned for raising a toast to freedom. 50 years later and hundreds of thousands of letters have been sent to officials, prisoners and their families which has resulted in people being freed from torture, access granted to doctors or lawyers, death sentences being commuted, ‘disappearances’ investigated, and prisoners released.
Greenpeace International are renowned for their creative and effective campaigning. They claim an extensive list of successes including the infamous campaign to stop Nestlé purchasing palm-oil from sources which destroy Indonesian rainforests. After eight weeks of non-violent direct action and innovative use of social media focusing on one of its more popular brands, Nestlé conceded to the demands of the global campaign.
And it’s not only large international campaigning organisations that can make an impact; in the mid-eighties 12 Dunnes Stores workers used the power of their labour and went on strike for two and a half years for the right not to handle goods from Apartheid South Africa. Nelson Mandela said that their stand helped keep him going during his imprisonment and contributed to the eventual fall of the apartheid regime. ‘When the violence and oppression of the white minority government in South Africa was at its peak, the echo of protest could be heard half a world away in Dublin’s Henry Street’ (RTE).
Activism does not always lead to the results you want, however the efforts are never in vain. People are educated, inspired and mobilised through the process of activism; seeds are sown which will later flourish in ways unexpected. And when results are achieved, it’s proof that we can change the world – one act at a time.