Activism starts with you: How to really support social movements, according to activists

A photo of protestors.
Crowd of protestors holding signs and marching. Photo via Pexels.

Crowds of people rallying together, holding up signs, and chanting powerful words at the top of their lungs is what we tend to associate with activism.

During the pandemic, reposting information and using trending hashtags on social media is becoming a new means of showing solidarity. However, in some cases, this has become the extent of knowledge and actions when it comes to advocacy.

Supporting a cause that you really care about can be done in different ways – there’s no one right way to advocate. Learning to self-reflect and educate yourself is the best way to support any social movement, some activists say.

“Personal growth and understanding yourself is all necessary to change systems and cultures and achieve sustainable justice,” said Andrea Ranae Johnson, a Black American activist and consultant who creates content and programs to guide people in their own advocacy.

Johnson said she has always strived to be the best human she can be, and wants to help others in doing the same. She was inspired by her father, who saw the value in connecting personal growth with social justice.

She realized she could help support a variety of social movements by helping others to learn to focus and understand that sustainable change begins within oneself first. Johnson also said that Black Lives Matter is a movement that she holds close to her heart, because the injustices that Black people face intertwine with all social justice issues.

Currently, we are seeing the birth and resurgence of many social movements that demand  accountability, educate  those who remain oblivious to social inequalities, and call-out key actors of society who continue to uphold and contribute to an oppressive system.

“We are no different today in 2020, than we were in the 1960’s during the civil rights movement… at the core of it, every movement starts from the perspective of wanting to make a difference,” said Yusuf Faqiri, activist and founder of Justice for Soli.

After losing his brother Soleiman “Soli” Faqiri, who lived with diagnosed schizophrenia in 2016, Faqiri started advocating for accountability and reform from the government around patients with mental illness who are mistreated and have lost their life to the prison system. He said he wasn’t seeking to start a social movement with Justice for Soli – he just wanted justice for his late brother. However, Faqiri’s campaign quickly transformed into a larger movement advocating for all patients with mental illness.  

Demonstrators rally in support of jailed civil rights leader Wally Nelson. Location unspecified. Circa 1965. Photo via all that’s interesting (ati).

Learning and unlearning

Some people don’t feel like they know how to support in the right ways, so they are hesitant to call themselves activists and refrain from joining social movements, according to Jeremy Bland, a member of Ryerson’s chapter of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP).

CSSDP is a network that focuses and educates people on the negative impacts of drug policies on individuals and communities. They advocate to reduce or prevent harm from drug use and aim to change the view of drug addiction from one of criminality to one of health concern.

“It’s a good and healthy thing to maybe realize that your perspective, lived experience or education level isn’t where it needs to be to do some kind of work, and that’s okay,” said Bland.  “But we shouldn’t see that as a permanent limitation. Instead, see it as a call to action to understand what we don’t already understand.”

Kaitlin Rizarri, a member of Toronto Youth Food Policy Council, advocates for the creation of a decolonized food system and facilitates her community to be in good relationships with the land as “settlers.”  

To do this work, she keeps up to date with current events, publishes statements, and co-facilitates an accountability pod alongside others, held by Pinay Collection, a business run by Jovie Galit, that seeks to reclaim Pina/xy identity. Every month, Pinay Collection hosts a ‘Usap Tayo’ pod as a virtual space where they have conversations around anti-oppression, and discuss how they can address Anti-Indigeneity and Anti-Black Racism. They also carve out actions they can take towards Black and Indigneous solidarity.  

Rizarri believes that it’s important to always stay tuned in and be aware of the social issues that manifest themselves in our everyday lives, because it’s easy to “feel disconnected… [as a result] of our colonial traumas and upbringings.”

Some people see their lives as separate from issues that don’t directly impact them. According to Johnson, all issues matter. Learning to self-reflect and assess what parts of your identity grant you social privilege is vital to beginning work in activism.

Bland reiterates the importance of knowing where you stand on certain issues, and knowing how much you know versus how much you don’t know about a movement in order to truly support it in a productive way.

“[We have] to recognize that sometimes we choose to continue to not know things, and that’s when that becomes a problem,” said Bland. “That in itself is an exercise of privilege.”

According to Johnson, those who are hesitant to join social movements due to their lack of experience and education are sometimes scared to feel uncomfortable, offend others, or make social gatherings awkward.

“We don’t have it all figured out–expecting perfection from ourselves is [not] reality. We only know so much about what it will take to create a different world,” she said.  “We take it as it goes… and you have to start somewhere.”

Determination and Sincerity

Social movements are part of a bigger picture in society. They strive to ignite changes that will ultimately shape a better world. Some see activism as a social responsibility, which can be intimidating for people who are unsure of where they stand on issues and question their ability to make a difference.

Faqiri knows the feeling. He explains that his determination and sincerity is what drove him to seek change, and believes those two traits can change the world.

“I never sought out to create a movement, I never sought out to build something like this. I just wanted the truth,” he said. “All I wanted was to find out what happened to [my brother]. All I knew was that I was determined to find answers.”

Advocacy isn’t a short term exercise that ensures all demands of a social movement are met, and doesn’t mean that changes always occur in the wider society. Activism in itself is hard work, it’s allyship, and it’s having hard-conversations, according to Faqiri.

“There’s lots of big wins, and a lot of big losses,” he said. “We can never control the results, we can only control the efforts.”

According to Faqiri, students in particular are key to social movements, because youth of today are shaping the world they have inherited with all of its beauty and all of its flaws.

Bland believes that society just hopes that students will only care about certain issues for a little while, which is why he places emphasis on creating lasting changes.

“In the university context, administration relies on the fact that most of us are only here for four years. They can do and say whatever they like because they are relying on us on coming and going,” said Bland “This is why it’s important to stay tuned into what’s happening in our communities and what’s happening in administration so that we can respond to them.”

Activists like Faqiri, Johnson, Rizarri and Bland all say they recognize there is a lot of pressure on youth when it comes to advocacy. Social responsibility and the idea of making a better tomorrow may seem very abstract and far out of reach, given the current political climate.

However, as Bland says, we have community support and if we maintain relationships then the idea of activism and supporting movements isn’t so intimidating.

“Be kind to yourself. Do what you can and let that be enough,” said Johnson.