A New Age of Activism

Photo: Cindy Trinh, Activists of New York, activistnyc.tumblr.com

By Rebecca Niburg, Our Maryland Contributor

Activism is not new or something that has come back into style or was paused. Certain people and groups have been active for decades or longer. The 2016 election, however, engaged a new group of people in the political sphere. From those who identified with the Bernie Sanders campaign or otherwise became disillusioned with the overall party apparatus to those who were horrified by the actions and statements of the current administration, a different group of people have brought new energy and enthusiasm to political activism.

A natural tension has thus arisen between the “newcomers” and “seasoned activists.” Sometimes, the actions of the different groups have stirred discord or friction. Sometimes, the multiple angles have benefited the cause as the groups bring different types of attention and activate more people than may otherwise get involved. Sometimes, however, actions of one group hamper efforts for the targeted issue, for an overarching concern, or on behalf of a disaffected population

Certain frustrations are going to occur on both the new and seasoned activist front. For new activists, the pace of change may not be as fast as desired – calls for impeachment, for certain laws, for actions to be taken by elected officials or otherwise – are not showing immediate action. They also may be frustrated by the mechanisms of established organizations. For seasoned activists, frustrations occur when these newcomers tread into territory that has been occupied by individuals or groups over a period of time. When newcomers make suggestions that have already been attempted and failed, insist on diverting resources for a project with a dubious history or outside of known priorities, or insist on leading a group or on an issue with other established leaders, those who have been in the space may be offended or feel marginalized or disrespected. Institutional knowledge can both inform the best tactic to take on an issue, but also is important in ensuring that unintended consequences do not occur. New energy and ideas can be helpful, but some people new to an issue may not understand the nuances in the history of the issue that informs the possibilities and reality in solutions to problems or positive movement to advance a cause. The same new energy that can be useful can also dissipate quickly if efforts are frustrated and people feel like they are not making the difference that led to their involvement.

The natural tension between those new and seasoned will not go away and is a natural part of the process. It is vitally important, however, that the new and old have patience and understanding for each other. Each group has vitally important perspectives, energy, and resources to bring to the action or campaign. Fracturing of efforts due to that tension and resulting frustration only hurts the overall campaign or issue. It is vitally important that we work together despite our differences- whether we are new or experienced in the issue, whether we agree on all the details of the plan of action, and whether we all bring the same resources to the table. Bickering over details publicly can diminish public momentum or even embolden the opposition. Splintering privately can result in duplication of effort and ineffective use of resources. We are most effective in presenting a united front, if not in efforts in overall goals.

The strength in the Democratic movement is the diversity in individual characteristics as well as the culture of discussion. That same strength can also be the source of frustration in activism. Whether an activist has a healthy distrust of the party, has been active in the issue for decades or has joined one of the new progressive groups that have formed in the last two years, working together towards the common goal of advancing a particular cause benefits us all. Recognizing those that have led and have experience and supporting their efforts makes for a more effective campaign. And channeling the new energy helps embolden and revive the movements. We are stronger together and need to remember that as we move forward together.

The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of Our Maryland or Our Maryland Education Fund.