writing to know, knowing thru being, being for writing... this is me, writing about the one thing i know, which is myself... and even that is sometimes a mystery...

Friday, July 21, 2006

putting the ACTIVE in activism

a long overdue post on the midwest social forum and my brief encounter with a career-related exitential crisis...

keep on keeping on...

This past weekend, as part of my internship with Chicago IndyMedia (CIMC), I traveled to Milwaukee, WI, for the Midwest Social Forum, a gathering of grassroots, nonprofit, and progressive organizations, for purposes of networking, combining efforts on a regional level, and discussing pressing social issues – immigrants’ rights, diversity and racial equality, and youth movements being the most prominent among them. We organized and participated in caucuses on independent/alternative media, and discussed the ways in which we could work within the corporate/mainstream model to achieve success for our causes. We also presented workshops on strategic communications and public relations for grassroots organizations.

This was something I had looked forward to the entire summer. In my mind, it signified my milestone in the internship experience, the bridge from grunt-work intern to deservingly invaluable member. I thought of it as an initiation ceremony into an exclusive club, a special social group I desperately wanted to join. It was an opportunity to prove myself, to set myself apart, to leave all the others in the dust and say that I, yes I, was the best intern… ever! (Of course, I was not in fact competing against any one at all. CIMC does not have any other interns. CIMC has never had any other interns. I’m their first and only. That, in and of itself, should have been enough to win their eternal favor. But I am, and have always been, a very competitive person. I’m neurotic about it. The competition’s invisibility only adds to the formidable list of all the compounded possible advantages they may have over me: just another thing to try to overcome with my simple and boring human abilities and strains of luck.)

But as it turns out, this Forum was not what I had in mind. I expected some mental strain and challenges, sure, maybe even some feats of power and strength, but never did I expect to be physically uncomfortable. The whole weekend, I was itching to run. It’s hard to explain, but I have never felt so uncomfortable or cramped in my own skin. I was itching to get away. As much as the subject matter interested me, I could not physically hold myself to such a place. I wanted to duck and run, to stretch and wave my arms wildly. My legs felt as if they were shrinking. My spine, electrified.

I felt like a hyperactive bound in a straightjacket. Everywhere I went, a restriction. Every action, a reaction. I was being contained.

Indeed, I was earning my membership at this Forum. This was the progressive grassroots organization’s answer to fraternity hazing.

It’s not that it was particularly grueling or tedious to be an organizer and/or volunteer. And it wasn’t that I was exhausted from attending the dozen or so workshops, nor from the lack of sleep in my pre-arranged homestay, where the house of rowdy twenty-somethings kept me up late and woke me up early when all I wanted to do was sleep until the headaches went away. No, the discomforts I experienced physically were only a projection of my existential unrest.

And it wasn't that I was bored or restless.

It was this, and simply this, that was causing my unfamiliar discomfort: I was confronting the harsh reality of grassroots activism, a jarring contrast to the glamorous and convenient image of gratifying change I had idealized and sought to implement in my campus activities. To my disappointment, the "real world" activism I was coming to know at the Forum, and in my experiences with IndyMedia, was unfortunately much more familiar than I had hoped it would be. I recognized the fragmented cohesion of core leadership that my activist groups at school struggled with in the past semester. I learned, to my dismay, of the struggles and disappointments of these "professional" activists, who I had hoped to learn and garner apprenticeships from, who I had hoped to model my own successes after. I attended workshops on avoiding burn-out, surprised and upset to learn that my brushes with exhaustion and insurmountable fatigue were not in fact casualties of my inexperience and green-ness to the activist business, but were the business, occupational hazards.

Indeed, it was a test of my strength, my endurance, and my motives.

Perhaps it was that I have never had to confront my (possibly selfish) reasons for wanting to pursue progressive projects and social activist movements. I’ve always been content to simply find the few things I care about enough to mobilize others and myself into a superficial commitment. I have always sought to work toward these few achievements, in even the faintest of semblances, and settle for that. It was not discomfort I was experiencing, but existential and motivational disconnect.

Had I been fooling myself? Had I been doing this for the wrong reasons? Did I actually think I could accomplish something of note and be happy to settle for that? Was I in this for the long term commitment, or was this just another fleeting hobby?

The feeling in my stomach when I thought this --that this might be a petty fascination, a childish fancy, a trend I was following, a phase of rebellion-- was wrenching. I felt sick, genuinely sick, and uncomfortable.

The Forum was a critical moment in my learning experience because it gave me the opportunity to examine myself and reflect my intentions and the intentionality of my actions and motivations. If I strip myself of my comfortable illusions and ulterior motives, if I come to see my activism for what it is --a genuine desire to change the world, no matter what the cost or trials I may face-- and still endeavor to pursue it, perhaps I can find the true happiness and fulfillment I may be seeking, may find something beyond the instant gratification of illusory control over my situation.

I wanted, I needed, to set out and invoke social reform. But not only in my own community or my immediate social circles any more, but also in my approach. I had to change the changes I was implementing to change the world. I had to change my idea and the way of the change I was seeking in the world.

In the context of the Forum, my simple and singularly conceived goals meant nothing. And I had no reputation for greatness or activism to ease my entrance into this culture of activism or to validate my membership. I had to earn it. I had to justify my need to be there.

At a regional gathering, the minor travails of a small student organization from Miami seemed meaningless compared to the national movement for workers’ rights, or the fight for immigrants’ rights and amnesty. Even the voluminous problems concerning Chicago’s youth and inner city were more than I could fathom to tackle with one movement or campaign, more than anyone could pretend to solve in a lifetime.

In my competitive spirit to distinguish myself as a student activist, I had forgotten to be active. There was so much to be done, so many campaigns to get off the ground, so many actions to plan, and such lofty goals to achieve. End world hunger. Reform the educational system. Eliminate poverty. Achieve fair wages and dignity for workers. World amnesty. Return media to the people. Ridding the world of sexism, racism, ageism, healthism… There were endless things in need of change; it would take endless numbers of people and endless amounts of time and energy to make a perceptible difference in any of these areas.

And I couldn't do it all alone. Change can't begin and end with one person, nor can it survive in just a few. It must be shared and distributed among the masses and we need to develop a culture of activism if we wished to see the changes for which we were fighting. Furthermore, change cannot be inspired by sitting in a workshop with like-minded individuals, but must be acted upon, must be brought out to see the sun, must be shared and spread across the world. I will not --cannot-- settle for armchair activism. Effective activism hinges on actions, not passive dreaming or hopes and wishes. Perhaps it begins with a dream, but the goal is to make the dreams a reality, to shatter illusions and conquer reality.

It’s hard to explain what happened to me at the Forum, or what epiphanous discovery I made that altered my perception of self or my work or calling. I just know that I’ve uncovered an itch unscratched, and the feeling of discomfort has been an altogether pleasantly unsettling experience.


  • At 9:58 PM, July 22, 2006, Anonymous remaerdyaD said…

    ...(well, remaerdyaD actually "wrote"... (=: ) that he was the one who found your blog searching for, indymedia, on youtube. Have to admit, when I read, internship, with reference to your inclusion with chicago.indy, my first thought was, "that is odd". I mean, I think indymedia is a few things to a few different ppl. Some saw it, still do, as a means of exploitation (realize, before blogs and social networking, indymedia was literaly It for some of us to freely associate and publish on the internet). Other see it as a platform to continue on their path to a collective future. Still others try to find leadership and the questioning of armchair politics through indymedia (let us be honest, computers and the internet cannot be exempt here as it can with many, some suggest nearly all, otehr forms of activism).

    But 'internship'?

    I think understand your, internship, now. And I do not mean this in the sense that you do this and I or others do not (and of course I am easily wrong about this), but it seems to me that your primary motivation in a progressive, active life is one that comes out of a sense of challenge. This is simply foreign to me.

    Those who try to exploit indymedia are often faced with burnout. How do you exploit something that is essentially de-centralized? Those who try to make indymedia more like their own collective are always met with frustration. How do you politicize something that already has a successful and working agenda that is both not exclusively non-political and yet very clearly not apolitical? And as for those who try to use indymedia as a building block for their leadership desires, they come face to face with the reality of what is meant by a leaderless society. How do you seek fame when the only modus operandi is to pay attention to what others are saying?

    The funny thing is that when activism works, it solves all of those problems of world hunger and world peace. You cannot stop the world problem until you end it in the place where it counts: your neighbourhood and community.

    I love the bits about your description of mixed feelings and uneasy desire (not that I am wishing such things upon you).

    In my own case, I am rather shut away with some physical difficulties. So, for example, something like attending a forum are protest activity simply does not cut it. I support these things to a degree - which is what we need more of. It is not black and white. To put it sussinctly, I have zero problem with any challenge as I think you might. My point comes down to motivation, with a frame of reference that comes out of a clear sense of how to proceed - which means, in true progressive spirit, my primary problem is nobody would dare follow my lead, so to write.

    The interesting thing that I have found is not that I need anyone to follow me (this also is simply not on my radar - though maybe hard to express quickly for others) but that all I have to do is start typing and let the decisions come as the keys click! My activism is quite simply that and no else.

    What is so ironic, over my years with indymedia, is that I can have an equal effect and affect when I choose to stop typing (re: I have actually have no direct affiliation with any indymedia, apart from its irc server - and that is an enormous success considering some of the relationships I have had completely online over 5 years!). I often say to my friends that when they refuse to change for any reason, they are indistinguishable from the dead to me. I guess with activism for us, maybe it is a matter that when our activism stops teaching us something, we are doing something wrong?

    Now let me tell you something about how I think that this reflects on me and you. If we had the same mind about what the best solution is, we would not be communicating in the way that we are. And that can only mean one thing. That we are likely very different in what we think about many things!

    With this, too, we can stop war.

    thanx again ogbuefi stephi


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