Activism 101

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I used to do an activism unit with my sophomore English classes. To kick off the unit, I presented a lesson on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, which you can read here.

In recent weeks, I’ve noticed a lot of would-be activists undermining their own efforts with ineffective and/or counterproductive tactics, and it occurs to me that this might be a good time to share that lesson with my readers.

Here, then, are what my students and I referred to as “Dr. King’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective Activists”:

Habit 1: Stay positive. Don’t tell me why the other side is wrong. Tell me why you’re right. Negativity is a waste of time, and it turns people off. If your cause is truly worthwhile, it will stand on its own merits.

Habit 2: Stay together. There’s strength in numbers, and infighting will destroy a movement faster than anything else in the world.

Habit 3: Sacrifice. Activism isn’t always easy. If you can’t deal with that, you’re not going to accomplish much.

Habit 4: Stay on message. Don’t let your tactics overshadow your issue. Don’t write obscenities on your protest signs. Don’t get naked for animal rights. Don’t make out with your same-sex partner in the middle of a Chick-fil-A. Don’t stand in front of a restaurant, holding pictures of bloody fetuses, to protest the fact that the owner moonlights as a receptionist for an abortion clinic in the next county. Don’t get violent. Don’t violate your opponent’s civil liberties. You want the media to report on your issue, not your asinine behavior.

Habit 5: Don’t give up.

Habit 6: Hit ’em in the pocketbook. Economic pressure is a powerful motivator — which is why a boycott is one of the most effective weapons in an activist’s arsenal. Control the bottom line, and in most cases, you control the company’s behavior.

Habit 7: Help each other. If your group is sympathetic to another group’s cause, work out a sort of mutual-aid agreement in which you show up for each other’s rallies, participate in each other’s letter-writing campaigns, and honor each other’s boycotts. Again: There’s strength in numbers.

These tactics work. They worked for Dr. King. They’ve worked for me. And they will work for you. All I would really add to his list is this: Know what you’re talking about, and be able to back up your opinions with verifiable facts gleaned from credible sources.

If you can pull that off, you can win a lot of battles.


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