Becoming an activist
Now, I suppose, with the job title of Activism Manager, it comes as no great surprise that I believe activism is both a positive and powerful tool for charities. However, this is not a belief that started when I joined Mencap. It’s one that I have held throughout my life. Although “activism” as a word may not always have been the label I would have given to this…
“So, what is activism?!”
This is a question I often get asked when I tell people my job title. That or I get the quizzical look. This is for them; activism is defined as activity aimed at causing or stopping change around a particular issue or issues. This can take many shapes and forms. Traditionally, people think of activism as direct action. Images spring to mind of people tying themselves to railings or harassing politicians with placards and megaphones. That isn’t quite what I’m paid for.
Over the last decade, activism has increasingly moved from the streets to exist online in the form of petitions, email actions and social media. Hundreds of actions pop up every day on issues as varied as field mice, gun control and bins. Each treated with the same urgency. The message and techniques may vary dramatically, but they all share the common thread of being focussed on uniting individuals to speak out or act to bring about change. That’s what hooks me in time and time again.
When did it begin for me?
At school, I was what classmates would call a “nerd.” To give you an idea- buying stationary for the school year was one of my favourite moments of the Summer Holiday. I loved learning and was a particular fan of History. As such, growing up, my heroes weren’t just Boyzone and the Spice Girls (Stephen and Mel B were my favourites for those wondering) but the likes of Rosa Parks, Gandhi and Ann Frank; each one an activist in their own right. I loved exploring the way that individuals and groups could transform things, for better or worse and the motivations behind this. As an adult, my musical tastes may have changed (although I still have my guilty pleasures!) but I remain continually inspired by activists from all walks of life.
Disability has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. As a young child I remember thinking that all Mums had short hair and one leg as that was my “normal.” Activism and disability came together for me after University when I spent a year working as a support worker. It was simultaneously one of the toughest and most rewarding years of my life and taught me a lot about society and myself.
A key thing that struck me was the number of limitations that were placed on what people could and couldn’t do because of cuts to budgets or because they didn’t tick quite the right box for eligibility. From gradual limitations on the number of outings someone could have a week, to ever tightening funds for food. I also became acutely aware of people’s vulnerability when I experienced the level of discrimination they faced on a daily basis. Although often in the form of whispers and stares there were times this erupted into acts of aggression. It was an alarming wake up call to the level of inequality that still exists. The experience motivated me to seek the power to do something more to challenge these inequalities, which eventually led me to Mencap.
Too often, activism is confused with or portrayed as angry people shouting about an issue they care about. That is not what it means to me. For me, activism is about passion, not aggression. Although, if you asked any of my friends who have accidentally used the r-word in front of me they may say differently! When I have met other activists, what unites us is a shared enthusiasm for challenging what we view to be the wrongs in society. We might not all agree on what those wrongs are or how to challenge them but we agree that activism is a powerful tool to achieve the change we want to see. Activism may look slightly different today but it is definitely still alive and well.
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