There is a myth, not unique to the halls of Laurier or the streets of the Waterloo community, that activism is a thriving group of engaged students working and creating beneficial changes in the world. Yet it has been my experience that this myth is largely false, as activism is often too rooted in dogma to effectively influence the change that it wishes to manifest in the world. This article will serve to illustrate where activism has fallen from reality to myth and hopefully, by addressing the myth, begin the process of transformation.
The most significant factor in turning activism into a myth is that campus activist groups often lack the goal-oriented nature of successful organizations. This has resulted in overextended groups, actions that sacrifice the entirety of a group’s message, ineffective events, and even individual choices that fail to maximize one’s positive impact on the world.
No doubt there is a litany of causes that any particular group can involve themselves in, but the multiplicity of groups on campus allows each group to pick a niche concern they can focus their resources on. The lesson to be learned here is “pick your battles”. Absolutely the WLUSU hawk is a gross expenditure and is an unnecessary cost to students, but through the process of hawk squatting, campus activists have shut out a large number of students from and fostered a great deal of resentment towards those associated with the activist movement, thus hindering more noble messages associated with the movement. This is quite the penalty for a minor issue when compared to vast injustices taking place every minute around the world. If your goal is genocide prevention, environmental sustainability, gender equity, corporate responsibility, or any other worthy goal, then do not detract from the cause by taking on frivolous and popular campus issues. You actions are only hurting the bigger picture, and frankly, the movement could use your energy and resources elsewhere.
With a concrete set of goals, activist groups can then proceed by asking themselves, “how can we best reach these goals?” and “what means should be employed to obtain our ends?” Several events on campus organized by different political groups has led to the realization that campus activists never ask these critical questions. Politics is defined by power struggle, and activism often uses the tools of information and awareness to persuade individuals, who in turn will become an additional voice in the movement and eventually become a force that, through the strength of aggregation, can alter societal behaviours and shape the minds of decision makers in the business and political spheres. An inherent goal then of any activist organization is the art of persuasion and appealing to an audience. Activist groups seem to have missed this message, and I criticized the forums on the Gaza Strip on this point in the latest issue of The Cord. If an event is run for your own membership, so be it, but then consider a location besides the most public region of campus. Alternatively, if an event is being held that is geared towards the whole community then it is important to ensure that the activities are viewed as inviting to members of the community that do not already identify with activist groups. The fact that nearly every face in the concourse on Buy Nothing Day was familiar to the activist community should serve to illustrate just how far the activist community must go to turn myth into reality.
The failure to adopt a goal-oriented structure is largely the result of the dogma associated with these organizations. The reliance on consensus decision making and a disregard for formal procedure has resulted in members often pacifying how they feel events should be run, and formal documents are dismissed as the practice of more business focused organizations. However, being goal oriented is something that all organizations can benefit from, regardless of the organization’s purpose. Dogma not only hurts activist organizations through the events that are run, but also through actions that individuals may personally take. A good example of this is eating habits, one of the more prominent ways in which an individual interacts with their environment. Through the power of wise food selection an individual has the power to greatly reduce his/her environmental footprint, certainly a goal many activists proclaim. Yet the dogma of vegetarianism as well as the recent attention on local food clouds much of the potential. An analysis of environmental impacts conflicts with activist dogma, as chicken and fish are on par with many grocery items for greenhouse gas emissions and less than most dairy items. Additionally, transportation as a whole represents only 11% of life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions, so instances where local food is not environmentally sound are easily imaginable. Activist organizations, if their ends are as we may assume, must do a much better job at conveying a message that best achieves the goals they wish to accomplish.
It may be disingenuous when I refer to “campus activists”; the truth is that I often find my home somewhere in this term. But I feel strongly about the changes I wish to see in the world and I want to see these changes accomplished. Because of this I would love nothing better than the ability, at some point in the future, to proclaim this opening statement not as myth, but as reality, and I want you to help me make that future now.