Understanding Activists

What is an Activist?


Who is an Activist?

Most people desire to live in a society based in justice, peace and respect for all. They wish they were not forced to exist in a society where wealth and power are concentrated in a few hands–not theirs! Most know, at least deep down, that this is unfair. Many also know that it’s an unfairness kept in place through exploitation, coercion, and deception.

Many people likewise understand that their individual troubles often stem from structural injustice.

Nevertheless, most of the time, the bulk of most people’s energies go towards living the best life they can under the tyranny of the status quo. They adjust their view of society, its rulers, their peers and themselves, accepting that they are basically powerless to transform society for the better even though they know it is imperative.

Some people, at some time(s) in their lives, do more. They step (or leap, or are brutally pushed) beyond the bounds of private discontent into the rewarding, challenging, arduous, risky arena of collectively organizing and spurring on movements for social transformation. They jump into the fray, usually in a particular area they feel connected to or passionate or angry about. They organize and attend meetings, hearings, marches, conferences, actions; write, make art, speak out, demonstrate, disrupt, challenge power in multiple ways; create new ways of living life in the midst of the old; celebrate wins, mourn defeats, and pick up the pieces in the aftermath, ready to push forward with the next movement.

At certain times, such as during this turbulent time of pandemic and political and social upheaval, we see great upsurges in activism. Thousands of people pour into collective action for social change, in different ways, often for the first time. They contribute to candidates and causes, sign petitions, do volunteer work and much more. They join marches, picket lines, street occupations.

Awareness grows, consciousness expands, people do things they may not have thought possible a short time ago–taking over buildings, standing up to police, toppling statues that have smugly stood for years. 

Repression of such manifestations by authorities inevitably brings out more resistance, and activism becomes rebellion, prompting response by people who may not have actively responded to the original injustice but are outraged when they witness the crushing of people’s peaceful, reasonable attempts to right it. 

Activism is not a yes or no thing, but a continuum. Beginning with a first outrage, an initial consciousness of injustice to oneself, loved ones or others, a person’s path to stepping out into the collective sphere to take action may be straight or winding; speedy or the result of a long, slow burn. 

And, after the first step, going on to others is itself a complex journey that is different for each, yet has similarities we want to understand better, to be able to support and protect it. 


“Activist” is not a perfect term, but it seems the most widely accepted. It does get at our basic nature: taking action, being agents for systemic change.

Detective Drunella

Who exactly ARE we talking about?

granny gus protect our activists

None other than the wildly diverse worldwide grab bag of boat-rockers, neck-sticker-outers, city-hall-fighters, tree-huggers, community-builders, movement-makers, rabble-rousers, word-warriors, consciousness-raisers, society-changers, organizers, agitators, radicals, resisters, revolutionaries, freedom-fighters and creative gadflies who by words and example educate, motivate and activate others, mobilizing movements for a just and compassionate world…

Detective Drunella

Activists are, like, special?

Juliana Barnet

Activists are ordinary people who tap into the superpower WE ALL HAVE: connecting with others to take action for social justice. 

granny gus protect our activists

POA is about understanding what exactly happens when folks take that step, and what needs to happen so that more people feel more able to do so.

money beast ocean lz flag

What's the Activist Community?

The activist community exists at many levels, covering a wide variety of profound, complex connections among folks dedicated to social change. Understanding the nature of these connections, and how to build, safeguard, and deepen them, is a key aspect of understanding activism.

The community is the dynamic, interrelated, ever-evolving constellation of people who share the basic overall aspiration to create a just society and–this is key–who actively participate in doing so, in connection with others. 

Of course, “activist community” as such is an abstraction, as are terms like “women,” “athletes,” or “trees.” We know there is no such thing as a generic athlete or tree, yet the categories are useful thought tools, as long as we use them carefully–like all tools should be used!

POA aspires to understand more about these thought tools and use them to understand activist experience and culture. We will be talking more about them in further posts.

sour puss protect our activists

Activists fight the beast every day while living in its belly.

Detective Drunella

And carve out liberated zones to begin creating the new world now.

Juliana Barnet

The worldwide community of activists are the core folks without whom movements do not happen. For any social movement that appears to surge out of nowhere, in reality at least a few activists are at its heart, and most likely have been thinking, working and fighting for a long time to make it happen.

Detective Drunella

Are people who fight for white power or against immigrants part of the Activist Community? 

granny gus protect our activists

If your fight for your particular people or issue entails opposing justice for others; if you feel that your people’s interests depend on harming or suppressing other people and groups; or if you believe that you and yours are better or more valuable than other folks, then … 

beast head

Then you're working for me!

granny gus protect our activists

BUT…if you believe in equal justice and human rights, and feel that injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere, and if your life includes action to uphold these values anywhere in the world, you’re part of this global community of social justice activists. 

Detective Drunella

So activists are all pure?

Juliana Barnet

Unfortunately, not! We need to protect ourselves from all the ways the Beast colonizes our minds, acting oppressively,  prejudices, making us sabotage ourselves and turn on each other. 

sour puss protect our activists

Activists are only human, poor things.

What Activists Do

Together, members of this community ponder, discuss and thrash out options; reach out and keep reaching out; plan, worry, write, argue, cry, pace the floor, walk the streets, tramp the mountains and jungles, lose sleep, cajole, encourage, comfort, celebrate, despair, pick themselves back up; come early, stay late, and much more, to ensure that actions and movements happen and that people know about them and that they get thought about and evaluated.  They are the ones who insure that activists in trouble get remembered, defended, celebrated and mourned. The ones who organize the making of the food and who stir the oversized pots, the ones who plan and make the phone calls; who pick up the chairs and the sound systems, and keep track of them and make sure the bills are paid.  The ones who take notes and worry and speak and write articles and letters, who bring folks together to talk, think and fight.  And much more.

And What's Activist Culture?

How people in the activist community relate to one another and to the rest of the world, how they represent their reality to themselves and others, and how they think and act together are basic aspects of activist culture.

True, activists have all kinds of identities and belong to many cultures, constituencies, places and identities. We have all kinds of (often conflicting) schools of thought, styles, strategies, plans, tools and methodologies. What is unique about activists and activist culture is that its very purpose is to transform the dominant power structure founded on profit over people, and the culture that supports it, in pursuit of universal justice, peace and planetary survival.

Many cultures run afoul of the dominant culture and power structure at particular times and in particular places, but ours is by definition in conflict with the status quo. Activist culture is founded in the aspiration to transform society, even though this often looks like “merely” trying to uphold society’s current stated tenets, such as equal opportunity, voting rights, contract rights, etc. While specific activist actions, organizations and movements generally focus on specific areas, populations and issues, our overriding principle is that justice must be universal. 

The fact that people encounter such resistance to their attempts to uphold existing rights is what pushes some people into activism, and what alerts them, or confirms their suspicions, that the system itself is what does not allow for the justice it purports to embody (let alone greater levels of justice). This is what leads people from their particular experience to engaging with the larger question of systemic change.

Activists work for all kinds of improvements in the current status quo, and want things to go as well as they can for as many folks as possible. It is often these efforts, and the great struggles and risks activists face in this good work, that we come to understand the fundamentally unfair way society is organized, and that it must be transformed fundamentally to achieve things that nearly everyone considers desirable in a society: fairness, cooperation and compassion without favorites or exceptions.


Activists are connected in a global community, a unique culture, comprised of folks who have taken this stance in the world, with all its joys and challenges, shared experience and purpose, and common internal contradictions and tensions. 

Wildly diverse though it is, the worldwide activist community shares behaviors, priorities, beliefs, attitudes, joys, rituals, humor, history, principles, ideologies, role models, vocabulary, and more. All this makes us a distinct culture.

Our culture is shaped by the inescapable tension of living life in the belly of the Beast we are working to transform. This does not mean that others do not oppose injustice; in fact, most people do. The difference is that the very essence of our culture is the collective goal and work of transforming the status quo, putting us as a community in basic basic contradiction with the way things are.

Which is why I can't stand activists!

sour puss protect our activists

Which is why we need to protect them!!

Why Care about Our Culture?

What does this basic contradiction between the activist community and the unjust social structure in which we function mean for our movements and our lives? How does it shape us, our experience and our work? And why spend time “navel gazing” at our own community when we have so much urgent work to do in the world?

Well…it is not exaggerating to say that the future of our world depends on activist work. Whether we acknowledge or are even conscious of it, we’re all counting on activists to organize, inspire, push, lead, coax, harangue, and hustle enough of the rest of us into action to stop annihilation by nuclear, climate, economic and other catastrophes. Centuries of human history indicate that we are unlikely to evolve or bumble by accident into a society of equality and sanity in our dealings with one another and with our environment. We need to actively make this happen, which means activists mobilizing people to stand up to the Beast and successfully vanquish it.

The Beast knows this, and will stop at nothing to keep it from happening. Its best chance, it knows, is to target activists. Even when repression is random and rampant, it is always most fierce and focused on activists.

At the same time activists battle the Beast, we are building the new world now, carving out liberated zones in the midst of movements to experiment with more fair and sensible ways of doing things, in bits and pieces supplanting the old and bad with more creative possibilities. The Beast hates these experiments and regularly swoops in to crush them.

The more collective consciousness activists develop and share about the nature of our culture, community, experience and specific challenges we face as activists, the better we can protect, defend, love and support each other, broaden our reach, fight our adversaries, overcome our divisions, and strengthen ourselves to wage this indispensable fight.

Words: Juliana Barnet

Artwork: Rini Templeton, Sophie Barnet-Higgins, Juliana Barnet 

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