Understanding Activists

What is an Activist?


What makes somebody an Activist?

Most people desire to live in a society based in justice, peace and respect for all. Yet most of the time, most of us focus on living the best individual life we can, conditioned as we all are to ignore, rationalize or feel powerless to change the injustice, oppression and exploitation we feel and observe around us.


Most of us do resist egregious unfair treatment of ourselves and loved ones, at least sometimes. However, we only bridge the gap between the personal and the political when we step, jump, or are pushed by harsh experiences beyond the bounds of private struggle into the collective sphere, starting, joining and/or spurring on collective efforts to challenge injustice and transform society into a place of justice and compassion.

Activism is not a yes or no thing, but a continuum. Often beginning with a first outrage, or a first moment of awareness, 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 of anger at historic injustice to oneself, loved ones or others.

Even after the first step, taking the next, and the next after that, is a complex journey that is different for each. Yet activism, activist culture, the activist experience, have essential characteristics that cross lines of issue, place, constituency, ideology, history and more.


“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, and creative gadflies who by words and example educate, motivate and activate others, mobilizing movements for … And THIS is the key commonality…a just and compassionate world FOR ALL.

Detective Drunella

So activists are superheroes?

Juliana Barnet

Activists are ordinary people who tap into the superpower WE ALL HAVE: connecting with others to take action to challenge unfair, unequal, unjust, destructive, exploiting, oppressive social structures and create others that better serve all of us (not just some).

beast head

Those existing structures serve me just fine!

granny gus protect our activists

Right. Which is why The Beast (the whole horrible system of greed and oppression) will only change if humans stand up to it.

Juliana Barnet

And THAT will only happen through the actions of the worldwide community of activists, the first responders against injustice, the ones who speak out, speak up, stand up, stand out and otherwise put themselves in the perilous path of the Beast.

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.


Theory, thinking and communicating are basic to every culture, none more than activist culture.

sour puss protect our activists

Activists are obsessed with them!!


Maybe so! In any case, we’ll be looking more closely about those aspects of activist culture and their role in creating a better climate for us and our work.

The Activist Experience

money beast ocean lz flag
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. If a social movement seems to surge out of nowhere, in reality at least a few activists are at its heart. Most likely they’ve been thinking, working and fighting for a long time to make it happen.

Detective Drunella

Are people who fight for white supremacy or against immigrants activists?

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 perfect and pure?

Juliana Barnet

Not even close! That’s why we also need to notice and protect ourselves from all the ways the Beast colonizes our minds, especially the ways it makes us sabotage ourselves and turn on each other. 

sour puss protect our activists

Activists are only human, poor things.

Beast and sign

hopeless! Just give up!!

What Activists Do

Activists 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. 

Activists fight to have noteworthy activists recognized, remembered, defended, celebrated and mourned.

Activists organize making food and roping folks in to cut the veggies and stir the oversized pots, plan and make the phone calls; pick up the chairs and the sound systems, keep track of them and make sure the bills are paid. 

Activists take notes and worry and speak and write articles and letters and get comrades to sign on. They bring folks together to talk, think and fight.

Activists plan, strategize, argue, find common ground, disagree, make coalitions, organizations, brigades, committees, flash mobs, demonstrations, street theater, strikes, music, festivals, conferences, anthologies, journals, documentaries, encampments, tree-sits, banner-drops, meetings, petitions, campaigns, uprisings, mass movements, liberation struggles…and more.

Activists go to jail, get beaten up, fired, privately and publicly attacked, surveilled, .

Activists, depending on particular circumstances of their activity, may individually and collectively risk being:

  • Dismissed, belittled, ridiculed
  • Invisibilized and ignored
  • Dehumanized and otherized
  • Beaten up, tear-gassed, and harassed
  • Jailed, detained, disappeared
  • Fired, evicted, expelled
  • Infiltrated and surveilled
  • Tortured
  • Bombed
  • Occupied
  • Killed, assassinated, massacred
Detective Drunella

How to protect ourselves against all that??

granny gus protect our activists

Protect Our Activists is about asking that very question, thinking, discussing, reflecting and writing about the activist experience and how to better understand deal with all these dangers.

Beast and sign

hopeless! Just give up!!

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 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.

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 activist culture is that its purpose is to transform the dominant power structure 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 activist actions, organizations and movements generally focus on specific areas, populations and issues, our overriding principle is that justice must be universal. 

The huge resistance –which for short we call the Beast–that people encounter 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). Having to fight so hard and being targeted for what seems simple and obvious, such as all children deserving the same access to good education, tends to lead 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 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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