Activism consists of efforts to promote, impede, or direct social, political, economic, or environmental reform or stasis with the desire to make improvements in society. Forms of activism range from writing letters to newspapers or to politicians, political campaigning, economic activism such as boycotts or preferentially patronizing businesses, rallies, street marches, strikes, sit-ins, and hunger strikes.
One can also express activism through different forms of art (artivism). Daily acts of protest such as not buying clothes from a certain clothing company because they exploit workers is another form of activism. Wikipedia
For a number of reasons I’ve been thinking more than usual about why I’ve done, and do, things related to activism. I have a feeling this may be a bit disjointed because there are so many aspects to this. Some reasons for the questioning include the realization that some other Quakers are critical of engaging in activism. Some because they don’t see a spiritual basis for activities, or dislike how activism is carried out. Some believe our focus should be on our relationship with God and our own lives, and not judge or engage in conflicts with others. I actually share many of these concerns, especially that there must be a spiritual basis for what we do, including activism. Related to that I am involved with the Peace and Social Concerns committees of both my local meeting and our yearly meeting, and often wonder if we are doing enough, or going about our work in the right way.
Another reason for reflections now is having retired a year ago, and finding my way into this new chapter in my life, where I have much more time and the freedom, and responsibility, to decide how to use it. As I’ve written before, writing on this blog is a spiritual practice and sometimes a form of activism for me. Writing has provided the discipline to create a space in my daily life for reflection and worship, to the point where I began to realize that each day I would wake up and ask God, “what are we going to do today?” That usually involved writing.
One of the most significant influences in my life was growing up in a Quaker community and seeing the spiritual basis of their everyday lives. Religion was not an isolated thing, but permeated everything. I was born in 1951, into the rural Iowa Quaker community of Bear Creek. This was soon after nearly twenty Quaker men were imprisoned for refusing to participate in military service, or with the newly instituted peacetime draft. Other Quakers left the United States because of the increasing militarism, and created a Quaker community in Monteverde, Costa Rica. The examples of those men and their families living according to their beliefs despite the consequences inspired me to try to do the same in my life.
Quakers believe every person in the world has that of God in them, and the ability to communicate with God, or the spirit. Believing that, I could never believe the unjust treatment of others could ever be justified, let alone killing in war or by capital punishment.
Some have life changing spiritual experiences, others not. I was blessed to have such an experience at Bear Creek meeting when I was around ten years old. There just aren’t words to express this. I felt lit up by a bright light and a feeling of peace and wonder and connection to a spirit that was part of, connected to, everything. After that I had no doubt about the presence of God.
Attending Scattergood Friends School, a coed Quaker boarding high school that was on a working farm, continued my education about Quakerism and living in community. And provided my first opportunities to engage in activism. My senior year began in 1969, during the Vietnam War. I was struggling to decide whether to accept conscientious objector status, or be a draft resister. This ended up being a long and difficult struggle for a number of reasons. I didn’t feel like I could accept conscientious objector status because that meant participating in the Selective Service System. The example of the Quakers who went to jail made me more aware of the significance of this decision, and gave me the strength to make my own. I realized this was my first challenge regarding living according to my own principles. The main reason it took so long to make the decision was to give my family time to accept it. Activism usually involves more than just yourself. Eventually I turned in my draft cards.
There were two other things we did at Scattergood related to the war. One was organizing a draft conference at the school, that was open to the public, to make people aware of all the choices available to a young man turning 18 years of age, when he is required to register for the Selective Service System. Education is often one of the goals of activism.
Another example of activism was when the entire School walked in silence from the School to Iowa City, about 12 miles away, as part of activities across the country on October 15, 1969, which was declared a National Moratorium Day to Stop the Vietnam War. This was the first public action most or all of us had participated in. I think we were all a little apprehensive about the possibility of being confronted by people who supported the war. I know I was. But that did not happen. I don’t think many people doubt that these protest hastened the withdrawal of the United States from Vietnam.
The summer of 1969 I spent in Iowa City with Don Laughlin, an Iowa Quaker who was a draft resister. He invited me to join him at the weekly peace vigil in front of the Old Capitol building in downtown Iowa City. This was my first public act and I was nervous about how things would go, similar to the feelings during the peace walk that fall described above. I was surprised to discover how standing in silence with others at the vigil felt like a Quaker meeting for worship. Peace vigils like this are usually held every week in a number of cities. The continuity of the vigil can be important, showing an ongoing commitment.
Many years later, in 2014, a number of Iowa Quakers and others were part of a peace vigil at the same place, in front of the Old Capitol building, this time related to the Israeli bombings in Palestine.
So there is an element of risk with these public actions. My experience over many years of public vigils is that very few people engage with you at all, and I’ve never felt physically threatened.
I had a more recent experience that was uncomfortable when I began to take a Black Lives Matter sign to our weekly peace vigil in downtown Indianapolis.
Taking that sign out in public renewed those old feelings of discomfort. I was really unsure of what the reaction of either white people or people of color would be. But I had no question about being led to make and display the sign. I know because I tried to talk myself out of it, and every time the spirit said ‘no, you have to do this.’ The second time I used the sign, I ended up in the middle of thousands of Black people who were downtown for the annual Black Expo event. I thought I really should turn around that day, but again the spirit said ‘keep going.’ I was really unsure of how that would turn out, but was surprised by the numerous indications of support from those in the crowd. The more common reaction were puzzled looks.
At the vigil, I was surprised at the number of times people driving past would honk their horns, or people would shout support and wave their hands. Many took pictures with their phones.
Once a young Black man stopped and said “a white man holding a Black Lives Matter sign”. I said, “yes, a white man holding a Black Lives Matter Sign”. He started to go away, but returned and asked “why are you doing it?” I told him about the Kheprw Institute (KI) that mentors Black youth that I had been involved with for several years now. And how those kids had become friends of mine. And I want a better life for them. He nodded, then said it was a brave thing to do. I only mention this to show how other people might see what you do in public. He went on to say how he felt justice had to be grounded in faith, and I agreed with him.
That exchange brings up questions of why you would participate in a vigil. In the case above about Black Lives Matter, I felt the implied question, directed at white people, was “do you think Black lives matter?” when people of color held those signs or said that in public.
I felt it was important that white people answer that question, publicly. Where else these days do we have opportunities to discuss these things? You rarely see such stories on television or in newspapers.
With the more general vigils related to peace, I think it is important that people who do not believe in militarism publicly show they believe there are better alternatives than war. There need to be voices for peace, especially in a country that is so militaristic. This has become even more important these days when corporations control the media and suppress stories they deem to be negative.
Whether participation in vigils is spirit-led depends upon the individual. For me, my participation is grounded in my spiritual experience. I mentioned some occasions previously when I had tried to get out of going, but the spirit wouldn’t have it.
Throughout the years there have been numerous ways people have expressed the concept of silence = violence or injustice. If we don’t speak out, somehow, against injustice, that gives tacit approval to the injustice. The most extreme example for me is how so few people spoke out against the concentration/death camps during World War II.
There are other benefits of public demonstrations. One is expanding you social justice network, and mutual support.
We are also viscerally connected with each other and Mother Earth. When someone is hurt, we all hurt.
Over the years I’ve participated in public demonstrations and vigils related to the Keystone (pipeline) Pledge of Resistance, Black Lives Matter, Living Wage, Indiana Moral Mondays, police brutality, homelessness, the Iran deal, Israeli attacks on Palestine, and the Dakota Access Pipeline.
I learned a lot as I spent time with Native Americans related to the Dakota Access Pipeline. It was quite a change to think of what we were doing as being water protectors, as opposed to demonstrators. To change the orientation away from negative, to positive. It has also been very meaningful to me to have seen and experienced the indigenous spiritual approach. One of the most beautiful things I have participated in was a gathering for those who had been engaged as water protectors. We gathered in a prayer circle, and several spoke about what the work meant to them. In this video my friend Brandi Herron talks about what she is grateful for. Then I tell these Dakota pipeline activists about the Keystone Pledge of Resistance.
Most recently I’ve been involved with the new Poor People’s Campaign, mainly as a photojournalist for our Iowa efforts. This campaign takes an inclusive approach, addressing all kinds of injustice. The forty day lead up to the gathering in Washington, DC, has focused on different issues each week, including vulnerable populations, racism, environmental chaos, violence and militarism, and, today, education, jobs and a living wage.
I used to be concerned about the (usually small) number of people who showed up for these events. But a long time ago someone taught me “those who are there are the ones who are supposed to be there.”
People can question how effective these efforts may be. I don’t know myself. But part of trying to be spiritually grounded is acting as you feel you are being led, despite the consequences, and despite realizing you may never know what the impact of what you are doing might be. Part of faith is believing God has a purpose for what you do, even if you never see the results yourself.