On Activism and Organizing: There is a Distinction

What’s the difference between an organizer, an activist, and someone who is just plain fighting for their life, on a personal level? Often, there is no discernible distinction, as these roles often blend together in ways that could never be separated. But for some people, there is no such complexity. I point this out because, in recent years, there has been a verbal shift in social justice spaces towards referring to everyone involved as an organizer. As a person who believes that we too often negate the meanings of words by transforming them into umbrellaed concepts, I have to say my piece about the matter.

Not everyone who is involved in movement work is an organizer, and that’s okay. And to be real, if you find that you’re spending more time condemning the imperfect ideas and practices of others than you’re spending lifting folx up, you are not healing or building anything — and that’s what it means to organize. But at some point, the ideas behind words like “activism” and “organizing” became horribly skewed, and while these are just my opinions, I think that’s bullshit.

I’m not about to bust out a dictionary, but let’s discuss what these words mean in practice.

Activism is about showing up for justice, and in the name of justice. Folx have attached a lot of nasty connotations to this word, but there is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING wrong with being a person who is committed to showing up and working hard, in a consistent manner. There is nothing wrong with throwing down, in the interest of justice, with zero interest in being a planner or an architect of such moments. People should be described in whatever terms they prefer, because people have the right to define who they are, but there is nothing wrong with being an “activist” or a “protester” for that matter.

Nothing. Period.

The #NoDAPL water protecters are water protectors because that is the name they have chosen for themselves, and their work, but if they called themselves protesters or activists, would their work be less valid? Or is the act of throwing down what matters?

Organizing is a more complicated matter than simply throwing down or flexing a skill, and it should be named as such. One of my own mentors once asked me, “But aren’t we all organizers?”

My answer, as ever, is a resounding no.

Organizing sometimes means educating others, even though you have no obligation to do so. It means taking other people’s stances and feelings into account, even when they don’t resonate with your own, and realizing that no one shows up perfect to the revolution — including the past, present and future you. It’s about finding the line between having difficult conversations, to help people and communities move forward, and expecting people to simply show up where you’re at, because you’re tired of waiting for them to do so.

It’s okay to be tired and unwilling to indulge or even challenge people. But simply rejecting people’s behavior is not, in of itself, organizing, because organizing is a constructive act.

Being an organizer usually means realizing that this work pays you back in the form of community, purpose and the hope of something better, and can often detract from everything else. It’s work that ought to be materially compensated, but most of the time, it is a calling, not a career. It ought to be praised and credited, but usually isn’t. That’s just the way of things, and not everyone is going to find that tolerable.

Being an organizer is about understanding that, whenever possible, lateral critiques should be aimed at helping everyone — including you — to do better, rather than honing the membership of your clubhouse.

It’s about instigating change and creating momentum.

Not everyone will assume such a role and that’s fine. Some people would never want to, and I respect that. I hope such people choose to do something in the name of justice, but that work can take many, many shapes.

To be clear, no one is obligated to swing the door open to those who endanger others. I am not above boxing out individuals who can’t stop harming folx, because to me, declaring that someone isn’t disposable means that I’m not about to toss them into the lake, or into a cage. It DOES NOT mean that they are welcome in my living room. We have a natural right to protect ourselves, and to repel the antagonism of white supremacy, but ideas don’t spread without engagement. Part of real-world organizing is finding the line between productive dialogue and harms we simply cannot engage with. That’s not easy, but it is organizing.

I see no ethical or merit-based hierarchy between involuntary struggle, activism, and organizing, but if your work is mostly rooted in dragging folx and tearing people down, please don’t call yourself an organizer. Because what you’re doing is something else entirely. Whether it’s about branding or simply reveling in a sense of superiority, such “work” is not an effort to heal or build, and it sure as hell isn’t transformative.

Seriously, let’s ask ourselves: Are we trying to make change? And how do we really think that happens?

Bottom line: Ideological posturing won’t change the world, and no one should pretend otherwise.