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Understanding Activists

Character Commentary

What is an Activist?


What makes somebody an Activist?

Most people want 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 become activists when we bridge the gap between the personal and the political by stepping, leaping or being pushed by harsh experiences, beyond the bounds of private struggle into the collective sphere. And if, in the collective sphere, we start, join, and/or actively support organized 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 of us. 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 to make society more just.

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

The existing structures serve me just fine!

granny gus protect our activists

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, and who organize and motivate others to do so.

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

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 the global activist community.

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.

What Do 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 keep on keepin’ on, 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 cook, get others to cook, rope in still others to cut the veggies and stir the oversized pots; activists plan, make phone calls; pick up chairs and 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.

Activism is full of delights!

We sing, make art, dance, frolic, paint signs, murals, puppets. We play music, do theater, play games, make jokes, eat, yell, shout and holler and cry.

We experience the joy of being together in a just cause, the inspiration of seeing multitudes around us, the feelings of strength, belonging, community, togetherness.

We develop  comradeships, friendships, partnerships. We feel the pleasures of connection, inclusion, working together, eating together,

We experiment with new ways of doing things. Thinking together. Exploring, learning, fighting, winning.

We console one another for losses; we reflect and pick up the pieces.

We exchange experiences and stories.

We recognize one another across barriers.

We create, build, participate. 

We honor our cultures, differences, leaders, followers, innovators, ancestors, poets, theoreticians.

We learn from our victories and our defeats.

We experience the fun of doing good in the world, of pursuing justice, of righting wrongs, of raising our voices and giving voice to the voiceless. Of being valuable and valued. And much more.

But! In the Belly of the Beast Activists Risk being...

  • Disrespected, ridiculed
  • Marginalized, minimized
  • Invisibilized, ignored
  • Dehumanized, otherized
  • Beaten up, tear-gassed, accosted, harassed
  • Jailed, detained, disappeared
  • Fired, evicted, expelled
  • Infiltrated, surveilled
  • Threatened
  • Exiled
  • Sued, legally/bureaucratically attacked
  • Tortured
  • Bombed
  • Occupied
  • Killed, assassinated, massacred

Plus facing the risks of :

  • Stress and its many consequences
  • Depression and other mental health conditions
  • Burnout
  • Isolation
  • Overwhelm
  • Despair
  • Exhaustion
Detective Drunella

How to protect ourselves against all that?!?

granny gus protect our activists

Protect Our Activists asks that very question, reflecting and inviting activists to  exchange reflections to better understand and address these numerous occupational hazards.

Beast and sign

Just give up!!



أبدًا, أبدا



không bao giờ
कभी नहीं
Activists with posters marching in a line

Words: Juliana Barnet

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

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