My Activist Life

While in Taiwan in 2008, I went with several other Fulbrighters to support a protest by the Democratic Political Party (DPP) which promotes Taiwanese self-determination. Today, activism must be flexible to include traditional protests like pickets and marches but also conversations, education, and online organizing.

One April morning in 2004 it was announced that George W. Bush would be coming to speak in Buffalo. Adamantly opposed to the war in Iraq since the very start, several classmates and I decided that we wanted to go and protest in front of Kleinhans Music Hall, where he was speaking. Unfortunately, I was already committed to an overnight college visit that same day, nixing my opportunity to answer my internal call to picket. As my mom and I drove east from Buffalo that morning, I listened to the local NPR affiliate’s coverage until static broke up the station somewhere before Rochester. I felt like we were driving away from my civic responsibility.

Throughout my college visit, I forgot about the missed protest. I found my academic home for the next four years, and was excited about the prospect. In the fall of that year I eagerly began the courses of a poli sci major and stayed up all night to hear the results of the 2004 election on one cold November night. I thought I would become involved in political change.

Again, I thought wrong. By the next semester, I switched away from a political science track to history and education. Trading in my continually-felt frustrations about the challenge of fighting for change, the combined study of historical successes and failures and how to teach them gave me new light. I could leverage my desire to make a difference through other avenues—including the classroom.

Still, I have always felt that the activist inside of me has been hidden away in a box. Sometimes she will come out through personal conversation or classroom coursework such as a movie I made in the fall of 2007 about my cousin’s experience in the Army. Instead of carrying signs in a picket line, I have studied and traveled and listened.

Therefore, I was excited to meet Iris Morales in class last week. A member of the Young Lords Party in New York City during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ms. Morales’ activist resume is impressive. Illustrating collective action to meet community needs, her 1996 documentary Palante, Siempre, Palante adds the Young Lords to a lengthy list of groups advocating for change at the time. I expected my inner activist to hear a call to action and begin picketing my inactivity.

Instead, I was struck by our conversation in class about the meaning in activism. Today, Ms. Morales works for a non-profit that funds grassroots activism. She described being perplexed to receive so many proposals for teaching English as a Second Language, a task that would not likely have been considered radical by Young Lords standards. But, Morales explained, with the 1990 immigration law and subsequent English-only controversy, teaching English as a Second Language is an important grassroots action. For Morales, this took a shift in her own understanding of activism.

Something clicked for me. My idea of an activist has always been someone walking a picket line, taking intermittent breaks to write letters and meet with officials. In reality, the tiny activist that I thought was hidden away inside is actually part of my daily practice, exercised most regularly in daily conversation and as an educator. Today, activism must be flexible and responsive to meet the needs of the cause and the continual media cycle. Instead, we must live activated and ready to respond.

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