The roots of modern social activism lie in the 18th and 19th centuries with movements such as the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and labor rights. Social activism burst into the foreground in the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam anti-war protests becoming defining characteristics of a generation of Americans. Continuing into the 21st Century, the LGBTQ+ movement and cannabis reform are among the notable milestones thus far.
Modern Social Movements
Social activism is a way to promote positive change. The Internet and social media in particular have made it relatively easy and inexpensive to connect, communicate and influence at scale. This means that modern social movements can take root and grow quickly.
Here are 8 examples of contemporary social movements and their key areas of focus:
Climate activism: Seeks to create action from governments and industries to urgently address climate change.
Youth activism: Where youth make their voices heard on issues such as gun violence, LGBTQ+ rights and the environment.
Women’s rights activism: Addresses women-centric concerns such as reproductive rights, equal pay and equal political representation.
Trans rights activism: Seeks to promote the rights and well-being of transgender people.
Indigenous rights activism: Addresses issues such as indigenous land rights, environmental justice and cultural preservation.
Cannabis activism: Advocacy for decriminalizing the use of cannabis with a focus on addressing the historically unfair treatment of minority communities.
Black Lives Matter: Started in 2013 to tackle police brutality and systemic racism towards black Americans.
#MeToo: Began in 2017 to address sexual harassment.
Political Activism: Affecting Change from the Top
Political activism seeks to affect change from the top, whether at the local, state or national levels. This can include protesting, lobbying elected officials and supporting candidates who align with specific values.
Information and respectful engagement are fundamental to constructive political activism. The most effective political activists study the issues from various perspectives. Studying the field of political science can provide activists with scientific insights into the behavior of political systems and mechanisms for change. Basic education on civics and political science can also help individuals avoid pitfalls like conspiracy theories.
Political activism takes different forms, from grassroots organizing to institutionalized efforts such as working within political parties or government agencies, forming and funding PACs (Political Action Committees) and building coalitions. Constructive political activism should always take into account the needs and rights of all members of society.
6 Dos and Don’ts of Political Activism
Do your research: Always research the issues and become a true subject matter expert.
Stay informed: Political activism is dynamic, and it is important to stay informed.
Respect opinions: Respecting the opinions of others shows that you are a constructive activist and fosters empathy for your views.
Keep dialogue respectful: Engage in respectful dialogue and try to find common ground with those who have different views.
Engage in peaceful protests: If you choose to participate in protests or rallies, keep your activities peaceful and lawful.
Work together: Collaborate with others who share your goals to achieve positive change.
Don’t resort to violence: Violence is anti-democratic and never an acceptable tactic.
Don’t engage in hate speech: Using language that is derogatory to others delegitimizes your viewpoints.
Don’t partake in personal attacks: Stick to the issues because personal attacks do nothing to substantiate your cause.
Don’t ignore the facts: Ignoring facts undermines legitimate movements.
Don’t make assumptions: Listen, analyze and internalize the views of others as opposed to making assumptions and snap judgements.
Don’t give up: If it’s worth doing, it’s probably not going to be easy!
4 Ways to Constructively Influence Government Agencies
Bureaucracy, policies and political leadership are real barriers to influencing government agencies, but it is not impossible. Here are 4 established approaches:
Provide public comment: Many government agencies solicit public comment on proposed plans, projects and policies. Submitting comments through a platform like Instant Input or in person can help shape outcomes.
Build relationships with officials: Relationships matter and when you have them with agency officials, you’re more likely to be heard. Public meetings and other events can provide opportunities for strategic relationship building.
Be an advocate: Advocacy involves using your voice to raise awareness and make an impact on important issues. Advocacy typically includes engaging and informing elected officials, the media and the general public in support of your cause.
Leverage the legal system: When all else fails, the legal system may provide remedies, albeit at significant cost.
Maximize Your Influence with Instant Input: Connect with Government Agencies and Drive Social Change.
Environmental Activism and Its Impact on Communities
Environmental activism can have a significant impact on local communities by protecting the environment and public health.
The Gowanus Canal in New York City’s Brooklyn borough provides one example of urban rejuvenation driven by environmental cleanup. The canal was one of the most polluted waterways in the United States, contaminated with industrial waste and raw sewage. Local residents and environmental activists worked together to raise awareness that led to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designating the canal as a Superfund site in 2010. Federal funding and resources followed and today the area around the canal is an emerging commercial corridor.
Underprivileged communities are often most impacted by environmental pollution. The movie, Erin Brockovich, famously captures the real-life case of a legal assistant turned activist. Borkovich’s activism created awareness of environmental contamination and a cluster of birth defects in a small, underprivileged California community. Borkovich and her firm ultimately won a $333 million settlement from Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) for affected families.
Social Media Activism: The Power of One-to-Many
Social media plays a significant role in modern activism, providing a platform for activists to connect, organize, and spread their message to a broader audience. Here are some examples of how social media has been leveraged by activists:
Black Lives Matter: BLM’s effective use of social media, with hashtags such as #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName helped amplify the message of the activist organization.
Arab Spring: In 2011, activists in the Middle East and North Africa leveraged platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to organize and share information.
#MeToo: The movement was partially fueled by people sharing their own stories of sexual harassment and assault using the hashtag #MeToo.
Fridays for Future: Greta Thunberg and her movement have used social media to raise global awareness about climate change and encourage action from governments and businesses.
Hong Kong protests: During the 2019-2020 Hong Kong protests, social media social media was at the forefront of information sharing about police brutality and government repression.
Why Get Involved in Activism?
Social activism allows individuals to work toward achieving social, political, and economic change. It can provide a sense of belonging, purpose and connection to like-minded individuals working for a common cause.
Getting involved in activism is personally rewarding because it gives people a chance to make a positive difference in the world. Social activism is also a way for individuals to exercise their right to free speech and engage in democracy, which helps build stronger communities. Challenging power structures to overcome inequality, discrimination, and oppression is a constructive pursuit for individuals and society as a whole.
How to Get Involved in Activism
If you’re looking to become a social activist, the first step is to identify a social justice issue that you’re passionate about. Once you’ve researched and internalized an issue, it’s important to determine where you stand.
Joining an existing social activism group, attending local meetings and events, volunteering or participating in campaigns are some ways to get involved. To find local events and meetings, you can check out websites such as Meetup, Eventbrite, Instant Input and social media platforms. Local news outlets may also offer information on upcoming events in your own community.
Take Your Activism to the Next Level: Engage with Local Projects using Instant Input.
The Global Nonviolent Action Database (GNAD) is a searchable database of nonviolent social movements and campaigns from around the world, compiled by Swarthmore College. The database is a useful resource for aspiring activists as it includes information on thousands of social movements.
Online Resources for Activists
Staying up to date on current events is a component of understanding social justice issues. There are many media outlets around the world that cover social justice issues.
Think Tank organizations also conduct research on social justice issues and provide policy recommendations. Some examples include:
Nonprofit organizations are dedicated to addressing a wide range of social justice issues. Some examples include:
Government agencies can be a resource for data and information on social justice issues. Some examples include:
Academic journals can be a good source for in-depth research and analysis of social justice issues. Some examples include:
When researching social justice issues, it’s essential to consider the source and its likely biases, and to seek and consider alternative viewpoints to your own. Always listen to the voices of those directly impacted by the social justice issue at stake.
How to Start a Social Activism Group
Starting a social activism group requires several steps, including identifying the cause, building a network, organizing events and actions, and sustaining momentum. Whether your cause is economic activism, human rights activism, or other types of activism, building a network of supporters and collaborators is foundational. This can be achieved through collaborations with other organizations, by attending events and meetings, and by leveraging the reach of social media to find other like-minded people.
From there, you can begin organizing events and actions such as rallies or protests, workshops or forums. You can also directly engage elected officials and other decision makers. Sustaining momentum requires not only building a strong community but also maintaining and growing your ranks through recruiting and ongoing engagement efforts.
How to Become an Effective Activist
Honing your persuasion skills is an important part of becoming an effective activist. This may require practicing public speaking, learning to write compelling content, and listening carefully to people with different ideas and approaches. Next comes building relationships, an ongoing process that may include collaborating with other activists and organizations, forging relationships with community leaders and decision makers, and developing trust and support within and outside of your group. Staying informed requires sustained efforts such as reading news articles and research, getting out to events and meetings, and pursuing ongoing education and training. Finally, avoiding burnout is crucial because as the saying goes, it’s not a sprint–it’s a marathon.
The Role of Charitable Organizations
Charitable organizations can provide grants and other financial support to help fund and sustain advocacy efforts. Charitable organizations can also help to connect activists and organizations working towards common goals. This can be a lifeline for grassroots organizations with limited budgets and reach.
Social action is a powerful tool for promoting social justice, creating change, and making a difference in the world. By getting involved in social activism, individuals can contribute to causes they care about, connect with like-minded people, and make a tangible impact in their communities and beyond.
Frequently Asked Questions
There are many examples of social activism including Black Lives Matter (BLM), #MeToo, and women’s and indigenous rights among others.
Social activism is an essential component of democracy as it provides a voice to the many and a mechanism to challenge injustices.
People working in staff positions for activist organizations may receive salaries although making money should never be a goal of activism.
A degree is not required to become a human rights activist, however, a thirst for knowledge and self-education are essential. There are many online resources for activists including free courses.
One example of social activism is the LGBTQ+ movement, seeking equal rights for people of all sexual and gender orientations.
Social activism is the process of taking action to bring about lasting positive social change such as seeking equal rights for all.
There are many famous social activists including Greta Thunberg, the famous youth environmental activist. Rosa Parks is among the most well-known grassroots civil rights activists of the 1960s.