The first time I questioned if my activism was worth a damn, I was trying to shout louder than the cat on the megaphone. Back then, I’d thought throat-shredding volume was how you did it. You get in the streets with the people, yell as loud as you can, and then comes liberation. Loud is crucial; loud means everyone sees you on the front line and knows . . .
“Damnit . . . ” I was an activismist: the term coined by Liza Featherstone, Doug Henwood, and Christian Parenti (2002) for the all-too-common unreflective activist doing activism for activism’s sake (p. 27). I expressed dissent but failed to reflect on the purpose of my “activism,” instead focusing on its performance. Screaming over a megaphone, I was making a lot of noise and giving no one a reason to listen.
I remember this experience when I think about conversations in writing/rhetoric/literacy studies around ‘scholar-activists’ and organizing as scholars. Because in the fifteen years I’ve spent growing from activismist to activist to organizer, I’ve seen how easy it is for anyone to fall into the activismist trap by not understanding what activism and organizing are in the first place. And if we academics are making a turn toward scholar-activism, we need to reconsider the terms to prevent activistism. Thus, before we continue thinking of ‘scholar-activism,’ we need to pause and be explicit about the terms activism/activist and organizing/organizer. Once we’ve re-examined those, then we can orient scholarly work to fit in ongoing social justice movements.
So, let’s tease this out.
The definition of activism seems clear given the word’s tie to action, but recognizing how specifics construct activism provides insight into activism’s role in social justice movements. For instance, participating in the Tucson March Against White Supremacy and Racism meant I was taking part in one action responding to the 2017 Unite the Right rally, addressing the issue of white supremacy. The definitive constructed the march. There was a specific act (marching), time (August 13th, 2017), location (downtown Tucson to the University of Arizona), and issue (white supremacy). As a Chicane non-binary queer, I considered how embracing parts of my identity that typically made me a target for violence could develop my message for opposing white supremacy. I put on my makeup and heels; when I could, I chanted in Spanish. Though these aren’t the only ways I live my gender, race, and sexuality, they are visible markers with which I could tie my queerness to a march centering race. My embodied expressions became part of the message in the march. Wearing heels in a march wasn’t fun, but the point was finding a visible way to tie my individual action into collective action. I was in an action, constructing an action, with both my and the collective actions shaped by particulars. Thinking about activism, then, is to think about those moments—what’s done, when it’s done, where it’s done, and why it’s done.
Being tied to defined moments, however, means that on its own, activism can be fairly myopic. In the case of the Tucson March, without a plan for next steps, the success and failure of fighting white supremacy would hinge on one action. Following the Tucson March with a sit-in or a boycott would be meaningless without thinking about the actions that can solve the problem of white supremacy and aligning them so that they will. Activism requires a means of using a moment to build momentum, then coordinating the resulting movement—both in terms of movement toward the next moment and in developing and sustaining a social justice movement.
And if you want coordinated movement, ya gotta get organized.
Organizing is a process with a broad view for making movements out of moments. And critical to this process is recognizing issues as secondary to building relationships with and between the people affected by said issues; without people to become a part of a moment, the movement doesn’t happen. For example, when working as a union organizer, prior to considering a protest as a means of advocating for a wage increase, I’d have to coordinate strategy meetings with union members for said action. Coordination meant hours/days/weeks trying to contact 200+ employees via face-to-face conversations, phone calls, and emails. If I reached 70 people, with 20 committing, and 10 attending a meeting, I’d consider that a win and could move forward. Then, I’d facilitate the meeting with the 10 people, and if we’d agreed that a protest would be the most effective action, we could begin the actual planning. Those 10 then take ownership of the protest; they planned it, it’s theirs. They bring more people. Together, we use the event to talk to the attendees we don’t know about volunteering for another event. Then hours/days/weeks for the next meeting and to plan the next event. And so on. The protest is important, but the relationships are necessary for making the protest happen and for maintaining the momentum to prepare for the next event. Saying organizing takes a broad view, then, means considering the repercussions of every moment in terms of how it will connect the people who create moments which build movements.
Ella Baker described organizing as “spade work” (SNCC Digital Gateway, n.d.). It’s apt. Organizing is constant gardening, dirty and exhausting, but damnit, what can bloom is beautiful.
The problem is that “relationship building” is a nebulous concept; activism, as definitive moments, provides a visible outcome for organizing. The benefit of the aforementioned protest is that it provides a concrete something to work toward. The 10 union members, in developing the protest, have tasks to complete. The protest is a specific location and a time where new members can see that the union is active and can join in. And, most importantly, the protest works as a visible means for showing management that there are consequences for maintaining poor working conditions. Without activism, there are no moments to grow from. No moments, no movements.
Activism and organizing aren’t simply collected works in the fight for social justice, however. They are orientations that then lead to tasks. Activism often can take the shape of a protest because it is centered on concrete moments. Organizing requires the phone calls and the strategy because it emphasizes growing and directing movement. As we are taking the turn toward scholar-activism and organizing, the first step is considering our orientation to social justice work. Imagine developing a community writing project pairing technical writing students with a local non-profit. As an activist project, students would focus on fulfilling a particular need for the group within particular time frames and benchmarks. Even if it’s a long-term project, by being grounded in specifics, the project is centered on moments. As an organizing project, student engagement would emphasize building the organization’s capacity for addressing its own needs and connecting with other non-profits to help them do the same, effectively making coalitions for any future work.
Describing these community writing projects as activism or organizing should not imply that the two are mutually exclusive. Being co-constitutive, the most effective projects incorporate aspects of both. Instead, as we become scholar-activists and scholar-organizers, we have to think strategically. We have to ask ourselves how our work—teaching, research, service, and more—can function as activism and/or organizing, and then make the best of both. Much as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (2016) frames #BlackLivesMatter not as a historical moment, but a social movement made of actions, we need to think of scholar-activism and organizing both in terms of the moments we enact our action and beyond those moments into the movements (pp. 168-9). We have to consider how our scholarship, in the moments, builds from and toward movements. And we have to question how we, as academics, can be or perhaps already are, in a movement. Whether inside, outside, or across the supposed boundary between university and community, it is essential that we step back and reflect on our projects and the connection between activism and organizing. From there, we can take deliberate steps forward. Because as we take on the role of scholar-activist, and scholar-organizer, we cannot risk our work becoming the good things we do because they are good. We need to ensure that our work is the good things we do because they make change.
 I use Chicane here, as opposed to Chicanx, in response to debates on gender-inclusive language in Spanish. The -x is more common, but -e is another option for gender-inclusivity which connects to other existing gender-neutral nouns in Spanish (estudiante and presidente, for instance). It also considers use of the -x and -e in applications, such as articles (los/las vs. lxs vs. les). return
SNCC Digital Gateway. (n.d.). Ella Baker organizes NAACP chapters in the south. Retrieved from http://www.snccdigital.org/events/ella-baker-organizes-naacp-chapters/.
Featherstone, Liza, Henwood, Doug & Parenti, Christian. (2002). Action will be taken: Left anti-intellectualism and its discontents. Radical Society, 29(1), 25–30.
Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. (2016). From #BlackLivesMatter to black liberation. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.
Berte Reyes (they/them/theirs) is a PhD candidate in the Rhetoric, Composition, and Teaching of English program at the University of Arizona. Prior to their doctoral work, Berte was a union organizer with the Service Employees International Union as well as the American Federation of Teachers. Their current research examines hate rhetorics, digital rhetorics, video game communities, and social justice movements in popular culture.