There are countless issues plaguing the world today, such as poverty, racial injustice, gender inequality, and more. How do we change things? Anytime an individual or group engages in efforts to change the social, political, economic, environmental, or cultural status quo, they’re engaging in activism. Activists have worked for centuries to achieve major victories such as the end of slavery, women’s right to vote, marriage equality, and more. In this article, we’ll explore different types of activism, four examples from history, and learning opportunities.
Activism refers to efforts and actions taken to address social, political, economic, environmental, and cultural issues. There are many forms of activism, such as marches, writing, community organizing, protest art, fundraising, strikes, and digital activism.
What are the types of activism?
Changing the status quo is never easy. To improve the odds of success and engage as many people as possible, activists use many methods, including but not limited to the following seven:
Marches are one of the most visible and common forms of activism. With this type of activism, individuals or groups organize a large demonstration along a set route, such as a walk from a city park to a capitol building. People gather at a specific time, listen to speeches, and then walk to their destination. Because marches are so visible, they’re an effective way to raise awareness, encourage people to learn more, and get media attention. Marchers typically carry signs or other props to voice their support for a cause and specific changes. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which took place in 1963, involved around 250,000 people and included Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech.
Some of history’s most famous activists were also writers who used their skills to educate society, develop ideas, and advocate for change. Their words spread throughout their home countries and the world. In many cases, their writing continues to be relevant long after their deaths. Frederick Douglass wrote Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845. It was an instant bestseller and a foundational text for the abolitionist movement. Douglass’ autobiography and his other texts continue to be studied today.
#3. Mutual aid organizing
Mutual aid is based on the belief that the government and systems that should care for people aren’t enough. Instead of relying on inadequate actors, people freely share resources. Mutual aid networks stand on principles like cooperation, participation, direct action, solidarity, and more. It may sound like charity, but mutual aid consists of voluntary exchanges as opposed to one-way relationships. Mutual aid often becomes more essential during times of crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic), but as a piece in The Cut describes it, mutual aid is a “more permanent alliance between people united against a common struggle.” Community gardens, disaster supply sharing, and free community clinics are just a few examples of mutual aid organizing.
#4. Protest art
Through visual art, music, literature, live performances, and much more, artists have challenged the status quo, dissented with injustice, and called for change for centuries. Why is art so powerful? It can trigger strong emotions in people who engage with it, and emotions have a unifying effect. As an example, songs like “We Shall Overcome” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” were sung during the Civil Rights Era and have endured as staples for activist movements, including those not in the United States. Paintings, photography, music, and more often cross barriers like language and culture, which makes protest art one of the most universal forms of activism.
Fundraising raises money for nonprofits, activists, and social movements around the world. It’s one of the most common ways for wealthy people to get involved in activism, but anyone can participate even if they can’t donate money themselves. How? Fundraising requires skills like excellent communication, creativity, patience, commitment, and resilience. People can help organizations raise funds by spreading the word online, talking to local businesses and entrepreneurs, organizing events, and so on.
When employees ask for better pay, safer work environments, or other changes to their employment, the employer may refuse. If an agreement cannot be reached, employees can strike, which means they stop coming to work. Labor strikes have been happening for centuries. In the United States, both the Writer’s Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA went on strike in the summer of 2023 over concerns such as the use of artificial intelligence and streaming service residuals. It’s the first time actors and writers have walked out together since 1960. Those who aren’t directly striking can show support by donating to mutual aid funds, not crossing the picket line, and listening to what strikers want from the general public.
#7. Digital activism
Digital activism is a newer form of activism born from the age of computers and the internet. As soon as the internet was created, activists saw the potential for widespread networking and mobilization. Email, blogs, and social media have all served as valuable tools for activists, especially when more public forms of activism are life-threatening. Digital activism can raise awareness of issues, mobilize supporters from around the world, provide ways to donate funds, and more. It has received some criticism for not being as effective as other forms of activism, but for many people, it’s the only somewhat safe method. When deployed properly, it’s also an essential support for offline organizing.
What are four examples of activism in the real world?
Social movements rely on many types of activism, but what are some of the most famous examples? Here are four:
#1. South Africa and the Anti-Apartheid Movement
In 1652, the Dutch East India Company founded Cape Town in South Africa. The white descendants of these traders made up just 20% of the population, but they gained complete control of the country. In 1948, the all-white government established a segregated system that favored white people and oppressed non-white South Africans. For decades, people resisted segregation through non-violent forms of activism like marches, flag burning, memorials, boycotts, and strikes. Activists also created community-based institutions like clinics, legal resource centers, and other vital resources not provided by the racist government. There was also violent resistance. By the 1980s, the South African government was feeling pressure at home and from the international community. With support for apartheid evaporated, leaders were forced to negotiate an end to the system. A new democratic government was established in 1994.
#2. India and the Salt March
The British set up trading in India in the early 17th century, and after an uprising in 1857, the empire took complete control of the country. Mondahas Gandhi spent two decades in South Africa developing nonviolent activist strategies, which he brought back to India. One of his biggest campaigns, known as the Salt March, centered on the taxation of salt. Salt was essential to survival, and the British control of it represented a major issue for Indians. For 24 days in 1930, Gandhi traveled 240 miles holding meetings and making salt, which broke the law. While the Salt March didn’t lead to any direct changes, it’s credited as the spark for the Indian independence movement, which ultimately led to India gaining independence in 1942. This campaign is an excellent example of the inspiring power of civil disobedience and the power of symbols.
#3. Argentina and the Green Wave
In 1921, Argentina passed a law regulating abortion rights. With exceptions only for rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother, abortion was illegal and would lead to imprisonment. Doctors, surgeons, midwives, pharmacists, and pregnant people could be punished. For decades, activists mobilized support and held demonstrations advocating for the right to an abortion. Since 2003, activists have worn green bandanas, which has led to the color’s widespread adoption by abortion activists across Latin America. Known as “The Green Wave,” this movement contributed to the 2020 legalization of abortion in Argentina. On January 14, the president signed a law that permitted abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. Green has since become a symbol for abortion rights in other countries like Columbia and the United States.
#4. Asia and the #MilkTea Alliance
The #MilkTea Alliance is a good example of what digital activism can look like. In 2020, social media users from Thailand began responding to Chinese nationalist commentators on social media platforms like Facebook. Soon, a Twitter war broke out between China and Thailand. Taiwan and Hong Kong users soon joined Thailand to criticize authoritarianism and the attacks on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. The #MilkTea Alliance, which gets its name from a meme, soon gained a presence in Myanmar, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Iran, and other places. Milk tea is a popular drink in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Thailand, while tea with milk is common in the other mentioned countries. The group has no centralized leadership, and its future is unclear as places like China and Myanmar attack free expression on the internet. However, we likely haven’t heard the last of this loosely organized, but committed group.
Where can you find learning opportunities about activism?
There are many ways to learn more about activism and how to get involved. Classes, books, and local events are three good examples:
Thanks to the internet, it’s easier than ever to find classes dedicated to the history of activism, social causes, activist strategies, and much more. Longtime activists often teach or contribute to these classes, so you can hear stories and advice from people with real-world experience.
Books are another valuable resource. You can find countless texts on activist strategies, success stories, biographies, the history of activism, and so on. Your local library is a great resource, while you can also find books on retail websites like Bookshop.org. Simply type “activism” into the search bar to get started.
Classes and books are a great way to learn about activism, but if you’re interested in more direct participation, local events are a good pathway. Search for nonprofits in your area and see if they have volunteer opportunities available. Nonprofits frequently host fundraisers, workshops, speeches, and other events for the public. Mutual aid organizations, religious centers, and other grassroots groups are also good places to learn about activism.