Whenever there’s a positive change in society, we can thank activists. They work in every corner of the world on issues like racial injustice, gender discrimination, unfair labor conditions, and much more. You can find activists lobbying their governments, calling for corporate accountability, and campaigning for equality. While their visions and specific goals may vary, all activists want a better world. To be effective, social movements combine many types of activism. Here are 13 of the most significant:
Marches are demonstrations where groups walk along a set route through public spaces. They often walk through city streets, which draws public and media attention. Participants carry signs, wear clothing with slogans printed on them, sing, and chant. There are often speeches before and/or after marches, but their main goal is to demonstrate unity and raise awareness around a specific cause. The March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom, which took place in 1963, gathered around 250,000 people in the US capital. The Salt March in 1930, which represented the first act in Gandhi’s nonviolent protest of British rule in India, is another famous march. More recently, The Global Climate March in 2015 drew close to 800,000 participants around the world.
In contrast to marches, sit-ins and die-ins involve groups gathering in a public or conspicuous space and refusing to move. This visible form of protest is designed to peacefully disrupt everyday routines and draw attention. During the Civil Rights Movement, student sit-ins were very common. One of the most notable examples took place in Greensboro, North Carolina, where students sat in a store that refused to serve Black people. The attention they drew led to a series of anti-segregation sit-ins in dozens of cities. Die-ins simulate death, so participants lie on the ground. During the summer of 2020, many protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd hosted die-ins. People lay on the ground for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, which is how long initial reports said police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck.
Walkouts are peaceful and usually planned in advance. They may protest a specific policy or raise awareness about an issue like gun violence. In 2018, students organized The National School Walkout to recognize the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting. At 10 am, students from around 2,500 schools left their classrooms and participated in 13 seconds of silence, which symbolized the 13 people killed at Columbine. Walkouts also happen at workplaces and during speeches as demonstrations of labor disputes or disapproval.
Vigils and memorials honor tragedies such as the death of an individual or a major event like a mass shooting. They also raise awareness of the issues surrounding the tragedy, such as police violence or government neglect. During vigils, which often happen later in the day as the sun sets, people may light candles, sing songs, and share stories. Memorials are physical structures, many of which are temporary. As an example, every time there’s a mass shooting in the United States, memorials with stuffed animals, flowers, and letters immediately appear at the site of the tragedy. More permanent memorials include statutes, plaques, and murals. Vigils and memorials give people the space to grieve and reflect on the future.
Rallies are public gatherings of people with common concerns. Politicians often hold them for supporters and media, but they’re also a form of activism. They often occur before a march, which gives participants time to arrive, mingle, and learn what the march is about. Speeches are often held at rallies, too, but they can take place in other contexts like conferences, classrooms, and seminars. Both rallies and speeches seek to raise awareness of issues, inspire people to take action, and connect communities, which is one of the most important steps for effective change.
Letter-writing and petitions are two of the most common forms of activism. They pressure public officials, corporations, and other power-holders. The more letters or signatures on a petition, the more likely it is that people will pay attention. Organizations like Amnesty International have understood the power of letter-writing for a long time. Emails are also a common strategy since they’re fast and don’t require postage. On the other hand, officials sometimes shut down their emails so emails bounce back. It’s harder to do that with physical letters or faxes. Letters also imply a degree of commitment that emails don’t, which makes it harder for power-holders to dismiss people’s demands. Letters and petitions are most successful when paired with other actions.
Boycotts are designed to economically impact a “target,” like a business engaging in exploitative practices. They’re most successful when large groups of people participate. In 2009, Fruit of the Loom/Russell closed a Honduran factory after workers organized a trade union. Around 1,800 Honduran garment workers lost their jobs. The Workers Rights Consortium and Fair Labour Association found that the company was at least partially motivated to close because workers were organizing a trade union. In response, students in Canada, the UK, and the USA pressured their universities to boycott Fruit of the Loom. Over 100 universities joined in the largest garment boycott in history. The result? Fruit of the Loom reopened the factory, returned the jobs with union rights, and awarded workers $2.5 million. To be effective, boycotts need clear goals and strong leadership.
When workers are subjected to unfair or dangerous work conditions, low wages, and other issues, they may refuse to work when negotiations fail. This refusal is known as a “strike.” Strikes were a feature of the Industrial Revolution as there were few work protections. Many countries made strikes illegal to deter workers from engaging in them. While strikes are most associated with businesses, they’re also used to pressure governments to change certain policies. In 1975, 90% of women in Iceland went on strike to protest the gender pay gap. The next year, parliament passed a law ensuring equal pay. Five years later, Iceland chose the first democratically elected female president in the world.
#9. Voting activism
In countries that hold elections, voting is one of the most important things a citizen can do. Unfortunately, many don’t participate. Voting activists help people register, advocate for better civic education, and work to make the voting process easier to access and understand. Activists can also work on expanding voter rights and lobbying for changes to existing voter laws. The right to vote is one of the most important foundations for democracy, so many activists integrate voting activism into whatever issues they’re focusing on.
#10. Social media activism
Also known as “hashtag activism,” social media activism can raise awareness of issues, organizations, and strategies through posts, graphics, videos, and more. The reach of social media activism became clear in 2020 with the hashtag “Black Lives Matter.” According to data from Pew Research, the hashtag was used over 47 million times on Twitter/X between May 26 and June 7. Is reach the same as impact? Unlike donations or on-the-ground activism, the real-world impact of social media activism is very difficult to measure. When paired with other strategies, however, social media activism is a very effective way to share information, broaden an issue’s reach, and mobilize support. The first step is engagement, and while many people won’t go further than sharing posts, others will take what they’ve learned offline.
#11. Street art
Art has always played a role in activism, and street art is no exception. This form of art appears in public spaces like walls, buildings, and sidewalks. It can be done illegally or with the permission of the government and/or private owners. Why is street art a powerful tool? It can tell stories through unique images and symbols, raise awareness of specific issues, and critique the powerful. It’s also a powerful form of self-expression for individuals and communities who have felt silenced. Through art, they can paint their messages on the city in a way that can’t be ignored.
Craftivism is a form of activism fueled by the crafting arts, especially needlework and sewing. Activists will embroider mantras and messages onto clothing and other fabrics. The term “craftivism” was coined in 2003 by writer Betsy Greer, but the domestic arts and feminist messages have a long history together. Today, craftivism also incorporates anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and pro-environment elements. Craftivism isn’t just about raising awareness, however! One example can be found at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. With masks in short supply, people all over the world began sewing and distributing masks.
#13. Mutual aid
Many types of activism focus on raising awareness, but mutual aid is one of the most direct forms of action. It begins with people deciding to work together and pool their support and resources outside of traditional systems. Mutual aid is a direct response to inequities and systemic failures. Community gardens, food banks, free healthcare clinics, tenant unions, and community relief networks are just a few examples of mutual aid. Networks tend to be very localized and community-led, but most mutual aid activists believe in expanding their reach whenever they can and emphasizing solidarity across geography and identity.
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