Monday, 6 February 2012

What is activist practice?

These are notes for a class discussion which may be of interest to a wider range of people, trying to explain what we mean on this course by the idea of activist practice.

(1) Imagine, for the sake of argument, that your initial mobilisation comes from awareness of a problem (in your life / community / context / wider world) and a response that it is so outrageous / unjust / dangerous / destructive / whatever that something needs to be done.

(2) In the nature of things you then almost have to choose (often without realising that you are doing so) a particular organisation, approach, strategy, theme, focus and so on around this issue. Often this is because there is an existing organisation whose approach you can then learn; other times you draw on whatever past experience you might have, or a model that inspires you etc. (or even read a how-to book about campaigning!)

(3) This leaves you having to learn a lot of stuff: understanding the issue, getting a sense of the bigger picture (social analysis or whatever) that underlies it, learning how to organise in a particular way (press releases, holding meetings, demos etc.), maybe learning other skills (alternative technology, counselling skills, whatever it might be). At this point you are a basically competent campaigner - in a particular way, around a particular approach to a particular issue.

(4) As time goes on most people change and develop around this. Sometimes this happens consciously (as they win or lose on an issue and move onto another one, or as what they are doing doesn't work, or doesn't work well enough), sometimes perhaps less consciously (as they listen to what others tell them, from fellow-activists to people on the street, or as they work out their own ways of doing things and notice that this works better than that etc.)

(5) This is at one level “having an activist practice”. It can be more or less articulate - at one end of the spectrum you might not be able to explain to others what is characteristic about your approach, while at the other you might be in the business of training others around doing it a particular way.

(6) Quite often too an organisation, or a particular organising tradition (eg Freirean, NVDA, Marxist, advocacy-NGO etc.) has a quite definite and conscious style of practice which may be immediately recognisable to other experienced activists. This is manifested in books, training programmes, particular concepts that activists use, techniques they like, principles they try to implement in what they do - even down to visual styles.

(7) At all these different levels - the most basic "knowing how to do something about something", the more or less conscious and articulate personal practice, the organising tradition - there is activist practice going on, and often (not always) some kind of learning and development. One of the things we work on in this course as a whole is becoming more conscious and articulate about our personal practice, including its sources in particular traditions (not always movement ones - they may well come from everyday life or indeed from powerful institutions like business, academia, the state etc.) This puts us in a position to name for ourselves the strengths and limitations of what we already know, to learn more from observing and listening to other activists and from reading, and to become reflective learners around our practice.

This isn't a very formal statement of things but it might be useful or interesting as one of the things that this course is about.