March 13, 2013

I’ve Resisted Being Labeled, Until Now. ~ Laura Sabransky

Chicago rally in support of unions and all workers of Wisconsin, in the wake of Governor Walker’s dismantling of laws protecting workers’ rights.

I. Am. An. Activist.

If ever you think your voice is not being heard, keep in mind that there are those who oppose your efforts who know otherwise.

Post-protest, predictably anti-climactic feelings in the wake of making history, at the Forward on Climate Rally in Washington, D.C. two weeks ago, have set in. Like an endorphin-seeking Pavlov’s dog, I interrupt washing clothes on a day off to glance over at my iPad when the ding of a message arriving reaches my ears. I am back in my routine.

When Lynn Hasselberger asked about my thoughts on activism and how we can stay energized and focused on moving forward, I began to think about the nature of activism and realized that for me, it has become more than actions, behavior or lifestyle, but also identity.

I have created many arts and crafts items throughout my life. Whenever someone says, “Oh, you’re an artist, then?” My answer is tentative and maybe a bit defensive, along the lines of “Well, I create things. If you want to call me an artist, you can,” because I resist labels.

Mosaic of glass, smalti and slate, based on an aerial image of the BP oil spill in 2010. Created by Laura.

But, when it comes to activism, I’ve realized in the last few years—especially since joining social media and re-discovering my diary from age 13 (documenting my willingness to raise attention to injustice and wrongdoing in my community)— that I’ve been an advocate and an activist my whole life, and have even started to embrace this identity and label.

Last week, I was standing in the shadow of the Washington Monument, cheering on the environmental justice leaders of our time, marching with forty thousand more—among banners, drums and chants in front of the White House. But, more often, my attempts to advocate are singular and perceptibly smaller, like this 30 second encounter on an elevator:

Banner I made for Sierra Club Illinois and carried in the “Forward on Climate Change” rally and march in Washington D.C. on February 17. Also pictured: Jeff Green.

Stranger: I’m so glad we’re not going to have much snow this winter. I like these warmer temperatures.

Me: Actually, it’s bad for the environment if we don’t have enough moisture accumulate during the winter.

Stranger: Oh?

Me: You know those forest fires that happened last summer? That was a result of lack of snow. And the droughts we’re beginning to see? These are the results of our global temperatures climbing to harmful levels, brought on by human activity.”

Stranger: Oh, I guess I never looked at it that way before.

 The least movement is of importance to all nature. The entire ocean is affected by a pebble.

– Blaise Pascal, Philosopher, 1623-1662

The immediate impact of my actions, big or small, does not necessarily figure into my motivation to understand issues and engage in trying to influence, inform and inspire.

My most rewarding experiences have been to emerge victorious after engaging in large organized efforts among thousands or millions of citizens, as well as friends and acquaintances reminding me that whenever I speak or act, I do so upon their behalf, and I inspire them to engage further.

 I am only one, but still I am one.

I cannot do everything,

but still I can do something;

and because I cannot do everything,

I will not refuse to do

something that I can do.

– Helen Keller

Transformational change begins with imagination and is ignited by action. If you’re under 60 years old, like me, your experience of our country’s major social movements is through the lens of history. The suffrage movement lasted 70 years—at least a lifetime, I remind myself. The suffragists, like the founders of our country, imagined a different world—a better one than the one in which they lived. They acted upon their vision, and continued to act.

On every front, reproductive and environmental justice, human and civil rights, we are now living in dramatic historical times—on the precipice of and in the middle of change. I am but one of the ingredients in this bubbling primordial soup of transformation—indeed, enlightenment. There is balance between the impact of my actions as an individual and among the collective, and each is powerful. I realize that today, I cannot possibly have perspective on what it all means or what will come of it in the future—so, I act.

 History is always the missing part of the puzzle in everything we do.

~ Ai Weiwei, on his art piece “Fragment.”

Especially during the last few years, even the most committed among us have experienced frustration and feelings of futility, wondering if we’re making a difference—as well as fear.

I was surprised to learn, while speaking at a reproductive justice rally, that some attendees were concerned about losing their jobs because of the public exposure.

Because I came of age working alongside sage and strident activists with the League of Women Voters, organizing rapid response protests and grassroots mobilizations prior to social media or even email, the fact that perceived and real risks are now inherently connected to engagement, hadn’t occurred to me. So, while we engage in the struggle for a just, humane and sustainable world, we also struggle to become, develop as and remain activists.

Handmade lanterns float on the bay at Berkeley’s annual Peace Lantern Ceremony, in remembrance of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima. I helped coordinate the event in 2005.

 What’ your place, role and identity as activist? I offer these ideas for moving forward and remaining grounded:

1. Get comfortable with the fact that among an average group of people, you are the subject matter expert on issues you are passionate about and have researched. “Connect the dots” for others.

We understand the gestalt of issues, the interconnectedness, among seemingly disparate parts of a system, organic or contrived. You are a leader in helping people understand how their lives are affected by issues that appear abstract.

2. Assess your current skills and interests, as well as those you want to develop, in regard to being a volunteer activist: maybe you’re a researcher by nature and have no interest in attending or organizing events.

3. Engage your personality traits.

I am on the fence between introvert and extrovert. I can gain energy by writing while alone, but am often on social media networks and also need be recharged by committee meetings, group projects and events occasionally.

4. Define what you consider to be activism, and consider it life-sustaining daily exercise.

I realized that my frequent Facebook posts and comments that contained simply opinion (even if well-received) is not what I consider to be activism. I feel that social media is best used to motivate others to act, whether providing background information, serving as example or providing vehicles to do so, such as petitions and contact information. Most people don’t like to write as much as me, I’ve learned. I often post the communication I just sent a lawmaker, to help them feel more comfortable doing the same.

5. What’s your story as it relates to issues you are concerned about? Tell it and don’t stop testifying.

I have asthma and allergies. I mention that when communicating with lawmakers about pollution controls. I remind them that in my city, children are hospitalized and die from asthma at a greater rate than any other in the nation.

6. Find well-respected organizations and informal groups related to the issues you want to work on. Get involved locally, if you can, but at the very least, respond to organizations’ calls for action, and let others know when you have, and ask them to do the same.

7. Find, or create, a community of activists and discover and engage mentors. I’ve had the good fortune of organically being exposed to amazing activists. Seeking them out seems like a good idea too.

8. Devise your personal strategy and tactics. What is the most efficient use of your time?

I made a conscience decision, based on research, that it’s more effective to appeal to progressives who have a propensity for action than to try to convince those whose views are rigidly regressive. I will occasionally discuss with and persuade reasonable people, but overall, understand it’s more labor-intensive. I also pick the “low hanging fruit.” Virtually not a day goes by that I don’t sign a petition, post a message, send an email or make a phone call on issues/policies/laws of concern. It’s easy and takes very little time.

 9. Global or local? Many policies that directly affect you are local. You have a better chance to meet with even federal policymakers in their district offices. Engage with organizations working on local issues and meet with your local lawmakers to discuss them. The fact that you took the time to meet with them and know about an issue affecting your community has a positive impact.

10. Remember that every time you act, you act on behalf of others who believe exactly as you do.

Depending on the size of the district you live in, for instance, every time you call your congressperson, you represent potentially hundreds or thousands of constituents. When you’re part of a mobilized effort, your voice is amplified even further. If ever you think your voice is not being heard, keep in mind that there are those who oppose your efforts who know otherwise.


Laura Sabransky’s advocacy for a more just, humane and sustainable world has been as volunteer – serving on boards, organizing and working events, launching grassroots activism campaigns, participating in demonstrations and writing to and for those who influence change. Her work with a variety of non-profit organizations includes volunteer management and education, special events organizing, fundraising and communications. Her degrees are in Psychology and Interior Design. Your contributions are welcome on her blog www.activistsdiary.com. You can connect with Laura on Facebook and twitter @mysticagitator.

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Assistant Ed: Evan Livesay/Ed: Lynn Hasselberger

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