Is Professional Activism Getting in the Way of Real Change?

Thought provoking and clear headed reflections from climate justice defender and author Henia Belalia on the ongoing commercialization and co-opting and the social justice and environmental movements. You can read the full article here.

“The professionalization of change-making has created a non-profit industrial complex (NPIC), one that hinders rather than promotes liberationist movements. At Power Shift 2011, a national climate conference bringing together thousands of youth, there was a literal physical divide between the workshop spaces for the college students (mostly white middle-class) and the front-line communities (low-income, mostly youth of color). Since they were assigned different training tracks and curriculum, one of the only overlaps they had was during keynote speeches. This year, at the same conference, several delegations of marginalized youth (Lakota youth from the Pine Ridge reservation and Dream Defenders from Florida) were promised funds for food and transportation that were either never or only partially delivered. These practices are counter-productive to social change, as they perpetuate the very systemic oppression that we’re fighting.

Meanwhile, NGOs are competing for membership and campaign victories, racing for measurable results that will prove to their funders that they deserve yet more money. In a nine-year period, big greens received over $10 billion in funding, with only 15% of grants (between 2007-2009) allotted to marginalized communities. This discrepancy is appalling, especially given the fact that more money means more institutional costs and infrastructure, which often translates to compromises and watered-down actions. This top-down funding strategy ignores the history of resistance – that large-scale social change stems from the grassroots and a sturdy leadership from the oppressed peoples who have a vested interest in fighting for freedom.

It’s hard to imagine a popular uprising being initiated by those relying on the comforts of paychecks and organizational stability – so those voices shouldn’t dominate the narrative. Often it’s professional activists heard shouting into megaphones, calling for escalation and taking it to the streets. As economies crash, natural disasters multiply, and countries are torn apart by war, that call rings true. But what happens when an organization like adopts Occupy’s grassroots message for the purpose of publicizing nationwide direct action trainings, but discourage trainers from promoting civil disobedience because of their organizational politics? Or when the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) work with the fossil-fuel industry, the latter quite satisfied to buy them out and define their own opposition in the process? Or when calls for escalation in the resistance to the Keystone XL pipeline, fundraise from other individuals’ bold actions in one of their email asks, but when those front-line activists face potential felony charges, leave them unsupported due to lack of organizational foresight and adequate infrastructure? These examples show a disconnect and an inability to build genuine relationships with those on the ground.

With budgets and voices so loud, the professionals’ messages overshadow the call for uprisings coming from the trenches. Though those cries may not be heard amplified by megaphones or through the front pages of websites, they can be heard rumbling deeply through the ‘hoods, detention centers, prisons, native reservations, homeless shelters, and broken-down apartment buildings.

So the question is, how will the mainstream respond when front-line communities take to the streets, when communities of color reclaim our power and stand our ground? Will the movement be ready and willing to demonstrate intentional and genuine solidarity?”

1 Comment Is Professional Activism Getting in the Way of Real Change?

  1. AvatarEimhin

    Another argument for Basic Human Wage maybe, but until then what?

    I have to agree in many ways with the above. From personal experience of working amongst the changemaker ‘scene’ in San Francisco (as an intern) I have to say that I listened to wild ideas by folk intent on healing the other side of the planet without being prepared to look at the mess outside their own window.

    I remember watching an old wheelchair bound veteran on the corner of mission asking for change, noting his lack of legs, as people just walked on by in their fine suits caring more to check their reflections than to see this person.
    As I gave him my last few coins noting my regret that I hadn’t more to give (I gave him every penny I had with me, it just so happened it wasn’t much) he smiled and said “Every little helps bro”… I nearly fell over.
    I guess he’d never heard of Tesco’s… but there it was, the truth in the instance.

    I’m watching a country (Ireland) getting crippled by a damaging mélange of neoliberalist politics and multi-nationals…imports up…prices on the rise…fuel prices and oil prices running together…multis with massive buying power squeezing out the small farmers and local artisan producers, Lidl and Aldi selling veg at 5 and 6cent a kilo over christmas, and the likes of Tesco with their advert: “every little helps” , it does, it helps the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

    To stand a chance, to be able to do something about this, we need to stand together, and we absolutely need to organize and collaboratively, cooperatively, make a living and a live-able response. In this our dissent must be a mutual autonomy of collaborative consent to take tools thus far created and use them for the common good rather than in the serving of the personal self.

    I know this article is about a particular angle, but it casts a shade that need not take away from what needs to be coordinated cohesive logic of an order capable of dealing with the likes of neoliberalism in its political and economic manifestations.

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