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, and the countless intersections of social issues. You can find activists lobbying their governments, calling for corporate accountability, and campaigning for equality. Visions and specific goals vary, but activists want a better world. To be effective, activism combines many strategies. Here are five different types:
Demonstrations and protests
Demonstrations are arguably the best-known type of activism. During a demonstration or a protest, people united by a common belief meet together. They might march along a specific route, sit in at a specific place to draw attention to the cause, or hold a vigil to honor someone’s life. Time and place are often important. Many demonstrations take place on the anniversaries of certain events, like the birthday/death of someone important to the movement or the birthday/death of a victim of injustice. Organizers often also pick a location that’s meaningful, like outside a capitol to protest a law.
The right to peaceful assembly is so important, it’s included in the United Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 and Article 20 protect the right to gather publicly and express, promote, and defend a belief. Together, these rights are often called the right to protest. National constitutions (like the United States) also protect this right. Demonstrations and protests are often complicated by the presence of law enforcement and counter-protesters. Activists should anticipate resistance and work to ensure everyone’s safety.
Boycotts are designed to economically impact a “target,” like a business that’s engaging in exploitative practices. Like with protests, boycotts are most successful when large groups of people participate. The 2009 Fruit of the Loom boycott is a good example. Fruit of the Loom/Russell closed a Honduras 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. 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 deal with unfair or dangerous work conditions, low wages, or other issues, they might refuse to work when negotiations are refused or they fail. Strikes were a feature of the Industrial Revolution as there were few work protections and companies depended on mass labor. 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. This included women who worked in offices and stay-at-home moms. Factories, banks, schools, and childcare centers had to close and men were left to pick up the work. The next year, parliament passed a law ensuring equal pay. Five years later, Iceland chose the first democratically elected female president in the world.
Letter-writing and petitions
Letter-writing and petitions are two of the most common forms of activism. They’re used to 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 understand the power of letter-writing. In the internet age, emails are also a common strategy. They have some benefits, like being useful in urgent situations and when postage is expensive. On the downside, officials sometimes shut down their emails so emails bounce back. They can’t 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. Petitions also have the downside of being so accessible and easy that they lose some of their power. They are most successful when paired with other actions.
Social media campaigns
Social media activism is a new form of activism taking the world by storm. Also known as “hashtag activism,” it brings activism to social media networks like Instagram and Twitter. Users raise awareness of issues, organizations, and actions 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 between May 26 and June 7. Despite its popularity, many are skeptical about social media activism. It often stops at simply sharing a post, so there’s no real-world action. It becomes performative. However, when paired with other strategies, social media activism is a very effective way to share information and broaden an issue’s reach, especially among the young. According to Pew Research, the number of 18-29-year-olds using social media for social and political issues has doubled since 2018. The first step to activism is engagement, and while many people will stop at sharing posts, others will take what they’ve learned on social media to the real world.