A common concern I sometimes hear from sociology students is that it is easy to get overwhelmed by all of the social problems in the world. Once we become sociologically aware our eyes are open to all sorts of injustices and inequalities that we didn’t (or couldn’t) see before.
For example, sociology helps us understand how our personal troubles are often really outgrowths of larger social issues; it allows us to identify institutionalized oppression such as sexism, racism, and homophobia; and it helps us see the growing gap between the poor and the rich—both in the United States and across the globe. And these are just some of the problems we encounter in our studies.
After learning about all that is wrong in the world many students leave class with one big burning question: Now what? Once we gain an understanding of these problems what do we do about them? What steps can we take individually and collectively to begin addressing these deep and widespread injustices?
Unfortunately, many sociology classes never get around to addressing these questions. As a result, students often leave class with a heightened sense of awareness about these problems but a deflated sense that they—or anyone—can do anything about them. As sociologists we do a great job of defining what needs changing but not always such a good job on how to bring about such change.
Here is a little exercise that might prove this point: Make a list of all of the social problems you have learned about in sociology. Then, write down the names of people and organizations you have learned about who are working to eradicate these problems. My guess is that most of us would have a long list of problems on one side and very few names or organizations on the other side. Too often, we are taught about the social aspects that need changing but not about the social actors, or agents, that are creating change.
If it makes us feel any better (which it shouldn’t), sociology is not alone in failing to teach us about how to change the world. Think about all of the so-called great and important people you were taught about throughout your education. How many of these people were working for social change? How many people can you identify that were fighting to eradicate injustice and inequality? Most of us could identify a few famous activists like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, or Mahatma Gandhi. After that, we’re probably at a loss for names.
I find this to be such a glaring omission in our education. We learn very little about the people who have dedicated their lives to struggling for justice and equality. But not only are we largely ignorant of those who’ve created social change; equally problematic is that we have never been taught to see ourselves as agents of change. Think back to your elementary and secondary education. Were you taught to struggle for social justice? Were you even taught to identify social injustices? Sadly, for most of us schooled in the United States the answer to both questions is a resounding no.
This shortcoming in our education is one of the reasons why sociology becomes so eye-opening (and potentially overwhelming) for many students. We learn about the layers of injustice and inequality that we never knew existed. But once we learn about them we are back to that potentially paralyzing question: What do we do now? It’s really no surprise that we do not know what to do, and subsequently feel powerless.
How could we be expected to see ourselves as activists if we hardly know any activists, if we’ve never learned to identify social injustices, and if we’ve never been given the tools and strategies that would allow us to become agents of social change? On top of all of this, who even wants to identify as an activist when we are led to believe that activists are militant, rabble-rousing, trouble makers?
The fact that we are not encouraged to be agents of change is especially frustrating when we realize that social change is omnipresent, it’s happening everywhere all of the time. So basically, we can either be passive and allow change to affect us or we can be active and be the ones who effect change. When we are discouraged from exerting our agency, change is done to us. But when we identify ourselves as everyday activists, we are shaping the change that is occurring.
The Occupy Wall Street movement (which Jonathan Wynn recently blogged about) is an excellent example. Although they come from different walks of life, the activists at Wall Street and at similar protests around the world are united in their desire to be the ones who are effecting change. These activists are frustrated that a very small minority of the wealthy and the privileged have been creating changes that are negatively affecting the life chances of the rest of us. So these activists have joined together to stand up, speak out, and promote social change.
And at a very basic level, that’s what everyday activists do: They act. By making their voices heard, everyday activists epitomize what it means to live in a participatory democracy. They write letters, sign petitions, speak out at public meetings, educate their friends and family, meet with public officials, raise money, start organizations, stage a protest, work collectively. Everyday activists are the driving force of society because when they see things that need changing they roll up their sleeves and get to work.
Despite all of the obstacles to realizing our potential as everyday activists, it’s actually quite easy to become one. And you don’t even have to be rich and famous. There are countless examples of ordinary people doing extraordinary things to address issues of injustice, inequality and oppression. Just because we don’t learn about them in school does not mean that they don’t exist.
If you want some inspiration, click on the following organizations that feature hundreds of young everyday activists. These children, teenagers, and college-age individuals are working in their communities and around the world on issues such as poverty, environmental destruction, sexism, racism, homophobia, educational access, animal rights, and many more. In the immortal words of Mahatma Gandhi, these young activists are being the change they want to see in the world. Don’t hesitate to join them!