In response to the past year’s political and cultural flashpoints, more and more Americans, of many different stripes, have engaged in activism to stand up for their values. Disturbing news headlines hit with daily increasing frequency and one can see a world spiraling out of control. Yet we see an increase in individuals working to promote positive societal change both here and abroad. Some of these efforts make the news, most do not, but around the world individual citizens are organizing themselves to have a greater say over their lives and future. Global shifts towards more authoritarian leaders and a rising nativist populism, are being met by the voices of individuals and civic institutions. Civil society is strengthening its ability to both react to challenges and to promote change.
High schoolers are confronting one of American politics’ most entrenched interests; survivors of harassment are speaking up with one voice on a better vision for the future; individuals living in war zones bring us their plea that the inhumanity of civilian deaths must stop; others are driving progress towards the Sustainable Development goals or working to eliminate abject poverty.
As leaders of a values-based community, we in the international NGO sector need to constantly ask when the time is ripe for us to act on our values, when do we quietly save lives and affirm a community’s potential or decide to use our voice and speak out. Activism, in all its forms, is a part of our history and we continue to affirm and work for a more just, inclusive, safe, and prosperous future for all peoples.
Over the past seventy years, the United States has undergone a dramatic transformation towards a fairer, more inclusive society. The civil rights movement, fight for LGBTQ equality, increases in gender equality, and many other movements have been undergirded by social activism. The international NGO community has played its own role pushing for equality of opportunity and increasing the compassion in our domestic and international public policy. We have also been an ally of the broader social movements that have shaped our country and world. Acting on values is intrinsic to who we are.
Our strength comes from broad alliances of like-minded civil society actors. They enable us to play a constructive, and often quiet, inside advocate role with institutions of power, while recognizing the power of mobilizing a loud political voice. Coalitions that span different forms of activism can be vital in achieving transformational change. They allow us to strike a smart balance. An overly strident voice can risk alienating potential allies in government, while drawing too close to power creates the risk of being co-opted by those who prefer the status quo. Activism amid war, or complex conflicts that target specific populations, requires an even trickier balance. NGOs must maintain access to provide humanitarian assistance, even as we are driven to speak up against governments, who are often perpetuating the crisis or preventing access to people in need, such as in Darfur or East Ghouta, in Syria. Operational agencies need activist allies to speak up to confront and challenge the inhumanity of war.
On a personal note, whatever motivates you to act and speak out, remember that this is a long game, and do not let your activist spirit falter. Times that are ripe for change can be unpredictable, but it is during difficult times, with strong headwinds, when efforts to inspire progress are most needed. They bring out the best of humanity.