Tag Archives: Carmichael Outreach

Why the ‘Activism vs. Slacktivism’ Debate is Irrelevant

Activism vs. Slacktivism

Social media campaigns have been widely critiqued for reducing activism to hitting the retweet button or sharing a Facebook post. This article suggests that slacktivism can be counter-productive, as sharing on social media might lead you to feel like you’ve done your part and absolve you of the responsibility to do any more. Similarly, Sarah Ross challenges her readers to be critical when they see online activism and asks, “are you willing to go further than the click of your mouse?” Zachary Sellers is also a critic of social media campaigns, claiming that they are ineffective, that they spin messages to their advantage, and that they are more about advertising than action.

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Photo Credit: Elijah via Compfight cc

I think these critiques are valid and often true, which makes me critical of my own participation in social media campaigns. Is my retweeting and online support always backed up by concrete action? And does it always need to be? Isn’t is also important to speak out about issues to show that they are important and need to be addressed? I know that what I choose to say (and not say) sends a message, so I wonder about the implications of refusing to participate in social media campaigns. Does that silence send the message that those causes are not important? These are questions I’m still wrestling with, and I welcome feedback in the comments section below.

Despite criticisms, it is obvious that some social media campaigns have been critical in raising awareness of issues, creating discussion, generating political will, and bringing about action. 40 million tweets from #BlackLivesMatter were analyzed and found to have been essential in driving conversation about race, criminal justice, and police brutality. The #BlackGirlMagic movement has led to debate, discussion, and supportive communities, which has furthered the topic of representation of Black girls. #MMIW has been used to share stories and to put pressure on the government to launch a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

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Vigil for Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women on Parliament Hill, Oct. 2015

Photo Credit: patimbeau via Compfight cc

So, the main distinction between powerful social media activism and ‘slacktivism’ that I’ve seen emphasized is that online activism is powerful only when coupled with real world activism. I wonder about this. Is it like a formula?  

social media campaigns + real world action = meaningful activism?

I’m not so sure.

Problematic Real World Action

Although I understand the importance of retweets being backed by real action, I think it’s also important to point out that “real world action” can also be problematic. Volunteering and charity work can sometimes perpetrate racist, sexist, classist, ableist attitudes and reproduce stereotypes about the very people the work is supposed to be helping.

Examples of this:

Recently, 5 Days for the Homeless took place at the University of Regina. For this campaign, five students slept outside for five nights to raise awareness about homelessness and to collect donations for Carmichael Outreach. It faced a great deal of criticism for sensationalizing homelessness and reproducing stereotypes about homeless people. You can read Carmichael’s response to these critiques here.

My point here is that the activism vs. slacktivism debate is basically irrelevant, as both online and offline activism can be equally problematic and oppressive. Instead of choosing sides, we should be critical of all types of activism campaigns so that we can work to break down oppression and avoid contributing to it. I will be the first to acknowledge that we will often fall short, make mistakes, and contribute to oppression without meaning to. The important thing is acknowledging this when it happens and not say things like: “But I didn’t mean to reproduce stereotypes about homeless people…” or “But I was only trying to help those poor children in Africa!”

Good intentions don’t matter when they are coupled with oppressive actions. In order to do anti-oppressive work, we have to acknowledge our implicitness in oppression and work against it at every turn. This means being critical of ourselves and the way we structure or take part in activism campaigns, in both online and offline spaces. 

So how do we move to meaningful activism (online or offline)?

I’m not pretending that I know exactly how we do this or that there are clear steps to “doing activism right.” But I think the most important thing here is that we must operate in solidarity with the people we are advocating for.

Whether it’s through participating in social media campaigns online or taking action in face-to-face spaces, we need to focus on the experiences of those who are marginalized. Instead of focusing on ourselves – our feelings, our good intentions, the cookies we receive – we need to make marginalized voices and stories the driving force behind the work we do. If we don’t listen to these voices and stories, how can we understand the issue or know what work needs to be done?

We need to continuously educate ourselves on the issue we are working against but not expect those who are marginalized to do the educating. They already have enough burdens without us making it their responsibility to teach us about the oppression they face. We also need to continuously educate those who share our identity. For me, that might mean engaging White people in conversations about race or engaging able-bodied people in conversations about how disability simulations can reproduce stereotypes.

Many of these ideas about how to move to meaningful activism came from these great articles:

So You Call Yourself an Ally: 10 Things All ‘Allies’ Need to Know by Jamie Utt

How to Tell the Difference Between Real Solidarity and ‘Ally Theater’ by Mia McKenzie

The Case Against ‘Allies” by Mychal Smith

I’ll end with this quote, from Jamie Utt’s professor:

“If you choose to do social justice work, you are going to screw up – a lot. Be prepared for that. And when you screw up, be prepared to listen to those who you hurt, apologize with honesty and integrity, work hard to be accountable to them, and make sure you act differently going forward.”

These are our responsibilities – to be critical of all the social justice work we do (both online and offline), to focus on and work in solidarity with those we are advocating for, and to learn from our mistakes and do better going forward.

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Carmichael Outreach Reflection

Last week, for my Health Education class, we broke into two groups and toured Carmichael Outreach, a community based organization in Regina that “serves the marginalized of Regina by advocating on their behalf and by providing a range of programming that includes preventative measures and harm reduction.”  They emphasize a non-judgmental environment and a person to person approach, rather than a medical approach.

Carmichael Outreach offers a huge variety of programs, including a coffee room, community garden, food security and nutrition, a housing coordinator, an immunization program, a needle exchange program, used clothing and small household item depot, and more.  I had no idea that all of these programs were available in Regina, let alone all these programs being offered from one organization.

As I walked into the doors of Carmichael, soup cans in hand, I immediately felt very out of place.  First impression:  we are all white and they are all brown.  Clear divisions.  Us and them.  I tried to listen to the woman guiding the tour, telling us about the amazing, necessary work they do at Carmichael, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how privileged I am.

Usually privilege is obscure and very easy to ignore.  I can get through most days believing I have earned the things I have and that my life is the way it is because of my own hard work and the hard work of my parents.  That day at Carmichael, several of my positions of privilege (being white, middle class, able-bodied, not having a mental illness), were blatantly apparent.  It was obvious that my life is the way it is because of this privilege, and that made me feel uncomfortable and awkward and guilty.

I know that I don’t have to feel guilty about my privilege because I can’t help it, but I couldn’t stop feeling guilty throughout the tour.  I kept thinking about the combined value of just the clothing that my classmates and I were wearing and how much money that could bring to an organization like this.

Back to the tour.  I was really surprised at the number of containers of food they give out every day at Carmichael – up to 250 of the tall yogurt containers (which they are always in need of)!  The need for this food security program has gone up in the last five years, she told us.  I was also impressed with the used clothing and small household item depot, where anyone in need can come take them, free of charge.  This is something I could easily help out with by donating old clothes and winter attire that I don’t use anymore.  That’s one small way I could help make a difference, but I still feel guilty.

I am aware of a few other supports in Regina to assist families, including the Food Bank and Regina Women’s Transition House.  Other than those, I’m pretty ignorant about the supports available and I definitely need to do some research to change that.

This experience made me think about how I will support students who live in poverty situations in my future classroom.  First of all, I need to become more educated on the supports available for families in Regina so that I am able to refer families to these supports or make suggestions that might help them.  In my classroom, I want to have breakfast and snacks available for all my students, so as not to single anyone out but to make sure they have all eaten.  I also want to try to do classroom fundraisers for field trips or other experiences so that students aren’t left out if they cannot afford the trip.  I want to teach for equity – not equality – which means doing my best to level the playing field so everyone can learn to their full potential.

Also, I will need to examine the stereotypes I bring and be careful not to deficit theorize about students’ families.  For example, if parents don’t come to a parent-teacher interview, I hope to be invested in the relationship enough to know that it’s not that they don’t care about their child’s schooling, but that they might have other priorities that are taking over.  I want to be open, caring, and easy to talk to, not judgmental.  I also want to have high expectations for all my students and make sure I label them as at-promise rather than at-risk, because I know the expectations (high or low) I place on students are likely to be fulfilled.

Finally, I think it’s really important to talk about poverty in the classroom.  If I make it a taboo topic, I am placing shame on my students who live out that reality.  Without singling anyone out, we can talk and learn about it together.  I want to help my students break down stereotypes they might have about people who live in poverty and find ways our class can make a difference.  One resource I have been exposed to for doing this is the Ladybug Foundation.

So I have some ideas for what I need to do in my future classroom to support students who live in poverty.  But after my experience at Carmichael Outreach, I’m wondering:  What do I do with my feelings of guilt and awkwardness?  How do I close the gap between self and other that I felt?  How can I use my privilege to make a difference?

Any suggestions would be much appreciated!