By Helen Cox
This article summarises findings from a survey that Plan to Thrive did with nearly 200 activists in 2014.
In the Plan to Thrive Activist Health and Wellbeing Survey we asked ‘what motivates you to engage in activism’?
The answers around this question were surprising similar and also point to the common idea that activists are united in passion, empathy and responsibility. We are people who have witnessed and identified problems in the world and are strongly motivated to connect with others in order to act for the benefit of all species and ecosystems on this planet.
The underlying motivations for action can also give us insight, and perhaps even heightened self awareness, into the emotional profile of the activists who participated in this survey.
The analysis has been done very simply by glancing over the 195 responses and looking for common themes. We have included some individual responses that illustrate these themes here:
Many respondents noted they were motivated by a strong utopic vision for society and the planet, such as a ‘happier, healthier planet’ and one where there was justice and equality for all species. Hope, desire, belief, joy, and love all featured frequently as the feelings that get us out of bed in the morning!
‘My tag line is “raising the level of love in the world.” I want to make the world a better place.’
‘I want to live in a world that is healthy, fair and equitable’
‘I want a better world. Injustice makes my blood boil. I believe that all people deserve a basic living standard, basic rights, basic respect.’
Lots of people stated they were engaged in activism for the benefit of future generations, alluding to an ancestral vision and approach.
‘concern for others, including my children and future generations, as well as broader concern for society and the natural world’
Personal stories and identity
People might engage in activism because of the injustices done to them or those that they have witnessed done to others, they may also engage in activism because they identify with particular struggles and social movements that align with how they relate themselves and their family to social and economic structures.
‘Personal experiences with stigma and discrimination. Grew into accountability to the rest of humanity…shifting beyond my individual needs and a re-centering on the voices/work of individuals facing the most violence from intersecting identities.’
‘Coming from the working class ; Was a social worker for 25 years, 12yrs old in 1968 in France…’
‘Being the child of a refugee i feel like i was born into it some memories of success keep hearing about things i want to be involved in honestly, it’s what my life is built around, i don’t have a career to speak of, my other hobbies [ie art] are all political, most of my friendships & relationships are with other activists’
Guilt and identification of inequality and injustice
‘Honestly, I think the underlying motivation is my guilt about my privileges. And, it is also a desire to address suffering, have my life be a positive intervention that contributes to things moving in a positive direction.’
‘I have a privileged life but am conscious that it is as much by good fortune and accident of birth as anything else. When I see others denied basic rights or jot have their needs met, it makes me angry.’
‘my emotional responses to the world; of rage, guilt, hope and courage’
Perhaps this might better be described as avoidance of imagined dystopic futures and avoidance of powerlessness.
‘Love and fear. And an understanding that the world is a product of forces and things can change if we push on it.’
‘Sometimes it is because not working for change is the most hopeless thing that I can think of doing and disengaging from activism and organising work would be a sign of defeat. I can’t live with that, so sometimes the motivation that I draw on is simply that doing the work is more hopeful than not.’
Sense of purpose
Working for change provides us with a sense of agency and connectedness!
‘want to see social change. But the motivation depends on the mode, some modes may be more about connecting with others than expecting actual change (e.g. March in March) felt great but was poorly reported and not as effective as say a submission.’
‘I enjoy meaningful work. Being involved in activism makes me feel like I have power to effect change.’
‘Specifically a feeling of responsibility to my comrades – built on our friendships, i.e. the enjoyment I get from spending time with them and the feeling of having a shared purpose, as well as my experiences of the struggles of activism is a strong awareness that it is hard work and work that needs to be shared.’
Certainly, the 20th and 21st centuries have experienced extraordinary rates of change. Consequently the global community is also experiencing the effects of multiple ecological and economic crises.
‘A sense of justice, a sense of urgency that the ‘clock is ticking’ for the planet, a sense of just wanting to do something.’
‘fire in the belly, compulsion, obsession, need to step up to the plate’
‘We have collective crises which have deadlines attached to them. We have horrid momentum worldwide which must be addressed following a fresh paradigm. And, as Herman Melville said, “We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men.”
‘Paying the rent’/ obligation.
Alice Walker popped up a number of times with her famous statement: “activism is the rent I pay for living on this planet”
‘responsibility and being a human! paying rent for living on earth’
Who were the survey participants?
- There were 195 participants all up, from all over the globe with a significant bias towards non-indigenous people living in Australasia
- Participants were overwhelmingly experienced activists and campaigners, as opposed to relatively new activists of less than 5 years.
- Over 50% of the respondents had been engaged in activism in excess of 10 years.
- Participants were engaged in a wide range of campaigns and interests, the most popular was social justice and environmental activism and the least engagement was with animal rights activism although still high at 17% of respondents
- Over 65% of respondents were aged between 26 and 45 years old.
- There was an interesting range of gender diversity for the 153 participants responding to the open-ended question of gender identity: 67% identified as female, 18% identified as male and 15% identified as gender queer/agender/non-conforming/genderfluid/questioning or transgender.
- Over 80% of respondents were university educated.