Activism and Advocacy

Activism and advocacy are terms connected to working for and helping others to work for change. The two terms may have overlapping concepts, but they are not synonymous. It is possible to be an activist and an advocate at one and the same time.

The activist acts to effect social or political change. Rosa Parks is an example of a civil rights activist. In 1955, Parks challenged the status quo in racial segregation by refusing to vacate her bus seat for a white man.

There is a tendency to associate the word activism with protest and dissent. However, activism can take many forms. An activist may write letters to the editor of a newspaper with a large circulation. The activist may take part in a boycott. A blog can be a forum for activism. Hunger strikes can draw attention to an issue. A work strike can also generate attention to a specific problem.

An advocate is someone who speaks on behalf of an individual or a group. Angelina Jolie is an advocate. Jolie serves as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador (UNHCR). In this capacity, Jolie takes advantage of her celebrity status to draw attention to the plight of refugees.

The advocate may, like the activist, be involved in controversial issues or activities, but since the work is done on behalf of a group, lobbying and legislation tend to be more effective. An advocate may be one person speaking for a larger group, such as Jolie, who speaks on behalf of the U.N.

Activism can be defined as an act undertaken with the intent of effecting some sort of cause-specific change. The aim may be changes in society, political reform, a more just economy, the survival of the planet or any other cause that speaks to an individual or to a group. The action taken may support a cause or express opposition to one point of view on a controversial topic. An activist may propose and lobby for a new law that supports a specific perspective.

An activist may use the government as a means to support a specific path. This may involve finding an elected official who can serve as a mouthpiece for a specific cause. It may mean helping to craft a new law or working to amend an existing law.

The activist must begin by choosing his or her jurisdiction. Will the action take place in the town in which the activist lives, or will the action take place farther away on the state or national level? A local activist has easier access to elected officials. By starting small and local, an action may help to create a model of change that can have a wider application.

The effective activist is knowledgeable and will do research to fill in any gaps in knowledge. The aim is for the activist to have the capacity to speak about the chosen subject on an in-depth, fact-based level. This helps convince others that the activist can be trusted as a source of information on the topic and creates an atmosphere in which the opinions of the activist are deemed credible.

An activist will also want to enlist others to the cause. It is helpful to persuade elected officials and others that a cause is important to a large number of people. Building a coalition of support also means trying to find people from different parts of society to show that a cause has popular support and not only support from one narrow societal sector.

Learning the system and its inherent limitations is an important part of activism. For instance, the political activist will want to work in tandem with elected officials. However, it is important for the activist to know what is and is not within the boundaries of what an official can do. Being effective as an activist means learning how to use the means at hand to push through the desired policy.

An advocate is someone who takes up a cause by speaking on behalf of an individual or a group. There are many advocacy causes to choose from at the grassroots level. Advocacy groups may create petitions which are useful for raising awareness of a particular issue. The advocate may wish to speak through the media. Publicity can help draw attention to an issue. Media attention may generate more supporters for a particular cause.

Being creative can help strengthen the presentation of a cause. A satirical protest, for instance, can be used to focus world attention on the failures of an organization. In this manner, the advocate may help point out the unique aspects of a particular cause.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Social Movements in Advanced Capitalism: The Political Economy and Cultural Construction of Social Activism
Steven M. Buechler.
Oxford University Press, 2000
Taking Back the Academy! History of Activism, History as Activism
Jim Downs; Jennifer Manion.
Routledge, 2004
Spatializing International Politics: Analysing Activism on the Internet
Jayne Rodgers.
Routledge, 2003
Race and Politics: New Challenges and Responses for Black Activism
James Jennings.
Verso, 1997
Contesting Apartheid: U. S. Activism, 1960-1987
Donald R. Culverson.
Westview Press, 1999
Advocacy Groups and the Entertainment Industry
Michael Suman; Gabriel Rossman.
Praeger Publishers, 2000
Party Organization and Activism in the American South
Robert P. Steed; John A. Clark; Lewis Bowman; Charles D. Hadley.
University of Alabama Press, 1998
The Origins of Women's Activism: New York and Boston, 1797-1840
Anne M. Boylan.
University of North Carolina Press, 2002
Women's Activism and Globalization: Linking Local Struggles and Transnational Politics
Nancy A. Naples; Manisha Desai.
Routledge, 2002
Women for a Change: A Grassroots Guide to Activism and Politics
Thalia Zepatos; Elizabeth Kaufman.
Facts on File, 1995
The Pro-Choice Movement: Organization and Activism in the Abortion Conflict
Suzanne Staggenborg.
Oxford University Press, 1994
The Politics of Transformation: Local Activism in the Peace and Environmental Movements
Betty H. Zisk.
Praeger Publishers, 1992
Transnational Activism in Asia: Problems of Power and Democracy
Nicola Piper; Anders Uhlin.
Routledge, 2003
Consumer Politics in Postwar Japan: The Institutional Boundaries of Citizen Activism
Patricia L. Maclachlan.
Columbia University Press, 2002
Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism, and Political Change in Egypt
Carrie Rosefsky Wickhman.
Columbia University Press, 2002
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