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An Activist’s Mini-Guide to Resisting & Persisting

Mikola De Roo, Brooklyn, NY


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This article originally appeared on Medium. We have obtained all rights from the author to publish it on Threading


Housing Works community members at the Women’s March on Washington, January 2017. Photo credit: Natalie Skoblow.

This essay was adapted from a closing speech given at “30 Years of ACT UP/NY: Hidden Histories and Voices, Lessons Learned,” ACT UP’s 30th anniversary all-day conference, held on Sunday, June 18, 2017.

Here’s the context: You’ve just come from an amazing rally. Or a march. Or a conference. Or a protest involving courageous acts of civil disobedience. Most of what you have seen and heard leaves you awestruck. The entire way home afterward, you have that buzzy, intense feeling you get when you’ve spent a day with smart, passionate people who inspire you. You feel a little overwhelmed and exhausted, but you’re ignoring that in an effort to try to ride the high of the day a little longer.

Flash forward to the next morning: Now what?

The challenge for me, and probably for many of us, is not about igniting the initial spark of our own activism. The challenge is how to locate that energy and inspiration tomorrow — when we’re not at the rally, the march, the conference, the protest. When whatever we experienced that day seems like a hazy dream and we’re reading about the latest Administration assault on all that we hold dear. What is it that we can each do to keep the resistance movement going and sustainable?

Many lessons about sustainability and resilience are obvious. Stating the obvious is easy: Living that obvious wisdom both in your own life and as a member of a group movement is hard, because it’s practice. In contemplating how to keep the fires of our social-justice fights stoked over the long term, here are what I see as the most important lessons we can learn based on ACT UP’s 30 years of acting up and fighting back.

Lesson #1: ACT UP, Housing Works, and all activist movements and organizations like them need more people. Especially in the age of Trump and rising social and economic inequities, we need to mobilize and include everyone, and everyone should have a voice and a role to play. We need inclusive movements that represent and empower our diverse communities across every demographic, including like-minded folks who don’t consider themselves activists. That old ACT UP clarion call that “AIDS isn’t over for anybody until it’s over for everybody,” still resonates because it reveals AIDS to be a multifaceted social-justice issue, not just a disease. It spotlights that to end AIDS, you have to also address the needs of women, people of color, people of trans experience, drug users, the poor, the homeless, and so on, and many of those needs, including housing, go beyond the creation and distribution of effective meds. That same lesson about diversity and intersectionality holds for many other progressive issues, including poverty, employment opportunity, housing, and more. All our movements and campaigns are bettered from a broad array of perspectives and representation.

We also need everyone because we need folks at every level of engagement and with all kinds of skills — people to donate money and physical spaces; people who can drive and cook; people to march and go to town halls; people to lobby legislators and do media outreach; people to participate in civil- disobedience actions and risk arrest; armies of people to make calls, send emails, and post on social media; writers to create slogans and speeches; artists to make signs and banners; people with policy and medical expertise; people to give testimony and talk to the press; musicians and poets to create songs and chants; teachers to train other, newer activists; people who can translate and interpret in multiple languages; and on and on.

Lesson #2: We need to vigorously pursue our own visions for a better future, not just fend off the nightmare apocalypse. We need to stay audacious and bold. We need concrete campaigns for the futures we want, even when everything we believe in and have already fought for is under attack. The fights we’re fighting will be many and long. And it’s too easy to simply be reactive. Yes, there will be bans and legislation to stop or overturn, nominations to prevent, polluted water to clean, state-sanctioned violence to protect ourselves from and respond to. But it’s not enough to stop things that suck. We also need to imagine a specific better life, especially for those at the margins who are always hit hardest by any major social-justice issue.

Lesson #3: We need to remember that the collaborative efforts of the movement fuel its individual successes. As the title and programming for the “30 Years of ACT UP/NY: Hidden Histories and Voices, Lessons Learned” conference illustrate, mainstream histories of movements tend to focus on notable individuals who become the public faces of iconic moments, not on the ongoing community work that makes those moments possible. But effective activism isn’t a feast-or-famine effort by singular, extraordinary individuals. It is a day-to-day, ongoing endurance effort by a large, diverse collective, in which every participant is doing their part, a lot of it behind the scenes. We need to continue showing up and to recognize that showing up as true, engaged citizens and activists is a lifetime, multi-generational, community endeavor. The ways we each engage may change all the time, but this is not something we only all participate in at one operatic level of intensity in the worst times of crisis. As poet Mayda Del Valle wrote, “A movement is not a flash of light — it is a flame, a torch passed from one generation to the next.” Or, for those who prefer sports metaphors, a movement is not an individual sprint; it is back-to-back, marathon-length, team relays.

Lesson #4: Sustaining the collective movement means really practicing and living self-care. This is the most contradictory lesson. In my experience, the tendency of passionate, intelligent, and dedicated people, especially in times of ongoing crisis and upheaval, is to force themselves to spend every waking moment (and often well into the wee hours of the middle of the night) doing nothing but working tirelessly and relentlessly on behalf of the causes and campaigns they believe in. That’s short-term thinking. The paradox of movements and activism is that showing up for the long haul means recognizing when you personally need to pass the baton to someone else, so you can slow down, or take a rest, and allow yourself time to do other things in life that re-energize you. What those activities and pursuits are varies from person to person, but many of them have nothing to do with activism. We also need our movements to do that self-care, too. The movement and our time together shouldn’t be limited to the campaign demands for our righteous causes; they need to integrate other aspects of our humanity — art, music, pleasure, love, friendship, and humor. In a recent interview, Gloria Steinem described it this way: “In the very beginning, I was more subject to burnout, because I think burnout is a function of naïveté. But if you realize that this is a lifelong endeavor, you can pace yourself, physically and emotionally. I don’t know that anything’s a cure, but there are two helps. One is accepting that this is a lifetime project, and not being naive about the depth of what we’re trying to do. And the second, for me, is understanding the means and the ends. So if you have a movement that is running, running, running, you’ll get an end that is running, running, running. If you have a movement that has time for jokes and poetry and love, you’ll have that in the end. So you have to build it in along the way. You can’t kill people to save the village.”

To be sure, we can learn other useful lessons for the way ahead from digging deeper and examining ACT UP’s history, as well as that of other effective grassroots activist groups and movements, but starting with the four big-picture lessons above is a good place to begin.

Above all, be kind and generous with your selves and be kind and generous with each other, so tomorrow and the day after that you can: Wake up. Fuel up. Stand up. Act up.

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