Make new activists, and keep the old…

I’ve been seeing some argument lately around how people new to activism and how people not new to activism talk to and about each other.

To those who are bitter. To the ones who were derided as foolish children because of the issues they fought for, issues which perhaps are newly fashionable. To the ones who couldn’t get their liberal friends to go with them to protests, lefty fundraisers, lobby days, canvasses. To the ones who came back from protests and cried alone in their rooms because most of the liberals all around them didn’t know, and possibly didn’t care, what had happened to them, and the liberal and centrist press that paid attention at all treated them as the villains. To the ones who still carry a burning anger because their sacrifices and the sacrifices of those they work with have been treated as a punchline. To the ones who are still being blamed for the world’s ills by high-profile hacks, even as you fight, as you’ve fought for years, to repair the world. To the ones who have been building and maintaining the infrastructure that left organizing depends on for years, watching great piles of newbies rush in and say “Wow, it sure is a good thing that we started fighting so early in the Trump administration, with those Women’s Marches! Look how on top of things we are!” while ignoring (or even continuing to vilify) you.

I see you.

But remember this – no matter how dedicated you have been, there is some issue where the people who have been working on it might feel this way, and you are the newbie. That’s not a knock on you, it’s an acknowledgment that we can’t do everything, that we can’t keep up with everything, and that sudden turns for the worse legitimately lead to new urgency on issues that maybe we felt some way about but weren’t acting on, or highlight issues that we didn’t see. There’s also some useful tactic or organizing method, maybe even one that you’re trying to learn now, where you’re the newbie! We can’t know everything, we can’t do everything! We should not treat our pet tactic or method as the only one worth doing (I am looking at both protesters and electoral politics activists here, as both have a tendency to treat anyone who doesn’t do their thing, including each other, as being insufficiently active, and their thing as the often-unfairly-dismissed-but-clearly-the-best form of activism). And we shouldn’t make assumptions about what people believe or have been doing because they’re new in our settings!
And remember that very few of us were raised to be left/progressive activists (and if you were, you might consider the advantages that that gave you). And very few of us, even if you started your activist life as soon as you were old enough to have both political awareness and the practical ability to act on it, started with what we would now consider perfect politics, at what we would now consider a high level of activity. Many of us, even if we started early, have had periods where we retreated from political involvement altogether. And we might have had really good reasons for that – mental health, trying to pass classes and graduate from college, illness/disability that made involvement hard, military or other service that legally restricted your political involvement, an employer who would have fired you if they’d found out, an abusive home situation, needing to work two or three jobs in order to pay the bills, taking care of children or elders or a partner, and so on. Similarly, people whose life situations have precluded much or any involvement should not be disrespected, either in general or as they try to become more active.

You were probably the newbie once – I certainly was – and the people who were old hands when you were the newbie could have been bitter and angry in the same way that some old hands are being now. They could have said “Where the hell were you before?” Maybe some of them did. But I would hope that some of them said “I’m so glad that you’re here!” That they welcomed you, supported you, mentored you. Because that’s how we create new activists, now, then, and always. Don’t be an activism hipster who gets upset when their favorite cause or method goes mainstream. That’s the opposite of successful strategy.

To the newbies. I am, so, genuinely, glad that you’re here. Nobody should be yelling at or mocking you for being newbies. Remember that the people who were already doing whatever you’re doing now are sources of knowledge, and that they have been acting as keepers of the infrastructure that is enabling you to do what you’re doing now. Remember that their movements laid the groundwork for the current moment, and respect that (this all goes for experienced people branching out into new areas as well). But you don’t have to take “Where were you before?” shit from the experienced people. Movements always need new blood and new energy, and your presence is as valid as anyone else’s.

Let’s go out there and organize stuff!

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