Activism isn’t a word we’ve had for a long time. Google Books data shows that the word wasn’t popularised until midway through the 20th Century – around the same time that Amnesty International was founded by two lawyers in 1961.
The popularisation of activism directly correlates with the rise of the human rights, civil rights and women’s rights movements.
The graph below displays the use each word or phrase over time.
The dictionary definition of activism is, “the activity of working to achieve political or social change, especially as a member of an organisation with particular aims”.
I’m fortunate enough to know some incredible activists, and they have me believing that activism at its core is more specifically about relating to people, connecting with them and inspiring participation.
“Activism is any action that increases valued participation in the future.”– A Wise Friend
For an individual to be an active participant in any democracy, they must seek out political relations with other members of their communities.
As people discuss and build relationships around the values which they hold dear, variations between those values and the values held by their democracy are highlighted.
When enough people band together around shared values which aren’t represented by the democracy they exist within, movements are born.
Progress will always involve the participation of the people who are suffering, but for a movement to build enough momentum to affect the values of a society, the voices of the people often need to be listened to, organised and amplified.
It follows that a person’s participation in the democratic process is most valuable when their values aren’t being represented by the democracy they live in; or when they are relating to someone for which this is true.
Activists and community organisers have been at the forefront of this kind of work throughout some of the biggest social movements the world has ever seen – and there are plenty more to come.