Activism is all about acting to bring about social change. It establishes fairness when we sense an imbalance of power that impacts society. There are no perfect activists, and everyone can use their unique skills to contribute if they do so from a place of passion. These stories of some of the most prominent famous activists in history will galvanize you to step up and promote causes that are important to you. (Estimated reading time: 12-13 minutes)
“Activism is my rent for living on the planet.”— Alice Walker
Many of us would not call ourselves activists. We assume activism is a grandiose feat that can only be achieved by the likes of famous activists like Mandela, Gandhi, and Keller.
Activism is connected with dramatic acts like attending protests, getting arrested, or burning objects. But activism has many other faces. We associate activism with these intense acts because it’s given more attention in the media.
Small, gradual activism can be just as effective as the more intense forms. The bigger acts should start with smaller steps as social movements take time to grow and build strength. Every step in the process matters when it comes to gaining momentum.
If you’re unsure where to begin, you can start small by reading resources and networking with people interested in promoting the same causes as you are. This foundational knowledge will prod you to be involved in a more significant way.
There are no perfect activists, and everyone can use their unique skills to contribute. Activism is not for the faint of heart, and it must come from a place of genuine interest and passion. Learning the stories of the famous activists in history can galvanize you into taking action.
The five types of activism
Activism is all about acting to bring about social change. Based on this definition, activism can take place in several ways – from the obvious like attending a protest to more subtle ones like buying eco-friendly products in your local supermarket. You can even be an activist in your workplace, campaigning to establish a better work-life balance.
The idea of activism is to establish fairness when we sense an imbalance of power. Activists work across the globe on issues like animal rights, racial injustice, and child education, calling for justice and change. While their goals and methods may vary, all of them are working towards creating a better world for themselves and future generations. They all “have a dream,” just as Martin Luther King Jr. did, that pulls them to their vision.
To be effective, activism combines several strategies. Here are five different types:
- Protests and demonstrations: The most well-known type of activism, protest, occurs when people come together to promote a common cause or belief.
- Strikes: This type of activism is mainly associated with employees campaigning for better working conditions. While strikes are most associated with the workplace, governments also use them to change rules and policies.
- Boycotts: Like protests, boycotts are impactful when large groups of people participate. Boycotts target a business or organization engaging in exploitative practices by using economic tactics, like not buying their products.
- Petitions: Writing letters to corporations, public officials, and other powerholders is a common type of activism. The more signatures and letters backing a petition, the more likely it is to get attention from officials and pressure them to instigate change.
- Social media campaigns: With the advent of social media, campaigning on online platforms has gained tremendous traction. “Hashtag activism,” as it’s often called, brings activism to social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. People use videos, posts, and graphics to spread their message worldwide.
What activism is not: breaking activism stereotypes
The word activism often has negative associations. Some people picture the most extreme form of activism and label anyone who is proactively participating as being “eccentric,” “militant,” “self-righteous,” or “troublemakers.”
A certain breed of activist lives up to these labels and is colloquially known as a “whacktivist.” These individuals try to influence others by using inappropriate means like harassing, bullying, threatening, and other criminal acts.
Whacktivists do not respect the rights of others and see everything as black and white. They will force their myopic opinions on anyone who disagrees with them. This is counterproductive as it will only shut people down and close all doors to negotiations.
In addition to the “whacktivist” type, there are also the uninformed activists who tarnish the image of activism. While the uninformed activist is passionate about their cause, they don’t have enough information and insight to back up their enthusiasm. This is worsened by misguided online information that traps readers in a bubble of ignorance.
Another class of activists that give a bad name to activism are “slacktivists” or “armchair activists.” This is when people simply “like” or share information online or occasionally sign online petitions. All they do is provide lip service to enhance their image without making significant efforts to create meaningful change.
Real activists are not afraid to get their hands dirty and do whatever it takes to bring about change by using ethical and respectful means. This is demonstrated by famous activists.
Six steps to engage in activism
Even if the idea of becoming an activist intrigues you, you may be unsure about where to start. The good news is that no issue is too big or small. Any effort that you make counts. Here are six simple steps to get started:
1. Pick a cause or issue: Choose an issue, like climate change, or if you don’t have one in mind, find out what the most significant issues impacting your community are.
2. Research: Research the issue, both online and in conversations with relevant people.
3. Decide the change you want to see: Get clear and specific about your request and your end goal. For instance, instead of saying “end global warming,” a more specific request like “reduce greenhouse gas emissions at nearby factories” would make planning easier.
4. Choose the concerned institution: Find out who has the power and means to address the issue. Some examples could be a city council, a corporation, or a school board.
5. Create a strategy and take action: Figure out what methods of activism would be most appropriate. Would a petition, social media campaign, or protest be more effective in influencing change?
6. Reflect on your experience: After executing your plan, ask yourself: what did your activism teach you about yourself and the best ways to get things done? If you were successful, what was it that worked? If it wasn’t, what can you change to get the results you want the next time? Could you learn from the stories of famous activists?
While executing these steps, keep these pointers in mind:
- Know your “why”: What is driving you to campaign for the issue? Is it coming from a genuinely caring place, or is it something you’re doing for personal motives?
- Believe that you can make a difference: In the beginning, it’s easy to slip into self-doubt and question whether your efforts really matter. If that’s the case, get support from more experienced activists.
- Communication is key: Respect your fellow activists and the people you advocate for with clear communication and honesty. This avoids misunderstanding and boosts team efforts.
- Know that activism looks different for everyone: Be open to the idea that everyone has their own type of activism that may not look like yours. There is no right or wrong way – just the ones that work best for you. For instance, a more extroverted person would find protesting in a group more suitable, while an introvert might prefer letter-writing and petitioning.
Eight famous activists who changed history
There have been many exemplary famous activists throughout history. I encourage you to do your own research and not be limited to this list. I choose these eight famous activists to illustrate the variety of ways that we can show our support for all types of causes, no matter who you are or where you come from.
1. Malcolm X (1925-1965)
Malcolm X was a prominent African American leader of the civil rights movement and a spokesperson and supporter of Black Nationalism in America. He urged his people to protect themselves from white aggression, even if it meant adopting violence. This stance put him at odds with his contemporary, Michael Luther King Jr., who was a firm believer in using nonviolent means to secure peaceful resolution.
Key lesson: Knowledge is power.
Despite being an excellent student, Malcolm X dropped out of school in eighth grade because of the racial discrimination he encountered. However, not completing school or going to college had no bearing on his intelligence. He is considered one of the most learned men in history because he was a voracious reader. While in prison after being arrested, he spent most of his time reading. “My alma mater is books!” he once told a reporter. His knowledge was helpful in his advocacy strategy.
2. Gloria Steinem (1934 -)
Gloria Steinem is a feminist leader, political activist, and journalist who has been a leading spokesperson and one of most famous activists for the Women’s Liberation Movement for five decades. She published numerous essays and books on women’s rights, co-founded Ms. magazine, and was a columnist for New York magazine. She also launched various groups dedicated to promoting civil rights. In 2005, she co-founded the Women’s Media center to boost visibility and opportunities for women in media.
Key lesson: Equality starts at home.
Steinem believes that we can’t establish equality unless children see it at home. Since kids are significantly influenced by what they see growing up and take those views into adulthood, we must raise them in a democratic household. In a home with equal partnership, both men and women (or whoever raises the children) should equally share power, responsibility, and child-rearing opportunities.
3. Steve Irwin (1962-2006)
Steve Irwin, famously known as “The Crocodile Hunter,” was a high-spirited Australian television personality, zookeeper, and conservationist. He grew up around reptiles and his father, Bob, taught him about the creatures and their ways. His expertise and love for wildlife made him a lifelong environmentalist and animal rights advocate and one of the most famous activists for this cause. During his lifetime, he founded the Steve Irwin Conservation Foundation (now known as Wildlife Warriors Worldwide), which aims to protect animals and their habitats through rescue, breeding programs, and scientific research to bolster conservation efforts.
Key lesson: Be passionate about your cause.
Throughout his career, it was clear that Irwin loved what he did. His passion for wildlife made other people passionate about what he valued. “If we can get people excited about animals, then by crikey, it makes it a heck of a lot easier to save them,” Irwin once said.
Studies show that a leader’s enthusiasm and upbeat attitude are positively infectious, and people will be much more likely to join you in your activism than they would if you used cold facts and figures.
4. Michael Jackson (1958-2009)
Michael Jackson, popularly known as “The King of Pop,” was one of the most popular entertainers and cultural figures in the 20th century but he was also a famous activists. Jackson expressed his social advocacy by using impactful words in his songs during his entire lifetime. Through his music, he raised awareness about racial inequality and the degradation of the environment. He used his platform to blend art and activism, which spoke to the hearts of millions around the world. In addition to this, he donated to dozens of charities, including the Make-a-Wish Foundation and USA for Africa. He was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for “Most Charities Supported by a Pop Star.”
Key lesson: Change begins with you.
Jackson’s poignant song “Man in the Mirror” is a call for introspection and starting the process of change within ourselves. Before we look at the world and point out the problems and injustices, we need to look within and find ways to become better versions of ourselves. If we all do this, we would be more open and willing to be part of the solution to global problems. By getting rid of a “selfish kind of love, “we become compassionate about the dire conditions people face around the world”.
5. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)
Mahatma Gandhi has become synonymous with nonviolent activism. He was a leader in the Indian Independence movement against British rule. He grew up studying law and worked in South Africa for two decades before returning to India. He witnessed the discrimination that his fellow country people faced, which led him to start a civil rights campaign. He engaged in peaceful protests by organizing boycotts against British institutions. He also pushed for religious harmony and ended untouchability.
Key lesson: Use anger for good.
It’s normal to experience rage when we witness injustice, but it’s how we channel those feelings that matter. Behind the decisions we regret, we’ll see that it was often motivated by anger.
Gandhi said that we should use anger for good instead. “Anger is to people what fuel is to cars; it allows you to move forward and get to a better place. Without it, we can’t find the motivation to challenge the hardships. It is compelling energy,” he said. Revenge only makes us unhappy, as he pointed out when he famously said, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.”
6. Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862)
Henry David Thoreau was an American philosopher, poet, naturalist, and political activist. He was relatively unknown because of his isolated lifestyle, but his legacy has echoed years after his passing. The influence of his philosophy on nonviolent resistance has been credited by other well-known figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy, and Martin Luther King. He penned his thoughts on civil liberties in his essay, “Civil Disobedience.” His writings on natural history also contributed to environmentalism and ecology.
Key lesson: Justice is all-encompassing.
Thoreau was always concerned about his complicity with injustice. He asked himself, “Is our life innocent enough? Do we live inhumanely—toward man or best—in thought or act?” When it came to antislavery, he was not alone in his movement. However, he could not find support in his fight to preserve nature. After seeing the clearcutting of forests in Maine, he stated that trees have souls in a passage that his editor thought was so outrageous that he censored it. No line separates social and natural justice – they share a common cause, and Thoreau did his best to bring this to our attention.
7. Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)
Known as “The Lady with the Lamp,” Florence Nightingale was a British nurse and social activist who revolutionized nursing practices. Born into a wealthy family, Florence refused to be limited by the narrow opportunities offered to women at that time. Despite her family’s disapproval, she embarked on nursing training in Germany. After reading the accounts of soldiers suffering in the Crimean War, she answered the government appeals for nurses. During her time there, her foundational views on sanitation developed. For the rest of her lifetime, she campaigned to improve the sanitary conditions in both civilian and military hospitals. She also advocated for women’s rights by arguing for removing restrictions that prevented women from having careers.
Key lesson: Never accept excuses.
Nightingale was tenacious in her efforts toward hospital reform. Through her example, it’s clear that change won’t happen if we sit on the sidelines watching passively. We must run into the fray to make a difference. Excuses won’t do, and we must go the extra mile to make our voices heard. Nightingale was famous for saying, “I attribute my success to this: I never gave or took any excuse.”
8. Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)
Nelson Mandela was South Africa’s first democratically elected president, a civil rights activist, and philanthropist who dedicated his life to fighting for peace, justice, and freedom. As a revolutionary and political leader, his campaign for equality ultimately helped end apartheid in South Africa. His legacy and message paved the way for future activists.
Key lesson: Believe that we are all one.
The driving force behind Mandela’s activism was the belief that we are all impenetrably bound together. This belief goes back to his childhood when he picked up on “Ubuntu,” the Xhosa idea that there is a oneness to all people. Conflict over difference is temporary, and people will ultimately return to their natural state of togetherness. Mandela embodied Ubuntu and used it to shape that world, believing that strength would bring about peace and unity.
All of us can engage in some form of activism. To tap into this, we must find something that speaks to our hearts and gives us a sense of purpose. Follow the footsteps of famous activists and do your part in changing the world for the better, and your legacy will leave imprints on the hearts of many.
All my best on your journey,
Question for you: Who is your favorite famous activist, and how do they inspire you and your activism efforts?
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