The World Needs a New Definition of Activism | Lea Ann Mallett | TEDxSantaBarbara



the most beautiful place I was ever arrested was a place very few people ever get to go picture this it's August 1993 a group of us get in a boat and take an hour-long boat ride in the dark followed by over a mile of hiking carrying heavy packs we catch a couple of hours of half sleep on some rocks and it's 6 a.m. it's time we stand at the base of a carefully selected tree and I can feel my heart racing can I really do this I am seriously afraid of heights like terrified like not able to climb a stepladder to change a light bulb terrified my team is staring at me in the early morning cool damp air I know what I have to do one push the top rope up with my hand to push up with the bottom rope a loop with my foot one two and up I go my role is to get my butt up this tree and onto the platform that's been set up there by our prep team I have to set aside my fear of heights and get up there before anyone else arrives about midway up I realized that my platform is a lot higher than I was expecting much higher but where else do I have to go so I continued up until I reach the platform rope at which point I panic I cannot actually see the platform where is it the tree is enormous I called down to the climber who set up my new home and he mumbles something into the radio about how I'm gonna have to swing onto it swing definitely not in my wheelhouse but again where else do I have to go so what big push off the tree I swing over with my rope and very inelegantly scramble on to my tiny platform my new home I've made it I have reached my goal my mission to stop the road building that is coming in to clear this forest in its tracks so here I am as I look over from my vantage point on this tiny platform over the tops of these ancient Cedars I realize that the view is astonishing and its unique how many people climb 80 feet up into a 500 year old cedar tree and take in this view my first day turns into a night and then another day and another by the third day I've been sitting on this 4 foot by 3 foot plywood platform for so long I am feeling really spent it has been over 60 hours since my feet have touched the ground I hear a commotion below me and I realize my time is limited there is a very testy Royal Canadian Mounted Police climber slowly making his way up to me he will arrest me and work will start again on the logging road that splits open this ancient forest when he gets about 10 feet below my platform I pop my head over the side hi what's your name you're the protester I don't know who he's expecting but it sure isn't me a friendly 28 year old former high school teacher with a friendly grin and a desperate need for a hairbrush my arresting police officers name is bud he takes a look at me I don't know where you're going but I need to sit down so there we are shoulder to shoulder the two of us with front row seats to the majesty of a forest that has been growing for centuries but looks over me I just want to let you know I agree with what you're doing I agree with your cause I don't think these trees should be cut down either and then he arrests me now I've been hauled away by police a lot 15 times at least that's me I'm an activist when you think of that word activist what comes to mind protesters dropping banners from the sides of smokestacks people marching through the streets protesting and blocking traffic hecklers shouting over speeches at political conventions or maybe somebody's sitting 80 feet up in an ancient cedar those are the conventional views that we have of an activist I admit I liked those images for a long time I was a rebel on the frontlines of the movement risking aware arrests and taking a stand and it was easy to say I was an activist when I was climbing trees and risking arrest it was clear as a bell I also have to admit that during that time we used to think about people who weren't willing to risk arrest for what they believed in and we called them civilians yes civilians bystanders on the battle for truth and justice now when I decided that I wanted to do good without always planning for time in a jail cell I decided to direct charities was I still an activist despite my more law-abiding role yes I thought I was because I was still do Gooding and I could see even more impact I had staff money my need to do stuff and I could see the change I was making community gardens food for the food bank transforming schools to environmental sustainability then I had my children I became a mom I stepped out of my executive director role to have more time with my kids and along with the tornado that is motherhood I felt like I had left my activist identity far behind how did I qualify anymore when I was busy helping small people zip up their jackets and wipe their noses had I become a civilian as I thought about the state of my activism I began to look around at my friends and neighbors and I realized this almost nobody thought of themselves as an activist wasn't that the whole point to get more people to act to care it really struck me that the conventional view of activism not only it accidentally excluded a lot of people but it turned a lot of people off they thought of risking arrest and marching in the street and they thought that isn't me and we lost them as potential activists when the world needed them more than ever I realized this the world needs a new definition of activism one in which we recognize that every action every decision we make in a day is changing the world we must make those actions count well what if you don't want to take on all the problems of the world there are so many let me state this as clearly and strongly as possible people's lives are at risk the earth our home upon which we depend for our survival is in crisis if you decide to stay at home and not lift a finger to help well you're letting some pretty bad things happen that is true whether you like it or not the good news is that you're already changing the world and you can do more with ease you don't have to be on planetary duty 24/7 you just have to do something every day to help now activist me included have been marching around for decades shouting about the survival of the planet and justice and equality and although we find that we have had some progress it's often two steps forward one and three-quarters steps back we don't have time for that anymore not with the challenges we're facing okay so our inaction personal and collective has potentially catastrophic consequences what to do that's where the new definition comes in the new activist is someone who recognizes that their daily actions are changing the world and they intentionally choose actions to create the world they want it turns out we all are activists like it or not we all are activists changing the world every day with our actions big and small changing the world for better or for worse now one of the most radical forms of activism on the planet is parenting if you decide to be in small people's lives or bring them into this world then you have an enormous responsibility those are the next generation of activists those are the people that are supposed to be helping us figure this mess out they need to be happy and resilient resourceful considerate and brave and that's up to you as a parent it's a big job there's so many ways you can express your activism checking in on an elderly neighbor letting somebody go ahead of you in the grocery store line babysitting for someone who's exhausted and needs a break it's all part of it I have a friend who has never seen herself as an activist and she raises monarch butterflies from caterpillar to adult to help their numbers activists I know of a woman who puts love notes into library books for strangers to find activists my dad always stopped to help people with car trouble activists it's all part of it the collective impact of these so-called small actions it's enormous another powerful expression of your activism is what you choose to buy think as you're out there considering what you're going to choose who made this how is it made and what was its impact on the planet activism tends to be contagious as you realize how much power you have to change the world and how good it feels but if you decide to keep your actions small that's okay too not everybody wants to be up on a stage or go viral on YouTube those actions in your family and your community they matter greatly okay so if it's that easy why aren't we all doing it what scares us about our inner activism the fact that we are changing the world every day with our actions and we must make those actions count maybe it's the fear of being pulled into the pain of the world if we matter if we actually can make a difference then doesn't that mean we have to solve everything suddenly climate change world hunger war it's all on us it feels too vast too big to handle it's easier to pretend it isn't happening or to pretend we can't make a difference I can vouch for this because it happened to me in the midst of all my actions in my busyness I became profoundly saddened by what was happening to the planet I was sitting with a dear friend and mentor of mine the late Bob hunter one of the cofounders of Greenpeace I told him of my state and he said ah yes the feeling that you had to be between every whale and harpoon approaching it yes yes that's it what do I do about that he poured another beer Leighann do I look like I've ever figured that out we laughed but I realized there was something that he was doing to sustain his lifelong activism and when I studied his work I realized the secret was as much as he could he had fun with his work yes fun fun is a crucial element to successful activism we have to do as much as we can every day to make the world a better place and having fun while doing it makes that a lot easier fun is also persuasive having a good laugh while you're helping somebody change their mind really makes that stick okay so the good news is you're already changing the world you can do more with ease and it feels great what is the new activism not the new activism is not ranting on Twitter the new active thank you the new activism is not signing a petition every now and then the new activism isn't going to an event once a year it's an intentional practice your your activism a daily practice and it's best done out in the world rather than just behind your computer and another secret you don't have to be angry to be an activist we often think that in order to take action we have to carry anger with us like a sword I used anger as fuel for a long time and then I realized the anger burns hot and it often burns out and it's usually against something in this world we have to have a vision for what we want an alternative you often can't figure out that alternative when you're busy shouting at people compassion open-mindedness those are the states that allow us to create a vision of the new world we want and to share it with others and finally one other thing to let go of is the idea of being right that's a tough one to let go of the idea that us the sweet people over here we're on the side of truth and justice and those people well they're not as my conversation with bud the Mountie who arrested me illuminated we can often be very surprised and to find who is on the same side still you can sit on the sidelines you can stay and be the person that doesn't speak up who doesn't take action who misses the fun of changing the world but in this world you do so at great risk there are elections to be decided problems to be solved challenges to be faced okay you're an activist so what's next what do you do first embrace your inner activism celebrate what you're already doing that's changing the world for the better talk about it model it share it with others you are an activist now you notice and then act and act again as your daily activist practice and have fun with it where you can because that will sustain you imagine a world where we were truly aware of the impact that we make on others in the planet and we made that impact better wherever we could I think that would be a pretty damn fine place to live the new activism challenges us to be truly aware of the change we make every day and that small shift that can change everything I think Alice Walker's said it best activism is my rent for living on the planet so let's pay our rent no one gets to sit this one out thank you you

One comment

  1. Lea Ann, years ago I took a course at Harvard/MIT called 'Dealing with an angry public'. Your talk reminded me of that course and the importance of finding common ground even when there seems to be none.

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