How to be an Advocate in the Age of Adversity

We’ve entered a tenuous era in our country. Bipartisanship has spilled over from Capitol Hill and is now present in every corner of America today. Advocates and protesters gather nearly every day in front of monuments, airports, police stations and even schools to make as big a scene as they can, in the effort to be heard over the cacophony. A line has been drawn in the sand, and it reads, “Republican or democrat, which are you? And if you’re not what I am, you’re wrong. Now, listen as I broad-strokingly denounce your beliefs until you agree with me!” Here’s something you already know: the other side isn’t listening–they tuned out by the second sentence. Wouldn’t you have done the same?

Politics and activism is a dirty game–I know, because I am neck-deep in it. And things are just heating up. But today I want to shout out to all the other activists out there, and ask you: In this battle where our words are used as weapons, how do we expect to win when nobody is listening?

Right now I’m dating a boy who grew up in North Carolina, and went straight from high school to serve in the army infantry. When I tell this to people at Penn State, a lot of them get confused because he, as they say, doesn’t seem like my “type.” What they mean is, how is Isabella (the radical feminist/socialist, who spends her free time lobbying for Medicaid) dating a libertarian gun enthusiast who lived his whole life South of the Mason Dixon line? Well first of all, he is an awesome person and very supportive of me, and I try to be supportive of him too. But the real secret is that we started our relationship by listening to each other. And both of us have learned a lot so far.

This weekend I went to visit him on his base, and as I was getting ready to leave today I mentioned I still needed to figure out what to write for my PLA blog. He suggested I write about some of the conversations we’ve had about activism and what makes it effective. As I said, I do a lot of work with activists, and the way things usually go at protests is pretty similar to the situation I described in the first paragraph. We were talking about such an event, and he expressed his frustration (with a NC accent): “I don’t know what they [certain protesters] expect to get out of that, man. They’re so aggressive and way too uppity. How can I respect them when they tell me I’m full of sh*t to my face? They don’t know where my opinions came from, and now they’ll never know, because I’m not gonna waste my time talking to them” (Dustin Diener, semi-accurately quoted, 2017).

What he’s explaining is something college educated activists so often fail to realize themselves: It might feel good to be proud and staunch in your beliefs. But when it comes to making actual change, it’s not about highlighting what separates you from the other person, it’s finding what connects the two of you. Most people agree that our social problems cannot be solved through legislation alone–people’s opinions also need to shift in order for change to be meaningful. Psychology tells us that the way people reevaluate their opinions is not through force or aggression, but through the cultivation of relationships, respect, and finding common ground. One of the things that makes this relationship with my boyfriend the healthiest and happiest I’ve ever had, is that despite our differences of opinion, we’ve both learned to listen to one another. Because of this, we’ve been able to find common ground, and now our beliefs are more informed and complex. Overall we’ve grown as people, and he has made me a better activist precisely because he doesn’t agree with everything I advocate for.

I don’t expect all you advocates to go find a politically dissonant partner after this (although it might be fun to read more blogs about that). But I wanted to tell you about my experience because it is an example of how relationships are the real machine behind social progress, not flat out adversity. It’s also a reminder that everyone (EVERYONE!) has something to say which will be valuable to your work and your personal development. So next time you go out there to create a great new world, remember: the other side might be able to hear you, but ask yourself… are they listening?

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