500,000 people arrived in Washington D.C. to march on January 21. Across the world, hundreds of others Women’s Marches were planned in solidarity. Regardless of where one stands on the issues, the peaceful spectacle was breathtaking and inspiring.
For many of us, especially in the millennial generation, political activism has only thrived online. We may have participated in the Ice Bucket challenge, signed a petition on Change.org, or posted in support of a candidate or legislation, but few of us have felt compelled to take to the streets to defend and champion that which we value.
Some may argue that marches are only symbolic and it would be better to spend our energies on sustained local efforts to bring about change, but I would contend that symbolism is important. Most of that which we value has some sort of symbolic action, ritual, or gesture attached to it: marriage; graduation; aging milestones; professional accomplishments; etc.
During the Freelance Isn’t Free campaign, many Freelancers Union members worked daily behind the scenes to establish relationships with City Council members and allies in the Labor sector, but some of the most uplifting days were those when freelancers from all corners of the City came to rally with us at City Hall. City Council Members definitely took note of the number of people who showed up (and maybe did a little mental math to calculate the size of the freelance vote).
Underpinning the symbolism of a march is a shared sense of purpose. As freelancers, we know that purpose is the engine that powers our life force. Many of us left cushy jobs with all the benefits of traditional employment to follow our purpose. We also know how elusive a sense of purpose can be – especially when we spend most days working on our own. Stepping out on behalf of a cause we care about among thousands of others who feel the same way is like attaching a pair of jumper cables to our sense of purpose.
It’s maybe because of this that the strongest predictor for activism is prior political activism. Having done it once, we’re more likely to do it again because it makes us feel more connected to one another and more purposeful in our lives. As we take on more political activism, we start to develop a network of likeminded people, which gives us the courage to take sustained action against measures we might otherwise have felt powerless to control.
One of the reasons our Freelance Isn't Free rallies were so successful was because they brought together not just freelancers, but other groups and allies in the Labor community. Similarly, the Women's March brought together a long list of organizations partnering to make it happen. This kind of cross-pollination not only opens people up to new points of view, it also helps to form a strong coalition of institutions that can band together to do more work with policy leaders after the march as long passed on.
For many, protests conjure up the image of angry, yelling crowds. I must admit that this was my own early impression of civil activism, but in reality, a strange alchemy occurs when we take collective action. Anger clarifies our values, and then transforms into hope. People who are hopeful are not helpless. People who have hope have the power to create change.
There are many ways to get involved. Most advocacy experts recommend picking on topic on which to focus, learning as much as possible about it, identifying leaders in the field to follow, and then stepping out in support. You’ll definitely change yourself, and you just might change the world.