Saturday, July 20, 2024



Here’s how 3 Philly nonprofit leaders define ‘activism’

A February 2017 protest heads west on Market Street. April 20, 2017 Category: FeatureFeaturedLongPeople
In our continuing coverage of activism throughout the month of April, we at Generocity have heard from a number of people involved in different social causes.

In Marion Leary’s guest post on why she’s marching at this Saturday’s inaugural March for Science Philadelphia, she calls herself an activist who finds it her “responsibility to stand up for science not just when it is under attack, but every day the earth rotates.”

All of the recent controversy around Philly’s current district attorney has prompted heated conversation about who will be the next DA, as made evident by the 20 community organizations making up the Philadelphia Coalition for a Just District Attorney.

And for migrant poets or a podcasting mom-and-son duo, activism to them is about creating content that matters to them and the causes they support.

But we had to ask: How does the Philly activism community define “activism” and what are some of the things individuals and organizations should keep in mind when involved in it?

Here’s what three leaders of some local active groups had to say.

How do you define “activism” compared to advocacy, and activism in Philadelphia specifically?

Tim Whitaker, executive director of Mighty Writers:

  • No idea how to define either. Our philosophy is to react and speak out against policies that hurt the kids we serve. We make our point of view clear. We haven’t organized a protest, or thrown up a picket line, but that’s not to say we wouldn’t.

Shani Akilah, cofounder of Black and Brown Workers Collective:

From our Partners

  • Activism is the act of taking an action towards a cause with the purpose of improving a social condition/conditions. Advocacy often accompanies activism and is the act of speaking on behalf of a cause to improve the lived conditions of a marginalized group or groups.

Lawanda Horton, president and CEO of Mission Incorporated:

  • In my view the fundamental difference between activism and advocacy lies in frequency and focus of action. For the advocate, action is in direct response to a catalyst — a specific deficiency in justice or services for a specific group people. Activism is ongoing and encompasses the interconnectedness of injustice and disparity. It requires the acknowledgement of all things in need of correcting and a tireless commitment to addressing each thing individually and as part of the whole.

What are some best practices you can share about spreading your group’s message?

Tim Whitaker:

  • Don’t get personal. Keep words of M. Obama always in mind: “When they go low, we go high.”

Shani Akilah:

  • Those most impacted must be at the front of this current Liberation movement. The Black and Brown Workers Collective focused on Black and Brown folks who live at the intersection of various marginalized identities. We go beyond activism as we seek to change the material conditions in a colonialist and white supremacist society. We seek to dismantle those systems and structures that are complicit in the mass genocide of Black and Brown people. We work from a power analysis that takes into account power, privilege and marginality.

Lawanda Horton:

  • The key is to target folks who grasp the complete picture of the problem, and to focus energies on building first a small but mighty coalition of the willing. Their passion and focus works to spread the mission and action steps to a larger group over time organically.

How can likeminded orgs best collaborate to further their work — and how can organizations and individuals with dissenting missions and opinions communicate positively?

Tim Whitaker:

  • Best to cast aside the usual sideswipes that blow up so many collaborations. Like, thinking about the other, we were doing this work before you were even around. Or, we reach so many more people than you do. Avoid playground trash talk.

Shani Akilah:

  • Likeminded orgs can work to ensure that they are taking into account the depth and breadth of the human experience. That means ensuring that when they speak about Liberation they are considering how different groups and folks living at different intersections are impacted differently. They can work to make sure that these folks are invited to the conversation at the inception of the process. Not at the middle or end. This only centers the voices of those most privileged.

Lawanda Horton:

  • Organizations must first come to the table ready to address the issue independent of their personal stake in it all. This can be difficult to do, but it is critical. As soon as folks sense that the direction of a meeting is leaning heavily in one direction, the battle for key positioning begins. Once groups have identified the problem and developed some basic working solutions, they can begin to explore how their individual talents and skillsets contribute to the overarching goal. This is the definition of collaboration.

What’s missing from this conversation?

Tim Whitaker:

  • The economics of nonprofit activism. Do nonprofit leaders fear speaking out will adversely affect donations?

Shani Akilah:

  • Often what is missing from these conversations are the voices of those most marginalized. Often the voices of trans Black and Brown women and folks are completely omitted from the strategy, planning and public statements about Liberation. Often the voices of gender non-conforming and non-binary folks are omitted from organizing spaces. If we are not centering those most impacted we are not fighting for Liberation. Instead, we are fighting for more privilege. This is not the work of freedom.

Lawanda Horton:

  • I wholeheartedly believe that veteran voices in the civil rights and civil disobedience movements are missing from a lot of activist conversations. These folks organized with little to no resources and understand the severity of the problems we face. The technology and the youthfulness of the movement has been inspiring and exciting, but without a strong foundation rooted in history and experience- we are destined to learn old lessons and fight unnecessarily battles previously won.

This story includes reporting by Generocity Editor Julie Zeglen.

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