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“Activism is the rent I pay for living on the planet.” – Alice Walker
When I first read that quote, I realized that sentiment is what lives behind my drive to Do Something. To make my position known, to stand for what I believe is just, to change the things I can while I have time. While there is still time.
In fourth grade, at Huntsville Public School, they sent the students out to Main Street to do a litter clean-up on Earth Day, April 22nd. I remember walking in front of the theatre, wearing flimsy plastic gloves that were way too big for my hands, filtering through dirt to find trash and put it into a plastic bag. I remember all the cigarette butts—countless. People still don’t consider these to be litter. One of them was still smoldering when I picked it up, and I burned my finger right through the plastic glove.
I remember the feeling I had at that moment. I didn’t have the language for it then, but now I know it was helpless rage. I have felt this feeling often, deep in my gut. It wants to spread to the rest of my body, but it seems to get halted at my heart and shoved back down. I can’t access it to scream or cry or explode, which I sometimes feel like doing. I had to learn to let the feeling flow through my heart and do something productive, instead of destructive.
Which is how I came to become involved in activism. Many of the projects I started have concluded, whether they carry on without me, or came to a natural ending. Many are ongoing, including my vision for a Women’s Land Co-operative in Muskoka. For a while, I just kept at it, head down, barreling forward via as many avenues as I could find or create, saying ‘yes’ to every opportunity to be Active. There finally came a point where I felt as though I was doing Enough. I could finally stop feeling horrified and guilty because of my participation in a system that was contributing to the destruction of the planet.
For a long time, every bite I ate was laden with sadness because of the treatment of the animals or the workers involved in bringing it to my table. I couldn’t travel as close as Bracebridge because the spectre of my carbon footprint immobilized me. I couldn’t watch TV because of the sexism and racism in so much of the media we view. I was a nightmare to be around and I just wanted it all to stop. I felt hopeless.
When I started choosing to do activism, to take my spare time and work to make the world closer to the one I know is possible, that state of hopeless inertia faded away. I’m more aware than ever of the injustices involved in nearly everything we do—under capitalism, there is no ethical consumption. The system isn’t broken; it was built this way. But now I know there is another way. And that’s where I focus my attention. It doesn’t make sense to stop eating because our food industry is rife with waste and abuse. I need food to fuel me so I can work to change it.
We need to fight the collapse into apathy, into overwhelm. We have to stop looking away because it’s so daunting and we are so small. I can’t count how many conversations I’ve been a part of that start with passion and righteous indignation at the problems we face as a society, go a couple rounds, then drop into helplessness and usually end with someone looking at their phone. I understand the temptation to say ‘it’s all too much, it’s too big, it’s not possible.’ To just focus on myself as an individual and remain motionless, like prey. I’ve been there. I’m still sometimes the one that looks at her phone when it gets too scary to keep talking, when marching or blogging or meeting or whatever just isn’t good enough, isn’t enough. I forgive myself for those times, because I remember I am one person. It is not up to me, or you, to demolish the systems of oppression that have thrived for millennia. But it is not okay for us to look away, either.
I like this quote from the Talmud: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” We just have to start somewhere. Start by recognizing that humans created these systems that cause destruction and suffering to people, animals, and the planet; and because people created them, people can destroy them. They are not universal truths.
Find the thing that makes your gut churn—the thing that makes you wish you could look away but you know you can’t—find the burning cigarette butt pressed against your flesh that you can still smell whenever you think of it. Find that, and decide: I will do what I can to make this better.
Then find the ones who are doing the same. Show up. Speak up. Don’t give up.
The word activism is so lovely. It just means that we act in accordance with our values. That we do something. Part of my role as an activist is to activate others. To wake others up and show them the power they have if they decide to channel it. When is one voice insufficient? When it forgets it has never been one voice.
At the Women’s March, a woman I respect asked me for a hug and told me that I make her want to do better, to do more. I told her she is already enough. But I saw the fire in her and I realized that that was my activism—her activation. I have made many signs, I have marched in many streets. I will make more, march more. But maybe my real role is to show people how easy it is to stand on a soapbox when you really believe in what you’re saying—when you really believe you can make a difference. When, despite odds or evidence, you have hope.
One last quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” (attributed to Margaret Mead)
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Kathleen May is a writer, speaker, and activist. Her work in our community includes co-founding the long-running Huntsville Women’s Group, being a Survivor Mentor in the pilot survivor-to-survivor program through MPSSAS, co-facilitating instinct-unlocking workshops for women through I Got This, working as a host and community producer of Herstories on YourTV, volunteering with Women’s March Muskoka, and her role as a front-line counsellor at a women’s shelter. Kathleen is a 2018 Woman of Distinction for Social Activism and Community Development and also received the Best Author award for her 2018 submission at the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a fundraiser for literacy services. Her dream is a sustainable women’s land co-operative in Muskoka.