Navigating the Activist Cycle: Six Rules for Effective Activism in Human Rights

Trans PeopleLorelei Erisis, The Rainbow Times' "Ask A Trans Woman" Columnist.
Photo: David Meehan
Lorelei Erisis, The Rainbow Times' "Ask A Transwoman" Columnist.  Photo: David Meehan

Lorelei Erisis, The Rainbow Times’ “Ask A Transwoman” Columnist.
Photo: David Meehan

By: Lorelei Erisis*/TRT Columnist—

This time of year more or less denotes the start of the season I like to think of as the “speaking and marching season. During this season, I make the rounds of various Pride Festivals through the summer months and then, as the weather begins to cool down and political passions begin to heat up, assorted rallies and marches. All this lasts from roughly May to November. Once winter hits, at least in New England, we all sort of hunker in again and the season of planning and meetings begins.

It’s a cycle I have come to know well. It’s the activist cycle. I know the rhythms of it through close involvement. I have spoken, marched, chanted, led, followed, organized, canvassed, served on boards and generally gotten mixed up in any number of causes.

All of this has happened on top of a life lived adventurously, in which I have had much occasion to meet people of all stripes, hear their stories and, most importantly, spend countless hours thinking about and discussing what makes them tick. There are a number of things that I’ve learned, specifically as it applies to activism, that I would like to share with you my dear readers.

Everything starts from grassroots.

No matter the size of the movement, or the importance of the cause, everything starts with just a few people deciding to do something, working together to fix a perceived wrong or injustice and gathering more people to that work. [pullquote]I have spoken, marched, chanted, led, followed, organized, canvassed, served on boards and generally gotten mixed up in any number of causes.[/pullquote]

Even the most unwieldy organization still breaks down to individual members doing the work on the ground. Each link in an organizing chain is still comprised of individual people, with their own thoughts and motivations. Without all these people doing their own small parts, it all falls apart.

Ultimately, it’s all about human rights.

While we may be working with individuals who have individual concerns and particular motivations, most of the political causes and social movements I’ve encountered can be expanded out to being ultimately about a fight for human rights, and that’s important to remember.

You might be working to change one small thing or to make life better for a specific group of people. If you ask yourself truly, “Why should this happen?” “Why must this wrong be righted?” you will very likely come to the answer that in a caring and responsible society, all people, everywhere, deserve the same basic rights as human beings.

Cross-pollinate your work. Learn from outside sources.

This is one that has helped me immensely. Of course I think it’s important to make a detailed study of the causes you are invested in. Often though, many of my biggest successes have come from taking an idea or principle I learned elsewhere and applying it to the cause at hand.

While a great deal of my activism and writing deals with transgender issues and gender/sexuality, I make a point to keep myself educated on a wide range of topics. I have always been a voracious reader and I have often found inspiration from authors as wide ranging as Noam Chomsky, J.F.K., Sun Tzu, Fran Lebowitz and Robert Anton Wilson.

Keeping my interests varied helps me avoid falling into ruts, and often it allows me to provide a spark of inspiration where a fresh idea is needed.

Get involved. Insert yourself.

I hear people complaining all the time about how such-and-such organization does not have any members of their particular social group or identification, and good on them for identifying the deficiency. Bully I say!

Now what are you going to do about it?

Whatever the reason, sometimes the only way to rectify it is if someone steps up and says, “I’ll be that person who is missing.” You may not even want me here, but you need me here. So here I am, whether you like it or not.

Now, I know, this may not be pleasant. It’s likely not going to be a walk in the park, but if you really believe this integration needs to happen, somebody is going to have to be that first token. The starter culture, if you will.

And why shouldn’t it be you?

Make and cultivate friends outside your activism.

You are burnt out. Your legs hurt and if you have to spend one more minute arguing about the misogynistic class imperative of heteronormative social redistribution, you are going to hit someone, despite your lifelong and deeply held pacifism.

Excuse yourself from the movement for a few minutes and go find some people who have nothing at all to do with your grand and important work. Have a drink, watch “The Simpsons,” chill with some friends who love you just because you’re nifty.

If it weren’t for the friends I have outside of my activism work, I would be a burnt-out, empty husk of an activist. [pullquote]Excuse yourself from the movement for a few minutes and go find some people who have nothing at all to do with your grand and important work.[/pullquote]

When I have stepped away, remembered to live the life I’m fighting for, for a few minutes, I always return refreshed! I am recharged, freshly activated and ready to fight, so my friends don’t have to.

Every crowd is an audience.

This is a great example of taking ideas from one realm into another. It’s a realization I came to early in my career as an activist, and one that seemed obvious to me having come from many previous years of performing and entertaining people.

We may want to think that the people who are listening to our impassioned speeches or encountering our deft protests are something different than the audience for simple entertainment. Let me assure you, in all the ways that matter, they are very much the same.

They still have an expectation of being influenced, moved and, yes, entertained. You have to get their attention and keep it, if you want to change their minds. You will have to rouse their passions if you want them to march. They will remember better when you are funny or engaging, and will drift away if they grow bored.

It’s okay to entertain while you enlighten. After all, entertainment is simply about moving people in some way, and isn’t that exactly what you’re trying to do?


*Lorelei Erisis is an activist, adventurer and pageant queen. Send your questions about trans issues, gender and sexuality to her at:

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