Saturday, June 15, 2013

Social Activism: Trending

A few days ago, I was reading an article called How Art Can Be Activism by Dan Haseltine, the founder of Blood: Water Mission and singer of Jars of Clay.  He made some great points in this article.  As one who shares his heart for humanitarian work, I decided to add to some of his thoughts.

In the American culture, activism is stylish.  Invisible Children's "Kony 2012" campaign exploded into awareness for a brief and astounding few weeks.  TOMS, a brand of shoes that offers a pair to a needy child for each pair purchased ("one-for-one"), are everywhere on my college campus.  I have yet to attend a Christian concert without a break in the middle to raise awareness for Compassion International or World Vision.

I'm a college student, and I don't go a day on my university campus without seeing some sort of social activism taking place.  My closet is full of t-shirts that raise awareness for causes: "This Shirt Feeds Starving Children," "Pray for Haiti," "Life is Greater Than Comfort: The Wells Project," "TWLOHA," "Kenya, Feel the Love," and I could go on and on.  Activism is certainly trending right now. 

A perk of young, artistic students becoming interested in activism is the display of art that arises.  Dan Haseltine says, "Art draws people into a conversation- a powerful tool in the world of aid.  A skillfully communicated story, a compelling photo, an infographic or video montage can capture the compassion of those who otherwise might not have taken that second look.  Art can show people the humanity of a justice cause and so engage their support."  Something I learned from one of my communications classes last semester is that art brings conversation, whether in your own mind or by bringing you into discussion with people around you.

The photographs and t-shirts and shoes and paintings all create awareness for real issues.  TOMS are attractive shoes, but they remind wearers to some extent that there are children in the world at this moment who have no shoes and need them.  A piece of writing or a painting can spark conversation that could ignite change.  This world needs educators and problem-solvers to create solutions to the huge magnitude of troubles that currently exist.

If art is creating conversation that needs to happen, then it's a good thing, right?

To an extent.  Much of activism today seems to create art focused solely on pop culture.  Would broke college students students spend $60 on a pair of TOMS if they weren't stylish, even if kids in Africa still needed shoes?  Would someone really have donated $20 to that organization if they didn't offer a cool t-shirt?

"So what?" you might be thinking.  "As long as funds are being donated, who cares if motives are in the right place or not?"

The biggest problem with this is that it creates no accountability.  Perhaps one organization is selling awesome merchandise to raise funds towards their cause while another has a shortage of young, trendy artists to help them keep up.  Even if only 30% goes to the first cause and 93% goes to the second, the organization with the coolest t-shirt is probably going to win, and the donator will feel just as good about what they gave.  The same goes if the first cause has people causing more harm than good, and the second is making a big difference.  The cool t-shirt will probably be chosen because the buyer won't bother to do their research. 

At my university, people sell t-shirts and bracelets on the sidewalks, raising money for all sorts of causes.  And I've done exactly what I'm talking about, seeing a shirt or water bottle that I think looks cool, justifying my purchase with the excuse, "It helps hungry kids in Zambia anyways," and I never look up the organization again.

As Haseltine said in his article, "What if they are resented in the communities they attempt to serve? ...It has become a problem in the fragmented rise of mini nonprofit aid organizations that have big hearts and cool t-shirts yet poor practices."  When we support an aid organization focused more on pop culture than the actual solution, we are falling into a practice of no accountability and failed motives.

A final quote from Haseltine I would like to share is: "Art loses its 'good' when it fails to honor and dignify its subjects.  There's a difference between portraying people to humanize them and market them.  ...If you wouldn't show your art to a person in the community you serve, that's a pretty good sign that the art should change." 

Check out this blog article by Hugh, the founder of Love Wins Ministries about the recent campaign called #FitchtheHomeless.  You can read about it all here.  Hugh writes about this same issue.  People are giving Abercrombie & Fitch clothing to homeless people as a way to get back at the "elite" and snobbish brand.  Most people say it's a good thing; homeless people are getting clothes, even if the motives behind the giving are a little twisted.  However, while homeless people may need clothes, they are being dehumanized through this campaign and that is completely wrong.

Hugh says, "Consider how you would feel about this story if, instead of 'homeless people', the story was that a man shot a video that sought to offend the brand by giving its clothes to black people or gay people. The internet would be in an outrage, rightfully calling the video racist or homophobic.  ...It is never okay to stigmatize people in the defense of your cause – no matter how just or good it is. It is never okay to use poor people – or, in fact, any people, as props or object lessons or teaching tools. Ever."

In the joyful chaos of social activism, it's easy to think about the cause and not the people behind it.  The malnourished children are more than award-winning photos and conversation-provoking t-shirts.  They are children.  Africa is more than starvation and poverty; it's a continent filled with diversity, beauty, and love.

There is meaningful change in the trendy social activism that I've seen springing up all around me during my college years, but there is a danger too.  Before you go out and support an aid organization simply because of its trendiness, I challenge you to check your motives.  Do some background research.  Remind yourself of why you're donating and who you're really trying to bring relief.

Three years ago: The Dreamer


  1. Emily, I like this post very much. What you're discussing here is very close to my heart. I see your love for God and His children shining very bright here.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Oops! After I wrote this post, I thought of something I wanted to add, so I copied this post into a new post and added the new thoughts, then deleted this post, thinking it would disappear. Sorry!

  3. What I like about this post is thinking of people as people, rather than props.

    At the same time, it raises an issue that troubles me: People thinking that they're fulfilling their social responsibility towards ravaged people all over the world, by donating money to organizations. What ravaged people all over the world need the most is for more privileged people to change the way we live. Furthermore, the part of the donations that is actually spent on products and services for ravaged people often does more to help perpetuate the ravaging, than to stop it.