It's Not the Time to Get Comfortable: 3 Activists Share How We Can Continue Pushing for Change in 2021
Social justice work has to exist beyond social media.
Amidst widespread grief, tragedy, and hardship, 2020 was a year of momentum. After the killing of George Floyd in May, an estimated 15 million to 26 million people took to the streets to protest, making the Black Lives Matter demonstrations the largest movement in U.S. history.
While not everyone was on the frontlines fighting for racial justice, increased time spent at home and online meant most people were watching the protests take place—and many were searching for ways to get involved. The 2020 Google trends report shows that "how to help" was searched more last year than any year prior. Additionally, in a year when more than 4 in 10 households faced serious financial problems—the term "how to donate" was searched twice as much as "how to save money."
However, as we settle into a new year and, as of this week, a new presidency, it's hard to know if this momentum for social change and community support will continue. There was a stretch of time last year when it seemed like every social media post was connected to a social cause, with people sharing information about how to fight for rent relief, where to donate money for protesters' bail funds, and why we need police abolition. But as many predicted, our timelines have largely returned to brunch updates and OOTD posts, making it seem like some of the collective urgency for change was left behind in 2020.
As Jacquelyn Ogorchukwu Iyamah, a UX designer and founder of the racial wellness platform Making the Body a Home, explains, the fight for racial justice wasn't born in 2020, and it won't end there either. "It's important to note that Black and Brown change-makers have been doing this racial justice work for years, decades, and centuries, many of us from an incredibly young age," she says. "This is not a trend for us, this is our lives. The only thing that changed is that more white people started paying attention in the summer of 2020."
Ogorchukwu also runs the account @ogorchukwuu on Instagram, where she shares informational graphics in clean designs, unpacking topics such as white supremacy, power-hoarding, and racial gaslighting. Her post on the latter went viral and garnered nearly 253,000 likes in June of last year. "What was important for me to highlight with my racial gaslighting post is the fact that racism is a form of abuse," she says. "People often fail to see the relationship that racism has on the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health of Black, Indigenous, and people of color."
As thousands of Instagram users engage with her posts online, Ogorchukwu hopes people will take the time to reflect on the topics of her content within their own lives. "I want people to examine themselves, examine their communities, and examine society at large," she says. "I hope that these posts encourage people to learn more about racial trauma, racial healing, and ultimately, move towards racial wellness."
However, moving toward racial wellness and away from internalized forms of white supremacy can't happen solely through Instagram infographics. This work of racial learning has to get personal and be intentional, which sometimes means taking a class on the subject. Ogorchukwu has developed specialized courses on Making the Body a Home, which are designed to "help BIPOC and white communities understand, unlearn, challenge, and heal from racist systems."
"But the work for Black, Indigenous, and people of color is different from the work for white folks," she explains. "I call racism a multifaceted abuser, and in any abusive power dynamic, the healing needed for the person being harmed is not the same as the reparations that the person doing the harm needs to make."
The course "Unpacking Internalized Racism" is designated for BIPOC, while the course "Unpacking White Superiority" is for white people. "It can be difficult for BIPOC to fully heal if white people do not do the deep healing work of unpacking their shadows selves," Ogorchukwu says. "My advice is that more white folks sign up for this course on unpacking white superiority. When we say, 'Do the work,' this is what we mean."
The owner of the Instagram account @SoYouWantToTalkAbout, who goes by Jess, also hopes that her content will push people to take action outside the bounds of social media. Per the bio, the account focuses on "dissecting progressive politics and social issues in a graphic slideshow form"—and 2.2 million people, including the likes of Colin Kaepernick, Ava DuVernay, and U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, follow along.
Jess collaborates with individual experts and relevant organizations to compile information for bite-sized explainers on topics ranging from the death penalty to sex-positivity to impeachment. "I'm deeply motivated by the idea of keeping people informed about the things that are important and giving them the tools to take action," she says. "...The more people are informed, the more likely they are to take action." The Instagram page features an archived "Action Items" story, which shares links to petitions to sign, places to donate, and numbers and emails of legislators to contact.
Jess wants to remind her millions of followers and anyone who became more politically engaged or informed over the past year that now isn't the time to get comfortable. "Just because the keys to the Oval are swapping hands doesn't mean that everything is magically okay," she says. "Trump was not the cause, he was just a symptom. We need to continue to focus on social justice issues—demanding accountability from our elected officials and demanding justice for those who have yet to receive it."
For many activists, the change of presidency doesn't change the work they're doing much if at all. As the decentralized communications coordinator for Sunrise Movement—a youth movement for climate change—Neha Desaraju says she hasn't slowed down just because a climate change denier is out of office. Instead, she and a number of young activists are refocusing on holding President Joe Biden accountable for the promises he made during his campaign. Aside from rejoining the Paris Agreement and working toward a carbon neutral society, Desaraju hopes to see the president utilizing the framework of the Green New Deal to enable green jobs, a just transition, and economic justice, "which doubles as Covid-19 relief." Ultimately, though, "I don't think it's going to be Joe Biden who does any of that," she says. "I think it's gonna be the work of thousands of activists across the nation who are going to make sure that their communities step up and pressure this administration to really provide for Americans."
As a 17-year-old working as both a full-time high school student and climate activist, though, Desaraju knows how much strain activism work can put on the individual. "[Fatigue] is very real. I feel it a lot," she says. So, she wants to remind both herself and others that organizing for change doesn't always have to be a Herculean feat, but instead can build from daily efforts. "I think that organizing has always been sustained by little acts and integrating it into your life and really finding the time to connect and build relationships with your community," she says.
One form of organizing that Desaraju thinks everyone can do is to participate in mutual aid, a system of voluntary exchanges that is "about giving what you can and taking what you need," as she explains. "Anyone can start a so-called mutual aid network," she says. "It doesn't even have to be that formal, but all it takes is talking to your neighbors, talking to your friends and talking to people in your community and figuring out how you and others in your community can help them." Whether this involves donating food to a community fridge, contributing rent money for someone in need, or delivering PPE to underserved communities—these are all answers to that common Google query "how to help."
Even when all the political news dies down and the mask mandates have dropped, that 2020 motto "protect yourself and others" should be a guiding principle in 2021 and beyond.