What is an Activist?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

An activist is someone who takes action in support of or opposition to a cause. Activism can take a range of forms, from writing letters to government representatives to organizing boycotts. Some activists engage in radical or even illegal activity to further their ends, while others prefer to stay within the boundaries of the law to win more supporters to their causes. Every time someone writes a letter to the editor, educates a friend about an issue, or phones an elected official, he or she is participating in activism.

An activist campaigns or organizes for causes they strongly believe in, such as legal reform or court transparency.
An activist campaigns or organizes for causes they strongly believe in, such as legal reform or court transparency.

People have been practicing activism for centuries with the goal of social and political change. Jesus Christ, for example, is considered an activist by some, thanks to His radical preaching and fearless approach to social reform. At various times in history, being an activist has been quite dangerous, as activism was equated with dangerous political dissent, making people who spoke out targets for persecution. At other times, activism has been tolerated or even encouraged.

Activists usually participate in demonstrations to encourage change in policies.
Activists usually participate in demonstrations to encourage change in policies.

On a lesser scale, activism might involve participating in activist causes, without actively organizing. Examples like participating in letter writing campaigns, phone banking for political candidates, walking in marches, and supporting boycotts and strikes are all examples of basic activism. Maybe activists start out at this level before moving on to more active organization, which involves things like leading marches, hosting organizing committees, community organizing, offering classes at teach-ins, and so forth.

Some activists promote the welfare of animals.
Some activists promote the welfare of animals.

In some instances, activism crosses the line of the law, as activists become swept up in the cause or feel that they have no other options. On the mild end of the spectrum, this might involve simple disobedience, such as refusing to clear a street after being ordered to do so by law enforcement. Others may pursue more violent tactics, which some people feel cross the line into terrorism. Many activist movements condemn violent activism, arguing that it reduces the strength of their cause and alienates potential converts.

Activists may participate in demonstrations aimed to end discrimination practices.
Activists may participate in demonstrations aimed to end discrimination practices.

Activists can organize for a wide number of causes. Political parties, the environment, social justice, and moral issues are all common rallying points for activists. Some people participate in activism because they have personally experienced injustice or prejudice, while others simply believe in the cause they support or oppose, regardless of personal experience.

College campuses are a great place to find activist organizations, but many cities and towns also have organizations active in the general community. Searching for a cause of interest and your community may turn up a list of resources including activist organizations.

Activists may work toward gaining social justice for certain groups.
Activists may work toward gaining social justice for certain groups.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Sneakers41 -I agree with you and I wanted to add that the civil rights movement and all of its activists really opened everyone’s eyes to the injustices that they were experiencing. Rosa Parks is an activist that paved the way, I think for many other African Americans to challenge laws that were unjust.

Good for her that she had the courage to stand up for her rights and because of her many positive changes occurred with respect to civil rights. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated all literacy tests that African Americans had to take before qualifying to vote and made sure that everyone was treated equally.

Rosa Parks really gave rise to people like Dr. Martin Luther King that wanted peaceful change. It is a shame that Dr. Martin Luther King did not live long enough to see all of the positive changes that came about as a result of his activism. This is one famous activist that no one will ever forget because his words and his message was universal.


@BrickBack -I know what you mean. Sometimes people have to have more balanced viewpoints because there are always two sides to an issue that are equally valid.

For example, peace activists have a valid viewpoint in not wanting war because many of these activists have family and friends that have either perished because of acts of war or are negatively affected and they want others to know the consequences of fighting a war.

There are also members of the military that have had many generations serving in the armed forces and they take pride in defending our nation. I think that when there is a war we have to be careful that we don’t give our enemy a morale boost by seeing our protestors in the street.

I think that these peace activists would be better served trying to pass some legislation through congress to try to shorten the time that soldiers serve or have an appropriate rotation in place. That at least is a compromise that all sides can live with.


@Oasis11 -I agree that the best activists are those that have a personal connection to the cause. I wanted to add that while believing in a cause is great, you also have to respect the views of others.

For example, many environmental activist groups are looking to expand the CAFÉ standards which raise the fuel economy standards of many of the vehicles that we drive. This forces the car manufacturers to develop lighter cars that have a much lower safety rating in terms of potential car accidents.

I understand trying to save fuel and become less dependent on foreign oil, but I don’t want our cars to be less safe because of it. Some environmental activists want everyone to drive a tiny car in order to improve the environment, but I am not going to put myself or my family at risk to save the environment.


Kat919 - I think that you have more passion when you are personally affected by a cause or have suffered greatly because of it. I know that many Cuban immigrants that fled the Castro regime in the 1960’s became political activists that wanted to promote democracy for the island. The Cuban immigrants are among the most passionate group of political activists that I have ever seen.

When news spread of Fidel Castro stepping down, there was a huge celebration among the Cuban activists in the streets of Miami with people honking their horns in pure joy. It is understandable because Castro has stripped these people of everything and even put a wedge within many families.

There are many political activists that are not only looking forward to a free Cuba, but they also want to help the Cuban people transition into a free society.


@robbie21 - Something similar happened to a cousin of mine. She was never the type to join activist groups or anything, but then her older son was diagnosed with autism. Now she's really active as an autism advocate--more funding for early intervention, better training for teachers, that kind of thing.


It's funny how circumstances can turn someone who never even read the newspaper into a political activist! A friend of mine was once nursing her baby in a coffee shop (name withheld) and some bepimpled seventeen-year-old barista asked her to stop.

She was the most mild-mannered, modest person before that. She always nursed behind a big "hooter hider" and tried so hard not to bother anyone (not just about breastfeeding--she wouldn't say boo to a ghost, as the saying goes). I think that's why she got so upset, actually--she's such a people pleaser and she hadn't done anything wrong.

Now she's a full-on "lactivist"! No more nursing cover and she has taken part in at least two "nurse-ins." She's a La Leche League leader now and I know one speciality of hers is helping women negotiate for a private place to pump breastmilk at work.

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