By Nina Busteed
There is something to be said about the inherent power of activism. It is a powerful act when many people stand up for a cause; a physical demonstration may change people’s minds and hearts, and eventually policies and broader societal systems. However, within an activist movement, a different kind of power pulses through us.
On Monday the 25th of March, I attended a climate election event hosted by the Stop Adani, Australian Youth Climate Coalition and School Strike 4 Climate groups at the Brisbane Convention Centre. I was seated behind a kind man with a white goatee and crinkly, warm eyes whose name I soon learnt was Mark. We were all asked the familiar question: “Can you please turn to a person you do not know and share why you came tonight?”.
Mark’s answer was not the straight up, “I really care about climate justice” or “I strongly feel that the Adani mine should be stopped” or “what the f*** is wrong with the current lack of serious governmental policies and conversations addressing climate change?”, as I felt the urge to say. Mark turned to me and spoke about the positive psycho-social impacts of climate activism today. He said that he came because it boosts his self-esteem and improves his mental health; the way activism unites people in his community gives him joy.
I had never thought about this before. An activist movement is not typically spoken about in terms of the personal experiences of those who take part in the crusade. I wondered whether this narrative is applicable to all activist movements and contexts. I wondered whether it was true for me.
There is sparse research specifically asking the question: “What are the psychological and social effects of involving oneself in an activist movement?”. Ultimately, it is difficult to identify the association of a civic activity or experience with a specific health outcome. However, some scholars consider participation in social justice activism a form of selfcare. Political participation and activism have been said to improve one’s sense of self and sense of purpose, overall strengthening one’s identity and positively affecting mental health.
The group context of activism leads to improved bonding and bridging social capital. These terms respectively mean connections of people within and between typical divisions of society i.e. age, race, class, or religion. An example is my conversation with Mark; I am more aware of his perspective and his presence among this movement now that I have had the opportunity to bridge that age division. Broadly, social capital is the power of these relationships to form an effectively functioning community.
The diversity of climate activism makes it the ultimate social capital movement. On March 25th, there were people of all ages, backgrounds and areas of the globe, sharing stories and struggles. The representation of diverse people in a movement we care about leads us to be less likely to subscribe to subconscious marginalisation. It makes us more aware of social norms steeped in discrimination and more likely to interject when our friends’ words or actions align with those norms. Collective agency alongside marginalised communities may even strengthen our allegiance with them, meaning we are more probable to want to understand their struggles and fight for their rights in the future. We become more accepting and empathetic people.
Additionally, community participation provides safe social spaces. These allow people to share information, engage in critical thinking and cultivate beneficial behavioural norms, positively influencing mental health. As a testament to this, many health promotion programmes use a community group format. Off the top of my head, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are one example.
There is a heaviness tied to us when we realise something is not right in the world we live in. It is largely what inspires us to show up and act. Nevertheless, activism is cyclical; the support of people fighting alongside us is tailor made to help us cope with that weight. We find that we are not the only ones with a fire in our gut, spurring us to make change. Activism simultaneously grounds us in our purpose while easing our pain.
Activism is powerful because it allows us to access and amplify positive change in ourselves and our communities. The way I see it, we are all at the same live music concert, wanting to enjoy the same band. Inclusion, empathy and understanding of ourselves and others are elements we have all pledged to by coming along. That atmosphere of unity can only have a positive effect on someone, just like it did with Mark and me.
I implore you to attend that upcoming rally or join that club. You will feel better about the future of your fight when you know how many people are rising with you.