Geographies of Activism Types and Catalysts of Activism

Activism centers on a variety of different issues, can be reformist or radical in its objectives, and consists of distinct methods ranging from peaceful civil disobedience to violence. The catalysts for activism often center on visible and substantial change in social values, political debates and decision makers, economic activities, or urban land use patterns, but require awareness or knowledge of the problem and an affinity with the political position and methods of the groups that aim to change the unacceptable situation, practice, or policy. Activism responding to such catalysts has distinct goals, but often uses similar methods and processes, including mobilization and coalition building.

Land use change often sparks local activism or collective action. At the very local level, the Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) syndrome comprises one prevalent and highly visible example. NIMBY activities usually revolve around a controversial proposed land use or facility type that is seen by residents, businesses, and/or local governments as threatening local quality of life, property values, or property rights. NIMBY is generally seen as conservative in its politics, in its attempts to preserve the status quo, and usually consists of relatively peaceful though highly vocal political acts, including petitions, demonstrations, and vocal participation in local government planning processes.

Economic shifts, such as industrial restructuring that has resulted in significant reductions in manufacturing jobs, downward pressures on wages, and reductions in benefits such as healthcare coverage, have led unions and community groups to engage in labor activism. Labor activism consists of collective efforts directed at businesses and government, such as worker strikes and organized marches, to strive for better working conditions, living wages, and expansions in benefits. With the decline in union membership nationally over the past few decades, labor activism has increasingly been spurred by community groups that are also working for affordable housing, income equality, and environmental justice rather than being solely or even primarily the purview of labor unions.

Changes in political debate or decision making bodies, such as transitions to and from majority neo conservative to liberal political parties, may also spark activism on the part of organizations and groups concerned with the domination of political debate by specific political views. Political advocacy organizations and political parties are highly active in working to influence the results of elections through public media campaigns, door to door canvassing, and debates among political candidates. Judicial activism may also be activated by political debate and public controversies, and is expressed through court decisions that enlarge or contract the powers of the government to manage public speech or activism. In other words, the courts may be activist in negative (preventing wrongs) and positive (promoting desirable outcomes) ways.

Individuals and groups that are deemed to be undesirable or socially unacceptable by the mainstream have also worked collectively to improve material living conditions, to challenge discrimination and prejudice, to expand rights and capacity to engage in public debates, to facilitate economic advancement, and to promote selfdetermination. Such activism has been largely described
as new social movements and identity politics. They are different from more classic social movements, which were largely based on worker or labor activism that focused largely on the uneven and unequal distribution of wealth. Instead, new social movements and identity politics activism include diverse efforts as the Civil Rights Movement (e.g., political struggle by the African American community to make racial segregation illegal and to challenge race based discrimination), feminism and gender equality (e.g., activism in the US to pass the Equal Rights Amendment and ongoing conflicts over Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortions in the US), immigrant rights efforts (e.g., Janitors for Justice, a largely immigrant movement striving for fair wages and better working conditions), and sexual identity activism (e.g., AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), and gay and lesbian antiviolence efforts).

The interrelationships among issues driving activism lead many activist organizations and groups to form coalitions. Activist groups and organizations struggle to change existing social, political, and/or economic circumstances, but often, the issues are much larger than the individual organization’s ability to change. Mobilization of ordinary people, groups, and institutions bring to bear visible support so that governing bodies may be influenced by activism, however, sometimes even greater numbers and larger presence are needed to create adequate pressure. Coalitions provide the opportunity for different groups and organizations to work together on specific issues of concern to provide a larger, more organized, and coordinated voice. Coalitions among labor groups, legal organizations, and housing nonprofit organizations, for example, have been vital in addressing the negative social impacts of gentrification, where redevelopment particularly in central city areas has resulted in rapidly escalating housing prices, often displacing low income residents and workers. Coalitions have been effective at devising strategies such as community benefits agreements that require minimum wage levels and hiring of local workers. Coalitions have also been important at the national and international levels, especially for transnational issues such as environmental degradation. Climate change, habitat protection, and deforestation have engaged scientists, environmental nongovernmental organizations, and governments to develop partnerships to measure and cope with the complex issues of urbanization, industrialization, and their negative environmental impacts.

Reformist and Radical Activism

In all of these examples, what is clear is that activism is not solely reactionary or progressive, exclusionary or inclusionary, conservative or liberal, or peaceful or violent. Both disadvantaged and wealthy activists use the language of social movements, self determination, and oppression in their efforts to change policies, procedures, and outcomes. Activism can take on different faces depending on its goals and strategies. In general, there are two basic approaches to activism: reformist and radical. Reformist activism sets out to redefine parameters within existing systems of governance, political interaction, or social practices, with the goal of incrementally changing these systems to address unacceptable or unfair circumstances, either in the processes of decision making or in the outcomes of decision making. Radical activism in contrast is focused on severe and significant change to governance, social norms, or economic systems; the goal for radical activists is structural change, where current institutions, the framework of decision making, social mores, or environmental conditions are seen as illegitimate or unacceptable.

The goals of reformist efforts emphasize change in the processes of decision making (such as expanding the number and types of participants in decision making, or including more and different kinds of stakeholders in a planning or policy design process), with some focus on adjusting outcomes associated with decision making (such as realigning funding priorities to alter resource distribution, shifting the distribution of negative impacts, or expanding the recipients of positive benefits). Examples of reformist efforts include shareholder activism (where owners of shares of corporations, especially large institutional investors that emerged as major corporate shareholders in the 1980s and 1990s, vote to change boards of directors, influence executive compensation, or alter investment patterns), neighborhood activism (where residents work together to improve local infrastructure conditions, or to expand government resources being invested in the community), judicial activism (where dissenting opinions of justices provide opportunities for questioning prevailing doctrine or legal precedents), or issue or place based activism (where organizations protest existing environmental policies, or advocate for expanded protection of sensitive habitat for endangered species). In essence, reformist activism aims at changing the processes that lead to particular emphases, beneficiaries, and distribution of costs or burdens associated with policies, economic activity, and social interactions without necessarily altering the basic or foundational structure of governance, economies, and social values. Because reformist activism does not aim at structural transformation, conflict and disagreement between activists and targeted decision makers may be avoided or minimized through strategies such as mediation, negotiation, or compensation.

Radical activism, in contrast, tends to not work within existing systems of dissent, such as through political systems’ usual process of debate and decision making, because it seeks to alter the foundations underlying economic, social, and political life. Such activism is not always violent, but it does usually aim at significant and fundamentally different arrangements in distributions of wealth and resources, environmental conditions, political power, and/or social mores. Consequently, in contrast to reformist activism, the source of the problem for radical activism lies in the system itself rather than being attributable to particular individuals, procedures, regulations, or practices. In other words, rather than trying to identify specific people, rules, or issues as the source of economic, political, environmental, or social ills, radical activism sees the problem as one of systems and structures. Progressive social movements, such as the anticapitalist global movement, the environmental justice movement, and the animal rights movement, are critical of existing systems of governance, distributions of wealth and poverty, and relationships among people, economy, and the environment, and aim at fundamental shifts in the capitalist economic system, definitions of citizenship and rights within and across nation states (where citizenship is related not only to the ability to access public resources and protection, but also more broadly as full acceptance as legitimate and valued participants in society), and existing distributions of wealth and privilege. Existing systems of governance are structured so that government agencies and middle and upper income communities benefit from understanding and using existing political, economic, and social institutions. The formal and informal rules of governance create advantage for those privileged groups, to the disadvantage of lowincome, immigrant, low skilled, and other marginalized groups. For some individuals and groups, only complete transformation of daily life to a new arrangement of governance and social interaction will be acceptable. Radical religious fundamentalism is an example of such activism, with often violent results.

Scale of Activism

Though the types, focus, and methods of activism are critical to understanding what activism is, what is also important is understanding more clearly the role of space in activism, especially how scale affects the effectiveness and transferability of the impacts of activism from one place to other political jurisdictions. That is, activism is not just a social phenomenon, it is also a spatial one. Different types or foci of activism may be more effective or difficult because of the spatial scale defining the problem being addressed and the methods of activism being used. For example, anticapitalist activism requires that actions be conducted at spatial scales that match the global reach of capitalist forces. Consequently, though protests against global capitalist expansion take place in particular places at specific times, these protests are often directed at international organizations, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), include coalitions of dif ferent activist organizations, and often consist of multicity protests activated around the world at the same time.

Spatial scale is a process, as well as a characteristic. In other words, space and location are not static con tainers of activism, but rather, are dynamic features that interact in important ways to enable or obstruct activist efforts. While technology, such as the Internet and cell phones, has reduced the importance of distance in coordinating activist efforts, physical distance, urban form, and the built environment remain significant in both facilitating and disabling activism. Urbanization patterns, the siting of specific land uses, and growth have served, for example, as catalysts for action to protect property rights, manage urban growth, and protect natural resources and sensitive habitat. Proximity to rapidly growing urban or suburban areas, the visibility of specific sites where controversial land uses and development are proposed, and the general increase in disamenities (such as traffic congestion and air pollution) are ready examples used by activist organizations to mobilize and expand participation by the populace for various purposes.

Space also defines how ordinary people, nongovernmental organizations, businesses, and governments understand and define the world around them, providing clues about what needs to be changed and how. Though the places where people live, work, and play provide the most readily available examples of the potential problems that might be influenced by activism, what is also important are the relationships between these familiar places and places that are unfamiliar, distant, and distinct. Those place relationships provide clear examples of inequality, marginalization, and oppression, and in so doing, become catalysts for action. In other words, the relational aspects of space serve to define inequality and marginalization, and in defining these inequities, space itself not only motivates action but also enables linkage among local efforts across the globe. There is a scaling up possibility to activism when this relational aspect is incorporated, providing opportunities for action to move from a grassroots, localized practice to a coordinated set of actions reliant on coalitions of individuals, communities, and organizations that take place at a transnational scale. This scaling up possibility is especially important in terms of issues that cannot be resolved in local places alone, because complex problems or issues are important at multiple spatial scales. For example, while issues such as climate change, environmental degradation, anticapitalism, and immigrant rights are important for individual groups, cities, regions, and nations, they cannot be addressed by one group, city, region, or nation alone because these issues intricately link the economies, politics, environments, and social values of varying places. Such global scale issues thus require scaling up of activism (or the transference of activism across spatial scales), as well as the coordination of activism across space (or the mutual planning and action across cities, regions, and nations) to have significant and sustainable impact.

The rise of transnational activism, focused on issues such as global climate change, citizenship, and economic growth, is linked to broader sociopolitical transitions. The global pressures for decentralization and neoliberalist policies in governance have highlighted the need for better understanding social relationships and resources available through such relationships. In contrast to activism, however, this emphasis by governments and nongovernmental agencies on what has been termed social capital (which has been seen to be a solution for a wide variety of urban problems, ranging from crime to inefficient government) emphasizes informal webs of relationships, the provision of needed monetary and other resources through these webs, and the addressing of community and regional problems through broader engagement and participation by the populace. For social capitalists, problem solving increasingly shifts from government to civil society, and communities that have more and better relationships within and outside their networks do better economically, socially, and politically across a myriad of measures. Activism, though also reliant on groups to solve problems, is fundamentally different from this social capital approach, in that actions are being taken to change the definition of problems and the ways that problems are solved.