How Action, Activism, and Advocacy Contribute to Communities

I have recently been reminded in multiple ways of the many ways that all of us contribute to making our communities better.

Communities are created in part through leadership’s actions and choices. Many of us have never received any formal leadership training, but I have been lucky to often encounter examples of leadership worth emulating. I want to say thank you to leaders who take a hard stand against something that is wrong, and pointing it out. However, it requires refusing to point fingers, or even taking joint responsibility for problems is an equally hard job that leaders have to do. I also want to appreciate the leaders whose actions show that they believe that people deserve the benefit of the doubt. That mistakes are an opportunity for growth and improvement rather than punishment. That if someone’s daily actions demonstrate their commitment to a community, this is a seed to be nurtured. Leadership is also expressed through values such as listening. Recently, I was reminded by a friend that the best way to overcome differences is to listen, and that common goals can unite us if we can put misunderstandings aside.

Of course properties are not unique to good leaders. They help to make a community better when all of us exercise them. But the test of a community isn’t just in its culture and approach to individuals. It is also about how it grapples with change. Change requires effort, not just from leaders, but also from a critical mass of people in a community, to be successful. And change can often lead to friction. Because of this it can be one of the biggest challenges that a community faces over time. And it is something that, I believe, benefits from a multi-faceted approach.

A commitment to change is often expressed by leadership. For example, consider the significant and ongoing leadership, effort and time that the SIGCHI Executive Committee has put towards many knotty accessibility problems, from publications to policy to professional events.

However, a commitment to change also depends on the actions and advocacy work of individuals within the community. For example, the AccessSIGCHI volunteer community puts hours into the on-the-ground work of generating reports, identifying gaps in policy and suggesting how to address them, and developing methods and documentation for addressing accessibility.

Lastly, a commitment to change may require the courage and outspoken action of activists. Activists may put their professional careers at risk when they raise their voices. Whether they work through protest, organizing, unionization, or other means, their courage helps to start conversations and create momentum for change.

Personally, I am most comfort in the space of concrete action, and to some extent advocacy. But what I have come to realize in recent times is that change rarely happens when only one of these three approaches is in play. Action, advocacy, and activism play off of each other and each helps the other do more. While activism can create momentum, advocacy can turn it into commitment and policy. While policy creates opportunities for change, action is required to implement those changes. While action moves change along, activism helps to tear down barriers that change inevitably bumps up against. For these reasons, I have done my best to support and encourage all of these types of action when I see them.

Not everyone is comfortable with activism, not everyone has time for action, and not everyone has the power or proclivity for advocacy. But it is so important that we each remember to value all of them even when they make us uncomfortable. And that we express gratitude and support to all of the people doing all three types of work.