Activism is an important way for individuals and communities to advocate for the issues and causes they care about, and to bring about social and political change.
While most of us think of activism in terms of marches, sit-ins, or rallies, there are many different approaches to activism. The best approach for any given issue or cause will depend on the specific goals, audience, and context.
Some approaches to activism involve challenging power structures and breaking laws, while others involve working within existing systems and following established rules.
Some forms of activism are highly visible and public, while others are more subtle and private.
Some work well for extroverts, while others thrive with introverts. Some types of activism are more accessible to people with disabilities or within marginalized communities. We all have a unique role to play in collective liberation.
No matter what form it takes, activism is a powerful tool for bringing about positive change in the world and dismantling systems that continue to cause harm. In this article, we’ve broken downu some of the many different approaches to activism, and how they can be used to make a difference.
While you’re reading, we urge you to ask yourself: “Which of these resonates with me most?”
Types of Activism:
Marches are a type of activism that involve organizing and participating in a large, organized demonstration or protest, often involving a group of people walking together from one location to another.
Marches can be an effective way of bringing attention to a particular issue and applying pressure on decision-makers to take action. They capture the attention of people who see the march in person and they also often capture the attention of the media.
Marches often involve the use of slogans, placards, or other props to convey a message or promote a cause, and they can be accompanied by other forms of activism, such as speeches, songs, or other performances.
Marches can take place on a local, national, or global scale, and they can involve a wide range of participants, from individuals and small groups to larger organizations and movements.
Examples of marches:
- The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech
- The largest march in U.S. history: The Women’s March in 2017
- Black Lives Matter protests across the United States, sparked by the death of George Floyd in 2020
Sit-ins, Die-ins, and Walk-outs
Sit-ins, die-ins, and walk-outs are all forms of activism that involve using non-violent, disruptive tactics to draw attention to a particular issue or cause.
Sit-ins involve a group of people occupying a public space or facility in a peaceful, non-violent manner.
Die-ins are similar, but involve a group of people lying down in a public space or facility to simulate death.
Walk-outs involve a group of people leaving a public space or facility and are often used as a way of disrupting normal business or activities in order to bring attention to a particular issue.
Examples of sit-ins, die-ins, and walk-outs:
- Greensboro Sit-ins: Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, David Richmond, and Jibreel Khazan kicked off the protest when they sat down at the F. W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960.
- In 2019, hundreds of cyclists held a die-in in New York City to protest an alarming number of cyclist deaths and demand infrastructure and policy change
- In 2018, thousands of students across the United States walked out of their classrooms to protest ongoing gun violence and a rise in school shootings
Rallies & Speeches
Rallies are similar to marches, but they are usually held in a singular location. They often feature speeches from activists and community leaders. Rallies can be a great way to learn about the issue and meet like-minded people. They can often be hosted before or after a march.
Examples of rallies and speeches:
- Explore these 50 iconic civil rights speeches from the last 70 years
Community organizing is another form of activism that involves bringing people together to achieve a common goal. Often created by grassroots coalitions of community members working to help one another. This can be done through neighborhood associations, religious groups, or other organizations. Community organizers typically work on issues like housing, education, criminal justice reform, and environmental justice.
One of the most important things you can do as an activist is to vote. Voting is your chance to have a say in the decisions that affect your community, hold elected officials accountable, and enact large changes. However, voter suppression tactics can make voting difficult and inaccessible to some. It’s up to us to ensure everyone has the right to vote, votes truly count, and that the democratic process works smoothly.
Craftivism is a form of activism that combines crafts and activism. It is a way to use your creativity to make a statement or raise awareness about an issue. Craftivism can be as simple as making a sign for a protest or knitting a scarf that carries an important message.
Learn more about craftivism:
- Read the ultimate guide: What is “craftivism” — and how can this it make a difference?
- Listen to the podcast: Craftivist Sarah Corbett on the art of gentle protest
Letter writing is another way to use your voice to make a difference — and gives you a great excuse to break out some cute stationery. You can write letters to your elected officials, the media, or businesses. These types of letters might also be sent via email (or with tools like Resistbot), illustrating your points of concern, or even thanking an elected official for supporting their constituents.
You can also write letters of support to people in your community who are going through a difficult time and need some extra support.
Volunteering is a great way to get involved in your community. Of course, you can always volunteer at a local food bank, suicide hotline, or homeless shelter. However, there are lots of volunteer opportunities that allow you to tap into certain skill sets. You could volunteer for environmental cleanup projects, share your time and talents with political campaigns, at a community art center, or with a mentorship organization. The possibilities are endless!
Educating Yourself and Others
One of the best things you can do as an activist is to educate yourself and others about the issues you care about.
Especially when you are in a place of privilege, actively engaging others with helpful information takes the load off of historically marginalized communities who have long been responsible for educating others about their experiences.
This can be done by reading books, watching documentaries, reading newsletters, or attending workshops and seminars. It is also important to have discussions with friends and family about the issues you are passionate about.
Activism isn’t always shouting in the streets; it can be a meaningful conversation at the kitchen table.
Organizations that do social justice work rely on donations from individuals and businesses. You can help by organizing a fundraiser or donating money to a cause you care about.
Running for Office
If you are interested in making long-term change, you can run for office. This is a great way to directly impact the policies that affect your community. Running for office takes a lot of time and effort, but it is a rewarding experience.
Learn about running for office:
- Listen to our podcast conversation with Amanda Litman of Run for Something about why and how to run for office
- Learn about the increasing number of millennials running for office
Campaigning for Ballot Initiatives & Candidates
Campaigning for candidates or ballot initiatives is a form of activism that involves supporting and advocating for a particular candidate or policy proposal, often through grassroots organizing and outreach efforts. This can involve volunteering for a campaign, collecting signatures for a petition, donating money, spreading information about the candidate or issue, and encouraging others to vote or take action.
Campaigning for candidates or ballot initiatives is a way of engaging in the political process and seeking to bring about change through the electoral system.
It can be an effective way of advancing a particular cause or agenda, and it can be done at many different levels, from local elections to national campaigns.
Campaigning can involve working with a political party, or it can be done independently, and it can take many forms, from traditional door-to-door canvassing to online outreach efforts.
Strikes or striking is a form of activism that involves workers withholding their labor in order to protest or demand change. This can involve a group of workers going on strike together, or it can involve individuals engaging in a work stoppage or slowdown. (You may remember when we all sacrificed our Wordle streaks to stand with the New York Times union workers).
Strikes are often used as a way to protest against unfair working conditions, low pay, discrimination, or other issues that affect workers.
They can be an effective way of bringing attention to a particular issue and putting pressure on employers or governments to make changes. Strikes can take many forms, from full-scale walkouts to partial work stoppages or other forms of protest, and they can be organized by individual workers, unions, or other groups.
Even if you are not directly involved in a strike, you can support workers who are demanding better pay and conditions by not crossing the picket line — not supporting the business which they are striking. You may have to go without your frappuccino, but simply by not supporting a company, you can further a movement and help workers achieve the outcomes they deserve.
Supporting Mutual Aid
Mutual aid is a type of activism that involves people coming together to support and help each other in a way that is not based on profit or exchange. It is a way of building community and solidarity by providing practical and emotional support to those in need, without the involvement of large-scale institutions or systems. This can involve sharing resources, skills, and knowledge, or simply offering a listening ear or a helping hand.
Mutual aid can take many forms, such as organizing food and supply drives, setting up community gardens, providing education and resources to marginalized communities, or even simply sharing a couple of dollars with a neighbor who needs some assistance.
The goal of mutual aid is to create a more equitable and supportive society, and it is often seen as a way of building resilience and resistance in the face of social and political challenges.
Petitions or petitioning is a form of activism that involves collecting signatures from individuals who support a particular cause or issue, and presenting the petition to a decision-making body or authority.
The goal of a petition is to demonstrate public support for a specific cause or issue, and to pressure those in power to take action on that issue.
Petitions can be used to advocate for a wide range of causes, including social justice, environmental protection, animal rights, and more. Petitions are often used in conjunction with other forms of activism, such as protests or lobbying, and they can be an effective way of bringing about change on a local, national, or global level.
Civil disobedience is when you refuse to obey a law or follow a policy that you believe is unjust. This can be done by protesting, occupying buildings, or engaging in acts of peaceful resistance.
Civil disobedience is a risky form of activism as it often results in legal consequences, but it can be very effective because the high stakes bring more attention to the event. Throughout history, many social change movements have used civil disobedience to bring about positive change.
Contrasted with explicit law-breaking in the form of civil disobedience, uncivil obedience involves subversive law-following.
This can involve following rules or laws to the letter, even when doing so creates inconvenience or discomfort for others, or even when it seems absurd to do so.
The goal is to draw attention to the existence of the rules or laws being followed and highlight their potentially unnecessary, unfair, or oppressive nature.
Uncivil obedience is a way of using the rules and laws themselves as a means of resistance and change, rather than simply breaking them or ignoring them, and it is often used in conjunction with other forms of resistance such as protests or civil disobedience.
Examples of uncivil obedience:
- In 1993, a group of California motorists organized a protest of the speed limit by driving on the freeway at exactly the legal speed limit of 55 miles per hour. Despite not breaking any laws, their actions caused significant disruption for other motorists.
- According to a Columbia Law Review article, when Theodore Roosevelt took over the New York Police Commission in the 1890s, he began to strictly enforce laws that required saloons to close on Sundays. The laws had been seldom and selectively enforced previously as a means to, according to Roosevelt, “blackmail and browbeat the saloon keepers.” Roosevelt’s goal was that this approach might precipitate the repeal of the law and “prevent the Legislature from passing laws which are not meant to be enforced.”
Life support is a type of activism that involves providing practical and emotional support to individuals who are living with disabilities, illness, or other challenges. This can involve helping with tasks such as personal care, transportation, or household tasks, or simply offering companionship and emotional support.
The goal of life support activism is to create a more inclusive and supportive society for people with disabilities, and to challenge the ableist assumptions and barriers that often prevent people with disabilities from fully participating in community and social life.
Life support activism often involves creating networks of mutual aid and support within communities, and can take many forms, from one-on-one support to larger collective efforts. It is often seen as a way of building resilience and resistance in the face of social and political challenges, and as a way of creating alternative models of care and support that are more inclusive and empowering.
Learn more about “life support” as a form of activism:
- Read the book, “Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice,” by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
- Read more writing and works from Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
- Check out Project LETS, an organization that facilitates peer support for folks experiencing mental health challenges
Mass Media Campaigns
Mass media campaigns are a type of activism that involves using various forms of mass media, such as television, radio, newspapers, and social media, to promote a particular cause or issue, and bring about social or political change. This is often done with the goal of shifting the “Overton Window” of the public.
These campaigns often involve creating messages or content that are designed to raise awareness, influence public opinion, or pressure decision-makers to take action.
Mass media campaigns can take many forms, from public service announcements and social media campaigns to advertising and news coverage.
Examples of mass media campaigns as activism:
- Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders were experts at using mass media to advance their cause
- Senator Bernie Sanders’ progressive policy ideas have become increasingly mainstream thanks to significant grassroots social media efforts that led to increased mainstream media coverage.
- Explore this collection of some of the most impactful PSAs in history
While “slacktivism” — or “hashtag activism” has commonly been painted in a negative light — it is simply a term to describe people taking part in low-commitment actions for social causes.
This can include things like signing online petitions, sharing posts on social media, or offline actions like wearing ribbons, wristbands, or T-shirts. While slacktivism does not require a lot of effort, it can be a way to raise awareness about an issue or drive cultural conversations.
“For all the (valid!) criticisms of ‘hashtag activism,’ we can’t act like it hasn’t been a powerful tool when used smartly and safely,” said activist Brittany Packnett-Cunningham.
Slacktivism can definitely be used as a way for people to engage in a more performative and less meaningful way, but it’s also a valuable contribution for folks who may not have the means or abilities to strike, march, or donate funds. As with all things, nuance is key to understanding the context and circumstances of one’s activism journey.
Art activism, also known as cultural activism, is a type of activism that uses art and culture as a means of resistance and social change. This can involve creating and sharing art that addresses social or political issues, or using art as a way of advocating for a particular cause or issue.
Art activism can take many forms, including visual art, zines, music, literature, film, theater, and more. It can be used to raise awareness about a particular issue, to challenge dominant narratives or perspectives, or to create alternative visions of the world.
Art activism is often seen as a way of subverting dominant power structures and challenging mainstream cultural norms, and it can be an effective way of bringing about social or political change.
Art is a simple way to attract attention — and that attention can be used to educate people about an issue or to inspire them to take action.
Calling for Corporate Change
Many activists call for corporations to change their practices in order to make the world a better place. This can include things like calling for companies to stop using child labor, to increase wages, or to reduce their carbon emissions.
Activists can also call for boycotts of companies that engage in unethical practices. This form of activism can target a specific company or entire industries. Sometimes calls for corporate change may overlap with strikes, especially if a company has a history of abusing its workers.
Similar to “calling for corporate change” from the outside, “shareholder activism” is when shareholders use their equity stake in a corporation to influence a company’s decisions from the inside.
This can be done by voting on resolutions, attending shareholder meetings, discouraging investment, pushing for changes in leadership, or engaging in public campaigns. Shareholder activism is a way to hold corporations accountable for their actions.
Other Forms of Activism
- Hacktivism: Using hacking for political or social activism
- Creating a Publication: Utilized by Ida B. Wells and Dorothy Day — and inspired our Goodnewspaper
- Guerrilla Activism: Simple actions to inspire questioning or thoughts
Frequently Asked Questions:
What is social activism?
Social activism is working to bring about social or political change on issues related to society or the well-being of individuals and communities. It can involve a variety of activities and can focus on a range of issues, including social justice, human rights, environmental protection, and more.
What do activists do?
Activists work to bring about social or political change on issues they care about. They may engage in a variety of activities — all with a goal to bring about positive change in society and promote the well-being of individuals and communities.
Where can I read quotes about activism?
We’ve curated a list of the best quotes about activism — by leading activists. You may also appreciate our curated lists of justice quotes, social justice quotes, and MLK quotes.