Can I be an activist and still be introverted?

Whenever I hear the word “activist,” immediately, images of people bravely shouting into microphones about a cause come to mind. They are the ones who dive in fearlessly into action; marching through the streets, organizing, chanting, and communicating with others about why change must be made. They are the faces of the movement; boldly talking to press, government officials, and everyday individuals about the validity and purpose behind their work. In other words, they are exactly what I’m not.

Although the notion of being able to work towards the progression of social justice movements has always enticed me, I always tended to approach activism in an extroverted fashion. Being very introverted and pensive, I fed myself the lie that I had to change who I am to do meaningful work for causes and that I was somehow inevitably inadequate to the effort that change requires. I scheduled meeting after meeting, attended endless conferences, and even tried to do my own round of public speaking events in the hopes of convincing myself that I gained energy from this type of activist work, but all I remember is feeling like I needed a nap the entire time. It wasn’t healthy and I knew that I could do better, but I was unsure the role that introverted individuals like myself even had in movements.

Let’s be clear before any harsh judgements are made: I like people. I am not anti-social, which I think is a tragic misconception that many introverts are given. I have a lot to learn from the different walks of others, and I’m willing to hear their story, but let’s be real – it’s exhausting. After a day full of meetings, classes, and clubs, all I want to do is to plug in my headphones, pull out my journal, and take a nap for however long it takes. Interacting with people is enjoyable, but for introverts, it’s also a stark investment in our energy.

Introversion is not a bad word, but society acts like it is. Within the activism sphere, I see so many of my introverted brothers and sisters exhaust themselves because we’ve painted a structure of activism work geared towards the extroverted individuals in our circle. However, we cannot forget the role that introverts have in the progression of a movement. They’re the convincers, the ones who work one-on-one with potential stakeholders and supporters in our cause to convince them of our mission. They’re the writers and the artists, who curate public opinion through the use of op-eds, design, photography, and videography. They’re the thinkers, the ones who carry the vision of the leader by remembering the minute and meticulous details of planning actions, protests, and teach-ins. Although it might not seem like we talk much, our work creates conversations, expels stereotypes, and opens the necessary doors to lead change.

Activists, I challenge you to stray away from the socially fixated notion that all activists must be extroverted individuals who gain a sense of fulfillment from speaking and interacting with others. It’s on us to prioritize our own self-care needs; to understand what excites us and what drains us, as well as the methods in which we can be the most effective changemakers possible. I am introverted. I am an activist. I couldn’t be any more proud to be both.

1 Comment

  • Reply The Gabster July 15, 2016 at 9:17 pm

    Thank you so much for this article. I myself am an introvert who is passionate about social justice work, and I, too, believe it can be exhausting. Even though I’m black, I wasn’t very active in the Black Lives Matter movement at my school, and also wasn’t very active in many social justice initiatives in high school and college, except for the occasional sit-in. Many of my close friends and I were introverts and people of color and didn’t do much social activism. Even now during the summer after college I’ve been staying in my room reading fiction, watching episodes of Shaun the Sheep on YouTube, knitting, and writing in my journal, and I often feel guilty at times. However, I did talk to one of my other introverted buddies for a project in one of my Africana Studies courses this past year and she told me that even though she’s introverted and isn’t always out there doing physical activist work, she said that her survival as a black woman, as well as her academic work in Africana Studies, were forms of activism. My senior-year thesis was on environmental injustice and I used the philosopher Michel Foucault’s understanding of how power works in society and how we have to look at historical environmental injustices to understand current environmental injustices. Doing quiet, long, hard research on this issue of environmental injustice was my contribution to social justice. During college, there were so many opportunities for me to do social justice work: clubs, conferences, vigils, protests, panels, lectures, classes, spoken word performances…I just knew that if I took on too much, I wouldn’t have time for self-care, and that’s important to me as an introvert. Even just going to a few panels and lectures and studying and learning about and writing projects, essays and research papers analyzing the history of racial discrimination and conceptions of U.S. citizenship in my courses went a long way in raising my awareness of current institutional injustices. I’m also a member of the Soka Gakkai International (a worldwide Nichiren Buddhist organization), and it can be exhausting at times because I need to be very outgoing even though I’m usually quiet. But in a way I see my prayers (it’s a chant called Nam-myoho-renge-kyo) as a form of activism; they give me a sense of hope for world peace even when I feel hopeless about doing something as an introvert and an individual. I recently attended a social justice summer program for underrepresented philosophy majors (piksi.org is the website if you’re interested), and found that my introversion was very helpful in maintaining good relations with my peers. Even though I wasn’t talking all the time I found that listening and being sensitive was one of my greatest assets because I was deliberating in my head about what I would say, and this prevented me from getting caught up in a lot of stressful heated conversations in which many members got hurt by what other people said during the conversations. I am hopeful that introverted folks like you and me will make our contributions to social justice causes. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” Thank you so very much again.

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