The stories of great activists are recorded in history books. Their words are quoted by politicians long after their movements have instigated large scale change. For the most part, history focuses on what activists accomplished. That can obscure the personal trials and tribulations of activists who organize and strengthen movements. We spoke to two activists, on opposite sides of the political spectrum, about the personal costs of a life of activism.
For the past four years, Vidhya Aravind has been involved in a range of progressive causes. She helped organize anti-war rallies while tensions with Iran were high. She is also involved in LGBTQ and trans-rights issues, and labor organizing around Washtenaw County.
As a transgender woman of color, Aravind prioritizes intersectionality, and is a part of many progressive coalitions in the area.
“None of us are free until all of us are free,” Aravind said. “I don’t see each campaign or rally or project as individual, I see it as part of a very large project to build political consciousness and a want for change.”
Aravind was a part of a storytelling event at the University of Michigan on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day talking about the costs of activism. The keynote that day was given by renowned writer, thinker, and activist Angela Davis.
If she could ask Davis anything about organizing, Aravind said, it would be guidance on how to cope with losing. Activism requires looking at long timelines, and is usually without instantaneous gratification. Understanding that is key to saying focused, she added.
“I don’t know about all the people fighting everywhere, and I just have to have trust and have faith that there are lots of people fighting in spite of these big, big losses and big, big existential crises,” Aravind said.
Anti-abortion activist Christen Pollo is on the opposite side of the political spectrum from Aravind. But she thinks there are parallels between the cost of activism for anyone working on a cause in which they believe. Pollo is the executive director of Protect Life Michigan, which works with anti-abortion campus groups in Michigan. But she came up, as many activists do, as someone willing to dedicate hours of personal time to a cause.
Pollo said that being an activist has meant being willing to make personal sacrifices for a political cause. For her, one sacrifice has been the loss of relationships with friends over their differences on the issue of abortion rights. Being an activist tends to "amplify" those differences in opinion, Pollo said. But ultimately, she said, the sacrifices activists make are worth it when they believe in the cause.
“I think the reality is, the price I paid for being an activist is still far less than what the victims of the injustice have lost,” Pollo said. “And I think no matter what you’re an activist for, whether you see yourself as a pro-life activist, or maybe it’s some other issue, at the end of the day, the cost is worth the reward.”
For Aravind, those rewards include inspiring others to organize around issues that are important to them.
“I get a lot of fulfillment from people seeing me as some sort of worthy guidance,” she said.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Catherine Nouhan.