We often think of activism as occurring on a large scale. Certainly, some of the most visible campaigns are national or global efforts, gaining attention due to viral coverage or the sense they need to be urgently addressed. Does it mean this activism is more effective due to its large public profile? Not necessarily.
It’s important to remember just how vital a component of activism the community can be. Some of the most impactful work in the name of a cause is performed at a local level — whether this is tackling racism or addressing the growing mental health crisis. Even long after a seemingly prevalent cause has drifted away from the headlines and dropped off the social media trending lists, community members are still working tirelessly to continue the essential work of making meaningful and lasting change.
We’re going to look closer at why community efforts should live at the forefront of activism.
The Root of Impact
Whether activism is focused on a global issue or a more nuanced challenge, there is still often a local impact. One of the key reasons community efforts need to live at the forefront of activism is because there will be elements best tackled at the local level. Not to mention they will be led by people with a more relevant understanding of the local impact.
This doesn’t mean those from outside of communities are not dedicated to the cause. However, even when outsiders contribute to activism, they should certainly be led by local community members. Locals will have an understanding of the true neighborhood-level impact of an issue and how to tackle it in a way that those from other backgrounds don’t. A good example of this is the drive by women’s rights groups to secure access to childcare as a public resource. In an overarching way, this was clearly a positive feminist step to help all women. Yet on a macro level, it became clear these groups were focusing on the concerns of white, middle-class women, which were very different from the challenges faced by black mothers and served to exclude them.
Recognizing the specific local challenges doesn’t just extend to the issue itself. It includes attention to the knock-on effects it can have on individual community members. For instance, depression is a common experience when it comes to community activism, particularly during long-term efforts. Locals can be well-placed to educate fellow activists on the symptoms the doctors tend to look for when determining a diagnosis of depression — elements of mood, behavior, and family history among them. Neighbors, family, and friends can then encourage the pursuit of clinical intervention to mitigate issues and empower these community members to pursue activism healthily.
It is not just challenges and knock-on effects that can be specific to a community. It is also often the solutions impacted by the background of the individual neighborhood. In areas as diverse as climate change, racial equality, and employment rights, directly consulting with members of the community tends to produce ideas both most relevant for the citizens involved and achievable with the resources available.
Among the most important relevant resources to activism is the community members’ skills and knowledge. Local social workers can be a great tool at a cause’s disposal. This is largely because professionals in social work are regularly interacting with at-risk members of the community and understand the nuanced day-to-day challenges caused by social, environmental, and economic issues. They’re also active across a variety of specializations — child welfare, healthcare, and substance abuse among others. This means they’re not only an agile tool in understanding the needs of the community but also in what solutions can be both practical and effective.
In addition to the expertise offered by community members, another good resource tends to be access to locally targeted funding. Many state and city grant programs are focused on helping organizations within specific segments of the population. Applications for these are more appropriate and may be more successful when led by members of those targeted communities. Indeed, from a resource-gathering perspective, it can be more effective for communities to spearhead efforts. People tend to be more willing to donate money to local initiatives with a demonstrable effect on their neighbors, particularly since COVID-19 made community hardships more visible.
Close-knit communities working together toward a common goal tend to result in stronger collaborative units. There is a sense of ownership in this activism, as the results will impact not just the people they interact with on a day-to-day basis but also future generations of community members. The strength of this kind of local engagement also leans into the concept of sovereignty of varying kinds — communities have the right to make decisions appropriate for their cultural, economical, and ecological circumstances.
This means that activism efforts, particularly those run by external organizations, need to work within the hierarchy of individual communities rather than expecting the collaboration to fit the “brand” of the cause. Community leaders — whether spiritual, business, or political — must be invited to be involved at an organizational level that reflects their standing. They can then in turn help to identify the talents their neighbors have to contribute most effectively in activism efforts.
Importantly, community-focused collaborations demonstrate a mutual responsibility for those involved. There is an enhanced duty of care among close-knit locals. Alongside the aforementioned depression, some community members may be experiencing chronic fatigue — the symptoms of which can be similar, and one may lead to or exacerbate the other. Many of the treatments surrounding these conditions involve behavioral elements. When the community is working closely together and trust each other, there are opportunities to support one another through these challenges and minimize actions that can trigger symptoms.
Without activism, very little positive social or political change occurs. By putting communities at the forefront of these efforts, there are opportunities to have an impact at the local root of such challenges and access the most relevant resources. Indeed, when community members work together on something they believe strongly in, they do so with strength and mutual care that have positive effects on everyone involved.