Robert D. Sutherland



Notes for a speech presented at the Unitarian Universalist Church, Bloomington, Illinois (July 9, 2000)


I. What is social activism?

People taking a stand on social issues, speaking out, and working in various ways to establish a principle, improve a situation, or effect lasting change.

Usually activism creates an adversarial relationship with the forces that disrespect the principle, wish to maintain the status quo, or wish to promulgate an opposing view.


  • anti-abortionists blockading clinics on the grounds that abortion is wrong
  • workers who go on strike to improve their working conditions
  • people who write letters to the editor on social issues or petition elected representatives regarding legislation
  • people who organize protests and demonstrations
  • people who participate in demonstrations, sit-ins, speak- outs, marches
  • people who lobby against (or for) gun control or the death penalty

My activism centers around:

  • human rights issues,
  • preserving Constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties,
  • achieving equal justice before the law,
  • ending discrimination based on class membership: race, gender, age, ethnicity, religion, physical appearance or disability, actual or perceived sexual orientation,
  • protecting the natural environment,
  • humanizing the criminal justice system so that people who can be productive are not simply thrown away.

Currently, I am on the steering committee of the Central Illinois Chapter of ACLU, having been a member of the organization since 1969; am a longtime member of the NAACP and have participated in some of their actions locally, and for many years have served on the McLean County Jail Review Committee, which monitors the welfare of inmates. Since 1997 I have volunteered with the McLean County AIDS Task Force, to coordinate the organization's outreach efforts that bring HIV/AIDS prevention education to groups deemed to be at risk for infection. For thirty years I have been a member of Community for Social Action, a group of activists who have worked diligently to change Bloomington- Normal for the better, according to our lights, on a variety of issues. I actively opposed the War in Vietnam, supported the people of El Salvador against the violence of their U.S.-supported government, and demonstrated against President Reagan's clandestine and illegal “Contra” war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

II. How do people become activists?

1) Out of necessity or circumstance

    • Your child is treated unjustly by police or the courts;
    • Your union declares a strike and scabs are called in to do your work; you go to the picket line; you are a farmworker whom the grower sprays with poison while you're working in his field;
    • You or those you care about are being discriminated against because of race, disability, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.

2) Out of personal conviction, usually associated with a sense of outrage at perceived injustice or unfairness; frequently a result of parental training/example or religious teaching.

There are short-term activists who are galvanized by a particular, perhaps transitory, issue. There are long-term activists who deal with chronic ills and systemic issues which require commitment to long-range or protracted struggle. Examples of such issues: racism, militarism, denial of civil rights

III. How does one sustain oneself as an activist in an indifferent or hostile environment?

1. You can't do it alone. You find friends and allies who share your views. You organize, or enter into coalitions to work together (perhaps short- term on specific issues) But even if the immediate objective is a short- term goal, it's wise to keep these coalitional networks alive after the specific objective is achieved; for other issues will arise in the future where a coalition might be useful.

2. You build permanent networks of people and groups who have similar interests who provide an information grapevine and potential cooperation (for the long-term).

3. You educate yourself and see what others are doing with regard to these issues on a national or international level (articles. journals. the Internet). You then see that you're not alone. Also, spending the requisite time on research, thinking, and planning will increase efficiency and prevent you from going off half-cocked.

4. If you are public in your activism, you have to reconcile yourself to, and be comfortable with, your reputation as an activist. Being activist is part of your message.

5. You have to accept that some people will not agree with you, may think you're a visionary or a fool, may dislike you intensely, and see you as The Enemy—and be able to live with this. (Public ridicule, hate calls, threats on your life, a fire in your garage)

6. Though confrontation is not the only way or—in many cases—the best way to effect change, sometimes confrontation is necessary. Without it, without bringing the question on, challenging and exposing injustice, hypocrisy, or fraud, no change can occur.

7. It's crucially important that an activist maintain a sense of humor. And this entails the ability to laugh at yourself. At all costs, avoid self- righteousness and dogmatism.

8. Be sure to guard your flank so that you and your allies don't get blind- sided.

9. A rule of thumb: no matter how serious, or grave, or important the issue is, you must always make sure that you and your allies have more fun than your opponents.



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