Stocker: Activism should be more than campaigns, protests


Alexi Stocker, Columnist

Northwestern’s activist community inspires me. Through my roughly two-year engagement with Real Food at NU, I learned a great deal not only about that organization’s objectives but also the incredible commitment of our campus’ activist leaders. NU’s activists work long hours, often thanklessly, for causes that benefit us all. From changing our food system, to combatting climate change, to campaigning for racial justice and human rights, NU’s activist community engages with some of the most critical issues of our generation.

Protesting outside board of trustees meetings is a powerful public statement about one’s commitment to a movement. Interrupting a groundbreaking ceremony for a new athletic complex gets the attention of NU’s administration and can garner national news attention via sports networks. Protests are inspiring and often effective, effecting change here at NU and in the world at large. They are exciting for their participants, and are intense moments that bring together a community of like-minded individuals in the name of a common cause.

Activism should, however, be more than campaigns and protests. To truly change the world, to change our economy and change our communities, we need to live the values in which we believe and advocate. Our consumer choices, whether we realize it or not, can play just as much a part in our efforts to create change. Ignoring the social, political, economic and environmental consequences of our consumer choices constitutes complicity in the very systems we seek to upend. It also reveals a startlingly hypocritical side to our identities.

Our protests, social media posts and campus movements mean little if our daily actions don’t reflect the values we profess.

Calling for divestment from fossil fuels means little if we do the bare minimum to improve our own sustainability. Recycling, using reusable water bottles and buying organic produce are only the beginning. We need to think critically about the other consumer choices we make, from Uber rides into the city to how often we eat out. Claiming to fight for marginalized people and against oppressive systems means little if we are complicit in their oppression through our purchases. When making consumer choices, consider the commercial candy industry’s role in slave labor in West Africa, or the abusive conditions faced by migrant workers picking produce in the U.S. Sunbelt. Consider the environmental effects of tobacco growing and cigarette production and consumption. Think about the environmental impact and inhumane conditions of the factory farms that deliver chicken, beef, and pork to so many restaurants in Evanston and across the US.

Living our values means making lifestyle changes, shifting our consumption toward more ethical choices and rethinking how we live. Living our values necessitates giving up many of life’s hedonic pleasures in the name of something greater than ourselves. These lifestyle changes can and should be our starting point. Not everybody has the time or resources to devote their lives to activism. Career ambitions, personal finances and familial responsibilities send us all down our own unique professional paths. However, all of us can make an impact through our consumer choices. It is an accessible and meaningful way for anybody to make a positive impact.

We should, moreover, expect our campus activists and leaders to live the values they espouse. Many do, and I respect their commitment greatly. The hypocrisy of those that do not threatens to undermine not only their own credibility, but also that of the movements they lead. Living our values is absolutely essential if we are in positions of power or authority; leadership is largely about setting an example for others.

Living our values isn’t glamorous. Living our values isn’t exciting or especially inspiring. Living our values isn’t always something we can Instagram or post on Facebook. Therein lies the beauty. Living our values means making prosaic sacrifices, day-to-day choices seemingly small and insignificant that build in impact over time. Words can inspire and mobilize people, but our daily actions — because they are just that: daily — determine our overall impact. As students and global leaders, our political actions and statements only have meaning if they are backed up by a sincere personal commitment to change the world, beginning with ourselves. To live our values is to act on what we believe in on a daily basis and to fully integrate our convictions into our identities, creating change from the ground up.  

Alexi Stocker is a Weinberg senior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.