Five Characteristics of the Transformational Activist

Today, we understand that environmental catastrophe is no longer avoidable. But, of course, that does not mean we can all rest easy, because though the catastrophe is on its way, its severity has yet to be decided. And though many are engaged in helping our society change course, it’s safe to say that so far we have not yet succeeded. And for many of us, the danger of shifting directly from denial to despair, without any intervening moment of effective social action, is becoming increasingly real. 

Perhaps in order to confront the radically interwoven and pervasive network of global crises in which the causes are all around us and within us, we need new a new form of activism that is designed to address problems at their roots. One such emergent form could be called Transformational Activism. We all know that transformational change is change based on the assumption that the raising of consciousness is the basis of all lasting positive social change. But then what should we do? What does that tell us about how to be a transformational activist? Okay, I would like to suggest the following five attributes.

1. Transformational Activists keep it positive.

Though there is a particular energy and clarity associated with saying ‘no’ to the exploitative and oppressive social structures, the division and struggle implicit in the processes of protest politics yield some nasty unintended and unwanted consequences. The implicit struggle of ‘us-against-them’ can lead to burnout and addiction on the part of the activist. It goes something like this. The activist looks around and sees that they don’t have the support they should have. Why? Because everyone else is looking at them and saying “I don’t want to be like you, you’re stressed out!” So, what does the activist do? They doubles down and the cycle gets worse. Sound familiar? Meanwhile, the target of the activist’s attention must resist the attack. This resistance often takes the form of an effort to further marginalize the activist.

In terms of the larger community, the resultant divide can limit the potential for future collaboration and destroy any potential common ground that could have existed.

The axiom, ‘energy follows thought’ is often evoked to support the idea that ‘what is resisted persists’ because what is fought against is subtly reinforced by the thought that is invested in it.

In place of this, the transformational activist presents a vision of a positive future and then recruits all willing parties to join in their effort to pursue it. The energy associated with pursuing positive solutions heals and empowers both the individual participants and the larger community. And whereas, successful efforts to dismantle negative structures must be completed by further efforts replace the unwanted structures once they are gone, successful efforts invested in a positive solutions are complete in and of themselves.

The Transition Town movement emphasizes the power of engaging the community in positive solutions that reduce dependency on the systems we need to change. By creating community gardens, bike repair clinics and tool-sharpening workshops, participants in a hands on approach to community transition build skills and community. As this happens, they become both empowered and as Joanna Macy points out, they heal the trauma that burdens us all, the daily impact of bearing witness to a planet in decline.

2. Transformational Activists lead by example.

As strange as it sounds, it is not that unusual for activists to strive to get someone else to do something they themselves have not yet been able to achieve for themselves. This undercuts the authenticity and power of the activist and limits the growth of the movement into communities that consciously or otherwise recognize a tint of hypocrisy in the activists’ pitch.

In contrast with this, the transformational activist practices on him- or herself first. By finding a way to “be the change they wish to see in the world,” Transformational Activists provide both inspiration to make difficult changes and practical guidance about how to make it happen. Their gesture is stronger, one of inspiration and invitation rather than convincing and coercion. 

One good example of someone who exemplified this approach is Jim Merkel, the author of the book Radical Simplicity. In the region where I live, for about 20 years, Jim undertook the experiment of simple living on an annual budget of $5000. In a way, the man had broken out and we all knew it. And during this time, it seemed that the topic of sustainability would never arise without the mention of his name. And every time it did, a sense of possibility would arise along with it. As if the very invocation of Jim’s name signified that what he did was not impossible and that therefore we could do it too.

3. Transformational Activists keep it local.

And here local means person to person. Rather than undertaking long-distance reform at the national or international level, the transformational activist works in the community where they have the most influence, the community where they live. This is where people know them and can be influenced and inspired by their qualities and efforts. And this is where we can best understand the needs of the environment where our work takes root.

This is not to say that transformational activism cannot have a global impact. When initiatives take root in a community, they can spread out from there, by linking with other similar initiatives or by providing a model for similar efforts around the world. For instance, Ryan Harb, the founder of UMASS Permaculture, didn’t get to the White House to shake hands with the president by launching a national campaign. Rather, as much as possible, he stayed right in his door yard. Morning and night, he was lugging cardboard and shoveling wheelbarrows of compost onto his front lawn until all his friends wanted to join him. And before long everyone else could see that he and his pals had transformed the lot into an oasis of flowers and fruit trees and berry bushes.

4. Transformational Activists work from the bottom-up.

Here bottom-up means progressing from the smallest community, the community of one, through increasingly larger communities before making an impact on the broader society. In this way, transformational activism pertains to ‘grass roots’ models of organizing. The essential point is that, just as the strength of the bricks will be expressed in the resulting building that is made out of them, the enlightened qualities of the individual are expressed in the collective before they can make their way to the larger community.

This point has been emphasized by the Hindu Saint Acharya Sharma, founder of the All World Gayatri Pariwar. He instructed is agents of social reform to always remember, “Vyakti Nirman, Pariwar Nirman, Samaj Nirman, Yug Nirman.” This means that only the transformed Human being can make the transformed family, only the transformed family can transform the society, and only the transformed society can usher in the new era of sustainable culture here below. Well, I elaborate a bit, but that is the gist of it as I understand it.

5. Transformational Activists work from the inside-out.

And this, finally, is the essential and defining characteristic of the transformational activist. Indeed, Transformational Activism could also be called “Inside-Out Activism” as the first four characteristics are to some extent implied by the fifth. Here ‘inside’ means inside of consciousness and the underlying assumption is that, as was suggested by Albert Einstein, a global conundrum that has resulted from our current level of thinking cannot be solved without our raising ourselves to a new level of thinking. 

Following this logic, the primary focus of the transformational activist must be raising up our current level of thinking. Though the ‘Transformational Activism’ primarily refers to efforts to raise consciousness at the societal level, it also implies efforts to raise the level of thinking at personal and societal levels as well.

In this way, the transformational activist has a three-pronged program: spiritual practice for raising consciousness at the individual level, transformational practice for raising consciousness at the group level, and transformational activism for raising consciousness at the societal level. Only through working local, keeping it positive, leading by example and through the faithful practice at all three levels can we expect to achieve results that differ from what we have experienced.

simon dennis