8. The Importance of Focus/Creating Your Activism Goals List

Once you’ve completed your Activist Project Histories, you should set them aside for a while. Spend the next two or three weeks giving your brain a rest and allowing some of the insights you’ve gained to settle in. Treat yourself well, and if you’ve got the money for it, buy yourself a little present. Absolutely no guilt or remorse allowed after the purchase! This is a reward for a job well done.

After you’ve rested, return to your Activist Project Histories. Now, your goal will be to review what you have written with the aim of determining which activist movement and which type of activism you should be working on. That’s right: singular “movement” and singular “type of activism.” In general, you should focus most of your efforts on one activist movement and, within that movement, on one type of activist work, be it electioneering, legislation, community education, running a shelter or sanctuary, guerrilla art or theater, letter-writing or something else. That doesn’t mean that you should just be doing that one activity: it means you ought to be doing that activity and all the other activities needed to support it. If, for instance, you’re focusing on community education via tabling and demonstrations, you’re probably also going to need to: manage your volunteers, do publicity, create posters and other artwork, build coalitions with other groups, negotiate with the people you’re targeting (and maybe law enforcement), solicit funds and materials donations, follow up with those who sign up for more information, and many other tasks.

Focusing is crucial because it takes a huge amount of time and effort even to do one seemingly “simple” thing, like a demonstration, well and completely. Many activists are so busy bouncing from one movement to the next, or one type of activism to the next, that they don’t have the time or energy to do a great job at any of their activities. That’s a shame, because great activism is way more effective at creating social change than merely good activism.

Activist Henry Spira even came up with name for unproductive workaholic activist behavior, “hyperactivism,” which he defined in an article in Satya as “the phenomenon of doing without achieving.” He asks, speaking about the animal rights movement in particular, “How can so many activists with so many resources achieve so little?” He offers several answers, including that, “Campaigns . . . have evolved into mindless rituals without beginning or end.”

Don’t fall into the hyperactivist trap of thinking that if you’re not rushing around every minute of the day, you’re wasting time/uncommitted/lazy, etc. Quantity is not the sign of a good activist, quality is: quality of work, quality of professional and personal relationships, and quality of outcomes. And you don’t achieve a quality result by spreading yourself too thin.

More on workaholism in the next chapter.

Focus to Avoid Burnout

Here are other reasons why focusing is important:

1. Transitions are wasteful. Every time you switch between movements or types of projects, you lose time and energy.

2. Working in too many movements, or on too many types of projects, means that you will probably have to manage unwieldy amounts of information and people.

3. By focusing, you’ll gain deep expertise in whatever type of activism you are doing—expertise that will help make you an even more effective activist.

4. Because of your expertise, you’ll attract other experts. Therefore, you’ll probably make many more valuable contacts and connections as a specialist than as a generalist. And, finally,

5. Focusing will lower your stress level. This is particularly true if you’ve been rushing around trying to do too many things at once. After you focus, you’ll have less to do, so you’ll be able to take a breather when you need it.

Professionals in many fields, including medicine, law, science and technology, become specialists in order to have a successful career in which they can achieve a lot without becoming too stressed. You should be a specialist, too. Even though focusing on one movement and type of activism may initially seem constricting, it is actually very liberating. You’ll be able to do a great job, and see many positive results from your activism, while at the same time living a balanced life. And instead of being burned out, you’ll wake up each morning rested and recharged and rarin’ to go.

Budgeting Your Time

Above, I said that you should focus most of your efforts on one activist movement. So what does “most” mean? There are no hard and fast rules, but I’m going to suggest you spend 80 percent of the time you devote to activism working in your chosen movement, and the remaining 20 percent working in a different movement.

You always want to spend some time working in another movement because, by doing so, you’ll get to form the kinds of linkages and coalitions that are vital to effecting broad social change. Also, you’ll get to “cross-pollinate”—exchange useful and empowering ideas, information and insights with activists in the other movement.

Needless to say, all of your activist work should be done in the context of a larger strategy aimed at achieving a defined and important goal. That goal could be something like:

• I want to help get at least 20 percent more Democratic or Green candidates elected to state and local offices in my state over the next five years.

• I want to help at least three town governments in my state increase the amount of conservation and recycling they do, so that their energy use and solid waste production are cut in half over the next ten years.

• I want to get vegetarian options added to all elementary, middle and high school lunches in my state by the year 2012.

Note the highlighted words: “20 percent more,” “at least three,” “cut in half,” and “all.” Good goals, as you will learn in Chapter 18, are quantified. Also note, “five years,” “ten years,” and “2012.” Good goals are also deadlined.

Many activists make the mistake of working on activities that are not linked to a defined goal, with the sad result that, even if they do good work, their efforts don’t result in much social change. The way to avoid this painful mistake is to take strategy seriously and work with other activists who do the same. Books such as Randall Kehler, Andrea Ayvazian and Ben Senturia’s Thinking Strategically: a Primer on Long-Range Strategic Planning for Grassroots Peace and Justice Organizations (Amherst, MA: Peace Development Fund, n.d.) and Kim Bobo, Jackie Kendall and Steve Max’s Organize!—Organizing for Social Change: Midwest Academy Manual for Activists (Santa Ana, CA: Seven Locks Press, 2001) are good places to start.

When you choose a primary and secondary movement, and a specific type of activism, to focus on, that doesn’t mean you have to stay with those choices forever. Your interests may, and probably will, take you in a different direction later on. So don’t worry that by focusing you are making a life-defining choice. You are just making a choice that is going to make you much more effective in the short term.

Focus, by the way, happens on multiple levels. There’s the “macro” level of focusing mainly on one movement at a time. Then there’s the “micro” level of focusing mainly on one type of activism within that movement at a time. And finally, there’s the “nano” level of focusing on one task at a time. Here’s what the late Peter S. Drucker, the world’s most famous management guru, said about nano-focus in his classic book The Effective Executive (see Bibliography):

If there is any one “secret” of effectiveness, it is concentration. Effective executives do first things first and they do one thing at a time. . . . This is the “secret” of those people who “do so many things” and apparently so many difficult things. They do only one thing at a time. As a result, they need much less time in the end than the rest of us.

It’s just as true for activists as for businesspeople.

How to Choose

If you’re lucky, you’ll feel a strong emotional pull toward one particular movement and type of activism. If not—if you feel pulled in several directions at once—you have two valuable resources that will help you choose: your Activist Project Histories and your mentors.

So, go back and review your Activist Project Histories, asking yourself these questions:

• Which movement or cause did you most like working on? [Note: not necessarily the one you considered most important.] Was it gay rights, labor, environmentalism, antiglobalization, transparency in government, poverty reduction, fair housing, antiwar, animal rights/animal welfare or something else?

• What type of work did you most like doing? [Ditto.] Was it electioneering? Organizing and running demos? Legislative work? Building websites? Door-to-door canvassing? Guerrilla art and/or theater? Letter-writing? Something else?

• What type of organization did you most like being part of? [Ditto.] Big or small? National or grassroots? Hierarchical or flat? Majoritarian or consensus decision-making?

• Which role did you most like taking on? [Ditto.] Did you like working independently or as part of a team? How big a team? Did you like being a leader or coordinator, or did you prefer to let someone else handle that role?

Now go back beyond your Activist Project Histories, to your earliest activist experiences, the ones you landed in almost by accident back when you didn’t really know that what you were doing was called “activism.” And then look back even beyond that, to your childhood. Often in our early years we express our true passions, which we then tend to lose track of as we get older and busier. For example, as a child I was always deeply passionate about, and concerned for, the animals in my life and animals in general. As an adult, I did many other kinds of activism, but it wasn’t until I started doing animal activism that my activism truly began to feel like a comfortable “fit” and extension of my core values. Animal activism very quickly took me deeper into activism than any of my previous activist experiences, and I was more effective at it as well. I wish I had returned to this childhood passion earlier.

Next, talk to mentors. (More on how to find and work with mentors in Part III, Chapter 26.) This is actually a vital step to take at any pivotal stage of your career—or, more precisely, at every stage of your career. Review the conclusions you’ve drawn from your Activist Project Histories with them and see if they agree. In particular, ask them what talents, skills and resources they think you have that you might have missed; and also which skills they think you need to improve.

There’s one more important question you need to consider as you plan your activist career: how much activism do you really want to do? I discuss that one in the next chapter.


Activism Goals List

After carefully reviewing your Activist Project Histories and talking with your mentors, write down the answers to these questions relative to the primary activist movement you wish to be working on:

• Which activist movement would you like to focus on?

• What type of activism would you like to focus on?

• What goal (quantified and deadlined) would you like to see result from your activism?

• What type of organization would you most like to be part of?

• What role would you most like to assume?

Please answer each question in as much detail as possible.

Then answer the same questions for your secondary (coalition-building) movement.

We’ll call this document your Activism Goals List.

Remember that your answers to this and the other Goals exercises in The Lifelong Activist are not meant to be set in stone. You’re simply taking your best guess as to what you want to be doing in the future, and you can always change your mind later. Planning should be a fun, low-stress activity, almost a game, so don’t get nervous over it.

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