Activist Suggestion Box

– by The Shitty Activist


Those who are familiar with The Shitty Activist know that I write these pieces in hopes of improving the effectiveness of activists working for positive change (and to go off on the occasional cathartic rant). However, now and again I stop and think about whether it’s all worthwhile, namely: how open are activists to feedback?

Personally, I don’t know anyone who enjoys being criticized. Whether you’re a jet setting corporate executive at the helm of a Fortune 500 company or a convicted murderer picking up litter from the side of the highway, if someone has something unpleasant to say about your work, chances are you’d much rather they keep it to themselves.

Sometimes this can be chalked up to laziness, where accepting that your work might stand some improvement means you’ll have to work harder (or smarter). But I suspect it actually goes deeper, in that we all tend to think of ourselves as good people, which by extension, means that most anything we do is good. Therefore, anyone who has anything but praise for our work is surely condemning us as human beings, and the only people who would do that are either mistaken, holding a personal grudge, or mentally deranged. All convenient reasons to ignore the criticism.

This, of course, is a kind of denial exercised by people from all walks of life. But it can take on a particular flavor with activists.

As we know, activists strive for a better world, often sacrificing monetary (and other) benefits to dedicate themselves to a worthy cause. Most activists operate primarily out of the kindness of their hearts, directed by their moral compass, with the desire to do good being the overwhelming impetus. So, when someone suggests there might be a better way for an activist to do good, they are often either confused, outraged, or both.

Now, if your job is trying to sell toothbrushes and someone tells you you’re not selling enough of them, you’ll either agree or disagree with their assessment. What you probably won’t do is consider the statement an affront to your character. But if you’ve vowed to save the world and someone wants to tell you you’re failing to do so, it’s hard not to take that personally.

A defense mechanism adopted by some activists unwilling to face criticism is to label the critic an opponent to the cause. If you’re an anti-fossil fuels activist and someone suggests that we’re never going to completely transition over to clean energy until people learn to reduce their energy consumption, it’s much easier – physically, mentally, and emotionally – to accuse this person of being in favor of fossil fuels than to evolve your campaign to encourage people to use less energy.

Another unique difficulty is that activism, unlike many other professions, doesn’t really have any mechanisms in place to determine success. If you’re a telephone salesperson and repeatedly receive bad customer reviews, you’ll know there’s room for improvement. But there isn’t such a rubric for activists.

One would assume paid activists – as opposed to unpaid – would have to qualify their work. And that’s true…to an extent. Most nonprofits are largely, if not entirely, dependent on corporate foundations, to whom an organization must prove deliverables on a yearly basis. Yet these deliverables typically pertain to a foundation’s specific agenda, which may or may not actually advance the cause they profess to be concerned about. In fact, in many cases, such as with the environmental movement, foundations want groups to take weaker stances on certain issues so as not to conflict with a particular industry, political party, or pro-capitalist viewpoint.

I hate to say it, but your average “checkbook activist” (someone who writes yearly, monthly, or weekly checks to an organization) has no way of knowing whether their money is actually helping the issue they care so much about, no matter how many glossy annual reports they read.

Obviously, unpaid activist organizations have even less of a mechanism for determining effectiveness, but since they aren’t beholden to corporate donors, the shortcomings are usually more about a need to improve their organizing, rather than a matter of “selling out.” However, since these organizations are less fixated on donations, they can also be unconcerned about their reputations, making it easy to ignore all criticism.

Of course, if you’re a mindful activist, you’re probably open to criticism, no matter how hard it is to stomach. But for those who just can’t tolerate helpful pointers, maybe it’s worth giving them a little nudge?

Perhaps what’s needed is a virtual activist suggestion box, where activists can offer ways to possible improve one’s activism, with the goal of holding activism to the high standards of other professions.

Since this Yelp-like platform can be easily abused by detractors of a given movement, it should only be open to those who have demonstrated that they are, in fact, legitimate activists themselves. Which means people would have to be transparent about their own work, and, yes, their identity.

The goal wouldn’t be to call out “shitty activists” as an outlet for some people’s pent up rage and aggression. Ideally, criticism would never be directed at an individual, always at the actions that can be improved for the good of the movement.

Yes, yes, I realize how unlikely this whole concept of an activist suggestion box is, whether it would work, or even if it’s a good idea.

In fact, I’ve come to the slow realization that, when I write pieces for The Shitty Activist (drawing on my own failures as a former activist of 12 years), I’m not really expecting my critiques to be taken to heart by those who I believe could use them most. It’s doubtful that truly shitty activists would ever even read my pieces (or at least more than the titles).

In truth, I’m actually writing these pieces for those who are just starting out in activism, in hopes of giving them a readable map to avoid falling into the same pitfalls as their predecessors. Also, to encourage those who are already doing the right thing to keep being that model for positive change that we all need to feel hope for tomorrow.

So, to all those non-shitty activists out there – you know who you are – I want to offer my heartfelt thanks, and more important, my solidarity. You’re the reason I’m doing this.


  1. majeskasg says

    Here in Eugene, it seems the “positive energy only” vibe is so strong that it’s almost a no-no to suggest what one could have done better. The culture seems to be that we shouldn’t criticize someone else’s organizing — except behind their back, of course. It seems we don’t try to help each other do our activism better. I wonder what it would be like to organize with a group of people who really want to support each other in improving our organizing — which I suspect would need to include being willing to gently criticize how we’re currently going about things. But who’s got time for that.

    • says

      I think there’s a difference between preferring constructive criticism and living in rose-colored delusion. Unfortunately, people get very sensitive to any critiques, and take everything personally.

      My observation is that it’s probably a combination of low self esteem (the flip side of narcissism) combined with not always skillful communications by those who see room for improvement.

  2. says

    One cannot take all criticisms personally. One must realize that others might not see the point of view that an activist, who has been working on an issue for years, has. A truly dedicated activist does not attack a person with opposing views but works to educate that person with the knowledge gained over the years.
    Sometimes, within a group of activists working towards the same goal, we sense that some do not ‘play well’ with others and will disagree on everything from the name of a group, the web site design, etc. I think this is a problem for those that want to scoot up the ladder to be the head honcho. It is best to ignore what can be ignored and continue on in your own style while maintaining a working relationship.

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