Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

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October 4, 2022

Diversify your activism

Audrey Buckley

The idea that America’s youth are politically disengaged has persisted for decades, evolving with the changing political landscape. Albeit a sweeping generalization, it’s still true that many younger generations are neglecting fundamental civic, political and social processes while turning to discursive forms of activism and growing disillusioned with our governmental institutions.

This growing apathy is evident in the ways students seek out change. Rhetorical forms of activism, such as protests, social media movements and online echo chambers, dominate current political engagement and prioritize social means of persuasion over direct action. Meanwhile, the appeal of civic-oriented participation has waned, evidenced by a remarkably low 39.9% voter turnout among youth voters in Travis County in 2022 and only 10-17% engaging in civic activities across Texas. 

To effectively drive change, we must redefine our understanding of activism. Emily Bhandari, executive director of the Patman Center for Civic and Political Engagement, adds to this idea.

“People feel that by sharing a post or expressing their opinions on Twitter, they are engaging in civic engagement, which they are, but that’s just a public square,” Bhandari said. “It’s not actually moving the needle.” 

Bhandari outlined a three-pronged approach to civic engagement: political engagement, such as voting and contacting elected officials; civic involvement, such as volunteering or donating to a nonprofit; and social connectedness, including things like exchanging favors and engaging in political discussions with your community.

“You’re not talking to decision-makers in any way,” Bhandari said. “We need to move offline a little bit and focus on trying to contact stakeholders, organize, get into our communities a bit more, knock on doors (and) help elected officials run for office.”

 This suggestion for a change of approach doesn’t diminish the tangible benefits discursive activism has brought or to claim that traditional advocacy is superior. Instead, it challenges the assumption that our democratic institutions are useless and encourages extending efforts beyond digital interactions and misplaced anger.

BridgeTexas, a student-led organization, serves the UT community by building connections between students by hosting respectful conversations on contentious issues.

Echoing the need for more substantive political engagement and social connectedness, Alison Eng, government senior and president of BridgeTexas, said that taking a side is not always the right thing to do even within the paradigms of rhetorical activism.

“At best, (taking a side) can lead to ignorance,” Eng said. “At worst, it can lead us to ignore solutions that could be pathways to change.

Although we lack engagement with these processes, the issue isn’t that young people are unaware of these civic mechanisms. Rather, it is a growing distrust and lack of hope in these institutions’ effectiveness and the potential for dialogue to effect tangible social change. 

“Activism requires not just realism,” Eng said. “Activism requires a certain degree of hope, … hope that you can leave a better world in the present and the future.”

To have hope for change that transcends social narratives and dialogue, we have to acknowledge the processes that have brought us the progress we enjoy today.

“Advocacy does work,” Bhandari said. “When you write a letter to an elected official … (or) give oral testimony during a legislative session, it really can make a difference. … We have to keep fighting because the alternative is the loss of our democracy in a lot of ways.” 

The likelihood of sustainable political outcomes increases when we diversify our activism through civic engagement. Activism does not need to result in immediate change to be effective, and the solution is not to take on everything. It necessitates an understanding of what we’re seeking to affect and requires intentionality through action and faith in the possibility of change. 

Ramirez is a government and international relations & global studies sophomore from Terrell, Texas.

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