'Small, radical acts' drive big changes

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Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists
Do It Anyway highlights eight extraordinary people, each poised to make a real difference in the world

Save the world.

These three ambiguous words have slipped off the tongues of well-meaning parents and empathetic teachers for decades, designed to empower and thrust youth into action. To us, the children of the 80s and 90s, this seemed like a challenge -- a charge to change the world placed firmly on our shoulders.

Our elementary school classrooms were plastered with posters urging us to save the whales, the forests, and the bald eagles. "Reduce, reuse, recycle" was more than just a slogan; it was a mantra. And even before we knew what the ozone layer was, we knew that we had to save it.

This is a good thing, right? Maybe not, argues Courtney E. Martin, the author of Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists.

"The danger in our big dreams, of course, is the inevitable disappointment," writes Martin, herself a child of the 80s and 90s. "We are uniquely positioned to fail."

Martin is a senior correspondent for the American Prospect, an editor of Feministing.com, and the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body.

In Martin's own words, Do It Anyway is "dedicated to abandoning the ‘save the world' and American Dream rhetoric for a language that is still inspiring, but also pragmatic -- a language that we can use like a bridge over the chasm between what our parents and teachers told us about good deeds, about success, and what the real world needs every day." This doesn't mean abandoning long-term goals like reducing wealth disparity and curing HIV and AIDS, she says, rather it means "we must hold these large-scale revolutions in our hearts while tackling small, radical acts every day with our hands."

Martin first engaged her own outrage at the world as a child. Sensing her own privilege at a young age, she wrote letters to corporations urging them to stop using Sytrofoam cups. She ladelled soup at soup kitchens and canvassed her neighbourhood for money, only to feel disillusioned. She realized that saving the world was "not nearly as simple as our kindergarten teachers and our aspirational parents make it sound." This feeling only intensified as she grew to realize that too many nonprofits are "joyless and ineffective places," and freelance writing can be alienating.

In Do It Anyway, Martin profiles eight young activists, which she defines as age 35 and under, who are doing it anyway despite the countless challenges they face. Each lives the reality that activism is a "daily, even hourly, experiment in dedication, moral courage, and resilience."

The book's introduction brims with the insightful social commentary that made Martin's first book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, a crucial read. Here she introduces readers to a generation of activists that social scientists and the media have labelled "entitled, self-absorbed, and apathetic." Martin argues this isn't the case; rather we are "overwhelmed, empathetic, and paralyzed."

Martin attempts to prove just this in her engaging and well-written portraits of eight extraordinary people, each poised to make a real difference in the world. Each narrative is drenched in Martin's feminist belief that "the personal is always political."

Some of Martin's stories are familiar, such as 23-year-old Rachel Corrie facing off against one of the Israeli army's 49 ton Caterpillar bulldozers. But most are stories of unknown American activists who have overcome, and are still fighting, great obstacles, including poverty, rape and gang violence in order to make a difference. Among the most memorable are Raul Diaz, a prison re-entry social worker from Los Angeles, California and Dena Simmons, an eighth-grade teacher in the Bronx, New York.

Unfortunately these stories often read like magazine articles or PR profiles, failing to dissect the complex issues raised in Martin's introduction, such as activist fatigue, the changing face of activism, especially in the years since September 11th and the beginning of the Iraq war, and the ways in which the unrealistic American Dream ideology charges youth with saving the world.

It is only in the conclusion that Martin dissects the intricate similarities and differences between the eight activists, drawing a succinct picture of what activism looks like in the early part of the 21st century. Here she offers solutions sparingly, among them "dream unreasonably, but proceed strategically." For me, this analysis is where the book should have begun, not ended.

Do It Anyway is likely not for seasoned activists already familiar with the disillusionment, as well as great joy, that often accompanies creating social change. However, Martin's effortless prose and obvious passion for making the world a better place would make it a beneficial read to many, especially those interested in joining a movement to help to change the world, one small step at a time.—Jessica Rose

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