In the Blog
The Entrepreneurial Activist of 2015
Illustration by Jayde Perkin
The term entrepreneur is difficult to understand, especially because it can contain multiple meanings. For the purpose of this post, I define an entrepreneur as someone who establishes a new initiative, business or company. An entrepreneur possesses an interior fuel and stamina that drives their actions; this energy helps to overtake and surpass the different challenges they face and injects strength to continue pursuing goals when difficulties arise. Anyone can be an entrepreneur and behave like one. After speaking to some friends, many of whom organize various activist events and initiatives across Toronto, it has become clear that that being an activist in 2015 means something different than being an activist in 2010. Being an activist in 2015 means being an entrepreneurial activist!
In a previous post, I spoke about the concept of ‘trickle-down community engagement’ referring to complex power dynamics within the not-for-profit industry. Often, larger organizations share a monopoly over scarce resources and small organizations only have access to those resources after they have ‘trickled down’ from the larger organizations. I believe in many ways that the entrepreneurial- activist is a direct result of those power dynamics. If it’s ridiculously difficult and exhausting to get access to basic resources like seed funding, startup grants or event and meeting space – it makes more sense to seek out those resources in other ways. In Toronto, many activist groups are able to make their work possible through receiving grant funding – which itself is limited in quantity.
For a first time applicant, applying for a grant can be a daunting process. This is because there is much that is left unsaid in the grant proposal requirements that can only be known through extensive work in the not-for-profit industry, being privileged to know friends working in the industry who can be external reviewers and being lucky enough to devote full-time hours to putting a grant application together. Not to mention that there are particular ways of wording statements within an application that are largely unknown to novice applicants. There is also a proficiency in using email systems, word processors, budgeting documents, evaluation plans and the internet that is required to submit a grant application, plus the people power needed to prepare grant materials that is not always mentioned to first time, second or even third time applicants. As a result, many activist groups are left to raise their own funds through other means or use their own personal funds to do their work.
Being left to fend for themselves, many activists actually end up becoming entrepreneurial in their approach, becoming social entrepreneurs in a sense. For some activists, being entrepreneurial has meant the following things: treating their activist work like a business, turning to popular social media platforms to put out their own press releases and looking for people to invest in their initiative with money and not just good faith. In fact, you could say that activism in 2015 has become more like building a brand more than anything. Whether that is a progressive or regressive trend is another matter, but it does represent a huge shift in how activism is manifested.
Without taking the predictable stance of bashing the new ways, it makes sense to say that grassroots activism 5 years ago, even 10 or 15 years ago was more organic. Organic in the sense that the older approaches to activism relied more on people’s tight-knit social circles and systems of support to get things moving. You’d probably let the local media know what you were doing, or maybe not – it was more able getting people who felt concerned in the same way as you together and empowering one another in the same space.
Today doing activist work means firstly knowing the right branding language to use in one’s social media channels, secondly, having an expansive knowledge of how social media works second, and thirdly, going to all the events possible that one can record on social media. Activist work also means keeping a close and up to date tab on what similar initiatives are doing all the time, going to all the events where similar groups are going to be at, presenting at all the events where potential funders are in attendance and much more. In one sense, it has become more about being ‘seen’ to be doing things. This aspect is a powerful one because for so long, the efforts of marginalized activists group were invisibilized because more visible groups took up all space.
However, this new turn towards entrepreneurship in activism, though rewarding in some aspects, can be one of the most psychologically, emotionally and physically draining experiences one may ever face. Current activist culture idolizes only the most successful activists and sometimes expects these activists to use their experiences of being oppressed or marginalized to leverage their success. The psychological toughness needed to be an entrepreneur – activist is often left out of the narrative, as are those activists who haven’t had the energy or means to persevere. Not all activists today make it out alive, whole or hopeful enough to share their tale with the masses. More often than not, most take every day one step at a time and their work is usually not highlighted on popular social media platforms. But can you really blame the entrepreneurial activists of 2015? The way humans communicate today is unrecognizable to what it was at the turn of the century, you could even say that entrepreneur activists are just adapting to the new market of ‘being seen’ and they’re not wrong for doing that. What do you think?