8 activists using social media to fight for irl change

Whether they’re championing Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights, or intersectional feminism, these young voices are proving that social media activism does not equal clicktavism.

by Blair Cannon
17 August 2016, 7:10pm

activist blair imani. photography Jonathan Bachman

Social media activism — or clicktavism, as it's sometimes less favorably known — can get a bad rap in activist communities. Its critics' most common complaint is that an awareness-raising Facebook status or Instagram post does little to create real change. Even #PrayingforParis was hit with backlash for sounding too religious, or for being too apolitical and self-promotional (#TBT Eiffel Tower selfies contribute very little to solving international crises). But at the same time, filters, hashtags, and tweets have dramatically elevated the visibility of Black Lives Matter, conversations about intersectionality, and movements to support victims and their families in the wake of tragedies. We continue to create and use hashtags every time we need to voice a social concern, whether it's #BringBackOurGirls, #SayHerName, or #BlackLivesMatter. A younger generation of activists, like Amandla Stenberg and DeRay Mckesson — and the 540K followers who watched his arrest — make the case that social media is more than just valuable to activism — it's essential. Here, eight activists from across the cultural landscape, who bring their work online in a meaningful way, discuss how social media contributes to their progress.

Photograph courtesy Lara Witt

Lara Witt is building an online community of intersectional feminists
Indian-Kenyan writer Lara Witt uses her Twitter presence to bring to center "issues which affect black and brown women, whether it's white supremacy, misogyny, colonization, or economic inequality." In addition, she speaks out about life as a sexual assault survivor and as someone who sufferers from PTSD. With an fearless desire to speak up for her communities, Witt serves brazen truths through her tweets, and is quick to defend intersectionality wherever it is ignored or obscured in pop culture. "The voices of those of us who have repeatedly and historically been shut out because of systemic racism and misogyny have made room for ourselves online," she explains. "Twitter has been instrumental in helping me connect with other feminists and women of color, which helps us organize and educate those who cannot afford more expensive resources." Outside of the Twittersphere, she launched an interview column called "Feminist Follow Friday" on the site Guerilla Feminism, in which feminists discuss "how they navigate online spaces, what they tweet about," and the roles that activism and the internet play in their lives.

Photograph courtesy Raquel Willis

Raquel Willis is broadening the conversation about LGBTQ rights
Self-described "media maven" Raquel Willis uses Twitter to champion equal rights and treatment for transgender people, particularly trans women of color. Raquel also publishes some truly moving essays on her blog that chronicle her own experiences as a trans POC. And her voice is compelling even when she's using 140 characters or less. As someone who has become an inspiration and a leader online, Raquel says that social media is a tool that gives her "the ability to speak on a perspective that many [people] never encounter." "When you think of hegemonic LGBTQ discourse," she says, "it's largely focused on white cisgender gay men. Similarly, mainstream feminism often elevates privileged white cisgender heterosexual women." But Raquel's media presence prioritizes intersectionality. She says that, particularly for marginalized people, social media "provides the opportunity to shift narratives and have nuanced, authentic discussions on [people's] experiences" in all-new ways.

Photography Kadeem Johnson

Darnell L. Moore shines a light on under-reported stories
Juggling positions as a senior correspondent at Mic and co-managing editor of The Feminist Wire, Darnell L. Moore has earned a loyal following for his activism. His Twitter is a stream of his own writing as well as thoughtful pieces by fellow writers on issues affecting marginalized communities. "This contemporary iteration of the long movement for black liberation in the U.S. has been shaped by technology," he explains. "There now exists an international community of activists, and socially-aware people, because citizen journalists used social media platforms to offer news and perspectives left out of mainstream reporting." Moore adds to this new canon of reporting by hosting his own activism-based video series on Mic, "The Movement,"in which he seeks out "the stories that aren't being covered by the media and aren't being discussed on the campaign trail." "As a media maker, who also is deeply committed to creating space for others to share their stories," he says, "social media is a necessary and powerful tool of engagement and social change."

Photograph courtesy Charlene Carruthers

Charlene Carruthers empowers young POC
Charlene Carruthers is the National Director of the Black Youth Project 100, which seeks to educate and empower young people to get into activism — and, ultimately, to end the criminalization of black youth. With a decade-long history in black and queer activism, Carruthers has watched and experienced firsthand the effects of social media on social justice movements. And as one of the more influential and renowned activists of her generation, Carruthers is able to use Twitter to extend the reach of her writing throughout the movement and beyond. She says, "I continue to be educated by young Black queer and trans women, young immigrants, and movement elders who use social media." Social media's power, Carruthers continues, lies in "the ability to amplify the stories of the everyday lives Black folks lead — that includes our joy and our pain. Both are motivating factors for individuals to join collective efforts for transformative change." She notes that organizations like BYP100, which is member-led, play an integral role both on and offline: "When it comes to movement building, we are only as powerful as the collectives we belong to."

Photograph courtesy Dana Bolger

Dana Bolger combats sexual assault on college campuses
As both a Yale Law student and senior editor at Feministing, Dana Bolger knows how to keep busy in her activism. Her current focus is educating students about, and protecting them from, sexual violence. Her Twitter is a very useful one-stop shop for information and updates on sexual assault cases, the status of reproductive rights, and other issues directly affecting female-identifying people. Bolger is also a co-founder of Know Your IX (Title IX is the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination). The group works to improve the ways campuses and courts deal with sexual assault so that female, transgender, and gender-nonconforming students can have full equality in their academic environment. Bolger says that because of social media, "rape survivors and student activists are able share our stories with the click of a button, leverage public pressure to push universities to shape up, and teach each other our rights to go to school and feel safe." She says that the online tools she and other activists have at their disposal have "been a total game-changer."

Photography Shannon Wallace

Kwame Rose spreads the word about Black Lives Matter
Baltimore-based Black Lives Matter activist Kwame Rose is one of the more visible members of the movement both online and off — especially after he was projected into the BLM spotlight by a viral video. However, Kwame is careful to define how he wants Black Lives Matter to be seen. "To some [Black Lives Matter] is an organization, to others it is a movement. But until it becomes a universal belief, we will continue to die," he says. He uses social media to fight for that belief in parts of the country where he can't protest in person. Rose also uses video interviews with people like Dr. Cornel West and Dr. Jill Stein to spread knowledge about BLM-related matters. Rose emphasizes, though, that while social media has been helpful, "black people dying at the hands of the state is not a new phenomenon." "It's just that now we have the power to talk about our own experiences through social media," he says, "as opposed to the oppressor doing so for us."

Photography Jonathan Bachman

Blair Imani uses social media to hold politicians accountable
Activist Blair Imani engages with a variety of issues affecting black, Muslim, and femme communities. No stranger to the profound effects of online organizing, she founded a nonprofit called Equality for HER that seeks to uplift the voices of people on the femme spectrum around the world. Recently, she received media attention for her arrest at a Black Lives Matter protest in Baton Rouge. She's quick to acknowledge, "I don't think I would have gotten so much support had the photos of me being arrested not spread on social media like they did. Thanks to Twitter, I have been able to talk about my experiences and reach out to reporters who fail to capture the truth." Calling Twitter and Instagram "the bread and butter of [her] organizing," Imani discusses how social media wields an unmatched power in holding politicians and news outlets accountable for their rhetoric surrounding black and Muslim individuals. "Recently at a panel, a young woman asked for ways she and her peers can contribute to the movement," Imani recalls. While other panelists suggested voting or attending city council meetings, Imani says she recognized the inaccessibility of these methods for a teenager. "I told the young woman to get on Twitter, get on Facebook, and use her voice to call out politicians when they aren't supporting the best interests of their communities. I said, 'Politicians aren't immune from Twitter clap backs,' and her eyes lit up."

Photograph courtesy Shay Akil

Shay Akil is educating Twitter about systemic oppression
Biologist and sociologist Shay Akil takes an uncommon approach to his activism by analyzing culture, and the systems of oppression within it, through an anthropological lens. "A lot of people see the things I talk about, especially in relation to political education, and put me under the banner of a BLM activist, but I'm not," he clarifies, though he does share the concerns of BLM activists. He explains, "I know history, so I know individual troubles are caused by social issues. The matter is structural." As an anthropology scholar, an online activist, and a marginalized black trans person, Akil recognizes ways for these communities to exchange resources and spread stories of their lived experiences through social media. He explains that social media is "a major force for mobilization as well as organizing [communities]" to fight oppression. It can bring colloquial activists and scholars with the same goals together in an unprecedented way.


Text Blair Cannon

Black Lives Matter
LGBTQ rights
blair imani
charlene carruthers
dana bolger
darnell l. moore
kwame rose
lara witt
raquel willis
shay akil