What it is to be an Activist

Lindsey (holding the Peace sign) with fellow Hobart activists at their recent fundraising 70’s Disco

I was surprised the other day when someone described me as an activist.

My first thought was, ‘No, I’m not.’ It’s not a word I associate with myself at all. An activist, in my mind, is someone fierce, someone opinionated – someone who would fit nicely into the 1970s rock scene, actually. My ideal activist would have placards and wouldn’t be afraid to use them. She’d have a loud, carrying voice. She’d be political, she’d know every lyric to Pink Floyd and she’d fight, with violence, if necessary, for what she believes in.

And that’s just not me. I’m quiet. I’m unassuming. Apart from voting, the most political I get is watching The West Wing. I know more lyrics to Peter Combe than I do to Pink Floyd, and the courage of my convictions is so lacking at times that I change my mind five times about what I’m going to have for breakfast.

So what on Earth had I done to make someone think I was an activist?

Since the start of my adult life, I have supported certain charities – although “supported” is the wrong word. Support suggests strength, whereas my involvement with these charities derives from my weakness. I had not decided to donate a certain percentage of my income to charity, and then done some research into what charity was the most effective, or the most deserving, or the nearest to my heart. Instead, I’d been pinned down by strangers in the street and asked emotionally blackmailing questions like, ‘Don’t you think it’s awful that this many children die of cancer every year?’

Well, yes. Of course I think it’s awful. I’m not heartless. And once they’ve extracted my confession that I think it’s awful, they move in for the kill: ‘So how much would you be willing to donate on a monthly basis?’

And then, not so much out of a desire to do good than out of a pathological need not to have people think I’m ungenerous and uncaring and hypocritical, I sign up. To whatever it is; it doesn’t matter. And then I have to try to hide it from my husband that, despite our financial insecurity, I’ve once more given our bank details to complete strangers who emotionally rugby-tackled me in the middle of the street. (Incidentally, darling – Doctors Without Borders, two months ago outside Woolworths.)

My charitable activities had been to me a source of shame – shame that I had done as much as I had, shame that I hadn’t done more. I couldn’t win.

And then, about a year ago, a friend of mine invited me to come to a talk he was giving about improving the state of the world. I had time. I went.

And during the talk, he didn’t emotionally blackmail anyone. He didn’t shame anyone into doing anything. And he didn’t hit anyone over the head with a giant placard. He just quietly and unassumingly explained that there was enough food in the world to feed everyone; that there were vaccines that could prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths; that small acts could make big changes. That the world could be saved.

And I wanted in.

At the end of the presentation, I asked him how I could get involved. A month later I was in my first RESULTS meeting. And in that meeting, they didn’t ask me for money I didn’t have or to do anything outrageous like throw tins of paint at global criminals. In fact, they’ve only ever asked me for two things.

One was a little bit of my time – a couple of hours a month.

The other was to care enough to take simple actions.

I was cool with that, so they put me to work.

In the last year, I have written op-eds and letters to the editor, I’ve sold raffle tickets, I’ve posted off letters to ministers and senators, I’ve called electoral offices to request meetings with parliamentarians, attended meetings down here in Hobart, joined a delegation to Canberra to attend more meetings in our nation’s capital, become a partner for the Hobart group, and cut out silhouettes of Freddie Mercury. I’ve talked about education, vaccines, medical research, malnutrition and gender equality (to the parliamentarians, that is, not Freddie). I’ve done and learnt more than I ever thought I would.

And it’s hard sometimes, because through RESULTS you learn that over 740 million people in the Asia-Pacific region alone live in extreme poverty. You learn that 58 million children of primary school age are not in school. You learn that around 17,000 children die every single day, mostly from preventable causes like malnutrition, pneumonia and diarrhoea.

Now, we know how to fix malnutrition. We have vaccines for pneumonia and diarrhoea. 17,000 children die every day, who needn’t. But despite this fact, we are living in a country whose government has seen fit to cut the Australian aid budget by 11.3 billion dollars.

I said before that I wasn’t political. I’ve become a little more political over the last year.

But here’s the thing. Despite the things I’ve learned – the terrible state of poverty so many people are trapped in – I’ve never felt more positive about the future.

Because, through RESULTS, I’ve met people who are downright awesome – people who do not accept the world as it is, who are optimistic enough to believe in a better future and passionate enough to work towards it.

And all they do is stand up and say what they believe in.

I’m being dramatic, of course. You don’t have to stand up at all. In fact, most of the time you’re sitting – in a meeting room, at a laptop, in a café with your mobile. It’s the saying bit that matters. The federal government got away with cutting 11.3 billion dollars from the Australian aid budget because enough people didn’t tell them that it wasn’t fair, that it was the wrong thing to do. Enough people didn’t act.

But surely we all believe that children shouldn’t have to die. That they belong in school. That to die of measles should be a thing of the past. That everyone deserves to have access to food and health services and dignity.

I do, enough to act, and RESULTS has shown me how I can.

So it doesn’t matter that I don’t have placards and rock albums and a mean right hook. I have stamps and a word processor and a pleasant telephone voice and a couple of hours a month.

I’m an activist, man. What about you?

3 comment on “What it is to be an Activist

  1. Peter Graves, Canberra Reply

    Thanks Lindsey

    Very, very well written from your heart.

    When I joined RESULTS in 1986, we were challenged with the figure of “40,000 children dying each day from preventable causes”.

    Now it’s 17,000 – still the equivalent of 32 A380 Airbuses crashing each day, day after day. But that decrease shows progress is possible.

    To misquote Bob Marley slightly:
    “Stand up. Stand up. Stand up for their rights.. Don’t give up the fight”.

    We are the world.

  2. David Bailey Reply

    Sp who is Peter Combe?

  3. Mike Stickney Reply

    I love every word of this.Thanks for writing it Lindsey

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