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Activism in the 21st Century

If we are asked to think about great feats of activism, chances are that our minds are conjured up with historical depictions of courageous people and communities standing up for their beliefs and rights. Events, moments and movements such as the Haitian Revolution, Stonewall riots, Tiananmen Square protests, Gandhi’s Salt March, Emmeline Pankhurst delivering her ’Freedom or Death’ speech and Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus have become some of the defining examples of what it means to be an activist. While there is no denying that the past is filled with inspirational movements and individuals who have changed the world for the better, it is worth noting that activism and advocacy are very much alive and flourishing in the present day, too. However, the reality faced by activists today is in many ways different from the one described in history books. Furthermore, with the new tools and channels at its disposal, modern day activism has evolved into interesting new directions.

Causes mobilising the wider public

Women’s March 2018 © Elyssa Fahndrich

When it comes to what drives activism and advocacy, issues such as human rights, social justice and equality continue to be high on the list of 21st century activists. However, many of the other issues bringing people to the streets and engaging them in activism manifest increasing concern for challenges and realities faced by contemporary societies. These include both global and local topics such as climate change, gun violence, urbanisation, environmental degradation and migration. As a result of such concerns, 21st century has witnessed mass movements, large-scale protests and events such as the Women’s Marches, the Arab Spring uprising, Euromaidan, the Occupy movement, March for Our Lives, Extinction Rebellion and School Strike for Climate which have managed to attract widespread attention in the media as well as generate a great deal of discussion among the general public.

Bottom-up activism at local level

Guerilla gardening © Umberto Brayj

Despite the public attention that mass demonstrations and movements tend to gather, activism in the 21st century is not just about large-scale protests, petitions and marches. It also includes activities and movements that are perhaps more subtle in nature but nevertheless engaging and important. As has been the case throughout history, local communities, individuals and grassroots organisations are pivotal in driving and facilitating change and development. Such activism is often characterised by Do-It-Yourself attitude and motivated by a desire to solve local challenges and to improve day-to-day lives of communities. This kind of activism manifests itself through a broad spectrum of tactics and commitment. In some cases, volunteers may come together to revamp public spaces and neighbourhoods in order to revitalise shared spaces and to reconnect people to their local areas. In other cases, activists may organise social gatherings and joint activities to prevent loneliness and social exclusion in their communities. Activities such as these often vary in scope, size, budget, and support. While some are coordinated by municipalities or by local chapters of global organisations and charities, others are organised strictly guerrilla-style without official permits or top-down coordination.

Online activism

Fridays for Future © Markus Spiske

Perhaps the most notable and distinguishing features of activism in the 21st century have been the rise of the Internet and the increasing use of social media. Online activism has become so prominent that it has coined phrases such as clicktivism, slacktivism and hacktivism to describe the ways digital tools and technologies are being used to promote, support and advance causes. Social media in particular has become one of the main instruments for people and movements to mobilise and motivate others. While not without its problems, social media channels have provided new ways for individuals to raise their voices about injustices and to spread information about causes they care. Social media has also made it easier for the public to find information about campaigns, activities and ways to engage in activism with other like-minded people. Simple words and phrases in the form of hashtags such as #MeToo, #BringBackOurGirls, #FridaysForFuture and #BlackLivesMatter have become synonymous with the causes they accompany and popular means to distribute ideas and show solidarity through online channels.

Young leaders of change

Interestingly, many of the voices of 21st century activism seem to belong to the youth who are pushing for a change and a better future for all. Brave young individuals such as Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg have inspired countless of others to take a stand and join their causes. Examples such as these emphasise the power of an individual to make a difference and shape the future. They remind us that even though technology has provided 21st century activists with ways to organise like never before, inspiration is still derived from individuals filled with aspirations and determination to pursue a cause. Sometimes it only takes one person to start a global movement.

Mural dedicated to Malala Yousafzai © Nicholas Gemini


This article is a part of Market of Possibilities in Turku’s Innostu! Vaikuta! Toimi! – article series. Written by Emilia Tuominen. 

Market of Possibilities in Turku will be held on 15th of September at Vanha Suurtori (Vanha Suurtori 3, 20500 Turku).