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  • Madison Lazenby

Five Things Activist Organizing Has Taught Me

Madison Lazenby '23, Contributing Editor

A lot can change about a person in a single school year, especially in one’s first year at college; getting your first ever C, switching up your hairstyle, or getting really into astrology for the sake of annoying people who do not believe in astrology. All of these developments are accurate to my experience as a first year at Hamilton, along with my newfound ability to lead hundreds of people in chants with a megaphone.

I knew that I wanted to be involved in campus activism when I got to Hamilton, but I did not anticipate getting involved with the Sunrise Movement specifically (I did not know the organization even existed until I got to campus) or climate justice as a whole. I got involved in planning the September 20th Climate Strike because I thought it sounded interesting to me. I had no immediate plans for staying involved with Sunrise after that first strike.

This next fall semester, I am astounded and proud to say, will be my second as a Hub Coordinator for Sunrise, an organization that I have found belonging and purpose in. In my time with Sunrise so far, I have stayed up until three in the morning making signs (and, yes, a cardboard coffin), asked Congressman Brindisi and Hamilton administrators questions at town halls, and became well-versed in the art of Zoom meetings.

Beyond these new experiences, there was something about me that was different. My best friend observed these changes before I even noticed. I had become, she told me, more confident and likely to actually speak up about what mattered to me. In high school, I was someone who might step up to leadership, but self-preserving fear stopped me from fighting for change. I am still working through this problem, both personally and as a leader, but I know that I owe a large portion of my progress to my experiences thus far as an organizer at Hamilton.

In short, I can confidently say that I am the person that I am today because of activist organizing. Here are five lessons I have learned from my experiences:

1. It is so much more than event organizing.

When I first began organizing with Sunrise in August, I thought that I understood what I was getting into—I had been on Prom Committee in high school, after all!

I was sorely mistaken.

Not only did I realize how little actual event organizing I was allowed to do in high school (most of the hard decisions for the prom were made by our advisor, meaning that my work was pretty much exclusive to picking some decorations and setting up the gym the day before), but, with Sunrise, I was organizing with a completely different purpose. Not only do I now have more ownership over the events, but I also had to learn to thoroughly investigate and decide what exact outcome I wanted to achieve in each event that I set up with Sunrise. Most of this is taken care of by our lists of demands that we publish before the day of, but I also needed to decide how I wanted attendees to feel during an event, how I wanted them to participate, and what I wanted them to do afterwards.

2. Prepare to learn.

I was not a climate activist when I first stepped onto campus. I had the existential dread for our slowly dying planet like most Gen-Z’s and Millennials, but I did not think it was a current issue. I thought it was something that we would have to deal with in the future. It took a new understanding of how climate change impacts people of different backgrounds—particularly those different than mine—to comprehend how climate justice is inherently a humanitarian issue. No one should have to expose themselves and their family to an increased risk of pollution-related illness or natural disaster for the sake of having a job to keep that family afloat. This is what ultimately “activated” me.

My political identity, however, is still a work in progress. Though I do not necessarily think my values have significantly changed—with the exception of how I act on them—I definitely have a wider view of the political landscape in Washington and on campus. In my first semester on the Hill, I went from being a Warren supporter to a Bernie supporter and from initially trusting figures of authority to healthily questioning every one that I meet. None of this would have been possible if I had not been in situations that required I deeply analyze the intentions of politicians, administrators, and trustees alike. Though this does mean that I have lost a significant amount of trust in The System/Establishment, I know that it has only been replaced by knowledge that the movements built by the people will have results.

3. A movement requires time and many, many people.

My friends would easily describe me as very hopeful and sometimes excessively idealistic. I try to let these traits keep up my drive in doing the work that I do, but they have also forced me to have several rude awakenings about how long it can take before change can actually happen. Simply disrupting business as usual for a day will draw a lot of attention to an issue, but it needs to sustain itself—a true end to the status quo—in order to create lasting change. This effort inherently requires many years of effort and many people’s involvement. Though I would prefer any of Sunrise’s goals, such as divesting Hamilton’s endowment from fossil fuel companies, to be addressed before I eventually leave campus, I am coming to terms with the fact that it may only happen after I graduate.

Still, I wish that I had picked up this ideology sooner, as in high school it seemed that only the contributions of titled leaders of clubs was ever recognized, which undermines the work that the average member puts into the functioning of the club and implies that one person is the club. Extrapolated to an activist organization, this view can have disastrous effects. Though having someone serve as the “face” of an issue—think Malala Yousafzai becoming a household name after she was shot for simply wanting girls to have equal access to education—it can also ultimately erase the work accomplished by other activists and groups, which can lead to animosity within an organization and a disenchantment with activism as a whole. This issue, sadly, is very prevalent in the worldwide youth climate justice movement as any young activist organizing climate strikes will inevitably be dubbed the “Greta Thunberg of [insert country here].”

4. Intersectionality exists in virtually every issue. Act like it.

Whether it is obvious or not, social justice issues usually impact the BIPOC, LGBT+, working class, and womxn communities in different and increased ways than they would white middle class communities. Though this disparity was something that I had a basic understanding of from the start, I had to do my own research to begin to comprehend the full picture and how it should affect my organizing. Effective organizing requires that these issues are properly addressed in both the goals of any event or movement as well as the organizing itself. It is not enough to “speak on behalf of” or “give voice to the voiceless,” rather, an effective organizer needs to know when to shut up and let others speak in the first place. Any movement for climate justice—or social justice as a whole—will fail if it does not cross societal boundaries at its very core.

5. Celebrate every victory.

Change is incredibly slow and the work is hard, so I learned quickly to be grateful for every accomplishment, no matter how small. Having 10 people come to a normal meeting for Sunrise was just as good a reason to celebrate as having 50 people show up to a rally in the snow. The same goes for the tasks to complete for a larger event, whether it is sending an important email or hosting a meeting over Zoom.

In that same vein, I cannot emphasize enough how much easier organizing becomes when you do it with friends or become friends with your fellow organizers. Having an established respect for one another has helped me to cool my own ego and properly communicate about problems I am experiencing. Additionally, there is seriously nothing that will connect two people together as quickly or deeply as fighting together for something that you believe in. The friendships I have formed have become some of the most bettering and supportive relationships I have ever had and I cannot wait to continue forming them as I continue to organize on campus. To give a short example, one of my fellow Sunrise Hub Coordinators and I will be rooming together next year—given that we are on campus next year, of course.

Though organizing with Sunrise has been one of the greatest sources of stress for me this last year, I do not regret first becoming involved back in August. It has given me by far the greatest sense of purpose I have ever felt since coming to campus, if not in my whole life. I know that I have so much more to learn about being a climate organizer, both on and off Hamilton’s campus, but I know that I now have the support from my fellow organizers and peers to continue to learn and grow.

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