by Elisa Chavez
I recently had dinner with some college friends, all of us in our early twenties and fresh out of school. We met up at a cozy restaurant, hugged, and proceeded to eat cozy comfort food and get extremely riled up about the state of the world. Campaign finance, giant corporations, media representation of the Arab world, we covered it alland eventually, as the social analysis reached a fever pitch, one of us burst out, “So what do we do about it?”
An embarrassed silence fell over the table.
I often find that the enormity of the world’s problems overwhelms me. My brain can’t pick a place to settle; instead, like a hummingbird experiencing a panic attack, it flits from one issue to the next without ever alighting onto a course of action. There are just too many problems, with too many potential solutions to choose from or worse, no apparent solutions at all.
Courtney Martin offers an antidote to activist’s ennui with her 2010 book Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists. The book, which offers eight portraits of young Americans engaged in progressive, socially conscious work, is written around the core belief that we can’t save the world singlehandedly and shouldn’t push ourselves to; however, there are opportunities in every life to make small, daily commitments to a better world.
Her subjects range from the low profile– a case manager at Homeboy Industries, a firebrand environmentalist from D.C. to the high profile, including Rachel Corrie and Rosario Dawson. Martin writes eloquently and with obvious empathy, and her subjects are all incredibly interesting people with compelling stories and laudable guts. But does her book deliver? Does it really provide readers with small ways to lead more activist lives?
For me, the largest obstacle was the fact that her book is not about small ways to participate; itâ€™s about young people who made the career decision to be full-time activists. Thatâ€™s not small! Itâ€™s their vocations, in some cases their entire lives. Then again, these stories really are great. If the book had truly been written the way I was expecting, a better title might have been â€œDo It Anyway: Last Weekend I Went to a Soup Kitchen andÂ Iâ€™m Thinking About Donating to Heifer International.â€
I think the trick is that Martin’s book is not a how-to guide or a detailed blueprint. You turn to it for inspiration. Given her varied cast of characters, I believe there’s something in it for everyone, whether your focus is going green, education, art, or peace activism. I also believe that because the book covers such a broad range of activist experiences, some of the stories will jump out at you over others. My favorite was “An Altar Boy With A Gun”, Martin’s portrait of Homeboy Industries case manager Raul Diaz. I can’t remember the last time a piece of writing made me laugh and cry and think about the way I engage with my community.
So maybe “Do It Anyway” isn’t going to give you a magazine-article rundown on five ways to conserve energy in your house. I’m still waiting for the definitive activist’s bible for daily life (although I have this sneaking suspicion it will only ever exist in my head). And actually, I think Martin does offer some practicable advice. In the weeks after finishing her book, I haven’t been able to forget what she says in her epilogue:
“We must hold these large-scale revolutions in our hearts while tackling small, radical every day acts with our hands.
Courtney E. Martin is a senior correspondent for the American Prospect and an editor of Feministing.com. She is a 2002 recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics, has written two other books, and has had her work in Mother Jones, Newsday, the Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.