Is Traditional Activism a Dead Medium?

Or “How I Stopped Kvetching and Learned to Engage with the World.”

Kevin and Lori of Newmindspace are two of my favourite Gen-Y Facebook friends. When I met them at CaseCamp and again at TransitCamp, I immediately recognized their ability to combine fun and frivolity with keen organizational skills, grassroots guerilla marketing smarts, passion and thoughtfulness about the importance of public space in society. Subway parties, pillow fights and capture the flag, it turns out, are serious business.


Eye Weekly just published a piece by Liz Worth titled Is the Movement for Sale?, that raised the spectre that Newmindspace’s unique form of public space activism is being co-opted by corporate shills. Kevin brought to my attention several errors in the article, including Worth’s report that he and Lori had decided to “sign on to work for a marketing company” and her claim that Newmindspace had “inked a deal with Cundari Integrated Advertising”, thereby connecting them with such corporate evildoers as “BMW and Tim Hortons”.

For the record, Kevin clarified that they are doing some work for AMP, a new media think tank that has one Cundari employee on the board, and are focusing on campaigns for the nonprofit sector like what they did for the World Wildlife Fund. Newmindspace will never take a corporate sponsorship, nor will they market products to their community – knowing full well that the community would have none of it if they tried.

Also for the record, Cundari SFP (their proper name) was a $300 sponsor of Toronto TransitCamp, and Eli Singer was one of the organizers of that event. So sue me.

I’m glad we cleared that up.

How Many Angry Activists Does It Take to Create Something New?

I am sensitive to this kind of criticism myself, and can sympathize. I see myself as a social entrepreneur, a business person with a social mission that guides my activities. My methods mix social goals with entrepreneurial methods. Entrepreneurs, social or otherwise, are opportunity seekers and use strategy to achieve their goals.

TransitCamp received criticism from some in the established transit activist community who accused us for being outsiders to the cause who were giving the TTC a free pass on past egregious sins. We, of course, saw it differently. We saw an opportunity to use culture, creativity, fun and openness in an attempt to help transform the relationship between the TTC and its community, and we were successful in doing so. It should not be a surprise that Newmindspace, TransitCamp and BarCamp have some common inspirations and methods, as they are all about activating people’s passions and creating an open space for play.

I was not able to attend CampaignCamp, which was an attempt to bring activists, techies and communications people together to collaborate on new social activism campaigns. I heard reports that some individuals within the activist community were angry and antagonistic towards the marketers gathered together to help their cause. This saddens me. WTF is going on here? Why so much anger? Why bother?

Co-creation is the New Black

I fear that some in the activist community, just as many in the corporate world, are stuck in an old paradigm of thinking. Civil society and corporations are co-creating a new set of governance structures, what C.K. Prahalad calls a “New Social Compact“. In the context of global capitalism, with states in relative decline or receding from legitimate regulatory authority, private actors are increasingly placed in a position to create public goods and solve collective action problems that our governments are unwilling or unable to act upon. This is a characteristic of the new global reality, and the social mission sector and the corporate sector are quickly learning that it is a new world for them both.

I am not arguing that activism itself is dead. Far from it. I am arguing that in order to advance the social goals activist groups hold dear, they need to realize both the opportunity and the responsibility to engage with the private sector as legitimate partners in creating our shared world. The social sector must commit itself to engaging the creative imaginations of the public at large and must become strategic “norm entrepreneurs”, acting to transmit civil society values into the DNA of the multinational corporation.

For their part, corporations need to embrace the idea that cultural and normative values held in civil society are important inputs to production – as important to the bottom line as the customers, employees and investors who hold those values.

To withdraw from such engagement is to put our collective futures at even greater risk.

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5 thoughts on “Is Traditional Activism a Dead Medium?”

  1. Wow. Great article.

    Nice to see the record being set straight for newmindspace. But it’s the latter half that is of importance to the future of our society.

    The fact that corporations want to co-opt these movements will not go away. And corporations and organizations (like the Gates Foundation) are doing more harm than good when they act without local, social involvement. But more on that later.

    What is at stake is the middle ground. Finding a way to work together. And I plan to attend and support every social business movement you put forward Mark to find this ground.


  2. Mark, I don’t think you were talking about (say) anti-abortion activists, but they’re activists too. Perhaps in future you could be more specific.

    I say this not to be pedantic. That different “activists” have different beliefs lies at the root of the disagreements between the “established transit activist community” and the TransitCamp people. Sorry, but there just isn’t one big happy socially-conscious family, as much as lefties like to pretend there is (and attempt to gloss over any differences in order to maintain “solidarity”). If there were, we wouldn’t have both an NDP and a Green Party.

    I personally am hoping that many socially conscious people abandon traditional socialism and embrace free markets. “Right-wing means for left-wing ends” (my motto). Engaging with the private sector, as you advocate, might help.

  3. Thanks for posting this, Mark! We are still reeling from Thursday but I think something is being done about the factual errors.

    I agree with Sean, the collaborative method that we are developing in Toronto in inspirational and dare I say revolutionary.

    And certainly, as the endless march of globalization puts before citizens a number of brand new mandates, we must find creative ways of empowering ourselves and our communities.

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  5. I’m absolutely ecstatic that you posted on this, Mark, because I’ve been churning on this topic since at least I started finding out more about the transit activist scene in Vancouver. I think I’ll rate this at least a 6 on the stew-before-blogging meter, but the short version is, I completely agree with you and am looking forward to seeing how this perspective can intersect with techniques in dialogue for working towards real, important, viable change. (Rohan’s comment needs unpacking in my head too…but maybe when I’m not at work! ๐Ÿ™‚

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