Living Social Justice

A blog about responding to poverty and injustice, everyday and in all sorts of ways

Are you an Active Citizen?

As Christ-followers, we have a citizenship in Heaven but that doesn’t rule out the importance of our citizen status here on Earth. Margie Jansen looks at what it means to be an active citizen and why our influence matters.

When I was a second-year-student, I did a varsity project centred on the life of Emmeline Pankhurst, the British political activist and leader of the suffragette movement that helped women win the right to vote. In 1999, TIME magazine nominated Pankhurst as one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century. “She shaped an idea of women for our time; she shook society into a new pattern from which there could be no going back,” the article read. Studying the life of Emmeline Pankhurst helped to shape my own view of the impact a group of determined citizens—marginalised women at that!—could make.

A few years later, I learnt about other remarkable change agents: William Wilberforce who tirelessly fought for the abolishment of the 19th Century slave trade, Nelson Mandela, of course, and other South African stalwarts such as Prof. Jonathan Jansen, South Africa’s first black dean, and Dr. Mamphela Ramphele, an activist and academic known for her strong pleas for active citizenship.

We live in a country with an infamous past and socio-economic disparity that is hard to ignore. As our hearts soften towards those marginalised in our society, we respond with acts of kindness. And what a beautiful picture it is, pulling the Kingdom towards Earth with every compassionate action and every prayer of intercession. What a wonderful place to start, but what a great pity it would be if we were to stop there.

In studying the lives and qualities of activists that effect true and lasting change and transform society, I have come to recognise a few common traits: Activists are usually ordinary people with a burning passion to see change happen in the world. They tend to focus on changing just one element of their society’s problems. Activists seem to tackle the root of the problem – rather than merely treating the symptoms – by taking one, intentional step at a time. They’re usually part of a group of like-minded people, playing to their God-given strengths and leveraging their spheres of influence. And what seems to keep them going is a dream of what the future might look like. I find it encouraging to remember that, although it seems that some people were born to be activists, no-one steps into the role overnight. More often than not activists don’t quit their day jobs, but speak-up, with credibility, from the front lines.

“Freedom is participation in power,” Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman statesman, lawyer, scholar and writer, said. It rings as true today as ever, especially in a country with a constitution that is widely regarded as the most progressive in the world. Our freedom to participate has been won for us.

It’s important that we see ourselves not only as individuals, but also as citizens who together make up society. In fact, the Bible often prescribes cultivating a community in which everyone works together for the common good. If we extend our participation in community beyond church life to include the whole city, if not the whole country, we will, necessarily, notice the injustices happening around us. As the Holy Spirit does His work among us, we will each feel prompted to respond to a particular issue that strikes a cord in us. Speaking up, then, will more than likely be the natural overflow of a brewing passion.

GOING BEYOND DOING NO HARM, TO DOING GOOD

I recently started exploring the subject of ‘fair food’, pondering where my food comes from. What are the social, environmental and health issues associated with the production and transportation of my daily bread? Do I know how the farm workers are treated who cultivated my beloved coffee beans? What are the health risks associated with Genetically Modified crops? What choices do people who live in poorer areas have when shopping for nutritious food? To what extent is the brand-new Consumer Protection Act enforced? Hmmm.

In researching this topic, I’ve found that there are a number of ways of cutting pesticide-treated food out of my diet, making sure I’m buying fairly traded coffee and lathering my hair with sodium laureth sulfate-free shampoo. And, whilst being a smart shopper and recycler is very noble, I’m not convinced it will make any real difference in the greater scheme of things. Even if I enlisted my Facebook “friends” to do the same, we may get our local grocer to stock fairer food at best. Unlikely, though, as most shoppers I know will rather buy the cheaper than the fairer product if pushed for an answer. Besides, we’ve still not done a thing for township shoppers.

The key, then, surely is not to tackle consumer behaviour only, but to address the systemic issues. How do we exercise our rights as citizens, rather than merely flexing our consumer muscles, to effect real change? And the question applies to a wide range of social injustices.

ACTIVATE YOUR CITIZEN STATUS

Let’s start by exploring what ‘advocacy’ means. A definition by Christian Aid suggests, “advocacy encompass[es] a number of activities which organisations or individuals can take to exert pressure for change in a specific policy or behaviour of a government, institution, organisation … Advocacy can be a social change process that influences attitudes, social relationships and power relations, and that strengthens civil society and opens up democratic spaces. … Advocacy can include research and policy analysis, lobbying, media work and campaigning.”

Great, but what do I DO? Whilst the words ‘advocate’ and ‘lobby’ conjure up images of marches to Parliament, advocating in a far less confrontational setting to your small group or via Facebook—that is, raising awareness—is an equally important advocacy activity. In fact, it is often the first step.

KNOW YOURSELF: Start off by asking yourself some tough questions. Which social injustices are close to your heart? Which concerns are you simply finding impossible to shake? Why do you feel so strongly about it? Are you able to identify with a particular group of marginalised people?

BECOME A MINI-EXPERT: Investigate the problem. Find out as much as possible about the issue. Do some Internet-based research, visit an organisation that is tackling the issue and talk with experts in the field. You’d be surprised to find how open people are to sharing their knowledge and wisdom! You may even want to start a blog where you can document your findings and start to…

SPREAD THE WORD: You’ll more than likely find that you’d be so inspired that talking about the issue at dinner parties and at small group comes naturally.

PLAY TO YOUR STRENGTHS: Would you consider yourself a networker, a researcher, or a communicator? Where do you already have influence? Use your skills, personality traits and place in society to start ‘evangelising’.

SHOW UP FOR COMMUNITY LIFE: Time to get strategic. Margaret Mead, a well-known American anthropologist famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Like the members of the Clapham Sect—a group of like-minded, Church of England social reformers, led by Wilberforce, who fought to end slavery—team up with a group of people who share your passion, mission and vision. Of course, the most effective group will consist of people with a variety of skills and spheres of influence. You might want to start an informal advocacy group, or join forces with a campaign that is already being coordinated by a reputed organisation.

ACTIVATE YOUR CITIZEN STATUS: As a citizen of South Africa, whether South Africa is your birthplace or not, you have an inherent right to exercise your citizen muscle. You can vote. You can approach your local counsellor, or even a member of parliament, with your concerns. You may have the opportunity to serve on a public hospital’s board. The possibilities are endless.

Although I realise that neither I alone, nor all of us together, will ever fix all of the worlds problems, I’m kept motivated and engaged in the knowledge that I’ve been given an identity, interests and skills to play a vital role in society. And I’m fueled by collaborating with and learning from others who share my dreams of a more fair and equal world. Enjoy the journey of becoming an engaged, inspired and active citizen.

– Margie is the coordinator of Micah Challenge South Africa, a national campaign that aims to promote maternal and child health and to mobilise the Church to keep our leaders accountable to their promises. Trained as a graphic designer, Margie has been working towards marrying her passion for media with effecting social change since her move to the development sector five years ago. 

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One thought on “Are you an Active Citizen?

  1. What an amazing article! Thanks so much for this inspiring and challenging piece!

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