Who Am I in the Face of This? Merging Positive Psychology with Social Activism

It’s November 2016. It’s November 2016. I am shocked. I spent months convincing my students and international friends that while this was a difficult time, I was confident that my fellow citizens would not elect someone so clearly unqualified or who had displayed such hateful behavior. I was wrong. 

Like millions of other people, I felt called. That January, I joined the throngs of women in my local Women’s March, and I showed up carrying signs of protest as families were being separated at the border. My mind was still racing with the question as I marched. Did this really make the most of my passions, skills, and knowledge?

When I feel uneasy, I often recall the voices of my mentors and teachers. I remembered a moment from one of my early classes with Dr. Maria Sirois, when she was paraphrasing the work of Victor Frankl and discussing the shift that occurs when the question changes from Why is this happening? to Who am I in the face of this?

The question that forced its way into my awareness was this: Who am I in the face of this shifting political landscape? It gave me the first clue in defining my own plan of action: my passion for learning. I’ve spent my entire career in education, and Love of Learning is one of myTop character strengths. This is not surprising. Just as my love of learning took me to Wholebeing Institute to study positive psychology, I also trusted that it would light the path forward as I sought to define my most impactful role in social activism. 

I was a child during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and images of those events are seared into my memories. The role music played in that movement fascinated me. I found myself curious about all those who worked tirelessly for civil rights but who weren’t visible in the iconic images. Diving deeply into the history of the civil rights movement helped me see that the world of activism relied on many, many people with differing talents and skills. 

As my understanding expanded about activist roles, so, too, did my understanding of the varying “scales” of activism. If my words, actions, or behaviors impact others beyond my own domain, I believe that constitutes activism. 

Scholarly articles on activism often borrow the scaling language of micro, meso, and macro from social sciences. So, at the micro level, an interaction between two people can be activism. Every time we praise or criticize another person (trying to influence their behavior), we engage in micro activism. 

The meso level of activism most often occurs at the organizational or community level. I think of the countless hours spent working to change organizational policies and community standards. I’m reminded of the LGBTQ youth who still today challenge educational policies and community standards by flying a Pride flag on campus or bringing their same-sex partners to prom. These are acts of meso activism.

Finally, macro activism occupies the most expansive end of the scale, where individuals and groups campaign vigorously to change laws and regulations in their municipalities, states, or countries. While macro activism led to, for example, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Marriage Equality Act in 2011, neither could have happened without countless acts of micro and meso activism. THAT is what changed hearts and minds along the way. 

Beyond thinking in terms of scale, I have been greatly influenced by the scholarship around the intersection of positive psychology and social activism—specifically, the framework and guide created in 2020 by Deepa Iyer, SolidarityIs, and Building Movement Project, titled “Mapping Our Roles in the Social Change Ecosystem.” 

Iyer walks us through a series of reflections to help us identify our values and map the roles that call to us to engage in social change work. She identifies 10 roles and offers a one-sentence self-descriptor of each:  

  • Weavers see the through-lines of connectivity between people, places, organizations, ideas, and movements. 
  • Experimenters innovate, pioneer, and invent, taking risks and course-correcting as needed. 
  • Frontline Responders address community crises by marshaling and organizing resources, networks, and messages. 
  • Visionaries imagine and generate our boldest possibilities, hopes, and dreams, and remind us of our direction. 
  • Builders develop, organize, and implement ideas, practices, people, and resources in service of a collective vision. 
  • Caregivers nurture and nourish the people around them by creating and sustaining a community of care, joy, and connection. 
  • Disruptors take uncomfortable and risky actions to shake up the status quo, to raise awareness, and to build power. 
  • Healers recognize and tend to the generational and current traumas caused by oppressive systems, institutions, policies, and practices. 
  • Storytellers craft and share our community stories, cultures, experiences, histories, and possibilities through art, music, media, and movement. 
  • Guides teach, counsel, and advise, using the gifts of well-earned discernment and wisdom. 

I immediately recognized myself as a Weaver. I naturally see the lines of connection between people, places, organizations, and ideas. This work does not speak directly to character strengths as identified by the VIA Institute, yet I am fascinated by the possible connections.

Here’s an example. My top character strengths are

  1. Creativity
  2. Curiosity
  3. Love of Learning
  4. Kindness
  5. Leadership

When I look at them in light of my journey, I can see how those strengths contribute to my work as weaver, caregiver, storyteller, and guide. Signature strengths such as leadership, bravery, and zest contribute to being a frontline responder. And hope, honesty, and creativity are essential strengths for visionary leaders. 

Someone once described the role of caregiver by saying, “When I go to a march, I bring the sandwiches.”  

I could write pages and pages speculating about which character strengths correlate with each role, but that misses the point. I return to my original question that launched my inquiry. I encourage you to begin your own inquiry.   

Who am I in all of this?  

I am a weaver—I help others see through lines of connections. I am a caregiver—I nourish and sustain others by sharing the wealth of research and practices based in positive psychology. I am a storyteller—I not only craft my own narratives but also share the stories of people who heard the call to action, embraced their strengths, and worked to create a better future. I am a guide—I teach what I have learned, what energizes me, and what gives me hope, as I continue on my lifelong journey of learning about positive psychology and social activism.

 

Clearing

Martha Postlethwaite

Don’t try to save.

The entire world

Do anything grandiose.

Instead, create

Clearance

In dense forests

of your life

Wait there

Be patient

Continue listening until the end

That is all you have to sing.

Your cupped hands will take care of it

You recognize it and greet it.

Only then will it be possible to know.

How to treat yourself

To this world

So worthy of rescue.

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