The Trade-off: The hidden costs of activism in a modern era

During 2020, many protests to fight for social justice took place. MU students from the Legion of Black Collegians and Abolitionists @ Mizzou weigh in on what it means to be an activist.

By: Gabriel Levi

No one saw it coming. May 25 started out like any other day. The temperature was a cool 64 degrees with a light drizzle that would soon rise to 72 degrees around noon. For the people of Minnesota, this began as just another early-summer day. For the nation as a whole, this day would change the course of the country for months to come.

On May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, officer Derek Chauvin placed his knee on George Floyd’s neck for at least eight minutes and 46 seconds, killing him prematurely. What was Floyd's crime? A counterfeit 20 dollar bill.

Floyd’s tragic death sparked protests all over America beginning on May 26. These protests forced America as a nation to face its dark past and reckon with its mistreatment of marginalized groups. Last year, the word “activist” took on a whole new meaning, and at MU, students are learning to navigate what being an activist means to them.

MU junior Holly Graham defines activism as “going into the community and advocating for people who cannot do so themselves.” She said that to be an activist, you must have a certain level of selflessness along with being kind-hearted.

Despite Graham’s work on MU’s campus, she does not consider herself 100% an activist. She said that “she could do a little more in her own community,” rather than limiting herself to MU.

Most of Graham’s work takes place in the Legion of Black Collegians, the only Black student government in the nation, where she serves as the Communications Chair/Executive Secretary. As a part of LBC, Graham has helped organize events to tackle issues around MU’s campus, such as food insecurity. At the end of each semester during finals, LBC gives food to hungry MU students.

The vice president of LBC, Caleb Sewell, said activism is more about actions than words.

“Activism is centered on organizing for a cause and using your platform to heighten that cause and advocate for a better space,” Sewell said.

Sewell is also a mentor in Mizzou’s Black Men’s Initiative and is a McNair Scholar. To Sewell, activism is more than just the title of “activist.” To be an activist, Sewell said, you have to put in the work.

Kanchan Hans, a member of Abolitionists @ Mizzou, shared a similar sentiment to Sewell and said activism should be focused on others instead of yourself.

“Activism is having a passion about injustice and other people who are being treated unfairly and using that passion to fight for equity,” Hans said.

Hans has been involved in activism since middle school, where she joined an organization to discuss solutions to world issues. Since then, she has joined numerous clubs and organizations centered around social justice.

Despite their different definitions of activism, all three MU students are motivated by one thing: justice. Sewell said that he was inspired to advocate for his community during sixth grade after the death of Trayvon Martin.

“Trayvon Martin could’ve been me,” Sewell said.

While activism is important to Graham, she wishes others knew of the burden it can be at times. She wants people to know that “they are not the only ones going through it.”

Certain words have become a trigger for Graham because she associates them with negative experiences from her work as an activist. The word “contextualize” upsets Graham no matter the context because of how often it is used against her.

“My whole life cannot revolve around activism,” Graham said. “Things will only get done if we come together and persevere.”

While activism presents its difficulties, Hans said activism has made her more empathetic toward others, allowing her to see things from a different perspective. Graham also said activism has made her more aware of others, as well as herself. She said she knows she needs to take care of herself in order to do the best work she can do.

“You can’t help others if you’re mentally unwell,” Hans said.

For Hans, activism has also brought about strong feelings of shame regarding her work ethic.

“I’m always wondering if I’m doing enough,” Hans said.

In order to push forward, Hans reminds herself that shame is not a motivator— it is just an obstacle that she needs to overcome.

While their work can be tiring, these three students still try to make time for self-care. Graham likes to relax by watching “The Bachelor” and making playlists. Hans relaxes by journaling, and Sewell sleeps it off.

Sewell describes self-care as “choosing not to engage with certain things sometimes.” For him, this can be as simple as choosing not to read books about social justice for a day.

As more and more people start to identify as activists, more opportunities to get involved are arising. Graham said that if you want to be more involved, “go do it.”

“The work is not going to get done if everyone is too scared to do it,” Graham said. “There doesn’t need to be a title on [activism]. Just do the work, and the title will come.”

If you are looking to get more involved, reach out to the Legion of Black Collegians @MizzouLBC on Instagram and Twitter. Abolitionists @ Mizzou can be reached @Abolistionists on Twitter and @Mizzou.Abolitionists on Instagram.

Edited by Angelina Edwards |

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