From Phantom Activist to Marching on the Streets of Washington, D.C.

Starting the march, our energy electric, singing and chanting as we made our way to Pennsylvania Avenue. Watching as the sea of pink flooded every street, sidewalk, and even the stands still in place from the inaugural parade.  

This was my first time participating in a march. It was a capstone moment after a long, tumultuous election. Like many who voted November 8, 2016, I felt sure my vote was helping to shatter the highest glass ceiling in the land. Part of what made Trump’s victory so terrible was coming to grips with the full impact of the power of the patriarchy in America. It led me to reflect, why did I assume that our country was on an inevitable trajectory towards gender equality? Why hadn’t I done more to support the candidates and causes I believed in? Saturday’s march solidified some of the answers to these questions, as well as a profound shift in my understanding of what my beliefs in feminism, racial equality, and health equity demanded of me. They demand action.

As a millennial, my experience with politics has largely been shaped by social media. Most of my updates on what was happening in politics first came from a status or article on my newsfeed. The same was true of my experiences with activism. When Michael Brown was shot and the Black Lives Matter movement swept the country, I saw tweets and Facebook posts pour out in support. I posted my own statuses and statements of solidarity. This was my biggest misconception about activism. I foolishly thought I could stand in solidarity without moving my feet. I was letting my social media posts substitute for my action.

I was one of many “phantom activists,” those who are present on newsfeeds but absent at marches, rallies, and demonstrations.

This election was a significant wake-up call for the millennial generation. I believe many of us were on the verge of lulling into a post-and-forget sort of activism. Meaning, we felt that showing our support on social media was a constructive means of activism. How lucky we were to have such privilege. We believed we were actively fighting for change, and that progress was inevitable for America’s future. How far from the truth we were. Positive change never has or will be accomplished without action. Donald Trump’s victory was more than just a shock for our young voting block, one that went blue in almost every state. It showed us that we lived in a constructed reality, our posts on blue newsfeeds filled with like-minded individuals were accomplishing little. Phantom activists could no longer fool ourselves that simply tweeting #blacklivesmatter or reposting an article about Trump’s dangerous rhetoric would create a better, progressive world.

On November 9, I realized that something was deeply wrong with my phantom activism. And on January 21, I discovered that power lies in my actions, not my newsfeed. It’s my feet hitting the pavement that will help America finds its way back to progress!

Caila Brander, MSc, is a former NWHN Policy Fellow, and a current NWHN member. Her work as a public health researcher has been featured in the international AIDS 2020 and Interest 2020 conferences. Today, Caila informs women’s health policy as Senior Program Associate at Results for Development.

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