Do It Anyway

Who are today’s 20-something activists? Meet nine of them in this book.

Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists By Courtney E. Martin Beacon Press 224 pp., $16

For decades, rising generations of idealistic young Americans have launched into life crying, “Save the World!” But are today’s youth still being roused by this altruistic call? Or have apathy and entertainment drowned it out?

In her latest book, Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, under-35 author/activist Courtney E. Martin stands up in the face of such skepticism. “Where is your generation’s outrage?” a respected professor asks her in the book’s introduction. And when famed New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman branded her kind “Generation Q,” with suggestions that today’s newest batch of young adults “may be too quiet, too online, for its own good, and for the countries own good,” her defiance peaked.

But it was President Obama, while on the 2008 campaign trail, who – in Martin’s opinion – gave a new face to the instinctive drive young people have to “save the world.” Obama’s was a call for change in the 21st century, and Martin watched as the hope inspired by his words moved thousands of her “quiet” 20-something contemporaries to action.

Still, true change does not come from presidential directives. Martin suggests, instead, that “activism is a daily, even hourly, experiment in dedication, moral courage, and resilience.” “Do It Anyway” is a tribute to such a contention, and leads readers to the front lines of those quiet battles. In answer to those who think the next generation has replaced protest signs with ever-wandering computer mice, readers get to meet nine beautiful, daring, complex young American activists – eight subjects, plus the author herself – who each day are working to change the world for the better, even as they are also simply trying to find their way.

There’s filmmaker Emily Abt, who traded in her efforts – though not the lessons learned – as a social worker to pursue a passion for making films with purpose.

“I was doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing, but I wasn’t effective.” And in the end, she says, as a filmmaker, “I fought harder to tell the story of a welfare recipient than I ever fought for one as a caseworker.” There’s Raul Diaz, whose work as a prison reentry social worker is what he believes he’s meant to be doing right now. At home in the streets, Diaz was bold, and could see others’ goodness. “He would ask full-fledged gangbangers to donate drug money for Easter egg hunts and movie nights for the ‘little homies.’ ” And there’s Nia Martin-Robinson, an impressive, down-to-earth, environmental justice advocate who went from Detroit to Washington, D.C., representing a minority voice in the environmental movement.

Each profile takes the reader from what the subject does today back to past experiences that hint at the shaping of his or her motivation and values. In addition, Martin offers her own ruminations on the meaning of it all. These stories explore not so much the “how” of activism but rather the “who,” and “what,” and “why,” that lie behind grass-roots movements. Martin works hard to slide in beside her subjects and to show us some of what they see, including their own vulnerability. In the process, she ventures beyond journalistic objectivity and aligns her book with her own particular beliefs and ideology. So, in other words, don’t expect to meet people who are fighting the anti-abortion fight or toiling for tougher immigration crackdowns or hosting “tea parties” here. This book itself is an act of activism, biased perhaps, but true to Martin’s own vision of a world being made better.

Martin is speaking first to her cohorts, hoping to reinvigorate the healthiest parts of their outrage, call attention to certain social struggles, and inspire toward action. Yet there is also an invitation for an over-40 crowd, wherever their sociopolitical ideas may sway, to listen for a few moments to what a rising group of thought-leaders is saying. And whoever joins in will have a chance to savor the satisfying prose of a gifted writer – easy, inviting, and profound.

“Do It Anyway” offers no blueprint as to how to be an effective activist. Instead, it portrays a “wildly complex, horrifically hypocritical, overwhelmingly beautiful world,” alongside of which walks the hopeful human spirit, expressing both a sense of faith in the moment and in mankind. It is a call to “do it anyway” despite overwhelming odds and oft-times abject confusion. For “our charge is not to ‘save the world,’ after all; it is to live in it, flawed and fierce, loving and humble.”
Speaking through her book, Martin does so live here, with stunning, effective lucidity.

Forrest Brooks Wilder, a freelance writer living in St. Louis, has worked in the nonprofit (social change) sector for the past decade.

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