Are You Conflict-Averse? How To Speak For Issues You Care About With Gentle Activism

May 11, 2020

gentle activism

In the wake of the current pandemic, replete animal suffering, and the burgeoning climate crisis, many of us are increasingly feeling the need to make a positive impact with our lives and lifestyle choices. We adopt veganism to reduce animal suffering and strain on the environment. We try to reduce our waste by recycling, consuming minimally, and bringing reusable containers wherever we go. We bike or take the bus instead of driving our own car. We read up on social justice issues and tweet hashtags centered around the most recent injustice like #IRunWithMaud. But one question I find myself asking is: what more can I do?

I find myself asking this question often because there is always more to do to make a difference. I don’t want to settle and call myself “good” because I’m vegan and drive a Prius. For me, activism has been restricted to changing my own behaviors. I’ve been stuck in my bubble containing what I can control, such as what I eat, buy, and wear. All of those are great, but I recognize patterns in myself that prevent me from speaking up more on divisive issues such as animal rights or wealth inequality. Activism is harder for me then I’d like it to be. Being loud, outspoken, “in your face,” and argumentative does not come naturally to me. Those of us who are introverted, conflict-avoidant, and naturally people-pleasing (ugh, me!) may be able to relate to this feeling.

So what is it? Maybe we’re fearful of “standing out,” saying something wrong, being socially ostracized, or upsetting a friend, coworker, or family member. But there is a privilege for those of us who can stay silent. Now more than ever, I know many of us are feeling the push to get out of our comfort zones and be stronger activists for justice issues.

There are many different ways to be an activist. If you’re not ready to protest outside buildings or march on the front lines, there are other effective methods of speaking out and inciting positive change. Gentle activism is a good option for those of us who are quieter and conflict-adverse, and still want to speak up for the issues that matter to us. 

What is Gentle Activism?

Let’s start with what it’s not.

Examples of its opposite, or “loud activism,” are protesting, marches, petitioning, going door-to-door, and projecting our voice in the media. A lot of these methods involve interactions with people, which may be draining for those who are more introverted. It’s not to say that loud activism isn’t possible for introverts, but we may just require more breaks between protests or campaigning to recharge.

Gentle activism is a subtler, less “aggressive” approach to activism that invokes less combative dialogue and prompts self-reflection and internal realizations. It’s a method that caters to the introverted, who tend to like to listen, have deep 1:1 conversations with people, and slow down and understand the details.

In a TEDTalk “Activism needs introverts,” Sarah Corbett shares a story about campaigning to a large company to pay their employees a living wage. Her team decided to make gifts to those in power as alternative to loud protests outside their offices. They made custom handkerchiefs and handwritten letters with messages such as, “Don’t blow it…use your power for good. We know you have a difficult job in a position of power. How can we help you?” They delivered the gifts and discussed the issues with the board members of the company. The campaigners received a positive reaction and statements of respect from company board members. Ten months later, the company announced they would begin to pay their employees a living wage. Board members remarked that it was easier to listen to the campaigners through their gentler approach, which helped sway their decisions.

Now does this feel like stroking the ego of misled, profit-hungry people in power? Well yep, honestly kind of. Do I want to bend to the whims and personalities of people in power who I view as literally dangerous to humankind? Oh heck no. But if a gentler method can be just as, if not more effective, than loud activism, then I’m certainly willing to do it.

Examples of Gentle Activism

There are other approaches to activism that involve building bridges, listening, and as Sarah Corbett puts it, “being critical friends, not aggressive enemies.”

Ask more questions

Gently prompting the question, “Do you have any vegan options?” or “I love that you have vegan options!” can be a small way to let restaurants know there’s demand for vegan products. I’ve been asking this question even at restaurants where I’m pretty sure their answer is no. But I ask anyway so they know this vegan is still eager for vegan food.

Asking other companies questions like, “How do you take care of your employees?” or “Where do you source your [product] from?” can subtly let them know that those things matter to you and influence your buying decisions.

Share your lifestyle decisions with others

People learn by observing the behaviors of others. When we make changes for the better, other people are influenced to do the same without us even having to tell them to. So share the decisions or changes you’re making in your own life! Are you trying new vegan recipes, or donating to a specific charity? Let the people know! It doesn’t have to be preachy, and can be incorporated into a casual check-in with friends or family. I recently dropped that I was renting reusable boxes for my upcoming move and even though I didn’t say anything explicitly like, “everyone should do this,” it might plant an idea in someone’s head and spread the eco-love.

Write letters

Handwriting positive letters and cards can be an endearing way to engage your local business or board member to change their business practices for the better.

Gift impactful books

What’s the last book you read that inspired you to make positive changes in your life? Whose life might that book also be able to touch? I love sharing books and recommendations with others. Not only does it spread a positive message, but hearing the ideas and thoughts of others in subsequent book discussions can teach us something new.

Say it with art

Thoughtful street art, photography, drawings, short stories, or poems are just some of the many examples of art that provide a subtle meaningful message invoking self-reflection within others.

Wear it

A small expression of beliefs shared via your clothing choices can prompt people to want to learn more. Sarah Cobertt shares an example of attaching a green heart with the word “chocolate” stitched in, alluding to the impacts of climate change on a beloved dessert (and many other of nature’s treats). These subtle expressions prompt curious questions from strangers and can ignite an interesting conversation.

Share vegan food

Who can say no to vegan cookies? Even if we can’t entertain friends during quarantine, drop-off some goodies at the doorstep of your friends and family. A subtle note in a basket full of vegan yumminess can be a loving gift to show the tastiness a vegan lifestyle, or perhaps, local and organic produce, can bring. No strings attached.

Communicate in the way that makes sense to you

Whether you’re more verbal, visual, or prefer writing like me, utilize the method that you can most easily express yourself with.

Start with people you know like friends and family

It might be hard for some of us to go up to strangers on the street asking for money, signatures, or to spread the latest news about the climate crisis. But conversing with family members or people you’re comfortable with can be a good starting point and way to practice engaging with others on important topics.

Educating ourselves

Obviously, in order for us to talk about an issue, we need to know what the heck we’re talking about. Read, watch, listen, so when the time comes for thoughtful conversation you are ready to the sling out the facts and latest statistics.

Activists that Inspire Us to Do More

Activism needs us all. Though we may be fearful of speaking out, we still have to push ourselves outside our comfort zones to fight for the causes that matter.

One of the world’s bravest historical activists, Ida B. Wells, inspires us to ask for change, even under the most dire circumstances.

Ida B. Wells was an investigative journalist, whose work brought awareness to the lynchings and murders of black people in the South, which at that time went largely ignored by public officials. Her activism was a dangerous feat. In response to her publications, white supremacists burned her newspaper presses when she was out of town and threatened to kill her if she ever returned. She continued fighting for equal rights for people of color and women (even when some white women suffragists tried to exclude her) despite the fact that speaking out put her in harm’s way.

When I take a step back and realize how many people have fought and are still fighting for their rights such as the indigenous peoples of Standing Rock and women in the middle east fighting for their education. It seems like an obvious call to me to stand up too.

What does activism look like to you?

Also by Lindsay: Will The Coronavirus Push Us To Go Vegan?


Photo by Isaiah Rustad on Unsplash

Lindsay Brave
Lindsay is a writer, researcher, and self-proclaimed vegan introvert. Lindsay spends her free time reading, making up dance moves (when no one’s watching), and upping her self-care routine. Connect with Lindsay on Instagram @lindsbrave or via email at [email protected].


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