An Introspective Conceptualization of Student Development of an Activist Identity

When throngs of protesters took to the streets of several local cities as part of the Occupy Movement, I took the opportunity to observe and absorb the reactions to activism in my community. Some of the reactions surprised me; some people accused the activists of being selfish. Protesters were supposed “lazy” individuals who would sooner demonstrate for policies that would increase government “hand-outs” instead of getting a job. Others erupted with compassion, their eyes opened to human suffering and injustice that they had never before seen. Praised or critiqued, activist life is not easy. Activism involves taking a position that is not popular and embarking on a mission to create social change. For activists throughout history, this has meant enduring everything from unkind remarks to violence, exhaustion from slow progress, and putting forth an exorbitant amount of energy with often little change in return. No matter what, many people embrace the activist life anyway, which begs the question: why?

What is it that draws an individual to activism? Some surmise that individuals organize for change when the distance between the current reality and their vision of what reality ought to be becomes increasingly unacceptable (see Coming & Myers, 2002, for a literature review of Relative Deprivation). Other theorists have offered that activism originates from a person’s own propensity to engage in activism behavior as determined by having an internal locus of control (Coming & Myers, 2002). In other words, a person with an internal locus of control is inclined towards activism because she is more apt to see her own potential as an effective agent of change.