Protect organizers and activists.

Take Action

  • Support the Allied Media Conference, an annual community-designed event that promotes collaboration and connection between media-based visionary organizing projects.

  • Support Budding Roses, a space to empower youth critically engaging with social justice issues.

Last week, CBS announced a new TV competition series called “The Activist,” which pits changemakers against one another to see who can garner the most social engagement. The show, bolstered by celebrity talent, is being criticized for promoting “performative activism” and positioning social impact as a competition (Hollywood Reporter).

But I think we need to spend more time talking about why this concept is a miss. There are reality shows for almost any talent, from starting businesses to singing and dancing to knowing obscure trivia. In some ways, a show that centers on charitable initiatives and good causes may feel like a refreshing addition to the lineup.

But the role of community leaders is far more complex and controversial in mainstream society than the hidden talent next door. Activists are routinely arrested and jailed for amplifying causes that matter. (Just last month, over 800 people have been arrested so far for protesting the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota (TruthOut).) They receive harassment and doxxing online for sharing their stories. Naysayers are quick to discard an entire movement based on the actions of one activist, placing unfair scrutiny on imperfect people trying to do good (AP). And as Andrew wrote in another newsletter, our nation has a long history of surveilling and persecuting influential leaders (Anti-Racism Daily). One primetime show isn’t going to change the conditions that place activists in danger; in fact, it might encourage them.

Also, you can argue that community leaders are already forced to compete for resources. Smaller grassroots organizations are less likely to receive funding than larger, more established ones – particularly if they’re run by people of color (NYTimes). Beyond this, many philanthropists are still hesitant to support work that treads on “sensitive ground,” like the racial equity movement of the past year (Financial Times). Mainstream media tends to sensationalize the issues at hand, but rarely offers insights on who is actively addressing them or how the readers can support their efforts. Investing time and energy into growing large social followings, driving engagement on causes, and crowdfunding for sustainability isn’t a game; it’s often the only option left when white-led institutions fail to support. “The Activist” is only reformatting the same systemic inequities for views

Ultimately, it seems “The Activist” is focused on creating the same tenuous relationship between leaders and their communities – one often fueled by mistrust, skepticism, and scrutiny. But what we need now, more than ever, is a relationship based on trust. One that centers changemakers as voices that deserve to be heard, regardless of their Instagram following count. What would it look like if we centered the systemic issues instead of judging the people trying to change them? What if, instead, we challenged those with power and privilege to do better? And re-allocated our time spent gawking towards working to change the conditions that created the show? We can support community-rooted projects aimed at fostered collaboration between activists rather than pitting them against one another. Detroit’s Allied Media Conference brings together media activists to share ideas and build connections, while Portland’s Budding Roses provides a space for youth to learn about social justice issues together. Pushing for systemic change and building collective power isn’t a game or a competition — it’s something we do in community, and the stakes have never been higher.

The show is unlikely to change. But we can. We’re still the audience, even if we’re not watching this show on CBS. So how will we choose to support the activists in our community?

Key Takeaways

  • The upcoming CBS show “The Activist” will feature activists competing against one another for social engagement.

  • Activists are already forced to compete for limited resources, with many facing repression and incarceration instead of public acclaim.

  • Instead of viewing organizing as a competition we watch, we can engage with collaborative, community-driven initiatives for justice.

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