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Courtney Martin: Covering The New Generation Of Activists

“I write what I need to read, plain and simple,” Courtney Martin says as she launches into the reason she wrote Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists (Beacon Press, October 2010), which I reviewed here last month. “I grew really disenchanted with electoral politics following the 2004 election. I was also painfully convinced that I didn’t really have the power to make change in such a bureaucratic, globalized world. I felt small and inept. It was a huge departure for me because I’m innately very idealistic and full of energy. I hit the road to see if I could find examples of ordinary young people who were making change and feeling hopeful about it.”

Toward that end, Martin interviewed eight activists who were working in their own communities, ranging from counseling prisoners to fighting for women’s rights in the armed services. Wanting to make the stories relatable to the average reader, she shied away from the “super kid geniuses” that are usually profiled in periodicals. “My goal wasn’t to explore the exceptional, but the everyday ways in which young people are making the world better. I also liked the idea of talking to folks who weren’t media darlings (with the exception of Rosario Dawson, of course), because I think there’s something so thrilling about interviewing someone who doesn’t have a pre-packaged life story.”

Yet even if their stories weren’t preconfigured and though they hail from a variety of backgrounds, it seemed that at least a couple of things came in all of her subjects’ activist “packages.”

“Almost everyone had traveled through New Orleans post-Katrina, showing how that region has becoming a testing ground for a generation of activists,” she notes. Also, “almost everyone has a supremely influential mother who shaped who they became. I wasn’t so shocked by that, having been raised by such a woman myself and having done a lot of feminist work, but it was fun to find that moms are our biggest (often unsung) activist heroes—across the board.”

Though Martin enjoyed writing intricate profiles of the activists, exploring different facets of their lives and work, she realizes that what she gained in depth, she lost in breadth since she could only focus on a handful of people. “I actually wrote three other full profiles that didn’t make it in the book for various reasons, of a peace activist, a political organizer, and a high school student community organizer. I would have loved to profile a social entrepreneur, a doctor, a lawyer, a lobbyist etc.”

The range of activists that she had wished to cover demonstrates that it takes all kinds, that repairing an imperfect world is really everyone’s work. Even a writer’s. Through writing the book Martin has “come to a better peace with my specific niche in this universe of social change. I encourage readers to find where their deepest gifts match the world’s deepest needs; though I have sometimes wondered how much difference sitting in front of my laptop pecking away actually makes, I know it’s my calling and the world, I humbly believe, does need it.”

Having discovered her place in the world of social change, Martin urges on young people to do the same and advises them on how to counter the frustrations that are inevitable in this line of work. “I think that we must anchor our self-esteem in daily, observable acts, while keeping the big, systemic picture in mind. It’s a tough duality to hold, but I think it’s necessary if we are going to fight injustice for a whole, tiring, wonderful lifetime.”

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