The Limits of Online Activism

social media activism and how it hurts community

I wrote this piece last fall when the events of August 12th in Charlottesville were still fresh in my mind, and when the trauma of that day kept showing up in the form of panic attacks (they still happen but not as frequently). I think I opted not to publish at that time because I wasn't ready to engage with the feedback. But a year later, this post is still relevant, and still important. Both terrible and beautiful things have funneled through the noise of social media in the last year, proving that it's an important tool for advocacy and connection, but we still have work to do.

(I attended a wonderfully life affirming sustainable fashion event in DC last weekend that I'm hoping to write about soon. But I need time to catch up.)

I'm starting to notice a major weak point in activist circles. 

There's a growing gulf between those of us who are part of online - mainly twitter - social justice communities and those of us who choose to remain offline (or at least out of twitter conversations).

Active users of the platform have developed their own shorthand for talking about the issues of the day, and even changed the definitions of common words to suit their needs. There is nothing wrong with that on the surface - it helps people articulate pressing concerns quickly to those already

in the know

. But what happens when these conversations become known to people operating outside the twittersphere?

A friend of mine recently shared an article that claimed that we should stop "humanizing" white supremacists. The author, a person of color, was responding to the unsatisfactory way Black Lives Matter activists at a Trump rally dialogued - or rather, failed to dialogue - with dangerous ideas about the way society should be structured. I agreed with her that the messaging was far too soft, that the BLM cohort, likely out of justifiable fear, tried to seek common ground to the detriment of voicing their legitimate concerns.

The argument broke down, however, because of the way she was using the term,


. To humanize someone is to "give someone a human character." Essentially, to acknowledge their


. The only possible implication of an argument that says we should stop humanizing someone is that we should 



And that, surely, can't be the argument the author intended to make.

Context Clues

Within the very particular online activist context her argument lived in, maybe she meant that we should stop making excuses for the poor ideas of Trump supporters, or that we should stop implying that they are generally 


people (though, I would argue that people are walking paradoxes, and often do behave humanely in spite of their political leanings). But this did not come through for me, a casual Twitter user on the borders of online activist circles, so there's no possible way it could come through for a regular person. (The website has since 

changed some of the problematic language

 around humanization.)

And that's a  problem, because it means we've gotten to a point where communication, even between potential allies, is becoming nearly impossible. 

And it gets worse.  Not only do entrenched virtual activists use jargon and make references to conversations that are inherently exclusive because they require a high degree of participation in tech-centered social media platforms, they expect those of us who are not fluent in their medium to respond to political events according to the unspoken rules of these exclusive communities. They make us feel guilty for not "showing up" to the counter protests we simply never heard were happening. They silence our confusion assuming our genuine questions are an attempt to distract them from their goals.

They don't realize that their virtue signaling looks like the ritual of a religion we've never heard of.

Look, I'm not trying to discount the good intentions of activists, and I think social media has been an asset to contemporary social justice movements.

But is it fair to expect everyone to be plugged into virtual spaces?

The answer is obvious to me: no. Online activists are operating in a space that many either don't or don't want to have access to. And I tend to think that since we're physical beings living in a tangible world talking about material problems, it's ok if we're not constantly checking our phones and updating our feeds.

The people who created this technology

admit that it's addictive

, and potentially detrimental to our ability to thrive. If anything, we should be engaging less online and more in our local communities. Old fashioned word-of-mouth and weekly planning meetings should suffice, and they foster the face-to-face time that

sustains trusting, dynamic organizations

, not to mention allow for a proper analysis of body language and tone that contribute to more productive, less caustic conversations (I know I've been turned off by organizations

I know

are doing good things in my community because their online tone comes off as terse and scoffing).

Of course, many online activists already do meet in person, but I'm suggesting a thoughtful insistence on making these physical meetings the primary mode of communication

rather than the monthly afterthought.

And, while traditional modes of communication will slow information down a bit, maybe that's a good thing...

"Now" Culture

A related problem to tech-based exclusivity is our insistence that actions must be taken now, that solutions can be found in the space of 5 minutes and 280 characters. We would do well to put our heads together long enough to consider the long term, to predict unintended consequences, to find the weak points in our methods and correct course before we lose control over it. I intentionally abstain from long form twitter activism because I find that it too often feels like empty performance.

Showing up matters, but so does strategy, and solutions come when people decide that community matters enough to fight for an equitable one. 

When we demonize allies, accept ideologically fundamentalist arguments about human behavior, and demand performance from people who were simply having dinner on the patio and missed your ping about the protest, we cause undue harm.

Maybe we even start to forget that activism was never about who can yell the loudest or preach the best or craft the perfect meme, that it's always been about empowering the "little people" in society to build a human pyramid so high that it rivals the Trump Towers of this world.

The Moral Wardrobe: Fashion Activist

fashion activist - fair trade fashion show fashion activist - fair trade fashion show fashion activist - fair trade fashion show fashion activist - fair trade fashion showfashion activist - fair trade fashion show
Ethical Details: Tee - c/o Bead & Reel via Fair Trade Fashion Show; Jeans - #30wears; Earrings - c/o Sela Designs

Fashion Activist

What does it mean to be a fashion activist? For me, it means a couple of things...
  1. I want my everyday actions and political decisions to be based in progressive activism. In this way, I am an activist who happens to enjoy fashion. It is not incongruous to be someone who cares deeply about the world and also enjoys expressing self expression through clothing. 
  2. I am an advocate for change in the fashion industry. I believe that my individual decisions impact other people's individual decisions, and that the way I shop should be part of my broader social justice goals. 
We may not literally change the world through conscious consumerism, but I think the small stories and quiet ways we progress toward positive change give us hope in a world that is desperate for it. I have learned so much about what it means to be an advocate and ally, about white privilege and imperialism, and about Capitalism's ugly removal of the collectivism we long for at a biological level. I've learned this through the framework of fashion activism and I am thankful for this on-the-ground training. 

The world needs more advocates with open arms and listening ears. I'm a fashion activist because it's one way to advocate, and it's teaching me how to advocate in other areas of my life.

I was sent this t-shirt by the Fair Trade Fashion Show, a nonprofit event that features fair, eco-friendly, vegan, and women-owned, and POC-ownded fashion for the benefit of anti-human trafficking agencies. You can learn more about it here

On "Activism" Burnout, and What I'm Doing to Resist It

Activism Burnout and Longterm Change,

In the days and weeks following the Women's March, I was about as close to "woke" as I've ever been. 

I was bearing witness, I was donating, I was reading and tweeting and posting.

And then...I broke down. I started weeping one night right before bed, mumbling incoherent concerns to Daniel. I realized I couldn't handle it. I had totally overloaded my system, convincing myself that things would only improve if I ran myself ragged.

But I was becoming unable to function with kindness and attentiveness, and that flew in the face of everything I believe about small-scale world change.

So I took a break. I read a book and watched endless episodes of Scrubs.

And I kept writing blog posts. 

I've mentioned more than once that justice must extend outward from our individual interests or we're doing it wrong. I still believe that, but now that I've reached a state of mental equilibrium, I realize how important it is to also do the converse of that statement - to keep focusing on the pet cause even when the world is in chaos.

That's because the ethical practice that's already become habit is a good reminder of what must happen if we're to jump into broader world change.

Empathy, science has shown, is unsustainable and wildly inconsistent. 

The visceral pain I felt about immigrants, refugees, women, people of color, children - heck! - everyone affected or soon to be affected by the current administration's sick political game was borne of good intentions, but it was not what was needed.

What I needed was the clear eyes and full heart I have fostered when it comes to talking about the fashion industry. I've spent years developing the skills, knowledge, and point of view to take each new devastating piece of information and place it within the proper context so that I can re-calibrate my current set of moral principles. I can recognize injustice immediately, but I no longer shut down. I keep working.

Longtime organizers and activists know that this is the only way to achieve longterm change.

And on that note, the other reason I can't abandon my pet cause is because it teaches me about the importance of taking the long view.

The marches, protests, and phone calls are necessary now because so much is at stake now and, frankly, because we have the collective momentum to sustain a movement. But we can't let short term crises distract us from long term goals.

I heard a story about a Pakistani student at UVa who doesn't understand the mass hysteria. He recalled going home to drone strikes throughout the Obama administration, too. What we're seeing in the US is a breakdown of what white Americans believed about ourselves; we are not seeing God unseated and the Devil taking his place. The Devil was always here.

So, yes, what's happening is pressing, terrible, often nearly unbelievable. But we are fooling ourselves if we think we can ever stop this work. No matter how "good" the president is, there will always be corruption.

We must all become activists, and never stop as long as we live. 

I can't do that through irrational weeping. I have to extend what I know from this space to other categories of injustice.

So I continue this work not only because I believe my voice matters, and that the brands I promote can make a difference, but because it's showing me over and over again what sustainable activism looks like.

I'm going to a huddle tonight to talk over next steps at a local level. That sounds like something I can do with a clear head. Slowly but surely, I am becoming who I need to be.


P.S. I recently read an article on the importance of honoring the world's complexity if we wish to be moral writers. It's tempting to go for click-bait, to simplify for the sake of clarity or "good vibes" or whatever, but the article insists that we have an obligation to try our hardest to represent reality, even when it's difficult. I have taken this to heart, and plan on doing my best to allow for (accurate) ambiguity and discussion even when it would be easier to make a sweeping claim. I fear I will always be a melancholy writer, but that's okay.

What the Women's March Taught Me

What the Women's March Taught Me

Before I went to the Women's March, I have to admit I was scared. 

I did not grow up in an activist home. I grew up in a "hunker-down" home with monthly fire safety talks. I knew where the hand gun was and how to use it if an intruder threatened my life.

I grew up in a home where the doors were always locked.

This was not all paranoia. Someone did break into my house when I was 12. Fortunately, my mother was at the grocery store that morning and they left the family cat alone (we found her smelling roses in our back yard). But the man who entered our house and stole my $5 allowance, family videos, and the hand gun took more than our possessions. He took my sense of childhood security. I was afraid of shadows and noises outside my window for months, often choosing my parents' floor over my bed. For awhile, I was convinced someone was trying to get in my room, but we eventually found out it was an armadillo who'd made his home in the bushes by the side of the house. I was so thankful for that guardian armadillo, offering some semblance of security.

I mention all of this to give you a sense of how brave I am (hint: not at all). 

My dad messaged me in the days leading up to the march concerned about rioting and arrests. He told me to bring my pepper spray and take care of myself. I steeled myself for the worst case scenario.

But then I arrived to a sea of pink cat hats at the Metro, women handing out Kind bars for sustenance and offering up extra hats to bring back to our loved ones who couldn't march. The atmosphere was celebratory and open-armed. Like a reunion, or a town festival.

Several stops into our train ride, one of the doors got stuck and we were forced - several hundred of us - to exit the Metro train and stand on the already-full platform. We couldn't get back on the now-full trains, so we exited the station and pondered next steps. While waiting, we saw cat hat-bedazzled women on city bike shares, breezing through the quiet morning streets and stopping to talk to other marchers at crosswalks. We eventually settled on an overpriced Uber and got the march site. Cheers, signs, laughter. Pink hats everywhere.

One sign read: The last time I marched there was a wall in Berlin.

Friendly march volunteers directed us to jumbotrons as an Indigenous woman began singing a haunting piece, mostly unaccompanied, that sounded to my ears like a new, more inclusive, national anthem.

By 10:30, we could no longer see the road we'd walked in on. The crowds were too dense. We stood behind a mom and her daughter and next to a group of young guys who'd driven over from Nashville, excited to learn.

By 11:00, we were packed like sardines. You couldn't move without bumping into someone. Incredibly, no one was bothered by this. The counter protesters (the kind wearing "Jesus loves you" sweatshirts and carrying "You're going to hell" posters) got ahold of a megaphone and started chanting something barely discernible. Nearby marchers countered, calmly and exuberantly, with "Love trumps hate."

I am so badly trying to find a way to describe for you the serene, utopian calm that washed over me as I stood there among hundreds of thousands of strangers. The paradox of feeling safer here than anywhere else at any other time. At some point in the day, I tried to sum it up for myself and this is what echoed through my head:

I saw a glimpse of paradise today. 

I felt God. I felt peace on earth. A long awaited glimpse of the world, perfected. All the prophecies come true.

It wasn't about the specifics of what was said. It wasn't about righteous anger. It wasn't about protest. It was about being present with people on a day that we'd collectively determined we would be our best selves.

I am not naive. I know there were people there who in their regular lives are grumpy, un-self aware, even narcissistic, but we were, maybe for the first time, trying - and succeeding at - practicing what we preach.

The Women's March showed me what we're all fighting for, after all.

We're fighting for a world where people are free to be their best selves. 

Where we can put our guards down, knit each other hats, listen to radical ideas without getting defensive, and understand that we are all welcome at the table.

As a scared white woman, I am grateful for being brought into ongoing conversations on immigration, religious freedom, Black lives, and Indigenous rights. I am grateful that I could listen and learn from people I don't have the opportunity to bump up against in my everyday life.

I am grateful that the voices that told me that I would be unsafe were proven wrong.

There is work to do. 

An endless amount of work to do. We can never stop working. I realize that now, that I've been letting "good enough" serve as my activism for the bulk of my adult life. I've been hiding behind words and my computer screen.

But the community of the Women's March not only inspired hope in me to press on, it reminded me that strong communities change the world. I am excited to get started writing letters, making phone calls, and paying attention with my fellow Charlottesvillians.

I am ready now.


Here are some resources and articles that helped me get a grip this emotional rollercoaster of a week:

Inward and Outward: A Pre-Inauguration Reflection

I wrote this piece for the Numi Organic Tea blog as a Resolutions Post, but I thought it was appropriate to post here, on the eve of the Inauguration. Though it's always been important to be vigilant protectors and defenders of justice, the rate at which things could take a turn for the worse feel overwhelming. This post represents my first step, but the work isn't done.


As I sit here staring at this bright, blank page before me, I consider what it looks like to start fresh.

In life, we don't often get a blank page to work from - we all have baggage and commitments from our past that we carry forward - but I think it's right to get ourselves in a head space that allows us to imagine new and better lives for ourselves, and for the world.

As author Barbara Kingsolver once said, "Hope is a moral imperative." At the start of a new year, we collectively determine to hope so that we can make progress.

Too often, though, the resolutions we make feel like a collection of chores predetermined for us by the masses. Eat well, exercise, go to bed on time. While all of these may be admirable, for me they just aren't meaty enough to propel me forward. This year, I want more.

My hope for 2017 and beyond  is that I develop the kind of habits that lead to seeing the world through the eyes of kindness and justice. 

When I started writing on justice issues, my particular focus was on making more ethical purchases. That meant avoiding sweatshop labor and prioritizing sustainable raw materials sourcing. Simple enough, right?

But the Catch-22 of thinking about and working toward justice is that everything is interconnected.

Depressed wages in developing nations are a direct result of political and economic decisions enacted by domestic and foreign governments. The fact that demand still exists for low wage jobs is due, in part, to cataclysmic social shifts that force people out of now unsustainable agrarian lifestyles and into the cities. At each step in the supply chain, someone has been asked to cut costs even when there's nothing left to cut. It's an impossible race to the bottom. There are no winners.

Demanding fair wages is just a start. It won't fix broken systems.

I mention all this because it serves as a microcosm of the broader problem of having a pet issue without considering the big picture. But the big picture can be totally overwhelming. It can overload us to the point of shutting us down. What's the solution?

Put another way: How do I learn to see big problems in their even larger context and respond effectively and compassionately, without total overwhelm?

I believe the first step forward comes from within.

There are relatively immediate, physical lifestyle changes I can make in my life that will have a positive effect on the world. I can shop and eat sustainably and responsibly, for instance. But for long term change, you need buy in, and you only get there when you've changed your point of view, when you see the world through new eyes.

To that end, my resolutions for global change are deeply intertwined with the small, daily tasks of just being in the world. The key is being in a way that shapes you into the person that can effectively bring about long term progress. 

1. Practice humility. 

The first step is admitting that I don't have the complete picture, and maybe I never will. To be clear, I can learn from and trust my own interactions, but I can't necessarily make drastic conclusions based on my highly individualized experiences.

To cultivate humility, I will seek out communities that challenge what I think I know without dismissing me. My workplace is a dynamic and diverse environment, so I will start there, working to have productive conversations on politics and ethics around the lunch table.

2. Think local. 

The concept of social justice didn't really click for me until I joined a local community organizing group. When you work with people you live near, you already know what's at stake for your community. That relative intimacy helps you work through personal issues to find solutions. It reminds you that people - including yourself - are deeply flawed, but that imperfection is not a barrier to doing good.

To cultivate local engagement, I will stay in touch with people working toward systemic change in my own community.

3. Cultivate intention.

I manage a retail space, so on any given week, my life bumps up against the lives of at least a hundred people, from volunteers to staff to customers. I've realized over the last few years that each time I make eye contact with someone, I have a responsibility. I can make someone's day better or not affect it at all (hopefully, I never make it worse). I choose to do what I can to make it better. My shop recently committed to "see our customers as the unique people they are, and celebrate it." Imagine what a difference that could make if we clearly and intentionally projected that ideal. Imagine the hope.

To cultivate intention, I will consider the way I interact with every single person I come into contact with and do my best to celebrate them for who they are, and who they can be.


I want hope to become habit. 

And the only way to get there is to, slowly but surely, let my heart be changed. I know it won't be easy, but it's worth it for global change.

12 months, 12 goals: halfway there


Hey guys, I'm doing it. I'm achieving my goals! I was so discouraged a couple months ago when I wasn't achieving my ethics-minded resolutions on my one month timelines. Turns out that I was taking steps to meet my goals the whole time.

Since January, I've purchased most of my clothes and accessories secondhand (thredup is awesome), handmade (, or fair trade (Mata Traders). I've also explored my local fair trade and consignment shops, started shopping at more mindful grocery stores, and written an article on the state of the garment industry. And just today, I spread the word about fair trade in my community as part of World Fair Trade Day. As I move into the summer months and have a bit more time on my hands, I plan to organize and purge the house of clutter, as well as paint the bookshelves in our library. It'll be a good time to think about ethical options for home goods.

I'm learning that keeping this list in my mind is helping to push me toward more sustainable habits even if they don't happen on the neat timeline I set for myself in January.

  1. Learn to sew.

  2. Shop local.

  3. Shop handmade.

  4. Donate to a microloan organization.

  5. Invest in a fair trade garment.

  6. Write an article on the state of the garment industry.

  7. Explore more fair trade food options.

  8. Start a petition that demands manufacturing transparency.

  9. Spread the word about fair trade in my community.

  10. Shop secondhand.

  11. Accumulate less.

  12. Seek out ethical home goods. 

*Items in bold are additions to my original list.

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World Fair Trade Day is tomorrow

World Fair Trade Day is tomorrow!

wftd graphicHere's what you can do:

Watch the new documentary, Connected by Coffee, for free, streaming all day May 10 at

Visit your local Ten Thousand Villages for product samples and information.

Read up on Fair Trade organizations and companies.

Deck yourself out in fair trade attire and try to consume mostly fair trade food.

Let others know!

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12 months, 12 goals

Style Wise is one year old! To celebrate, I'm rolling out a new series in which everyone can participate!

12 Months, 12 Goals is a year long challenge that breaks down ethical shopping goals into easier-to-manage, month long chunks. These challenges are emphasized during the month in which they are originally announced, but can continue throughout the year. The intent is to develop habits one-by-one that contribute to more ethical, sustainable living and to confront both unhealthy consumer habits and our broken retail system. By taking slow and thoughtful strides toward ethical and intentional living, I hope to develop lasting positive routines that benefit myself and others.

I'll announce a new challenge at the beginning of each month, then post on my progress at the start of the next month.

Goal 1: Shop secondhand.

For the month of January, my goal is to shop only secondhand. This is a fitting goal for the start of the year because it requires very little money and it's the surest way, at least in the short term, to ensure that my purchases are ethical and sustainable.

Potential goals for the following months include:

  • Learn to sew.

  • Shop local.

  • Shop handmade.

  • Donate to a microloan organization.

  • Invest in a fair trade garment.

  • Write an article on the state of the garment industry.

  • Explore more fair trade food options.

  • Start a petition that demands manufacturing transparency.

  • Spread the word about fair trade in my community.

We're better together, so let me know if you plan to get involved. Tailor your goals to your personal struggles and desires and let me know! I'd love to link up with you.

While you're at it, grab a button for your blog:

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