Ensemble’s Lofa Totua explores the evolving nature of her understanding of activism, and asks those fighting against injustice about what being an ‘activist’ means to them.
The other week I released a fear. The angsty knots of worry and imposter syndrome, untied, finally allowing me to breathe.
“Sometimes, activism is as simple as breathing Lofa. Just… exist.”
In that moment, it had never made more sense. A friend and I were sitting in Sandringham’s Blue Rose, a Pacific and Māori fusion cafe – one of many in the latest wave of Pacific and Māori business owners venturing in Aotearoa’s food industry. I thought about what a statement it was for the likes of Blue Rose, Ponsonby’s Lei and Onehunga’s Sweet n Me, to be creating undoubtedly good feeds inspired by their culture. In an industry that has probably never ever thought of our flavours as an example of “dining” – let alone brunch – before, I thought about how it felt to see this many brown people eating on the regular in spaces mixed with old and new, and how it wasn’t unusual. We were just existing somewhere new.
The title “activist” used to scare me.
Growing up, I was raised lovingly by a Sāmoan village of caring, fierce, intelligent women who only ever wanted the best for us. These women are mothers, educators, business owners, homemakers, healers and so much more. It was with their teachings and Fa’asamoa, or the Samoan Way, that I have been able to share what I believe, in how I turn up and exist in spaces. Every kind of space – safe, uncomfortable or confronting – is important and guides us to unveiling what everyday activism looks like. There have been many times where I have felt like there wasn’t enough space. Maybe I wasn’t welcome. Or deserving. Maybe I can’t tell the difference.
When whisperings of the word activist began to drift my way, I froze. It was the kind of word that threatened to pigeonhole me – a figure who could speak facts and figures on the spot, call out influencers and instil fear into white supremacists. A fearless leader who was probably indestructible; with lists of community organisation and experience under their belt. I am certainly not indestructible. And I feel uncomfortable with some of the attention I have received through my mere months of “activism”.
Which led me to write this story.
In August, when she was putting together my “#EnsembleCast” caption for the ‘gram, Zoe (Ensemble editorial director) had me down as a writer and an activist. I asked her to change it immediately. In the weeks that followed, I began to experience – simultaneously – a disassociation with having an online presence and a weird internal crisis. I am angry. I am a woman. I am brown, queer and people seem to listen when I say stuff. Am I more than an angry, brown queer woman? Is there a checklist for activism? Do I like checklists? Have I even done enough to be considered an activist? This all started because I was sick of reading neoliberal complaints from privileged Pākehā in my uni magazine.
View this post on Instagram
I often comb through my thoughts about performative activism, especially online. There are those who understand intersectional activism, versus those who fuss over the different forms of human rights like it’s a cheeseboard. For these individuals, it is clear that the wine (clout) is equivalent to reaping the rewards.
The online space has been increasingly unhealthy and traumatic for all due to the transaction of pain, likes and shares. I used to think I spoke from a privileged point of view as someone who has the luxury of unplugging and disappearing. But the fact that protecting our time and energy is a luxury these days – even more so for individuals with a media, political or activist platform – is sick.
For this story, I reached out to 20 incredible activists. Most were extremely busy changing and challenging the world daily can be like that sometimes, and some were keen to share their thoughts.
Marilyn Waring, the incredible feminist trailblazer and the youngest person elected into parliament in the 70s, had her assistant respond simply: “Thank you for your invitation to Marilyn. However, Marilyn is encouraging people to look to younger generations for quotes, and, as such, has chosen to decline. We wish you all the best with what sounds like it will be a very interesting publication!”
How brilliant? A reminder that there is no age restriction when it comes to activism or leading a revolution.
My knowledge and work as a Pacific Climate Warrior is constantly evolving, even more so since I have moved away from my home team in Wellington (back home, to Auckland). This past year, I’ve come to understand the place of politics in environmental activism.
To me, Marama Davidson is Superwoman. She shared in Stuff’s One Hot Minute that: “among Indigenous peoples, there is a wisdom that we should always act and plan for seven generations from now”. We have a collective responsibility to care for and nurture our common home as it has for us. Environmental justice is a human rights issue, often driven by grassroots initiatives against large corporate money makers and fossil fuel industries.
My knowledge and work as a writer is constantly evolving too. In 2019, I reached out to the editors of Victoria University’s Salient with the intent of writing short fiction in honour of the way that my friends and I saw the world. Everyday activism for me is also education, starting with myself. I know that if I want to advocate for something I believe in, it is important that I’m equipped, especially with new concepts and words being introduced into our culture. It can be learning from my mentors, having conversations with friends and family and being OK with being uncomfortable.
I think I’m a socially engaged human not an activist.
Kahu Kutia, journalist and member of Te Ara Whatu writes below that there are people we look to and say “yes, they are activists”, but so are our mamas, our artists and the storytellers who remind us of who we are.
Lulu Tekeste, Black Lives Matter organiser, says that activism is to go through life and show up as our true, authentic selves. Both are true and if this is the case, I’m an activist in progress as I still don’t know who my true self is, just yet, and how I can remind others of who we are.
There is definitely a differentiation, or perhaps a spectrum of activism – subtle, everyday challenges of change, education via social media, grassroots and finally to the many individuals who dedicate their time, bodies and livelihoods to creating effective change. The Angela Davises, Audre Lordes, Tina Ngatas and Moana Jacksons. They are the pillars of movements that last. There are so many who have come before us that worked for what are our rights today, and there are many who continue to do the same so that we can exist and breathe.
For my mum, my first example of an activist through her sacrifices and actions for our family. Thank you for letting me breathe.
What makes an activist?
“The word ‘activist’ in itself doesn’t necessarily mean much. It can be applied to anyone who is working for change, and that change may be for very different purposes than our own. For example, a white racist can be as much an ‘activist’ as a school student climate striker.
So for me, the first thing when thinking about activism is ‘whose interests does it serve?’ ‘Whose side am I on?’ It’s up to each of us to answer that for ourselves, but for me in 2020 it means doing everything I can to advocate and work with others for social, economic, Tiriti and ecological justice.
That’s a huge kaupapa, so it’s also important to realise that there is only so much any of us can do in our activist lives. There is no use burning ourselves up trying to fight for every cause we believe in, as it’s not humanly possible to do that and lead a fulfilling, sane life as well. If we forget things like the importance of whānau and of what the good things are which sustain us as a person it is easy to get lost.
It’s also important to be able to choose where we put our energies at any given moment. Throughout our lives we should keep analysing and thinking about where our time and commitment should go right now, given our current context and situation.
Priorities can change over time, but it’s good not to feel guilty about not being able to do more. It’s also important not to criticise others who are making some other aspect of working for change their priority, given it’s within some aspect of the same overall kaupapa you share with them.
I’ve been an activist in street and community politics since I was 15 and still at school. The activists I’ve come to value most are those who take on organising for the long haul. This work isn’t just about being a hero out on a demo or occupation today, even though that’s often a core part of what we do. What really counts is the day-to-day mahi of building up and sustaining groups and campaigns over a lifetime, with all the detailed work that goes with it. True activism is hard and often tedious work, but in the end this is how – together – we can change the world.
Sue Bradford is an anti-poverty activist, academic, former Green MP, and community educator for Kotare Research & Education for Social Change in Aotearoa.
“The Oxford Dictionary defines it as ‘a person who works to achieve political or social change, especially as a member of an organisation with particular aims’.
My organisations? Black. Refugee. Working class. Woman. My aims? To live – like, really live.
To those of us who find ourselves at the intersections of one or more marginalised identities, our daily existence is a political struggle. We are never afforded the luxury of neutrality because we are subjected to a system that was designed by and benefits people that don’t look like us or move through life the way we do. Activism is in our bones, not by choice, but because complacency would mean accepting the death sentence handed down to us by this white supremacist, colonial, capitalist, heteropatriarchal society. Activism is not something we do, rather, it is something we are. I believe when we go through life and show up as our true, authentic selves, we are activists, because that is a big middle finger to the system that tells us we have to be, look or act a certain way. When my little sister wears her curly hair to school, that is activism. Our mere existence stands in defiance to the systems designed to oppress us.
However, I do believe there is another step further. To actively fight for a cause bigger than oneself, to advocate for the lives of others, and to stare injustice in the face and not back down – that is another level of activism.
I feel as though after having organised the first Black Lives Matter protest in Auckland, that label was forced on me. I was almost uncomfortable with it. I had been happy with the kind of activism I was used to prior to that, the daily-existence-in-defiance-of-the-system kind of activism. The quiet activism. The type of activism that doesn’t catapult you into the media and onto the radar of politicians. So, I rejected the label. However, with time, and after things settled down in the aftermath of the protests, I’ve come to embrace the label. Not because it has anything to do with me personally or because it’s a result of me being a good person; but simply because I’ve come to appreciate the beauty found within me and my people. The profound beauty in living for a cause outside of and larger than oneself. The profound beauty in not succumbing to a system designed to break us. The profound beauty in being on the receiving end of so much pain, hurt and hatred, yet having nothing but the purest of love for our people, and the desire for the advancement of our people.
I embraced the label because it aligned with what I’ve always yearned for and known to be true since I was very young – that when all is said and done and I’m buried six feet under, I want to be able to say that I made a positive impact on the world. That I lived a life of meaning and purpose and contributed to the greater good, even if it is only in a very small way. I embraced the title because I am a reflection of my tribe, and my tribe is a reflection of me; and when I look at my tribe, I see activists. I see Angela Davis’ and Malcolm X’s, I see Sojourner Truth’s and I see James Baldwin’s. I see revolutionaries equipped with fire in their souls and love in their hearts, being primed to go and change the world.
I don’t think anybody ever really ‘earns’ the title of being an activist, but I do believe we, as BIPOC people, as the working class, as gender minorities, are pressured to bend and break under oppressive systems, but we push back. The label ‘activist’ is one that we can only hope to do justice to. But when I look at my people, we’re doing a really good job at it. So it gives me hope for the future, and allows me to not fear the calling but embrace it.
Lulu Tekeste is an organiser of Auckland Black Lives Matter Solidarity.
“Activism: the direct action of achieving an end. What is the end? I believe the end is love. What is the journey to get there? It is our life’s work.
I guess I have been an activist in my life without realising that simply being an unapologetic fat, brown woman in a world that says I should hate myself is a political act. The journey to be able to stand in this world has in many ways been like climbing Mt Everest. The challenges of the mind, heart and soul have been immense, and I’ve had many Sherpa Tenzings on my path to help with the load.
I grew up in a large bi-cultural home in Auckland, the youngest of eight girls. Our father, Colin Cole, was Pākehā and a renowned fashion designer, and our mother, Mairehau, was a deeply complex Māori wahine, a deep thinker and like the rest of her whanau, a high intellectual. We grew up in a time of the great Māori renaissance where re-claiming language, identity, culture and land was in the forefront.
Our father instilled in us a deep love for life and all its complexities. Our father was very aware of his failings and had a deep compassion for others. Our mother’s whanau were leaders and chiefs who were very present in our lives and we spent a lot of time with them. They instilled in us the true meaning of aroha, whanau, manaakitanga, wairuatanga and awhi. The memories of these amazing wahine and their achievements are embedded deep in my soul.
As a fat person, I’ve worked hard to love and accept my body in an extremely fatphobic world. I have always expressed myself through my fashion designs which are bold, bright, happy. I have refused to subscribe to the theory that says I should hate my body and hide it away in black.
I stand in strength with the knowledge that I do not stand alone. My tupuna and whanau surround and protect me. I am part of the continuum of life. Our lives are not unconnected. We are all connected through love. My vision for my life and that of humanity is underpinned by this knowledge and is where my activism is rooted, in aroha.
Lissy Cole is an Ōtāhuhu artist and fat activist.
“I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on the ways in which we know and come to understand things as Māori. In particular, the very circular process of knowledge building that we call wānanga, that we engage when we are in hui. Things are very rarely black and white, and if a collective decision is made, it is only after hours and hours (or years and years) of discussion and whakawhanaungatanga, an argument or two. Knowledge cemented late into the night after the little ones have long since fallen asleep.
That is the starting place for me as I tell you I’m not even sure that I am an activist. I don’t say that as a way of maintaining humble kūmaraness, it’s just where I’m at in a long and painful journey of healing and getting to know myself again. I’ve marched, and spoken, and occupied, and fought, and argued, and cried and laughed. Somedays I think I have no right to use the label, some days I think I have all rights. I am engaged in a circular wānanga. One day maybe I will even think it’s worth making a decision about.
I think about all the great activism that made the world what it is today for me as a young Māori. I think about how our tīpuna had us in mind when they signed Te Tiriti o Waitangi. I think about how the formation of the kīngitanga took years of deliberation. I think about how Dame Whina must have felt after a long day of leading a movement across the whenua. I think about all the kaumātua who spent hours and hours debating whether or not we should have kōhanga reo and kura kaupapa Māori. What it must have been like to be Ngā Tama Toa or the Polynesian Panthers and to feel the weight of urbanised indigenous people on your shoulders. I see long histories of radical action from activists who came before us that we ultimately benefit from.
For me the first steps of radicalisation began when the government invaded Tūhoe in 2007 and accused my own people of terrorism. Reading the front page of the NZ Herald the next day painted a very different picture to what I knew of being Tūhoe. That was probably when I first heard the word activist, contextualised in the image of a savage gun-wielding Tūhoe painted by fragile and racist media. But I knew who my whānau were, and perhaps from that time sensed a little of the injustice that our history tells.”
“I was a little more radicalised when I came across mainstream Pākehā feminism as a 15 year old in a tiny town, and most of all when when I came to uni and paid $30,000 to receive a history of Aotearoa that I should have received in high school, and to take back the reo that shouldn’t have been withheld from me in the first place. I’m only just now comprehending how important knowledge is for empowering change makers, and how inaccessible that knowledge is in Aotearoa. So many people hold the experience and understanding that we live in an unjust world, and yet the mechanisms for change are so often out of reach. Because the language is wrong, or the legal system is incomprehensible, because education is unaffordable, because there are more bills to pay, or jobs to be done on the marae, or health to be maintained, because there’s whānau stuff to attend to first and not enough hours in the day.
I wonder what the purpose is of such a label when the revolution requires so many people to use their skills in so many ways. Because there are those that we can look at and say, yes, absolutely an activist. But the Māori māmā raising her kids to be happy and healthy is part of the movement too. And the person quietly memorising their pepehā for the first time is an activist too. So are the anarchists, and the artists, the nanakia stirring chaos in the night and the storytellers reminding us who we are. The healers rubbing sore wrists at the end of the day. The kaumātua that guide our decisions, and the ones washing plate after plate in the kitchen. I don’t ask myself if I’m an activist anymore (though I have been all year). I ask myself ‘what is my part to play in the revolution? Where can I actively contribute? What do I have to sacrifice? How can I ensure that me and mine are safe and thriving as well?’ I’m still working through it, I don’t have the answer yet.
Am I an activist? Maybe not. But this year more than any other has required me to assess what I am willing to be. As a queer wahine Māori I have a lot to be angry about. But I also challenge myself to understand where that intersects with being white passing, cisgendered, able-bodied. I think for a while I was caught in a row boat of fighting for myself, then solidarity with others, then fighting for myself, then solidarity for others. For the first time I challenge myself to imagine existence as part of a complex and nuanced whole. To bring all aspects of my identity in the trust that through wānanga my communities can be engaged in circular conversations about who we are, and begin to radically dream and action the world we want to leave for our babies.
Kahu Kutia (Ngāi Tūhoe) is a writer, creative, Te Ara Whatu member, and winner of Best Episodic/Recurrent Podcast at the 2020 Voyager Media Awards – He Kākano Ahau.
“I would self-identify as a fat activist and I realise that it is mainly something that I kind of fell into.
As fat shaming is the last socially acceptable form of bias it is something that I do experience daily and some days almost every five minutes. I do not mean to imply that you must experience something to be an effective activist or advocate for change/equity/disestablishment. I just think that a deep understanding or appreciation for the task at hand lends to the most important aspect of activism for me – consistency.
Consistency in message and tone. Consistency in following up your actions in real life and the nerve to stick to your guns even when everyone in your professional circle doesn’t take you seriously or wants to use you as a diversity tick.
The fat community is moving from an activism modelled on body positivity to straight out fat activism/fat acceptance and I think that this has made things so much clearer to me on how to be both an ally and an activist in this space. Body positivity is not friendly to fat people in its current state. In fact the co-opting of this term has been quite harmful to our community so it is important to keep checking the tone of the message of your advocacy work. How is this in actual fact benefiting the community that you purport to be your mains. Intersectionality is important when framing how you are advocating your message and that you are not doing so at the detriment of others.
These difficult divisions and reprioritisations mean that over the course of time you can start to move away from your day ones. This is ok. This is an ok thing to do as long as the message of equity and the marginalised group that is your focus, is still your focus. I can’t tell you how many times clients have been disappointed that I won’t accommodate them or when industry friends have been frustrated by my refusal to cater to fashion industry sizes.
I think living in a constant state of discomfort and feeling of personal isolation is normal. You should always be challenging your own reflections on situations and people. Sometimes that can make you feel very uncomfortable and this is good. Empathy is not something that everyone naturally has (or is good at) and we should feel proud to work on these aspects of ourselves.
This puts businesses who centre social justice in a very strange predicament but then my perspective as a queer Pasefika woman who suffers from a mild disability and chronic pain is quite different to most in business.
I am not particularly concerned with making millions of dollars off fashion – let’s face it, no one who operates ethically can. My ideal would be to create art through fashion that empowers and liberates fat brown people. That young fat brown kids can see quality contemporary textile and fashion creations worn by people who look like them.
This I think moves the concept of activism from something that you do to augment your life to something that is actually a fundamental cornerstone of your everyday life.”
Amy Lautogo is the designer of Infamy Apparel and fat activist.
“What is an activist? As I ponder this question, I’m staring at the back of a little blue book I keep on my desk: Humanity by political artist Ai Weiwei. Edited by Larry Walsh, it brings together a few of the Chinese refugee’s quotes on ‘our human obligation’. Embossed in gold is: ‘Freedom is not an absolute condition, but a result of resistance’.
For marginalised identities who suffer the daily oppressions of living in a colonial patriarchy, the adage ‘existence is resistance’ provides comfort and permission to rest. It also reminds us that despite a world that didn’t want us – or those who came before us – our flowers still grew. They not only pushed through the dirt, but they bloomed, they soaked up the sun.
We feel it in our bodies and souls that we are fighting to stay alive and uplift each other, but what are we resisting against? We have a wrecking ball, but where do we point it?
The adage has evolved into ‘respect my existence or expect my resistance’ seen on protest signs all over the world. This subtle change notes that being in the room is an act of defiance in itself, but by taking down the door for others to join you is actively making sure everybody eats.
Every ‘label’ has a spectrum. There is no political party in Aotearoa who are uniform in thought, just like how every chip shop doesn’t have the same scoop size.
Breaking down the word ‘activist’ explains the meaning quite simply.
We know that to be ‘active’ means you are doing something. The suffix ‘ist’ points out that the person does the action of the word before it. A misogynist is a person who actively practices misogyny, and a racist is somebody who is proficient in racism.
However, both of those exist on a spectrum, as they are very layered concepts which are influenced by their surroundings. There is no excuse for either, but the internalised misogynist has a very different world view to the male misogynist, and different power as well. Bring race into this, and you have further intricacies to be aware of.
Like being a racist or misogynist, you either are an activist or you’re not. But when you fall into being one, you exist on a spectrum of student to teacher.
In my eyes, an activist is somebody who sees injustice and actively addresses it.”
“‘Anti-mask activists’ aren’t activists, that’s just a euphemism for selfish people who have only ever felt supported by the status quo. Wearing a mask to stop the spread of a respiratory disease is courtesy, not injustice. Injustice is how we got to a place where the already socially disenfranchised are being worse hit by this pandemic.
We see and know of people like Whina Cooper, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Yuri Kochiyama, James Baldwin, Bryan Stevenson, Ava DuVernay, Marsha P. Johnson, Haunani Kay-Trask, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Munroe Bergdorf, Kendrick Sampson, Pania Newton, Marama Davidson, Brianna Fruean, Golriz Gharahman, Aych McArdle, Anjum Rahman, Beyoncé and many other high-profile names. We recognise these as clear activists who live by Martin Luther King’s famous words: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’.
These people have all achieved incredible things for a range of communities and identities, but rather than aspiring to be like them, we need to aspire to think like them.
From politicians to entertainers to civilians, these people all saw injustice and stood up to it. That is an activist. Money, connections, and privilege make things easier, but seeing a problem and deciding to help fix it is activism, and it is within reach of everybody.
The person who goes to the media to share their mistreatment by state services is as much an activist as any of the people above, whether they call themselves that or not. Marginalised folk often shy away from the term activist, because they believe that just doing the right thing just isn’t a big deal. They cling to their cocoon, instead of harnessing their butterfly effect.
Somebody who I am honoured to call a friend, Seuta’afili Dr. Patrick Thomsen, once shared with me the Sāmoan tradition of ‘Tautua’, and explained it as using your talent or skills to help others.
I immediately realised that I cannot do what I cannot do, and the skills I have are my comfy slippers I wear to walk into uncomfortable spaces. Every campaign has a skills gap that slows their progression and efficiency. Campaigns desperately need people of different knowledge, languages, personality types, or privilege to join and do what they can.
After that conversation, I audited my skills to think about what each could provide to a charity or movement. I went to movement leaders to ask if they had any gaps it would be useful or efficient for me to fill, instead of working on my assumptions of what communities to need.
At Ihumātao, every person on the whenua plays a different role in the ecosystem. People who can’t be there physically drive awareness of the movement, challenge politicians and stakeholders, donate money, offer pro bono support – there is a role and a place for everybody.
Rosa Parks famously sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but wasn’t the first Black person to sit in a white-only seat. Nine months prior, Claudette Colvin was arrested at 15 for refusing to move for a white woman. She was mentored by Rosa Parks on the NAACP Youth Council, and fell pregnant soon after her protest. After the arrest, it was strategised that Rosa would spark a boycott by doing the same thing. As an older and well-respected woman, using her would be safer, and give racists fewer chances to undermine the campaign by questioning her character, as they would for Claudette.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was highly tactical activism. It isn’t about how big a part you play, it’s about what you can offer or sacrifice. People chose to make their own lives harder by walking instead of using the bus; Black taxis charged the same as bus fares; lawyers lobbied to reach the Supreme Court; and community members gave each other emotional support and respite.
Rosa weaponised white society’s respectability politics back against them, showing how ridiculous their laws were, while everybody around her sacrificed and did what they could to make desegregating the buses the only option for the state, and country.
The space for supporters in a movement is limitless, but there is no space for people who do not back up their beliefs with action. Sharing a petition to support Black Lives Matter but seeing store security target and follow around non-white customers and not questioning this proves that you perform activism. Posting that 10% of the revenue from your affiliate purchase will support charity is performative activism, as is recording yourself giving food to homeless people. Posting black squares without taking tangible action in support of it is oppression, not activism.”
“Activism is not an event you register for a free ticket to, then don’t show up on the day. Imposter syndrome in activist spaces is very, very real, but not for people who wear it like a pair of painful shoes – they look good on, but a dislike for being uncomfortable means they’re worn just for convenient occasions, and only for a few short hours each time.
Being an activist is taking responsibility for your education to influence others around you, having difficult conversations before the election, or cutting people off who degrade marginalised identities. But these are merely the starting points, and picking and choosing the causes you lend support to is oppression, not activism.
Being an activist means practicing humility in other’s safe spaces, understanding the overlapping layers of marginalised identities, and discerning when your voice can lead and when it should follow. As Arundhati Roy says, ‘There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard’.
Our ancestors were activists before the word even existed, because doing right by the collective is the natural goal of every community.
When you reach a point of self-awareness where you can remove your ego before entering into a space, you are ready to make change.
Those names share something else in common – none of them ever wanted to grow up and be an activist. It is a byproduct of their existence and their moral compass’ refusal to let them travel in a wayward direction.
Anybody can call themselves an activist, it is just a title, like chef. But, the proof is in the pavlova. If you have not researched, listened to experts, practiced their advice, or approached it with humility, your efforts will fall flat. Taking a sunken pavlova to a dinner party will cause more stress for the host than turning up empty handed.
If a pineapple pie is your signature dish, bring that instead. Tautua, remember?”
Anny Ma is a London based publicist, freelance writer and communications specialist.
Subscribe to Rec Room a weekly newsletter delivering The Spinoff’s latest videos, podcasts and other recommendations straight to your inbox.