If you care about social change but hate feel-good platitudes, Do It Anyway is the book for you. Courtney Martin’s rich profiles of the new generation of activists dig deep, to ask the questions that really matter: How do you create a meaningful life? Can one person even begin to make a difference in our hugely complex, globalized world?
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About the Author
Courtney E. Martin is a senior correspondent for the American Prospect and an editor of Feministing.com. A 2002 recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics, she is the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters and coauthor of The Naked Truth. Her writing has appeared in Mother Jones, Newsday, the Christian Science Monitor, and on Huffington Post and Alternet, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn.
Read an Excerpt
Save the world.
Where were you the first time you heard those three little words?
It’s a phrase that has slipped off the tongues of hippie parents and well-intentioned teachers with a sort of cruel ease for the last three decades. In Evangelical churches and Jewish summer camps, on 3-2-1 Contact and Dora the Explorer, even on MTV, we
(America’s youth) have been charged with the vaguest and most ethically dangerous of responsibilities: save the world. But what does it really mean? What has it ever really meant—when uttered by moms and ministers, by zany aunts and debate coaches—to save the whole wildly complex, horrifically hypocritical, overwhelmingly beautiful world?
I for one had no idea, but that didn’t stop me from internalizing the message. I swallowed those three little words—a trio of radioactive seeds. They looked innocent enough when poured into my palm, but when swallowed, they buried themselves deep in my gut and started to grow. South African novelist J. M.
Coetzee wrote, “All creatures come into the world bringing with them the memory of justice.” Shortly thereafter, if all is right, the world breeds in us an outrage over injustice.
At first I engaged my outrage like a true-blue white girl from the suburbs. I sent letters to the managers of Arby’s and Wendy’s in my hometown, begging them to stop using Styrofoam cups in their establishments for the good of our Mother Earth. No response.
I volunteered in an assisted living facility, screaming the letter-number combinations for a comatose game of bingo.
Though the residents attempted to adjust their hearing aids, my voice was too high to register. They screamed, “What? What did that girl say?” to one another, but everyone just shrugged and smiled at me sympathetically.
I worked at the local soup kitchen, dragging wet rags across
Formica tables with my eyes diverted straight down, hoping none of the homeless people would actually speak to me. I was frightened by the ones that smelled, but even more frightened by the ones that didn’t smell. The ones that looked like me and my mom. The ones that I’d seen walking around downtown and never even known I was supposed to save. I couldn’t name it yet,
but it was the first experience that called the conventional wisdom at the time—that there were savers and those to be saved,
and that these were immutable categories—into question.
When Sally Struthers commercials came on, featuring little
African babies with distended bellies and flies hovering around their eyes, I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. I took it personally. After all, I had been charged with saving the world,
as had my friends and little bike-riding neighbors. The adults in our lives had drawn a line directly between the suffering of the world—the African babies, the growing hole in the ozone layer,
the homeless guy who lay listlessly on the bench outside the library—and our own nascent sense of purpose.
Once, agitated with one epiphany or another, I decided I
would march around my neighborhood—middle class, suburban,
white—and ask people for money for “the poor.” I found an old glass jar in my playhouse, cleaned it fastidiously, and headed into the suburban wilderness for my first experience of fund-raising.
It went pretty well, actually. I was cute at the time—frizzy hair permanently set in a side ponytail, big blue-green eyes with dark, thick eyelashes, and a pair of magenta Converse high-tops
(it was the eighties). I think that the smiling neighbors, pried from their daily dose of Oprah, took one look at me, heard my half-formed rationale, and sympathized with the familiar ache in my heart. They dropped quarters, sometimes even dollars, into my jar and sent me on my way.
I rounded the block, growing more and more excited about the efficiency of my tactic. By the time I returned to my playhouse,
I had over ten dollars. But as I sat on the wooden planks,
my legs splayed, and pushed the coins around with my fingertips,
a bad feeling started to creep over me. I realized that I had no idea who “the poor” really were.
I didn’t know if I had met them before. There were kids at my school with less trendy clothes than all the others, but did this really mean they were poor or just that their parents were strict or stingy? There were those little babies with the bloated bellies on the commercial, but would ten dollars really help them?
It seemed like they needed much more. I could find some of the homeless guys near the library, but they might spend the money on drugs (by age eight, I’d already heard this warning many times). And how would I choose which people to give the money to anyway? Who was the most deserving? How could you predict that they’d use it for good? What if you gave money to someone and they were insulted—angry that you assumed they needed it?
The questions washed over me like a tidal wave, and suddenly everything about my initial intention—so pure, so heartfelt—
was murky. I piled the money back into the jar and stared at it disapprovingly. There is, perhaps, nothing more paralyzing than a good intention suddenly proven naive. I decided to bury the jar in the shadow of my playhouse until I knew what to do with it.
If you go to 1718 North Tejon Street in Colorado Springs, you’ll find that it’s still buried there, along with my childhood illusions that “saving the world” is a simple or pure prospect.
Table of ContentsIntroduction
“I Am Hungry for One Good Thing I Can Do”
Rachel Corrie, peace activist, Olympia, Washington
An Altar Boy with a Gun
Raul Diaz, prison reentry social worker, Los Angeles
Maricela Guzman, veterans’ activist, Los Angeles
Emily Abt, filmmaker, New York City
It Ain’t Easy Being Green
Nia Martin-Robinson, environmental justice advocate,
Washington, D.C., via Detroit
Tyrone Boucher, radical philanthropist, Philadelphia
Power Becomes Her
Rosario Dawson, actor and activist, Los Angeles
via New York City
Born to Teach
Dena Simmons, eighth grade teacher, Bronx, New York
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Received this book as an Early Reviewer. Although I think that the title will be misleading for some I found value in Martin's approach. I was personally hoping for more specific questions to consider, actions worth repeating, and so on. Instead, this book is a collection of the experiences of 8 activists. Their stories were moving. And the stories represent some key social justice issues of our time.Yet, because the stories were so highly personal and the book isn't all that helpful in providing broader strategy, I think that the audience for this is limited. In fact, I'm passing this along to a high school counselor because I think these stories are a great way to begin a discussion. If you're working with the new generation of young activists and are looking for some inspiration to share with them, I think this hits the mark and is a helpful first step.
It's difficult to feel that one person can make a difference in our world today. Yet, Courtney Martin demonstrates that when we have passion and direction, change can be made. Taking a small view doesn't mean that one gives up the bigger picture--it's how those small views become interdependent and conjoined that makes deep and lasting changes. Rosa Parks often spoke that her decision to keep her bus seat was not simply a spontaneous, earth-shattering act. It was founded on deliberate and smaller bits of activism, some successful, some failures, which eventually lead to the moment when history irrevocably changed.Do It Anyway demonstrates that our current, most privileged cohort of coming-of-agers (the 25 to 35 year old set), might not have the look of their Baby Boomer progenitors who marched in the streets, held sit-ins and "fought the man," but they have courage, tenacity, passion and the desire to "fix" what they see as broken or in need of improvement in our society. They have a rich set of tools to use toward that end that previous generations did not: Facebook, blogs, Twitter, texting--and they have a profound sense that they should do something to better the world.Martin, however, does not buffer this group from criticism. These Gen Xers are pampered and steeped in self-esteem enhancement, which as discussed in the first chapter focused on the late Rachel Corrie, can provoke a certain amount of self-destruction when they come to realize the world is often messy, ugly and very unconcerned with self-image. I found this book delightful and hopeful--that people do work toward the greater good--especially young people, and that there is a sense of activism growing in the hearts and souls of a generation often typecast as self-serving, oblivious and apathetic. It was well-written and seemingly well-researched. Martin might be criticized for becoming involved personally with her subjects, but I have often found that one can discover more about people using a subjective approach than to keep the "object" of observation or documentation at a distance. Seven of these contemporary activists are real people who give great volumes of energy and themselves for what they believe in--big or small. Martin can only be praised for painting such a clear picture in such a short volume.Some interesting quotes:"Like so many teenagers of her generation--the most wanted and coddled in history--Rachel [Corrie] had a nagging sense that she had been sold a bill of goods about her own specialness." (5)"This struggle--between the system and the self, long-term and short-term change, the political and the personal--is one of the most palpable tensions. . . in all social justice work." (80)"The legacy that these activists carry with them, to one extent or another, is the 1960s-era activism that has become so iconic, and in some ways distorted, in its constant retelling. Vietnam War protests, civil rights marches, black power, and feminist struggles have been resurrected in word, image, and emotion for decades now--creating a sort of superactivist standard to which the activists of later generations inevitably compare themselves." (183)
One one hand, I understand and agree with the premise of this book. On the other, it feels sort of self-evident to me. I suppose, based on the responses to this book, not everyone had that reaction to it. Despite this, it's a good and fast read, vaguely compelling for me mostly because it is a very coherent argument.
Courtney E. Martin¿s Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists is a portrayal of the everyday lives of eight activists who work towards the improvement of everyday people¿s lives. Martin summarizes the purpose of her book by stating, ¿It [activism] is about listening deeply, investing time in really understanding another person¿s experience of the world, not turning away from the inconvenient truths of contemporary suffering¿ (p. 181). This book is not intended to turn the reader into an activist overnight, but instead illustrates how young people can create big change through small means. One activist chosen to illustrate her story, Emily Abt, is an excellent depiction of one person¿s struggle to find purpose in life while using that short time to leave the Earth better than when you were in it. Martin does an excellent job showing the variety of activists out there and showing that finding ways to improve society starts with one¿s own life struggles and then reducing those times for others in similar situations. I would recommend this book to any person looking to understand how activism is being done in today¿s society and the results of those actions.
I am a huge fan of Feministing and Courtney Martin's writings there; had I not won this book through ER, I would've bought it. I won it, however, and I have found that it would have been worth buying. Martin takes an informal and conversational yet informed take on activism in the 30 and below set. In the introduction, she lets it be known that she allowed her subjects to control their respective portrayals, which made me skeptical of the accounts being a glossing over of the truth. I could not have been further from the truth: the accounts are gritty and seem even-handed yet accurate, and with none of the implicit rancor that often accompanies the muckraking style of most non-fiction these days. The book does not necessarily answer the big questions, but it does present several examples of the different kinds of activism in which young people engage, and the conclusion also brings up a great philosophical discussion of current-day activism. It's as fresh as you'd expect from Feministing, and better than a lot of Jessica Valenti's writings.
Courtney Martin provides the reader with revealing profiles of eight young activists. Martin digs behind the actions to uncover what motivates these young people to devote themselves to making a difference in the world. Most of the activists portrayed are not seeking to change the world on a grand scale. Instead they are taking action within their communities to have an impact where they live. The portraits reveal each person¿s struggle to find and live his or her calling. Martin describes the false starts many of the individuals experienced on their way to finding their cause. Even then, many continue to wrestle with doubt.This is not a book on how to become an activist or how to do community organizing. It is a volume of human stories of people who care about how they use their lives for the common good. Martin¿s profiles assure us that there are young people who deeply care about their fellow humans. The book may be most useful to other young adults who are searching how to make a difference in their communities. Martin avoids romanticizing the activists she profiles. She reveals the struggles, doubts, and faults of those she writes about while also holding up their gifts, commitment, and courage.The book is well written. The people profiled are portrayed in their humanness and, as a result, can simultaneously evoke admiration and annoyance in the reader. Do not expect an activist manual. Do expect insight into the difficultly of becoming an activist. Then be inspired to do it anyway.
Courtney Martin writes eloquently and passionately about the new generation of activists. She profiles 8 different young, idealistic, dedicated, brave people who fight for causes as varied as a prison reentry social worker, environmental justice advocate and a radical, transgender anti-capitalist/philanthropist. She provides an inside look at the motivations, struggles and goals of each of the people she interviews, weaving in a good bit of her own experiences and observations as well. While I found some of her activists hard to relate to, and perhaps felt like the wrong generation demographic for her book, my sixties idealism was enough to carry me through to the end. I liked the last activist profiled the best, as I could relate to the motivations of a teacher trying to reach at risk kids. Some of the chapters held my interest better than others, and this book was not exactly what I expected it to be. If you are looking for insight into ways to make a difference in the world, this is not a how to manual. If you are interested in learning about young people who are driven to devote their lives to a cause they care deeply about, this is the book. All told, an interesting but not riveting read for me - perhaps I am either too mainstream or too old to rate it higher.
The word activist can have conflicted meanings, even among the myriad of privilege that Americans share. I felt that much of the far left was left out of the conversation.