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Saturday 08 April 2017

Advocacy and Activism: Michael Stevens

Posted in: People
By - 14th December 2016

As we fight for a future free from oppression, activism and advocacy are the building blocks of our communities. We take a look at the work of a diverse range of people who fight for change.

What does advocacy and/or activism mean to you?

It means taking a stand, often in public, to bring about change. It means getting involved. It means getting informed about issues and the causes that sit behind them and figuring out ways to do something about them.It often carries some element of personal or social risk.

How did you first become involved in advocacy and/or activism and what kind of work do you do?

I guess I first became involved in activism at age 18 at Auckland University when I joined Gay Liberation, and I did that because I knew I was gay and I could see the injustice in the situation back then. I'm talking 1979 - very different times, but it was clear to me that I wanted change, so I had to get involved.

Later on, working in HIV activism was also based in my personal experience as a poz gay man. I could feel the effects of injustice and wanted to change them, so I got involved.

As we used to say "The personal is political". These things all affected me directly. If I'd been the straight Parnell boy who turned into a lawyer/doctor/accountant as so many of my peers did, I'd never have become involved in this work. So my personal circumstances are what shaped my activism.

My current work with the Rainbow Tick is probably more advocacy than activism but the line between the two is hard to define. I'm still working for fairness and for our rights to be treated as equals, but now with a focus on the workplace, with the aim of ensuring we can be ourselves. Most people have to work, and they should be able to work in an environment where they are treated with dignity and respect..

What issues are you most passionate about?

In one word, injustice. Injustice denies people equal opportunities to have a good life. We only have this life, there is no other, and that's why I think all people should be given the best opportunities to live it well, and that means fair access to housing, health, work, all the things that we need for a good life, and the things that a minority often manipulate to their own benefit.

How do you see these issues being addressed - what needs to change?

So much needs to change - but I don't believe we will ever create utopia. But things such as the gender pay gap can be addressed, by hard work, by raising issues, by knocking on the doors of the powerful and making compelling arguments. You change the culture by changing the story it tells about itself.

How do you think activism has changed over the years and what does it look like today?

Every generation needs to rediscover activism in ways that make sense to them , and this means there is a lot of reinventing of the wheel, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. For example, many in the LGBT+ worlds are framing things up in terms of intersectionality now. I'd say in my youth we talked of solidarity, meaning the same thing. We saw the commonalities of our experiences, of how we were denied certain rights by the same groups of vested interests and worked together to support each other. So my first real protest work was around abortion law reform, and a growing understanding of feminism, and later I was involved in the anti-Springbok tour work. But as a gay man I saw these all as connected, and also connected to my own oppression, and I'd say we all did.So things get re-named and that gives a sense of ownership to new generations.

I guess the major change now is the way people connect and do things online - it's a mixed blessing - it makes connecting easier, but I think it also means people don't get involved as much.Slactavisim is a real issue - clicking "Like" on Facebook doesn't do much but people seem to thin it does.

What is one thing that you have learned from your activism or advocacy work?

I think the main lesson I've learnt is that social change comes slowly, after a lot of hard and often boring work. Social change is incremental rather than revolutionary. It requires building alliances, it requires compromise. Holding out for ideological purity, as we often did when I was young, achieves nothing but a sense of self-satisfaction. If you want results, you have to engage with what is real right now and try and shift it. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.There is nothing more bourgeois and smug than a group of activists weeping and wailing as they claim the moral high ground but getting nothing done.

Who inspires you to keep going?

Injustice still really pisses me off.I think it's easy to spot, but hard to rectify. And I don't see progress as inevitable. Change can go both ways. Things can go backwards. President Obama like to quote Martin Luther-King's line about the arc of the moral universe tending towards justice - I don't believe that. The universe has no interest either for or against justice. If we don't stay vigilant our enemies can win ground back.And we do have enemies.But sometimes I get tired.

What would you say to anyone who is wanting to make a difference in their community but doesn’t know where to start?

Get informed about the issues. Talk to people who are involved already. I love the passion that young people typically bring, but be aware of the need to be pragmatic too.

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- 14th December 2016