The year I was in third grade, my sister and I went with our mother on a medical brigade to El Salvador. We helped out in the pharmacy while she was seeing patients, and on the weekends, we learned about the country’s civil war and ongoing recovery. I heard stories of assassination, chaos, and continued repression, and I learned that my government had armed and trained some of the very troops who ran in government-aligned death squads.
One afternoon, we visited a town where a brigade of guerillas had operated during the war. We sat in the pews of the town church while survivors told their stories. One man described in detail the butchery he had witnessed. I had never known real violence, and at first, my young mind let me understand his story only in distant and abstract terms. But the measured insistence of his voice and his simple presence in the room closed our distance and made his story real.
My mother eventually beckoned for me to leave with her and my sister, but I couldn’t move. I remember imagining what that story must have required of the man who told it. I remember thinking that if I just listened to every word, then I could never be like the men of the death squads or the Americans who helped them.
Back home, I began to follow politics. I learned in history class of activist leaders who had instituted social change through speech and sacrifice. I wanted to make change like that, but I couldn’t see myself doing what they did—I was a person who had once hidden under the table to avoid being the center of my Happy Birthday chorus.
While I was in college, Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, came to my school to speak. He slouched on stage and rarely glanced beyond the fourth row of our campus’s thousand-person auditorium, but he filled the space with his energy and the moral power of his arguments. He spoke of the injustice inherent in humanity’s environmental crisis, and he did so in a voice like my own.
In the following months, I proceeded to read everything I could about climate change. Everything I learned said that the fundamentals of McKibben’s arguments were sound: Climate change is bound to turn inequality to crisis as grain yields plateau and severe weather becomes more common. Little time remains to wean ourselves from fossil fuels. Some areas of the world are already beyond saving.
But even after a year of reading, I felt unable to grasp the full meaning of the crisis. It was monumental but distant and desperately urgent but bound to outlive us all. Its contradictions drove me to engage at a deeper level, but I couldn’t imagine what form my work might take.
And then I thought, “Maybe my activism is quieter.” I still didn’t know if I could ever be the person shouting in the center of the square, but I remembered that time listening in the shadows of the church. In that moment, it seemed to me that as much as this problem needed the urgency of in-the-streets activism, it also needed the quiet hope of listening.
And I thought, “That is something I can do.” When lies become an art and a science, so cleverly removed from the violence they make easy, when truths become so tribal and tangential that they are a distraction from reality, then maybe justice can be found in a pause.
Coinciding with last year’s Paris Climate Conference, demonstrations around the world pushed for climate justice and a strong UN deal. I was cycling through China at the time in search of climate stories and decided to attend Hong Kong’s march.
The group of marchers met on a public pier near the city’s Ferris wheel. It was a bright blue morning. People drifted and talked, glancing around in expectation. Reporters rushed to grab quotes from activists and officials.
I walked among the marchers with my camera, wordlessly following the other photographers and journalists. This felt too familiar, being alone in a crowd, being constitutionally incapable of approaching anybody and not knowing why. What’s wrong with you? I asked myself. You talk to strangers all the time when there’s not such a mass of people.
Then I paused and looked around. Among the people, I saw others like me, standing and watching. Some had signs, others didn’t, but they all stood apart from the cameras and recorders. Their eyes scanned the crowd, active, and some spoke among themselves.
The march started to move along the waterfront. There were no shouted slogans here; I don’t know whether they were forbidden or whether it was just the calmness of the day. The French consulate and the lead organizers were holding a conspicuous conversation at the front, affirming the importance of a strong Paris accord and the strength of Hong Kongers’ voices at today’s event.
I began to seek out the less-interviewed. Marching along were farmers from nearby islands, a man from the Bahamas with a sign reading “Save my home,” a clean finance expert just back from school in the UK, and a pair of women who had happened upon the march while out for a walk. Their stories met on that day in that march, but each of these people had their own reason for being there.
The term “environmentalist” conjures an acutely specific image: effusive about their love for the outdoors, they are outspoken about their lifestyle and politics and always ready to proselytize against harm to the natural world. When I ask activists who they are and why they believe in action on climate change, most use pieces of that image to cobble together their answer. I think it’s time to reach further.
The 21st century’s problems require a re-understanding of what activism is and has been, a new mythology of social movements that includes the stories of the silent heroes (and better understands the quiet ones who spoke anyway). We need a new activism, one that exists as a collaboration between the urgency, commotion, contemplation, and quiet permanence of a pluralistic movement for justice.
Social movements are moral arguments that we make to society, highlighting systemic flaws and the urgent need for their eradication. And like all good arguments, the movements that we remember tell compelling stories.
The stories we tell about social movements—stories of sit-ins, vote-ins, arrests, and speeches—instill an urge for justice in young minds but teach us little of the day-to-day requirements of social change. They revolve around the most public moments of a few key figures and leave out the countless people and hours of work that made those moments possible. These stories become fables, and we forget that movements craft them primarily to generate moral clarity in their own historical moments, and not as historical records or instructions for future generations.
In glorifying the spot-lit moments of a few key players, we not only ignore the talents and accomplishments of those who prefer to work in the wings but alienate introverts from the notion of an activist path. Much of the everyday work of a social movement involves strategy, writing, and working in small teams. We need to tell those stories too and bring quiet justice-seekers to activism.