Activism is all around us, but how much of it actually makes a difference? I’m an efficiency person: I don’t like wasting my time, and I prefer to put my efforts into things that are more likely to generate change, and hopefully make a positive difference for people in this world.  However identifying what is effective is not always easy, especially when effectiveness relies not only on an individual’s efforts but on the wider collective effort of which the individual is a part, and when the time frame for change spans years instead of days (hours, minutes!).  To help refine my thinking, in this blog post I will look at historical activists to try to glean some activism lessons.

Hone Heke was a well-known rangitira in Aotearoa who is famous for his outwitting of British military, slipping past multiple times to cut down the flag pole at Kororareka which was flying only the British flag – despite the recently-signed Treaty of Waitangi that promised dual governance of Aotearoa New Zealand. He was successful in making a statement that is remembered even today, yet all his efforts did not get the British government to take the Treaty any more seriously.  Perhaps his actions can be seen in a long line of protests that has led in the late 20th century to the New Zealand government recognising and then trying to honour the Treaty – a time frame of around 150 years.  This may count as successful activism for the Māori people, but I’m not sure Hone would see it that way.

Hone Heke

 McCormick, Arthur David, 1860-1943 :Heke fells the flagstaff at Kororareka. (Page 109). [1908]. From McCormick, Arthur David 1860-1943 :[Illustrations from “New Zealand; romance of empire”, by Reginald Horsley…with twelve reproductions in colour from drawings by A.D. McCormick, R.I. London, T.C. & E.C. Jack, 1908]. Ref: A-004-037. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.  Public Domain.

Another personality who became famous for her actions is Wendy Davis, an American politician from Texas. She talked for eleven hours to stall some legislation, but as the Wikipedia entry shows, this was not eventually successful:

On June 25, 2013, Davis held an eleven-hour-long filibuster to block Senate Bill 5, a measure which included more restrictive abortion regulations for Texas. The filibuster played a major role in Senate Democrats’ success in delaying passage of the bill beyond the midnight deadline for the end of the legislative session, though it ultimately passed in a second session. The filibuster brought Davis national attention, leading to speculation about a run for governor.[4] She subsequently ran for governor in 2014, losing to Greg Abbott by 59% to 39% of the vote.


Portrait of Wendy Davis (American Politician), by Kevin Sutherland, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Do we perhaps have to wait for 150 years to see the effects? Unless she is in the middle of the 150 years?  How can we tell?

A woman who made a difference when she took a stand – actually, when she took a seat – was Rosa Parks, from Montgomery Alabama. Her arrest in 1943 for not giving her seat up for white people as a protest against discrimination sparked a bus boycott that succeeded in getting the law in that local area changed.  She was not the first to protest, and it was not her first act of resistance; but in this event, the local civil rights association decided that the time was right to use Rosa as a figurehead for a campaign that had a chance of being effective.  The NAACP supported her court case and initiated the bus boycott that lasted over a year.  The legal proceedings ended up being bogged down, Rosa certainly suffered as a result of her identification with the cause, but the two achievements were at the level of repeal of the discriminatory bus legislation (the financial impact of the boycott being a major factor) and a raising of awareness of the civil rights struggle.  Rosa’s single act of defiance was independent, and did not cause a change to legislation – but it was the catalyst for collective and sustained activism that did cause a change.  The wider issue of civil rights was always going to be more nebulous, so “effectiveness” is difficult to measure.


Photograph of Rosa Parks (ca. 1955)  by Unknown – USIA/ National Archives and Records Administration Records of the U.S. Information Agency,  ID: 306-PSD-65-1882 (Box 93). Source: Ebony Magazine via Wikimedia Commons.  Public Domain.

Hinewehi Mohi is a woman who also embodied the idea of a single act of resistance, carried out in the course of one’s daily routine, becoming the catalyst for wider action and debate. She was asked to sing the New Zealand national anthem at the 1999 Rugby World cup, and she chose to sing it only in te reo Māori.  It sparked a lot of debate as can be seen in this video from Te Ara (here), and the response was for the government and sporting bodies to promote the singing of the national anthem in both languages – something that is now commonplace.  Successful activism.  Give it a big tick!  Like Rosa, Hinewehi was already interested in promoting te reo Māori, yet her activist action was an independent action rather than part of a coordinated campaign.  Also like Rosa, Hinewehi’s action was a catalyst and she became a figurehead, the public face, of a campaign.  A final lesson from these two women: the campaigns were directed towards achieving something specific, something relatively small in the scheme of things, something achievable.  A benefit in both cases was the raising of awareness of the bigger issues involved, part of the ongoing collective action but only in an incremental way, relying on the building up of incremental steps to make a bigger difference overall.

My own contribution to activism is currently also focused on my local sphere of influence, through the National Council of Women (NCW). By being part of a larger group, I hope that a difference can be made (even incrementally!) to achieving gender equality.  However I feel that NCWNZ needs to review their procedures and question which parts of their systems contribute to effective activism in today’s world, and which are being clung to simply because of tradition (remembering that NCWNZ was started by Kate Sheppard in 1896).  At the recent NCWNZ conference Megan Blenkarne and I participated in a debate to propose that “the NCWNZ resolution process is not effective in creating policy”, against the opposing team of Beryl Anderson and Anne Todd.  The two sides of the debate have been summarised in the November/Whiringi-ā-rangi newsletter The Circular.  Below are some photos from the debate – Megan and I wore boxes to demonstrate the restrictiveness of the current process (we broke out of the boxes, dramatically, near the start).

ncwnz14 Debate 2 ncwnz14 Debate 1

Photos of NCWNZ debate, from Twitter #ncwnz14, public domain.

In this activist protest, we:

  • were trying to create a memorable and succinct message, that was
  • delivered in the course of usual routine (the NCWNZ annual conference), when we deemed that
  • the conditions and timing were conducive (the Board has already been championing procedural changes through, for example, constitutional review), yet
  • was not the beginning or the end of the activism, just the most visible, and we
  • targeted a specific action (changing the NCWNZ processes) with
  • some likelihood of success, whilst
  • holding onto a larger ideal (activism by NCWNZ for gender equality).

Let’s see what effect this will have.