When you hear the word “activist”, what do you think? What images come to mind? Protestors chanting in the streets? Catch phrases and slogans? Home made signs and colorful banners? Maybe a young girl reprimanding leaders of the United Nations for stealing young people’s future? All of this would be true. In the fight for a sustainable world we may be likely to think of very visible, public figures such as Greta Thunberg as activists; or even blockbuster celebrities with a very large audience such as Emma Thompson, Matt Damon, Harrison Ford. These public figures have a massive influence and a broad reach, with the ability to reach hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people given their very public platform—to say nothing of their social media accounts. But what does a more local activism look like? The kind being acted out every day by students, faculty, moms, dads, and “everyday” people who lack the ability, or even desire, to reach such a broad swath of the public? Can one person’s daily decisions make a difference? Can little acts change the wide world? One BSU student thinks so.
Alexa Distefano is a twenty-five-year-old senior at Bridgewater State University (BSU) majoring in Health Studies. She commutes to school and works as a massage therapist to help pay her way. She also balances work and school with family life, a relationship, and personal responsibilities. In this, Alexa is like many other students at BSU: she doesn’t have the luxury of being able to focus solely on school work: life is happening. Alexa also looks like a college student: laid back attitude, backpack slung across the shoulder walking across campus on her way to or from class, sneakers, perhaps a fleece pullover on cooler days, a reusable hydro-flask, or, in warmer months, a mason jar. And yet, this “ordinary” appearance belies a life, and lifestyle, whose every action connotes rebellion against an economic system that views and treats Nature as a commodity: her canvas sneakers speak to a refusal to purchase leather goods: her natural-fiber duds voice an endorsement of renewable and sustainable clothing products: her mason jar and reusable straw in summer months convey an unwillingness to contribute to single-use plastic pollution. On a less visible level, Alexa practices veganism, and makes some attempt to purchase products that don’t contribute to the climate crisis, such as purchasing shampoo or other products not containing palm oil. I say “some” attempt because, well, have you ever tried to make it through a day without using a product containing palm oil? Here’s a list: peanut butter, chocolate, shampoo, soap, lipstick, instant noodles, ice cream, bread, detergents, cookies, pizza dough, to name a few. Given this level of commitment, one might also expect to find Distefano out there with others in the streets, protesting agro-business and fossi fuel corporations, shouting slogans, carrying a home-made sign or chaining herself to a tree—these are, perhaps, the images most readily associated with the term activism. And in this, we would be mistaken. Distefano’s activism is quiet, but no less effective. And like her path toward it, unlikely.
Alexa Distefano grew up like every other kid in America, eating nuggets and pizza and red meat, playing sports. But something happened around the age of ten that helped to set her on her current course. During one of our conversations, Distefano thoughtfully reflected on this moment, citing her love of animals and her desire to be a vet as the initial impetus behind what we today call sustainable living: “Ethically [I] chose to not eat meat; it was solely for the animals, you know? I had no idea of the bigger picture”. The bigger picture being the environment, factory farming, slash and burn forestry, inhumane treatment of animals, etc. This meatless trend lasted for some time, though not forever, at one point even rejecting the idea of veganism altogether: “I’ll never be vegan. I love steak, I love to go camping and grill, and all that stuff”. That was her response to a friend’s veganism as a teenager. One senses in Alexa’s mindset here a sort of teenage stubbornness, an immaturity, maybe even an inability or unwillingness to see things from another’s point of view. However, through self-reflection and with time, Alexa came to understand that dismissing this ethical decision had nothing to do with her friend being misguided or alarmist; rather, her disdain arose because she came to understand that “Lifestyle change is hard”, and something like that requires an enormous investment, an investment most are unwilling to make. Her rejection had nothing to do with her friend or her choice; it had everything to do with how hard a decision that was going to be.
And yet, Alexa has beat overwhelming odds to become who she is today. She didn’t grow up in a home that encouraged a sustainable lifestyle/behavior, or even one that displayed an awareness of such. She grew up in a household where mom struggled, and struggles, with addiction and mental health issues—nearly 20% of Americans live with a mental illness, and nearly 50% of all Americans will experience a mental health related issue in their lifetime (#endstigma)—and a father who was supportive of pretty much anything, even quitting. Moreover, Alexa herself has wrestled with the fact that, “When [she] was a teen there were times [she] wanted to die more than [she] wanted to live.” Now, I don’t want to paint a picture that Alexa’s childhood was all darkness and despair; it wasn’t; and she has many happy memories; but there were times when it was hard to see the light. So, to be in a position today where she is talking passionately and glowingly about a future with her boyfriend, of being in love, of a commitment to finishing her degree, about fulfilling her dream of moving to India to study Yoga, and being part of the solution to the climate crisis, in other words, about a future filled with expectation and hope, is like the hatchling sea-turtle who makes it to maturity. Think about those odds.
And so brings us to the student-activist people meet today, in her canvas shoes carrying around a mason jar and a stainless steel straw, which often inspires questions. In an email exchange we shared, Alexa mused, “People always stare when I get my repurposed jars filled with coffee”, but rather than allow this to make her uncomfortable, she views this as a way to “get a response out of people”, a way to “challenge the people around me, both directly and indirectly.” That challenge comes in the form of conversations, which she hopes to start. In a way, this is quite brilliant. This method of activism and personal outreach has a better statistical chance of succeeding. Why? Several reasons. First, trolling is much less likely to happen in a face to face conversation than it is, say, online. It’s easy to toss insults and be dismissive behind a screen name and digital profile. This also means that those who do engage Alexa in conversation are much more likely to be open minded to change because she allows them to begin. And finally, face to face engagements like this are less likely to devolve into name calling and/or equating others identity with an ideology. Thus, in the best-case scenario, Alexa, at the very least, has taken the opportunity to give others something to think about.
I used the phrase “quiet activist” above. This is not just a description of Alexa or the kind of activism Alexa practices; that is to say, I did not coin the term. This is a specific kind of activism that uses non-confrontational approaches in an attempt to affect the same kind of change utilized by more vocal or visible movements such as School Strike for Climate, Zero Hour and 350.org. Only, it does so without the fanfare, without spectacle, and on a very personal and intimate level. Quiet Activism has garnered somewhat more public attention recently, and its most visible proponent is Sarah Corbett. Corbett is a self-described introvert and quiet activist; she has a Ted Talk on the subject and has appeared on the Ted Radio Hour. During her interview with Guy Raz, she juxtaposes the popular image of protest with that of Quiet Activism:
Campaigning doesn’t have to be petitions or demonstrations or strikes. It can be asking questions of the right people, finding out who influences them. The most effective success in a campaign is if someone makes a decision who’s already in power who can put that decision in place, and they don’t even realize that you are helping to change their mind. You don’t get any praise for it. And they might not even realize that you’ve helped change their heart or their mind or their business policy or their – you know, their law and government.
Corbett is clearly talking about influencing those already in power, but it’s easy to see how this principle can be applied at any level or scale, such as the local coffee shop or cafeteria, and with anyone. Change one mind and you change the world. Distefano speaks of the power of planting seeds, not of harvesting the ready crop; she speaks not of changing the world, but of changing “someone’s world”. There is no doubt that more visible activists like Greta Thunberg are right when they argue that the entire system is broken and needs replacing; but to do so, we need to change minds, and that is the type of work Alexa Distefano is doing. Her scale is different, but no less important or impactful.
Alexa is unusual as an activist in that she has no social media presence: she does not have a Facebook account, Instagram, does not Tweet or read Reddit threads, nor does she run a website. Even Sarah Corbett, self-professed introvert, mentioned above, is working on outreach. However, Alexa is not alone. Recently, Tim DeChristopher deleted his Twitter account, citing an unhealthy relationship with social media. (DeChristopher earned notoriety for his successful fake bid on public lands at a Utah land auction in order to prevent fracking. He was subsequently the subject of the documentary Bidder 70, and only very recently, January 3rd, in fact, was arrested yet again, this time for stopping a train from delivering coal to a power plant.)
Now, this is not to say that Alexa is in any way an introvert, shy, or antisocial. In fact, as stated above, she seeks to engage individuals in conversation through her actions, or, at least, welcomes and engages in the conversation her reusable and/or repurposed items inspire. Moreover, Alexa’s reservations regarding mass protests stem not from her personality or her anxiety about crowds, but rather her understanding of the consumer-driven, “like-addicted” technological era. Alexa equates rallies with social media. She is both in awe and skeptical of their (social media and public demonstrations) power: “It’s weird,” she begins, “with rallies I see their power but feel like there are a lot of people who just go to be part of something … people talk about buzzwords for the hype, followers, likes, etc.” In this, she is not wrong; in a HuffPost article (from 2013!) titled, “The Social Media Borg: A Culture of Likes”, Sam Fiorella argues that a “culture of likes” includes a “pressure to fall in line”. There is, moreover, a growing body of research that shows how social media creates and enforces division, and Jay David Bolter has shown how social media “has turned into a mechanism for political indoctrination”. Thus, Alexa’s neglect of social media allows her to avoid catch phrases, meme-based knowledge, and “mic-drop” moments that possess the power of ending, rather than starting, conversations. If we, as a society and a planet, are going to make systemic changes to the way we live and operate our economies, we need to be having real discussions about these things, and liking a post or link, is simply not enough. Alexa Distefano is one step ahead of most.
At the heart of Alexa’s activism is action and the belief that yes, in fact, one person can make a difference. Does she want to talk about the climate crisis and the future of our environment? Yes, of course. Is that all she wants to do? Does she give a damn about likes and clicks? Hell no! Recently, Friday, in fact, a student in my course professed that there is nothing we can do to change our current situation given the state of the environment, that all the activism, all the donations, are all in vain. This is exactly the attitude Alexa wants to fight and prevent. She makes a difference every day with her choices. It’s activists like Alexa that prove this student wrong. It’s also this level of commitment that makes this author look in the mirror and ask, “What the hell have you done to leave the world a better place today?” Well?
Get out there; and make a difference.
If you have questions for Alexa or myself, please leave a comment below.