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How is “The Activist” the Opposite of Systems Change? Let Us Count the Ways

By September 14, 2021May 17th, 2022No Comments

Remember Pepsi’s tone deaf ad with Kendall Jenner? The Activist feels the same.

By now you’ve probably heard that celebrities Usher, Priyanka Chopra and Julianne Hough have signed on to a new reality show/competition series called “The Activist.” From Deadline:

“The Activist is a competition series that features six inspiring activists teamed with three high-profile public figures working together to bring meaningful change to one of three vitally important world causes: health, education, and environment.

Activists go head-to-head in challenges to promote their causes, with their success measured via online engagement, social metrics, and hosts’ input. The three teams have one ultimate goal: to create impactful movements that amplify their message, drive action, and advance them to the G20 Summit in Rome, Italy. There, they will meet with world leaders in the hope of securing funding and awareness for their causes. The team that receives the largest commitment is celebrated as the overall winner at the finale, which will also feature musical performances by some of the world’s most passionate artists.”

Did you read that description and react with an immediate, visceral cringe? You’re not alone. The backlash has been swift and furious. Some have said it sounds like ‘oppression Olympics’ while others noted it seems like we are approaching dystopian Black Mirror territory. Here’s why:

  1. Systems change isn’t neatly packaged. While yes we can acknowledge the power of messaging and outreach, this is not the way.
  2. This just isn’t how it happens. There is a longer arc of generations of work that have gotten us to this point. Gamifying activism diminishes the history and complexity of progress.
  3. Poverty (and trauma) porn is real and wealthy celebrities asking activists to beg and compete for their attention and money perpetuates poverty porn and problematic narratives. Systemic social issues are not here for your entertainment.
  4. Performative activism from celebrities is not systems change. See “Poverty Porn” above.
  5. We are so tired of wealthy people trying to make themselves feel better through their performative “charitable” acts. Take a note from Mackenzie’s playbook and give away your wealth without asking for grant applications or activism olympics. Get to know the people behind the work and causes and give to them without any fanfare or acknowledgement. Try on that feeling for a change.
  6. Do we even have to make this list? Yes, yes we do . . .
  7. And, we’ll just leave this here and say, we aren’t here to perpetuate “cancel” culture, but there’s something to be said for a white person wearing blackface and the blindspots that come with that decision and now we’re expecting that person to be the face of activism?

    We were not alone in our feelings.

In the meantime please enjoy this sadly comical list of suggestions from one of our favorite non profit writers Vu Le: 10 shows about nonprofit and philanthropy that would be way better than “The Activist”.