We are living in a time where social media dominates our interactions and relationships. Although there have been countless think pieces devoted to slamming social media for hindering our ability to connect with one another, I would argue these mediums have actually increased our ability to communicate and have helped develop spaces where education, engagement and movements for change have flourished.
I'm a "millennial," a person of Christian faith and burgeoning activist in a community that uses social media as a primary vehicle for organizing and educating the wider community. But it wasn't until I went to seminary that I started to understand the connection and importance of digital media in organizing spaces.
Attending Vanderbilt Divinity School exposed me to a lot of passionate people and ideas I hadn't encountered previously. Many of my now closest friends are active in local or national organizing efforts, and it's because of their faith convictions that they engage in this work. Seeing their witness to God's justice-seeking love in the streets — a different kind of pulpit — challenged me to think deeper about the role faith can play in social movements and my own personal and theological commitments to justice.
If we believe the image of God is reflected in each person (Gen. 1:26), then we take seriously the tasks of providing safe spaces for all people and providing for one another's basic needs.
It was in seminary that I learned to put my faith into action, to preach the gospel with my hands and feet, and not just with my words. I learned that I could do something, even if I wasn't on the front lines as a directly impacted person. Even if I couldn't always be present, there were other ways I could be supportive in movements for justice.
A History of Social Media Activism
In a class I took on Religion & Social Movement theory, I was assigned to read a book about the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring refers to a movement — led mostly by young people in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and other Arab-majority nations — organized in protest of government abuses of power. Thousands turned out to protest in cities across several countries in coordinated efforts to make a stand. These efforts were largely made possible through social media channels. Although the exact origins of this movement are complex and the outcomes of the protests are equally complicated, young people in the Middle East with the ability to stream video, live tweet and document the events unfolding in their communities made their governments pause and take notice. There is no denying the powerful role social media played in these events.
I started to see the connection: Social media, when leveraged as a tool for organizing, played an incredibly important part in coordinating and executing direct actions and broader campaigns for justice. Thanks to the internet and the ways in which information travels, there is potential to reach thousands of people in minutes, which can dramatically shift the momentum and longevity of a social movement.
We need only look at a few examples:
- #BlackLivesMatter started simply as a hashtag by three black women in response to the pain and lament over Trayvon Martin's death and other unarmed black youth shot and killed by police or vigilantes, but has since grown into a national and international movement for racial justice.
- #Not1More was created in response to mass deportations of undocumented immigrants and refugees, and serves as a way to draw attention to the U.S. immigration system in the hope of reform.
- #YesAllWomen and #EverydaySexism began as sounding boards for women on Twitter who've experienced harassment, sexual violence and rampant sexism, and is a powerful way to shed light on the realities of how women and girls experience oppression in our society.
Slacktivism or Empowerment?
Hashtags, as an aspect of our current social media landscape, aren't just ways of categorizing "trending topics" or creating slogans for T-shirts. They also give voice to the people directly impacted and act as a way of calling folks into accountability.
But a lot of people are quick to dish criticisms that social media "slacktivism" is just a convenient way for folks to dodge responsibility or accountability to various causes.
It's true that it's "easier" to share a blog or 'like' an organization's Facebook page. It's also true that sometimes we can lose ourselves in the hype of what's trending and, in our "bandwagoning," we forget to critically reflect on our motives, intentions and the work that lies ahead. But assuming social media doesn't hold the same value as the physical, "on-the-ground" work of organizing and activism is not only wrong, but it is classist and ableist as well.
The reality is, participating in social movements, organizing and direct actions can be hard and/or inaccessible to a lot of people.
Not everyone can physically be present at a rally. Factors like reliable transportation, travel distance or lack of accessible spaces for folks living with disabilities who have particular mobility or sensory needs may exclude a lot of people. Some live in places where these community organizing activities are discouraged or dangerous, so staying connected online can be the only place where folks can get involved, stay updated and maintain life-giving relationships or find supportive community. When you have multiple jobs or a family, attending strategy or planning meetings might be out of the question, especially if there is no child care available. And with those commitments, some may not have the energy or the finances to contribute to movements, either directly or indirectly. Others may be turned off from movements simply because they can't access the vocabulary, theories and ideologies that movements represent and utilize.
It is for these reasons that social media activism — signing online petitions, starting crowd–funding campaigns, sharing information or showing solidarity from afar — should be seen as valid modes of participation that are just as important as any other types of action in efforts to create social change.
I was recently working with a group of college students visiting Nashville on an Alternative Spring Break trip to learn about the intersection of faith/spirituality and racial justice. We spent the week learning and serving with grass-roots organizers, passionate faith leaders and members of the Nashville community working along the lines of faith-based activism related to racial justice. On our final day together, I led the students in a reflective exercise asking these questions:
- What am I good at?
- What are my limits?
- Who are the organizations or communities that need the most help right now?
- What are the organizations or communities I'm connected/plugged into?
I wrote each question on a giant sheet of paper, and invited students to write their answers. As we moved through the prompts, it seemed as though the events and conversations of the past week became more real. We started to make the shift from theoretically addressing issues to actually making declarations about how we could be involved in social change. It shouldn't have been a surprise that as we began to write, we saw how different our answers were. In naming and voicing our talents, networks, hesitations and dreams for a better world, we started to see how we can be active in harnessing our divinely human powers for transformation.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.
Seeing students make these connections and find inspiration in who they are as young people gave me a new appreciation for a text I've heard preached over and over again: 1 Corinthians 12. Paul's challenge to see, affirm and value each member of the Corinthian community as an essential part of the Body of Christ hit my ears in a completely new way — not just because the metaphor translated easily to organizing, but because it also expanded my definition of community.
God has given each of us life, and we can use it to reflect the justice-seeking love and yearnings for wholeness and compassion we feel as Christians living in the light of Christ. But this gift of supporting each other is not just for those in our worshipping communities — it's for all people. Because we are human. And when we recognize our shared humanity, and that we all have different gifts or skills, experiences and embodiments, we serve the greater whole of this vast, beautiful body called our family in creation. Individually we cannot do it all, but when we lean into a collective effort that doesn't prioritize certain "body parts" or methods of doing over others, I believe creative transformation is possible.
Erin Guzmán, M.Div., currently lives, works, and dreams in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School discerning her future path(s) in ministry with young adults and social justice organizing. Erin frequently lends her time to assisting local movements and organizations with their graphic design or social media needs and is passionate about how digital tools and spaces inspire community and radical change.