Activist Labor: Thoughts on Getting Organized

Hubrig-TSAPHOTO20SEPT2017By Adam Hubrig

*Sigh* DACA. Climate Change. Education Policy. Institutional Racism. Community Literacy. Labor Rights. Disability Advocacy. “School Choice.” The Vanishing Tallgrass Prairie and Dwindling Number of Pollinators. And *sigh* . . . And *sigh*. . . And *sigh*. . .

As much as I want to, I can’t tackle it all.  None of us can tackle it all.

We only have so much labor we can contribute to the causes we believe in, and we have to be thoughtful and strategic about how we leverage those limited resources of physical and intellectual labor we can contribute as activists for our students and the causes we feel so strongly compelled to address.

To unpack this issue of labor as a limited resource, consider the article “What Kind of Citizen” by Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne. It is cited and circulated widely among practitioners of many disciplines, but I was introduced to it through my work in Community Literacy and Civic Engagement.  In the article, Westheimer and Kahne provide a useful framework for thinking about the implications of citizenship.  They define three visions of engaged citizenship, which are less distinct categories but rather broad philosophies that often blend together.  These categories are:

  • Personally-Responsible Citizenship
  • Participatory Citizenship
  • Justice-Oriented Citizenship

These categories speak to the question “What kind of citizen do we need to support an effective democratic society?” and Westheimer and Kahne use them to explore how these visions of citizenship might impact educators’ approaches to the noble goal of teaching for an engaged citizenry.

Expanding this framework to think about activism has been helpful for me as I reflect on my own activism and community involvement and how it often takes different shapes. I hope it might be useful for you, too, in thinking about the question what kind of activism best leverages our labor to affect change in our communities?

Personally-Responsible Activism

Westheimer and Kahne’s framework begins with the personally-responsible citizen, who personifies all of the basic etiquettes of engaged citizenship you were likely taught in grade school; follow the rules/laws, don’t litter, do recycle, and volunteer when the mood strikes you.  Westheimer and Kahne’s primary example, threaded throughout their writing, is that of dealing with hunger: the personally-responsible citizen is the one who might donate some cans of soup and potted meat to the food drive.

The personally-responsible citizen is primarily concerned with tending to the most immediate perceivable threats and worries.  This kind of citizenship is certainly important.  I think, here, about the outpouring of support in these last weeks for Hurricane victims and how that immediate, tangible response is necessary for relief now.  But it also has its limitations; the personally-responsive citizen is primarily reactionary and does not address the systems in place that cause or contribute to the problem(s).

In the category of Personally-Responsible Activist, we see activist work that deals with immediate needs.  I think, here, about work I do alone or as a volunteer for community organizations; working with People’s City Mission in Lincoln to address homelessness, participating in marches and rallies, providing habitats in my backyard for solitary bees, and writing letters to my elected representatives all seem like work I do as an activist that fit in this category.  I see my work advocating for my students, here, as one-on-one meetings where I address student concerns or vote for representatives-both within and outside of the institution where I teach-who will most justly and fairly represent my students.

Community literacy scholars try to encourage their students to work as thoughtful citizens, often engaging them in work as activists, too.  There are certainly community literacy projects that fit this framework of engaging students on a level of personally-responsible activism.  These projects are foremost concerned with students’ individual actions; projects designed, for instance, to get students to complete a certain amount of volunteer hours or attend a specific event and write a reflection essay.  These are all geared toward personally-responsible activism.

I don’t mean to belittle anyone engaging in the work of personally-responsible activism, here. It’s important to address these immediate needs, and personally-responsible activist work such as participating in public demonstrations or providing literacy workshops are useful to our communities.  But there are also other approaches available to those of us who aspire to be teacher-scholar-activists, and thinking strategically about these kinds of activism can help us better leverage the limited physical and intellectual labor we wish to contribute to these causes we’re investing our resources in.

Participatory Activism

Returning for a moment to the “citizenship” framework provided by Westheimer and Kahne, we’re presented with the “Participatory Citizen”.  The participatory citizen engages in work closely tied to collective, community-based efforts.  This view of citizenship recognizes the power of collectives; if, in Westheimer and Kahne’s example, the personally-responsible citizen is the one giving soup to the food bank, the participatory citizen is the one organizing the food bank and going door to door for donations.

This work, in terms of my own activism, is some of the work that I find most personally rewarding and satisfying; I serve as Co-Director for an organization called The Writing Lincoln Initiative, for example, where I help organize volunteers to work with different community partners to provide literacy workshops in Lincoln, Nebraska.  I also work with groups of K-College writing teachers through my role as Co-Director of the Nebraska Writing Project to help teachers organize to respond to various concerns education faces (of which there are certainly many).  This organizing with other teachers and with students to various ends is deeply rewarding work, and I’ve seen it have largely positive impacts on communities.

But it, too, is primarily reactionary in that it addresses, in a more systematic and less-short term way than personally-responsible activism, symptoms caused by larger problems.  Again, this brand of participatory activism is important, necessary labor, but there are also other strategies that can be used to affect change across our communities; how else can our labor be leveraged?

Justice-Oriented Activism

The third vision of citizenship Westheimer and Kahne explore is the “justice-oriented” citizen, who “use rhetoric and analysis that calls explicit attention to matters of injustice and to the importance of pursuing social justice” (242).  In their example of addressing hunger, the Justice-Oriented Citizen uses their rhetorical, analytical savvy to address what flaws in our current system are the causes of there being humans who need the food bank in the first place.

Westheimer and Kahne’s framework for the justice-oriented citizen is laden with abstractions, and extending this framework to activism creates a potential trap of inaction; it’s not enough, shifting this framework to reflect on activism, to identify the sources and causes of those concerns (though it is an important and necessary step), we must move to action, action which frequently involves the other two visions of activism.

This kind of activism strategically leverages our labor to address the root causes of systemic issues.  Most of the labor I do is not this kind of work.  I am trying to use my labor towards this kind of activism in my own classroom through a partnership with Nebraskans for Civic Reform, a group I’m collaborating with to help other teachers in the Nebraska Writing Project network make issues of civic engagement real and tangible in their classrooms, a proactive approach to strengthening democratic involvement.

Though my personal contributions to Nebraskans for Civic Reform are self-contained, the work the organization takes on is, by its nature, Justice-Oriented Activism. It’s labor focused on addressing and changing specific causes of inequality in our democratic system.  This work aims to not only relieve symptoms of this inequality but to address root causes, mobilizing labor to change a system rather than deal with its end products.

The strategy of governance as activism, outlined in a previous post here by Holly Hassel, is a great example of leveraging our labor towards Justice-Oriented Activism.  Hassel guides us as teacher-scholar-activists to work collaboratively in the governing bodies of our departments or schools to affect policy to the benefit of our students, writing that “A well-run, competent, and active senate can be a unified and collaborative voice for constituents who can best reflect the ‘on the ground’ experience of those who are served by and who serve the institution.”  Hassel points us to Justice-Oriented Activism through our labor, pinpointing a political arena where we as educators can best affect meaningful change for our students.

I wonder how I can reimagine more of my activist work in proactive, justice-oriented terms, how I can better leverage my labor inside and outside the classroom.  While this framework has been helpful in prompting reflection on activist labor, it leaves me with so many questions; how can we do more as activists with students in our classrooms to facilitate the kinds of discussions necessary for change(s) to occur?  How can we work with our peers and colleagues as activists to affect change in ways that are strategic and productive?  How can we use our own research and scholarship, as activists, to best serve ourselves, our students, and our communities?  How can we best leverage the labor we’re already engaged in to have the greatest impact both to relieve the symptoms and the causes of the difficulties our communities face?

I’m not sure, yet, but I’m excited to work with you to keep inventing, inquiring, and interrupting.


Adam Hubrig began teaching in the writing center and as an adjunct at Southeast Community College in Lincoln, Nebraska.  His love for writing, education, and community engagement led him to be deeply involved with the Nebraska Writing Project and the Writing Lincoln Initiative, serving as Co-Director of both organizations. He is currently a Ph.D. student in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he teaches courses on and is fascinated by Community Literacy, Civic Engagement, and alternative forms of argumentation. He and his partner, Tiffany, enjoy volunteering in their community and tending to a meager garden, four snuggly cats, and solitary bees in Seward, Nebraska.  Reach him at or follow him on Twitter @AdamHubrig.


Westheimer, Joel and Joseph Kahne.  “What Kind of Citizen?  Political Choices and Educational Goals.” Encounters on Education, 2003.



Author: darinljensen

I am a writer and a teacher who is interested in issues of class and social justice.

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