Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Open Source Activism

I've always meant to be an activist. Like many Americans I actually do care about this planet and the people on it, and am often disturbed by things like poverty, genocide and toxic waste. I've even gone as far as contacting organizations that are devoted to such causes, hoping to find a feasible way to get involved. But sooner or later my sincere intentions are hijacked by the tyranny of the urgent, and life returns me to my regularly scheduled program. At times it feels something like a cross between The Amazing Race and The Simpsons.

I grew up in an age where the experts and rebels were the ringleaders, and the rest of us mostly just jumped on the bandwagons they sent our way. My kids can hardly fathom a world where ideas were spread primarily through lectures, demonstrations, printed matter and folk songs. To them, it's perfectly normal that a quick Google blog search on toxic waste yields 179,531 results. To me it is astonishing that there are thousands of people all over the world who are speaking out and connecting over this issue. I find it even more remarkable that I can jump into these "conversations" at any time.

Blogs are just one example of what many are calling "open source activism," which is built upon the premise that the problems in our world are public domain. I first heard the term while interviewing Justin Dillon, the musician-turned-filmmaker who made the 2008 movie Call and Response. This thirty-something guy happened to read an article in the New York Times about human trafficking. Some time later he was playing music in Russia and ran into some women who were giddy about job offers they had received from the United States - offers that sounded an awful lot like the ones described in the newspaper article. He said that an alarm went off in his head that sounded much like a summons. This was somehow his responsibility. So what did he do? He wrote a song about it. He did a benefit concert in his hometown. And then he had an idea to put together a "Concert to End Slavery." Dillon approached Walden Media and asked if they were interested in getting behind the effort; surprisingly they said yes, and a rockumentary was born. One day this guy was largely an unknown singer/songwriter playing whatever gigs he could get; when I talked to him he was about to catch a plane to Bahrain to speak at a United Nations conference on Human Trafficking.

What a difference a song makes.

One thing I've noticed about open source activism is that there is no ownership, there are no celebrities, and there are no rules. Nobody calls a meeting to decide who has the "best" idea or approach. No one person gets the credit for making headway. It's a movement where thousands of streams collide to form a river, where a host of stars conspire to illumine the night sky. Open Source Activism exemplifies the ancient Hebrew concept of Tikkun Olam, which affirms each individual's responsibility to repair the world. This ideology flies in the face of the notion that we're obliged to gather enough time or money or bright ideas before we can officially make a difference. In Dillon's case he didn't have a clue where his song would take him, but he had the wherewithal to give what he had at the time.

Open Source Activism isn't a new concept, but somehow it seems new to me. Could it really be as simple as emptying the pockets of our chaotic days and spending the loose change on something that matters? Is it enough for today that I recycle the moldy plastic container in my refrigerator instead of throwing it out? Can I consider myself an activist if I choose to buy products that were made by people who were treated fairly? Yes, and yes. As my friend says, a little bit of something is better than a whole lot of nothing. Contrary to the plural pronoun that regularly graces casual conversation, there is no "they" who are going to fix things.

It's me.

It's you.

We the people.