On May 2, 1963, African-American kids all over Birmingham, Alabama heard a D.J. from WENN announce, "Kids, there's going to be a party at the park. Bring your toothbrushes because lunch will be served." This was a coded call for a mass demonstration. Eight hundred kids, some as young as six, skipped school. The principal of the black high school locked the gates, but more kids swarmed over the fence towards the demonstration. When the D.J. played one song it meant for people to take to the streets. When he played another, it meant stay inside to avoid the dangerous racist mobs. The D.J. was using a unique form of awareness as a pathway into activism.
Does awareness equal activism?
When I was making my film, Call+Response, this question would keep me up at night. Still does. I write this at my own peril given the fact that my contribution to the movement against slavery is a film. Films about issues are typically best at making people aware, but often leave the viewer with few options to act. I'm reminded of the old adage that asks if a tree falls in the woods without anyone there to see it, does it make a sound? I think the same question needs to be asked of those of us who are sharing information about human rights abuses. If there is no way for the receiver to help, does it really make a difference?
I am a performer by nature. I like to create things that elicit a response. Sing a song and (hopefully) the audience responds with applause. Performance and Applause. Call and Response. Awareness and Action. They are matched sets. As activists, we sometimes do a better job of explaining the problem than we do at offering pathways towards solutions. We need to remember that information is disposable, but new ideas and strategies are the seeds of change.
There has never been a movement in history that succeeded without both awareness and activism. We need dynamic information to make us aware of issues, but we also need activists to be social innovators by providing us with strategic opportunities to act. I am daily convicted to ensure we are making an impact, and not simply moving information around. At Call+Response we have placed as much creative acumen into our activist platforms as we have into our film. My hope is that we are moved as much today to act as the kids in Birmingham more than 45 years ago.
Justin Dillon is a musician, activist, and the director of Call+Response, an acclaimed rockumentary on human trafficking. It was just released on DVD, and you can find more info at www.callandresponse.com.