Arrington: The Individual Ability

In a world where corporations seem to have the loudest voices, we cannot forget the power of individual change and grassroots activism.

by Katherine Arrington | 7/23/21 4:05am

We live in a world where many of our problems — climate change, poverty, inequality and more — are caused or exacerbated by corporations. It is easy, as individuals, to settle for just posting about these issues on social media platforms rather than striving for tangible change. And who could blame us for buying an unsustainable outfit on Shein, eating a sandwich from the homophobic Chick-fil-A or using a plastic grocery bag? Most of us did not directly cause or contribute to the major issues plaguing our world, and we have our own problems, such as being college students during a pandemic with a scarcity of time and money. Changing our behavior when we already have such a small individual impact seems almost pointless. However, we are more powerful than we give ourselves credit for.

It is easy to think we should not spend our time and money trying to solve global problems that were created by large corporations. ExxonMobil and Shell are responsible for extraordinary amounts of carbon emissions and pollution, while the average American has a carbon footprint of only 16 tons per year. In addition, corporations keep the incomes of the working and middle class stagnant, while stuffing the pockets of the wealthy. Jeff Bezos amassed over $30 billion in the first two months of the pandemic while hundreds of essential Amazon workers making $15 an hour caught COVID-19. 

Corporations often go so far as to donate their earnings to political campaigns and organizations directly working to undermine equality. Chick-fil-A infamously donates to homophobic causes, but Purina, Cracker Barrel and countless others also use their money to back stances and policies of inequality. Especially in contrast with individuals, corporations have done a lot of harm to our earth and society. In the face of these issues, we can expect from corporations — considering their track record — nothing but inaction. However, all is not lost. Individuals retain the power to enact change.

Throughout history, grassroots activism has been a major catalyst for progressive change. The women’s suffrage movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s was largely composed of women holding protests and demonstrations, organizing their communities one at a time until women could legally cast a ballot. The civil rights movement spearheaded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was built on the grassroots work of people across the country, leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Activists during the Vietnam War protested the government to stop the war, increasing domestic pressure that pushed a peace process forward. A large portion of long-lasting change has come through grassroots organization.

Individuals have power in how we consume. Boycotts have been successful against a number of organizations, including the global boycott of Nike in the 1990s for its sweatshops overseas which exploited workers, most of them impoverished women. Boycotts work — just imagine the world we would live in if everyone insisted on buying only from corporations that act ethically. It does not have to be difficult or expensive, either. It can be as simple as looking for a B Corp certification, doing research on the brands you buy from and attempting to swap out single-use goods and fast fashion for sustainable products and secondhand clothing. Even cutting out meat once or twice a week can significantly reduce your personal carbon emissions.

Individuals also have power in how we use our voices. Taking just five minutes to add your name to as many petitions as you can has a tremendous impact on a cause. Petitions have spurred acts into law such as the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) Act, the first of its kind. These small actions do not take long, they cost nothing and they help make substantive change.

It does not have to be all or nothing on these actions. Consuming consciously, taking political action, attending protests: It is all exhausting. I am enraged that this is the society my generation is inheriting: a racist, sexist, homophobic, deeply broken society that might be engulfed in flames in the next few decades if we cannot stop global warming. However, I still have hope. Hope for a world that looks different, where corporations and capitalism do not call all the shots. And I also hope that individual people care enough to try however they can, with whatever ability they have.

Capitalism will continue to benefit those in power, typically the rich, white and male. Money determines not just what we buy at the grocery store but elections and policy decisions. The average person does not have the expertise for the latter exchanges. But what we do have is our voices, our actions and our wills. The individual impact may feel small, but it is not. Don’t underestimate it.

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