Q&A: taking student activism into 'real life'

Thursday 01-06-2017 - 15:41

Dan Glass is an award-winning activist, academic, performer and writer who was named as one of Attitude Magazine’s campaigning role models for LGBTQI youth, and a Guardian UK youth climate leader. He was a politically active President of the University of Sussex Students' Union ten years ago; now he's living out his activism in the 'real world'. Here, he gives us insight into how.

Dan Glass

How were you involved with the student movement and activism whilst at university?

I was very lucky to go to Sussex University. I didn’t know about its huge tradition of social justice campaigning when I arrived, but I threw myself in the deep end and learnt all I could. I got involved with environmental activism, anti-war protests, and worked with a wealth of fierce and revolutionary activists and academics confronting many kinds of interconnected oppressions.

Why are students important in struggles for social and environmental justice?

The etymology of ‘radical’ is ‘root’. The time that university affords means that we can dig deeper - beneath stereotypes, generalisations and headlines – and understand the root causes of the issues that surround us. Once we become ‘radical’, by engaging with the root of an issue, we can become much more grounded and visionary, with a deeper analysis of how we got to where we are - and where we can go.

What does your activism look like now?

The huge cost of living, growing student debt and a culture which priorities hyper-individualism and material growth over spiritual and community welfare all mean that (understandably) a lot of students give up on imagining that another world is possible. I was very lucky in that, in Sussex, I found community as well as critical education, which - ten years later - has provided a means to be able to financially exist as well as politically thrive.

Activism is about how you live- from creating alternative housing systems, to disobeying authority and the status quo on a daily basis. It is possible to create life-giving alternatives; we have to question everything. Over the years I have been lucky to apply learned skills of creative facilitation, art-activism and radical educational methodology to a range of issues: freedom for Palestine, war trauma, climate crisis, HIV and healthcare, and currently I am focusing on the protection and creation of LGBTQIA+ communities for the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality.

What’s the most outrageous thing you've done in the name of activism?

My activism has helped to explode stigma, smash isolation and build strong and clear demands for social change. For over ten years I have revelled in creating militant and cheeky ways to be a thorn in the side for those destroying the planet. I have pioneered human cannonball street activism, spy cameras, occupied airports, danced with old ladies blighted by flight paths, and regularly speak about and facilitate a range of trainings. My recent antics involve MC'ing 'Shafted?!', a speakeasy led by people with HIV; Beyond UKIP Cabaret in Nigel Farage's boozer; and starting 'Queer Tours of London - A Mince Through Time'. There’s an article about it here.

But by far the most hilarious action, that I will never hear the end of, is supergluing myself to then Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the name of climate justice!

There’s so much injustice - how do you choose what to focus your efforts on?

Everything I do is autobiographical. I wouldn’t be able to feel and express my pain with so much passion and rage if it were not. Once you speak from the heart, you open up pathways for other people to relate. And then it’s easy to see how all our truths, oppressions and vulnerabilities are intimately connected. We have to challenge dominator culture, both in the narrow-minded ways that society generates exploitation, and in our own minds.

When faced with understanding our purpose, we might consider what we eat, what words we use – we realise we have a choice. This choice involves branches, with roots in our hearts, and there are so many budding fruits to consider. Upon searching, we might find a patch of disease that needs culling.

What do you think about activism and inclusivity?

The loss of love, empathy and a pervasive feeling of broken-heartedness in the world has led many to begin thinking more profoundly about the meaning of building relationships that transcend blame culture, and truly support everyone in the struggle for collective social justice. In terms of fostering movements where everyone has a voice, it’s important not to expect people to come to you – where appropriate, go to them. Meet people ‘where they are at’, and build dialogue to see how oppressions connect. Building unexpected alliances shakes things up for those who would prefer to simplify and pigeonhole us. Importantly, build genuine, loving relationships rather than tokenistic, tick-box relationships. You never know what people have been through.

There are so many skills and methods to include everyone to change this world for the better. Cabaret, carnival, speakeasies and street protest, throughout history, have all been vehicles for radical change. The queer community cabarets preceding Hitler’s Nazi Germany; the civil rights speakeasies preceding racial segregation; carnivals against capitalism; and the wealth of street performances against austerity and prejudice in Britain all bring expression, imagination, poetry, spoken word, colour, sassiness and flair to strategically organised political actions for social justice.

What advice would you give to a student looking to keep activism central to their post-university life?

Challenge everything you have learnt. In a world full of people putting profit over the ‘greater common good’, throw out the dominant value system about ‘what’s good for you’, and ask what’s good for community. And the world at large?

Collaborative leadership is necessary. This means creating strong, connected communities that reduce suffering and increase vitality and participation for meaningful social change. Through bringing people together we can affirm their talents and provide an outletfor creativity, thoughts, emotions and actions.

Activism is not something you do as such (that is charity) - it is a way of life. If we are to activate change in ourselves and our communities for the rest of our lives then we need to pace ourselves. Don't be too hard on yourself, listen to the people around you seeking justice and love, and ask them for very basic things that you can do. Don't be a one trick ponyordon't preach to the converted. And, if possible, give yourself time to earn money in other ways so that you can have more time for grassroots activism. Sometimes it will be hard; try to generate mentors and anchors in your life, who can inspire and support you. There is so much power in community.

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