Civil rights march in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1964

Hundreds of persons marched through downtown Baltimore, March 30, 1964 in a demonstration for racial equality.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In making “good trouble” through journalism, Paul A. Kramer of Vanderbilt University argues for seven approaches that create partnerships between writers and readers to address shared social problems: “The best narrative non-fiction writing on social problems … grapples with a particular social reality in order to question it, subject it to critical attention and convince readers that its existence and continuance is not inevitable.” 

The third of the re-frames calls for activation: stories that demonstrate the power and possibilities of individual action. Additional approaches will be posted this week and next.

By Paul A. Kramer

You can do something about this problem.

Activation is called for when readers think of something as a problem and may care about, but don’t think anything that can be done. People may feel intimidated and overwhelmed by a problem’s actual or perceived scale and complexity. They may not feel they have the knowledge, experience, skills and tools to solve it. They may be terrified into inaction by the issue’s cataclysmic expressions and existential stakes. They may surrender their power to experts.

Introduction: Making good trouble

I. Exposure: Highlighting overlooked problems

II. Urgency: Revealing the immediacy of problems

III. Activation: Challenging a sense of powerlessness

IV. Re-specification: Reconsidering causes and effects of a problem

V. Solidarity: Standing with those affected

VI. Responsibility: Connecting action to consequence

VII. Value-switching: Considering different moral stances

Conclusion: The gift of narrative nonfiction

Here the writer needs to shed light on viable, generative activity in order to thwart apathy or a sense of futility. This can mean going back and re-specifying the problem itself, its origins and manifestations, then profiling contemporary or historical attempts to push back that have brought hopeful or successful results. The goal is to reveal ways that a seemingly immovable problem has budged.

Such pieces can zero in on an effective mobilizing techniques and ask how they work, who first figured them out, who took them up and why, and where they have succeeded. They also should explore known limitations and downsides. This might spur readers to implement and reinvent such techniques themselves. More broadly, such writing can rekindle readers’ sense of their power and effectiveness.

Activation writing can counter political loneliness. Readers may feel isolated in their beliefs and powerless because of that isolation. Introducing them to comrades and allies — even just textual ones — can help embolden readers, by making it easier for them to rediscover themselves as part of a larger community of the like-spirited.

Author and essayist Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit

One striking example of writing that activates is Rebecca Solnit’s 2017 essay “Protest and Persist,” in the Guardian. Published near the start of the Trump administration, it emphasizes the imperative of hope for social transformation, and the impossibility of knowing what prospects one’s actions may ease or break open. Solnit suggests that history can provide inspiring maps, allowing readers to find resources, hope and courage in the past’s unforeseeable zigzags, bank-shots and surprises:

      “Actions often ripple far beyond their immediate objective,” she writes, “and remembering this is reason to live by principle and act in hope that what you do matters, even when results are unlikely to be immediate or obvious…” Solnit reflects, “…I sometimes wonder when I’m at a mass march like the Women’s March… whether the reason it matters is because some unknown young person is going to find her purpose in life that will only be evident to the rest of us when she changes the world in 20 years, when she becomes a great liberator.”

In one passage, Solnit takes readers on a century-spanning, global journey of inspiration and riffs: British suffragists’ storm Parliament, inspiring Gandhi in South Africa, who adopts direct action tactics against South African segregation and then British imperial rule in India; that fires the imagination of Black freedom activists in the U.S., whose campaigns against Jim Crow help spark the transnational anti-apartheid movement. That these links weren’t linear or predestined — that someone had to imagine, build and sustain them, often at tremendous cost — is part of what summons readers to their own possibilities.

Some dangers here include exaggerating hopefulness, underplaying obstacles, heroizing those who take some kind of action or settling for the easiest solutions (often the most individualized and least disruptive) in the interests of persuading readers that something can be done. Writers can neglect deeper, structural causes and stress workable tactics at the expense of larger strategic questions.

But these hazards in no ways prevent writers from successfully and responsibly energizing readers to join necessary struggles.

NEXT: Retracing the real roots of social problems


Paul A. Kramer is an associate professor at Vanderbilt University, where he teaches history and non-fiction writing. He is the author of several academic studies and essays that have been published by major news sites. His book, “The Blood of Government,” has won several awards, including being named a finalist for the Philippines National Book Award in the social science category.

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