We often picture home as a physical place, marked by wooden front doors and childhood bedrooms. Ask anyone, though, and they’ll tell you that places are important because of our own emotional attachments: “This cul-de-sac held my childhood,” they’ll say; “these kitchen tables are imbued with family.” We construct our homes around the connections we treasure.
Home is also broader than these intimate spaces. We refer to cities and countries as home, to activities and groups. We might feel most at home writing poetry in bed or taking a road trip with close friends. Our homes may be the places where we have spent our whole lives or only a few weeks. So I’ll venture that the real idea of home is about safety, familiarity and the knowledge that there are people you love who love you. Built both by ourselves and others, home is a space where we gather support and strength to face the confusing challenges that await outside.
To understand the rise of so-called identity politics across the country, the concept of home is especially important. Calls for political engagement over emotional activism have amplified. Protests, both on and off campus, have been ridiculed, or, at best, tolerated, by politicos who declare that political influence is paramount. Instead of making posters, why not spend an hour calling your representatives? Why not prioritize working on campaigns or getting people elected? Progress, the argument goes, must be oriented around the pursuit of winning elections and changing government policy; the most effective avenue must be the most tangibly productive.
These arguments sharply discount the impact that protest movements have had upon the sociopolitical landscape already: Hunger strikes were vital to the women’s rights movement both in the U.S. and abroad; Black Lives Matter has brought police brutality and criminal justice, issues that were covered by silence, into the national conversation. History shows that we need both: the radicals and the moderates, the idealists and the pragmatists, the protesters and the candidates for office. Work outside the system brings less-recognized issues to the forefront within it.
These two forms of engagement are not mutually exclusive but often, in fact, mutually reinforcing. Those most aware of injustice are more likely to be invested in changing the status quo.
Yet, regardless of the cost-benefit analysis applied to the ultimate impact of this kind of activist politics, protest movements are also vital for creating a home, a space where individuals seeking change can find community and support. Engaging in the kind of political influence that institutionalists seek presupposes that we all arrive at the table on an equal playing field. In reality, the traditional political sphere is an exclusive world often inaccessible to the people who need change most.
In the several years I have spent in political organizing, I found increasingly that politics is more about who you know than how hard you work, and, for people who lack those connections, the landscape can be exhausting. Moreover, these spaces are often not just discouraging but also actively antagonistic: Female staffers on campaigns and in government can face sexual harassment and assault with little recourse, while minorities remain foot soldiers meant to round up votes from their respective populations. For some people, especially white males, institutional politics has always been a home, where those in power are provided help up the ladder to success.
For others, that ladder doesn’t exist. Protest politics then becomes especially important as a place of collective power for those who are voiceless in traditional institutions. The act of protest itself is one of the most important forms of political resistance for those who face silencing struggles in daily life, whose difficulties — whether poverty or racism, gender discrimination or the threat of deportation — do not stop at a front porch.
I have not always participated in protest activism. As someone who is usually introverted, it is not my preference to raise my voice in a chant or walk amidst masses of people I may not know. But some of the moments when I have felt most at home have been in the streets, finding strength as I held hands with suitemates and displaying banners with friends, knowing that the people in that crowd, in that moment, stood behind me. There is a sense of simultaneous safety and power found in solidarity that is often absent in political spaces, where I have felt both preyed upon and unwelcome.
Achieving the progress we seek can look like knocking on doors, and it can look like home.
Liana Wang is a sophomore in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .