Op-Ed: Let’s engage in our communities, not just social media

Photo: Oscar Wong/Getty Images

By Gwen Frisbie-Fulton

April 5, 2024

“Mom, have you seen the news?” my teenage son asks between mouthfuls of cereal at the breakfast table.

He is reading an article about Ukraine. He then turns to another article, this one about refugees pouring into Eastern Europe. He’s clearly alarmed. I don’t know what to say to him. There seems so little we can do.

A friend once told me a story: Anthropologists visiting an Aboriginal village showed them an article about an earthquake destroying a town halfway across the world. Seeing the images of destruction and devastation, the villagers began to pack. The anthropologists assured them that they were safe — the earthquake was very far away. But the Aborigines knew that; they were packing for a different reason. “Why would you share that unless you were asking us to help?”

Americans have an insatiable desire for news and consume it in 24-hour cycles. Fox News is on at the mechanic shop, CNN at the doctor’s, New York Times alerts on my phone. In 2020, cable news reached all-time viewership highs as we were glued to coverage of the pandemic, racial justice protests, and, later, the election. But is being informed the same as being engaged?

It is easy to confuse the drama of politics with political activity. Most of us felt overwhelmed by the relentless news cycle of the Trump Administration as we were subjected to an onslaught of chaotic breaking news segments and seemingly lived on “high alert.” We engaged with it all exhaustingly and emotionally, spilling out our support or dissent on Facebook and, sometimes, the street.

But emoting is not the same as building power. Political activity is not about expression, but strategy. As the fragile nature of our democracy feels ever more apparent, many of us want to be more politically engaged, but very few of us are part of intentional organizing work.

While college-educated Americans spend more time on politics, one researcher found that only 2% of that time is spent actually engaging in their communities. Social media has given us a false sense of “doing something,’’ but it only allows us to demonstrate our ideology without engaging with any of the processes, formations, or collectivity that could make us truly powerful.

Treating politics as entertainment or as personal catharsis leaves our communities vulnerable.

In my work, I find that working-class people, poor people, women, and Black and Brown communities are frequently engaging beyond the social media fray and more deeply on the ground in their own neighborhoods. Not only do people who have more at stake not only “do politics” more fully, but also have a good grasp of how to get and use power to meet their community needs.

They often step outside of the buzz of national political debate and focus locally where they can have the most impact.

I decided a long time ago that I would not burden my child with problems he did not have the power to change. This means that I didn’t have a good solution when he brought up Ukraine over breakfast the other day. We made a donation to a humanitarian organization, but that’s charitable, not political.

He deserves to feel powerful, not feeble. We all do. A first step would be to no longer be satisfied with consuming news like bystanders, but instead push each other into community and real political action. That doesn’t mean signing a petition about something but we can all start by doing something small. Like tomorrow, maybe we can all ask one neighbor: what do you think we can do to make our city, our county, our neighborhood stronger?


  • Gwen Frisbie-Fulton

    Gwen Frisbie-Fulton is the communications director at Down Home North Carolina, which organizes with working-class people in rural communities across the state. This column is syndicated by Beacon Media, please contact [email protected] with feedback or questions.



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