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Becoming Changemakers

This summer, Hayley Goodrich ’17 and Meg Riley ’17 investigated what psychological and contextual factors make someone an activist, what they call an “activist consciousness.” They worked with women’s studies professor Margo Okazawa-Rey with the support of an Emerson summer research grant.

For Goodrich, she first became interested in the question of what motivates people to engage in advocacy while she was studying abroad in India. “I ended up talking to a lot of college professors, NGO (non-governmental organization) directors and municipal engineers who happily spent their days studying, managing and planning around garbage—literally garbage,” she reflected. “After that I had to learn more: what impels people to do the important work that others so easily ignore?”

The two define an activist as someone who lives a life of changemaker work, “whether that work assumes the form of sustained engagement with philanthropy, non-profit work, policy work or modeling of an alternative lifestyle that aligns more closely with one’s ideals,” Riley explained.

So far, Goodrich and Riley have found patterns that seem to be promising for their research. Goodrich said, “I’ve gleaned that activism happens where the cosmos meets the storm. By this I mean that ‘taking action’ seems to occur at a nexus point of many different factors that have been building and have finally come to a head. That moment tends to happen when the socio-political climate is ripe and when the opportunity to join in intersects with the perfect storm of personality traits, identity markers and moral convictions that has been brewing since that individual’s first encounter, whether personally or secondhand, with some injustice.”

Riley added, “One pattern that stands out to us is an ascription of personal responsibility and a sense of urgency when discussing social and environmental ills that seems to be present with most activists and changemakers.

By identifying the factors that motivate people into action such as this, Goodrich and Riley hope to determine how even more individuals can become committed changemakers and engaged in important issues affecting all aspects of life, which could have sweeping benefits beyond their own understanding of the subject. Riley noted, “I hope this research has some definite practical applications for expanding the portion of the campus community who is engaged in changemaking efforts at Hamilton and in broader local, national and global communities.”

Their first step in applying their findings will likely start on the Hill, as the two plan to hold workshops for student activists in the coming academic year.

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