Why Activism? [PODCAST]

In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Sarah Durieux, Co-Director of the Multitudes Foundation. She launched the mobilization platform Change.org in France and helped millions of French people to change laws, business practices, and grow movements that changed the conversation in the country. They talk about activism, the French society, social changes in Europe, and public participation.

Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): What is idea behind the Multitudes Foundation?

Sarah Durieux

Sarah Durieux (SD): The organization aims at supporting the political changemakers who want to make politics more inclusive, hopeful, and human. We try to reimagine the way politics functions and how people relate to power. The work we do focuses mostly on grant giving, but also creating a community of practitioners in the field across Europe. We operate from different places around Europe – I am based in Paris, my colleagues are in Berlin, Madrid, and London.

Nowadays, most of the work focusing on reimagining politics is really underfunded. Therefore, we act as not only a supporter and convenor of the space, but also as a partner for philanthropies and other funders who wish to engage in the work on reimagining politics.

There is a lot of work to be done, but there is also a lot of energy and many people who are committed to that mission.

LJ: What made you decide on following this path?

SD: I have been doing a lot of activism, community organizing, and other work to support people who are directly affected by a specific issue to help them organize and bring about change. I am very happy with what we have achieved so far.

I joined Change.org in 2012. At the time, there were 60,000 very brave French people using the platform in English. Later, we made the platform accessible to many people who are active in the field activism, social movement, etc. It became the go-to place for those who were trying to organize for change. When I was leaving the organization, the number of the people involved grew to 13 million people – which comes from the good work we had done, but also a very deeply rooted sense of frustration and a belief that things can change if we organize collectively.

The work at Change.org showed me that – apart from it being very impressive – when people are equipped with the right tools, support, and coaching can really achieve a lot. We have also worked with people who organized massive movements – for example, the Yellow Vests movement, which was partly sparked by a petition that was started on Change.org in France by a woman who was fed up with the increase in the price of fuel. Later, this issue became greater than merely the question of fuel prices and became about how politics and the government function. This experience was very interesting.

I worked closely with people who were in politics. We were also negotiating and working with elected officials and political parties to see how we can build coalition to achieve change. I realized that there are two main issues.

Firstly, I am worried about the democratic backsliding – for many reasons that various researchers and political commentators have stated already. There is a growing disconnect between political decision-makers and citizens (or people in general). During my time at Change.org, I have seen how public opinion has been losing its importance and it seems it is no longer a decision-making tool. When I am talking about the public opinion, I do not mean only media discussions and polls, but also people who engage politically – through associations, unions, who demonstrate and do activism or lobbying. Speaking from a non-partisan place – as I was working at Change.org under two different presidents, Francois Hollande and Emmanuel Macron – there are less and less possibilities for people to get in touch with political decision-makers and influence power.

Secondly, I have been talking with a lot of people who were active and were trying to influence power, but eventually realized that it may be time to try and see what would happen if people who were organized in their communities were also holding power and making the decisions. I tried to support some activists to get into politics in the 2022 parliamentary elections in France – great people who are closely connected to their constituencies. They were legitimate, equipped, smart, efficient. However, there were many great barriers on their way (funding, the ability to connect with political parties to receive support and endorsement, harassment). A lot of these people are now underrepresented in politics and marginalized because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or because they come from rural areas.

Long story short, I felt that if we really want to achieve the change, we need to bridge the gap between activism and politics. We need to build and sustain an ecosystem of what we call at Multitudes ‘political change-makers’, who do the work of making politics accessible and inclusive for people who have proven their commitment to the common good, and who are supported by other people who see them as their representatives, who can bring into the political space their needs and a hope for the future. This is what brought me to Multitudes.

LJ: What is the main difference between an activist and a politician? What happens to activists once they go into politics?

SD: Interestingly, a lot of politicians identify as activists. A lot of the current politicians actually used to be activists – working in NGOs, or taking active part in protests, or simply being committed citizens in the public space. How we see, define, criticize, or even hate politics makes it very hard to stay connected to both sides.

Some of the activists I have been working with went to politics and have been really struggling to stay in touch with their constituents and communities. People ask themselves whether they can trust such a person. That is a problem, because politicians are activists who have chosen public office to achieve change – or at least my hope is more of the activists who are committed to change go into politics and try to do that.

For me, there is a difference between the setting. However, if you are really committed to change and supporting the voices of the people who you want to represent, you can do that in the street, an office, the parliament, a local council, or even in your school. It is therefore about breaking the barriers between activism and politics while also recognizing that if we want people to love politics again, we need to make it great. It needs to be a place where you thrive – even if only at the local level.

We need political parties to be much more welcoming. We also need to talk about inclusion and the fact that there is so much homogeneity in politics – especially in political leadership. We are not going to get democracy to work for everyone, which is why making politics inclusive, and welcoming is the only way forward for activists and politicians to be able to join forces and work together.

The bottom line is that activists should be at times more political, whereas politicians should be a little bit more like activists. Activists need to think strategically and better understand where the power lies in order to better organize. On the other hand, when it comes to politicians, institutions can thwart our energy that is focused on achieving change. This is why it is important to try to break the styles and barriers in politics – by means of working with and being welcoming to social movements as well as being vocal about the things that are not right (including in one’s own political party). In a nutshell, activism and politics should be more interrelated.

LJ: What are the reasons for the tensions that we may observe in France in the last few years?

SD: We are sometimes surprised at what is happening today, but we have been here before. We have seen economic struggles. When people do not feel seen, heard, nor respected, they turn to extremes and are willing to accept the most horrendous ideas.

There are numerous connections between the past and what is happening today. Of course, some things have changed – now we have social media, which further accelerate these phenomena and may create frustration. I am a strong advocate for trying to bridge people – to get them to talk about their values and see how they could align so that they can achieve some things together. However, we also need to recognize why this polarization occurred in the first place and understand its root causes.

What we have seen with the Yellow Vests and the retirement movements in France is unprecedented. The Yellow Vests are a completely organic movement. Of course, some political forces have used that energy to their own benefit. All this really started with the people who cannot make ends meet. We need to recognize that this is the entry point – and we have seen it in many other countries.

I am worried about this polarization. However, in a way, I feel that part of it is not only related to people having different ideas, but also frustration and struggle. We must address that as much as we address the divide between people.

I find it interesting that most of the media coverage we have seen in France and other countries about the recent social movements were very much focused on violence that had happened. I was, of course, very saddened by this violence, but I would also like to hear more about the stories I witnessed. I have seen people who were very isolated – especially in the Yellow Vests movement – reconnecting with their neighbors. I have seen people meeting with those who live 20 meters away – creating bonds, friendships, and finding ways to feel less isolated.

Even though the Yellow Vests movement is not protesting every Saturday, I can tell you that many people have found communities and purpose. A lot of them have started to engage in politics – some of them joined associations, others decided to run for office or do activism and lobbying decision-makers.

We need to listen to what people are saying. We need to be honest and truthful about the fact that their struggle is related to the lack of dignity in their own life, the lives of their kids or families. Precarity in France is rising, and we know why. So let us act on it.

On the other hand, the retirement movement we have seen in France is really interesting. There was a connection between the retirement movement and the feminist movement, the climate movement, and the movement against racism. We have seen people from the climate movement marching in the pensions marches. The feminist groups were also a part of these marches. People who are connected on different issues start coming together.

All this shows that there is only one way to solve the current issues. We need to look at the root causes. A functioning democracy cannot be exclusive, it needs to work for everyone. Otherwise, we will create spaces for polarization and the people who do not have good intentions to find supporters.

LJ: Given the need for representation and everyone’s voices to be heard, are there causes that should not be represented? To what extent should they be fought against?

SD: There is this saying, ‘I’m happy, I’m okay, I’m open to your opinion as long as it doesn’t question my dignity and existence’. When I started working at Change.org, I really believed in a model of an open platform and the fact that we need to get people together at some point. The Theory of Change behind Change.org was to open up and allow people to come together on specific issues. However, with Facebook and other platforms, we have seen that this is not happening, because the political context did not create the conditions for people to come together.

While I believe in openness and I do want to hear you, I also believe in values that are very important for me. This is why, at some point, I decided to leave Change.org, because of both the evolution of how the world functions and the role the platform could have played in the movements that are questioning the dignity of people. So, I decided to move on and that is why I am very happy right now, because with the Multitudes we found something that makes a lot of sense for me. We are not neutral, we have values – including equity, justice, dignity and respect for everyone’s identities and experiences – and we support them. At the same time, we remain open to including as many people as possible. This is a way forward for me.

We are talking with people from very different parties, so there are issues that we disagree on. We cannot allow people to question the very existence of others, otherwise democracy would not function. This is the paradox of tolerance – we still need to draw a red line so that we can thrive. We need to question ideas and ideologies.

LJ: What drives you as a person? Could you do anything else other than activism?

SD: Self-determination, justice, love, and the values that are important for me. Based on my life experiences, I try to make decisions that allow me to be a free person that maintains connections with others. Being an activist is a very tiring job if you want to do it well. It requires a lot of empathy, which can be exhausting.

Sometimes I wish I did not take the ‘Matrix pill’ that allowed me to see the world for what it really is. So, to be honest, I do not think there is anything else I could do. I try to do it in different forms, which is why I moved from Change.org to the Multitudes. But it would be hard for me not to do anything.

This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.

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