As an organizer who takes community and mutual aid work seriously, I laughed when I saw there would be a new competition show for so-called activists coming to CBS this fall. When I saw that a panel of celebrities would judge it, I laughed even louder.
The Activist originally was announced to pit activists against each other for social media approval, but on Thursday, after enormous backlash, the network announced the show would drop the competition and instead make a documentary about the good works being done by the participants. “We got it wrong,” Global Citizen, the international advocacy organization that is co-producing the show, said.
However, some challenges continue to exist with the new format, because it will still focus on individual rather than collective efforts. As any experienced change agent can tell you: People can only enact social change through group efforts. While one person can influence those around them, one person alone cannot change the world. You need support systems and peers in organizing work for them and you to sustain. Making activism into a solo act reinforces social hierarchies, lowers the value of social change movements, and shifts the responsibility away from a collective.
Another thing we likely won’t see on The Activist is the cheapening of missions that can come from the strings attached to funding. The thing about nonprofits and charities is that they can accomplish great things. But they have their limitations. A significant one is that, because they sign the checks, donors and funders can create barriers for those who could use the most support. Nonprofits apply for funding with great missions and programs already in place, but if the funders want to alter that to reflect their belief system, you must choose between sticking to your values or taking that money. So, there’s also a certain level of dishonesty that this show promotes because the journey doesn’t end when they get the money.
In retooling the show, CBS has limited the power of judges Usher Raymond, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and Julianne Hough. That’s good, because celebrities shouldn’t have any authority on issues that their wealth can help them bypass. Celebrities hoard wealth, further reinforce social hierarchies, and sensationalize causes for good publicity.
As the show suggests, social change can also be hugely dependent on the need for money. Raymond, Chopra Jonas, and Hough have the amounts of money communities need to advance change, but this show — in both its previous and current format — places no responsibility on celebrities to enact change, nor does it grapple with the need for redistribution of wealth. Instead, it gives celebrities more credibility in yet another field where they hold no weight. This show will also build significant revenue for a big corporation, CBS, while real activists continue searching for their next stable job.
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Though Hough, who has appeared in blackface, issued an apologetic statement after the online backlash this week, I still have concerns about her involvement in this show. Chopra Jonas tweeted support for an airstrike on Pakistan, another act that should have producers questioning whether these celebrities are appropriate representatives of the activist community.
The biggest thing this show will do is allow viewers to think they have the tools and knowledge to be an organizer/activist. The powerful and scary thing about the media is that it has enabled people to believe their outsider opinions are more important than those who live these experiences every day. That will serve as a massive issue for on-the-ground organizers and activists if the show becomes popular. The feedback from Usher will now become more valuable to folks over the experience and expertise of folks who have been doing this work for generations.
The Activist will probably have some valid points. But as a television show, it must sell you fantasy to make it palatable. My fear is that the fantasy will create more dysfunction in movements already happening.
Rasheed Ajamu is a community and digital organizer in Philadelphia. He curates content at @phreedomjawn on Instagram.