Politicization of/for Activists

Joe Curnow | University of Manitoba
Posted 20 February 2021

(Descriptive text follows the bios and recommended citation below.)

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Joe Curnow is Assistant Professor at University of Manitoba. Joe’s scholarship sits at the nexus of the learning sciences, social movement studies, and equity studies. Her research examines how people come to understand social problems systemically and how they learn about issues of race and colonialism, gender and patriarchy, and class and capitalism through their activism. Joe has worked as a social movement, labour, and community organizer.

Andrew Kohan can’t decide what he wants to be when he grows up, but for now he’s a working comics artist and illustrator regularly making trouble at Winnipeg City Hall. A trained community organizer with roots in the HIV/AIDS movement, he’s made art and noise with grassroots activists in DC, Chicago, Cleveland, and Toronto. More of his work is available at andrewkohan.com.

Recommended citation:

Curnow, Joe, and Andrew Kohan. “Politicization of/for Activists.” Sequentials, vol. 2, no. 1, 2021.

Text descriptions of page images:

Page 1

Title: “Politicization” in a ribbon banner across the top.

Text: “Politicization is a learning process where people shift what they know (cognition), how they know it (epistemologies), what they do (participation), and who they are (identities).”

Comic images of four circles in a square configuration. Circle 1: Profile of a human head with the brain drawn in detail. Circle 2: A magnifying glass examining another magnifying glass. Circle 3: An activist with a megaphone and their fist raised. Circle 4: A name tag that reads “Hello, I’m an Activist.”

Text: “Study by RadLab, a team of youth climate organizers based in Toronto.”

Comic image of the team from the shoulders up: Jade (Asian Canadian woman with cat glasses), Joe (white woman with square glasses), Amil (Black man with wire glasses), Jody (Asian person with undercut), Lila (white woman with cowlick), Sinead (white woman with toque), Tresanne (brown woman), Keara (Indigenous woman).

Text below their faces: “This paper by Joe Curnow, Amil Davis, and Lila Asher” with arrows to their images.

Text: “Context: the youth climate movement.”

Comic image: Protest march. Front banner reads, “Climate Action Now.” Placards held in the multiracial crowd read: “No Planet B,” “Keep it in the ground,” “Water is life,” “Your oil is showing.”

Page 2

Comic image of Joe from the shoulders up. Speech bubble: “We worked with climate activists for years, and wanted to understand what happened when young people without clearly defined politics joined a divestment campaign—and became politicized into a radical activist identity.”

Comic images representing before-and-after transformation of Lila. Image of Lila in 2014 with baby face saying, “Capitalism is freedom!” while wearing a 350.org shirt. Image of Lila in 2018 looking older, wearing shirt that says “No pipelines on stolen land” and saying, “I think I’m an anarchist!”

Comic image of Amil from the shoulders up. Speech bubble: “But as we tried to answer that question, we realized we had to explain what it means to become politicized. What counts?”

A series of small comic images.

Image 1: Mohawk blockade. Text: “Blockades?”

Image 2: Person with odor lines. Text: “Patchouli?”

Image 3: Arm with tattoos of the Fossil Fuel Divestment “X” and a globe. Text: “Tattoos?”

Image 4: Indigenous woman in ribbon skirt holding placard that reads “Land back.” Text: “Decolonial politics?”

Image 5: Four people sitting with wrists handcuffed together. Text: “Civil disobedience?”

Image 6: Pipe wrench. Text: “Monkeywrenching?”

Image 7: Karl Marx’s face. Text: “Reading Marx?”

Image 8: A nose with septum piercing. Text: “Piercings?”

Page 3

Comic image of Lila from shoulders up. Speech bubble: “Through our work, we found that the learning that happened was bigger than one thing, and for the people who became politicized, it almost always included these four areas.”

Comic image of weaving with four strands. One end, where the four strands come together into one, reads, “Politicization.” The other end has each strand labeled. Strand one reads: “What they know.” Strand two reads: “How they know it.” Strand three reads: “What they do.” Strand four reads: “Who they are.”

Comic image of Joe from shoulders up, talking. Speech bubble: “These four areas of change were happening at the same time, and each one strengthened the others. We found that it didn’t make sense to think about them separately.”

Small comic images of three people. Across the top text: “We didn’t see incongruent politics combinations like these because politicization happens in concert, not one piece at a time:”

Person 1 says: “We should overthrow patriarchy and capitalism by writing a well-reasoned report based on current science.”

Person 2 says: “Let’s have a sit in, but not one of those ‘activist’ ones.”

Person 3 says: “Climate change will devastate our communities and we shouldn’t do anything drastic.”

Page 4

Comic image of Amil from the waist up. One arm extends, palm facing up, with a lightbulb floating above it. Amil speech bubble: “For activists, this framework is helpful because it helps us to remember that learning politics isn’t just about being exposed to new ideas.” Next to the lightbulb, block text: “CLIMATE CHANGE IS BAD!” Second Amil speech bubble: “But that to politicize our peers, we have to think about opportunities.”

The lower half of the page shows small comic images in a 2-by-3 grid. Each of three rows represents an opportunity to shift through politicization.

Row 1, left image: A group meeting with only two white men speaking while others sit in silence.

Row 1, center text: “to work together in new ways.”

Row 1, right image: A group meeting where everyone has a speech bubble.

Row 2, left image: A white man with necktie points at a screen with a graph labeled CO2 where the line increases steeply. Man’s speech bubble: “Climate science shows that our economy will be damaged in the coming decades.”

Row 2, center text: “To expand our ways of knowing so that we consider other worldviews and experiences.”

Row 2, right image: Two people talking. First person’s speech bubble: “Communities that we’re from are being affected right now.” Second person’s speech bubble: “Climate change is a result of colonialism.”

Row 3, left image: Person talking to Joe points to protestors, saying: “I don’t think I’d call myself an activist. I try to be reasonable.” Joe holds notebook and pencil.

Row 3, center text: “And to support people’s identity development.”

Row 3, right image: The same person now holds a placard, says to Joe, “More of us need to be activists if we are going to survive the crisis.” Joe holds notebook and pencil.

Page 5

Panel 1: Comic image of Joe holding weaving. Speech bubble 1, above her head: “And we can’t just try to do one or the whole process won’t hold.” Speech bubble 2, below her hands: “Our work has to be about collective action that centres a different kind of environmentalism…”

Panel 2: Comic image of some people standing on the ground with a ladder that goes up to a platform with other people, including Joe and a person with a “climate action now” placard. Joe is helping someone come up the ladder. Joe speech bubble: “…so that new members become climate justice advocates…”

Text at bottom points to ladder, reads: “We make sure there’s a ‘leadership ladder,’ a path into further and deeper engagement.”

Panel 3: Speech bubble (Joe continued) across the top: “…who think about environmentalism within the broader context of colonialism, racism, capitalism, and patriarchy…”

Comic image of a four-piece puzzle. Piece one says, “patriarchy.” Piece 2 says, “racism.” Piece 3 says, “capitalism.” Piece 4 says, “colonialism.”

Panel 4: Comic image of the world, where continental shapes are made of tiny people with placards and banners.

Speech bubble (Joe continued): “…so that we can work together to build a more inclusive and strategic climate movement.”

Page 6

Comic image: Joe’s face appears in a circle in the top-left of the page. Text: “For social movements more broadly, thinking about politicization as a process of developing ideas, practices, worldviews, and identities helps organizers to think about how we can support new members coming into the movement.”

Text: “We don’t only need to teach the political frames—”

Comic image: Two frustrated activists stand facing a third person. Behind them is a chalkboard that says, “Climate change 101: colonialism, capitalism, racism.” The third person, a white man, speaks. Speech bubble: “But how is ‘colonialism’ a cause of climate change? What about carbon?”

Comic image: An Indigenous pipeline protest. In the background, an incomplete pipeline under construction snakes across the landscape. In front of it, police in riot gear stand next to military-style vehicles. In the foreground, Indigenous protestors hold signs with slogans saying, “No pipeline,” “Water is life,” and “Keep it in the ground.” There are teepees and a camping tent. To the right of the scene, the white man from before holds one hand to his head in a moment of realization. Speech bubble: “Oh. Oh!”

Text: “—we also need to create opportunities for collaboration where everything else can gel.”

Comic image: Two groups of climate protesters face each other. On the left, three white people hold a banner that says, “We must reduce world carbon emissions through market mechanisms!” One holds a sign that says, “Time may someday run out!” On the right, a multiracial group of three people holds a banner that says, “Stop killing us.” One holds a sign that says, “Time is up.”

Text: “Thinking about politicization as a learning process that is fundamentally about community helps us to prioritize working together on collective action, not teaching school-style.”

Text: “When we work together, people get politicized.”

Comic image of a multiracial group of three people, each working painting a banner on the ground. The banners say, “Environmental justice,” “Water is life,” and “Black lives matter.”

Comic image of a happy group of activists standing behind a big banner that says, “Solidarity.” Several individuals hold signs, “Power to the people,” “No pipelines on stolen land,” “Keep the oil in the soil,” “Black lives matter,” “Trans rights are human rights.”

Text: “And this learning process helps us grow and helps us win.”

Page 7

This comic is part of Learning to Engage: Movements and Sociocultural Theories of Learning.

For more, visit: AndrewKohan.com/LearningToEngage

Written by Joe Curnow (a little sketch of Joe Curnow) (@learnsolidarity, joe.curnow@umanitoba.ca) with the RadLab: Lila Asher, Jody Chan, Amil Davis, Sinéad Dunphy, Tresanne Fernandes, Keara Lightning, and Jade Wong. Find out more at RadLab.ca

Art and lettering by Andrew Kohan (little sketch of Andrew) (@akohan, AndrewKohan.com)

Edited by Joe Curnow (little sketch of Joe) (@LearnSolidarity, joe.curnow@umanitoba.ca) & Tanner Vea (little sketch of Tanner) (@TannerVea, tvea@psu.edu)

To find out more about the research presented in this comic, go check out:

Curnow, J., Davis, A., & Asher, L. (2019). "Politicization in process: Developing political concepts, practices, epistemologies, and identities through activist engagement." American Educational Research Journal, 56(3), 716-752.

This comic was made possible by a grant from the Spencer Foundation (Grant #201900131). The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Spencer Foundation.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0