Activist Road Trip

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project

It is surprising how little people really experience and learn when they travel. They often seem to be in a hurry to get to a certain place where their friends or relatives live or where the media or other "expert" has told them they should go. Many people would like to see and learn about how people live and the challenges they face, but it is often difficult to do. Since there is apparently scant profit in trips that would help bridge cultures and encourage understanding, there is little support for it. Also, for most people in the world, travel is costly, is sometimes perceived as dangerous, and there are lots of borders that can block our progress.


In an era of globalization, problems are no longer confined to local areas. Also, in an era of heightened fear-mongering, paranoia and suspicions about others, the importance of building bridges individually and in groups can't be stressed enough. One of the best antidotes to propaganda is first-hand knowledge and personal ties to people in different regions.


Travel offers immeasurable insights if people are receptive to them and have meaningful experiences while on the road. The trouble is, of course, that "it's possible to travel all around the world and not get anywhere at all." The Activist Road Trip pattern is designed to prevent that from happening.

Lori Blewett and I just returned from a trip to Venezuela with twenty-five students. Our ultimate destination was Caracas, Venezuela, one of the three locations of the "polycentric" World Social Forum in 2006, but we visited Barquisemeto and the small hillside village of Sanare. Our tour was conducted by Global Exchange, a non-profit organization located in California, that leads "Reality Tours" to nearly 30 countries including Afghanistan, China, Ireland, Mexico, India, Iran, the Mexican-US border, and Cuba. We visited a number of community centers, health clinics, educational missions, agricultural cooperatives, and housing developments set up by the Chávez government. Also, during the bus drive from Barquisemeto to Caracas our guide briefed us about recent Venezuelan history from the point of view of Chávez supporters as well as detractors. Global Exchange set up numerous presentations including one from an economics professor (with opposition leanings) who explained some of the particularities of the Venezuelan economy. We also had ample opportunities to converse with people at the forum.

Activist road trips can provide more meaning than standard, non-activist, road trips. But how is the pattern employed? At a basic level, people can simply go on an activist road trip. This means pursuing activist activities — especially learning — while "on the road." The preferred mode of transportation is by foot, bicycle, or car; possibly by bus or train; and probably not by airplane where unscheduled stops and flexible timetables aren't allowed. This is not to suggest that the trip should be haphazard or random — just that serendipity is likely to come into play (and chance favors the prepared mind). Thinking about the trip ahead of time, planning for it, arranging to meet with various people and organizations in advance is very useful — just don't over schedule or otherwise become slave to your plan. A simple way to "ground" the trip is to attend events at the destination and at points along the way. Events could include anything from a mass rally to a simple breakfast with friends of friends. And don't forget to record your impressions during the trip and debrief and discuss upon your return.

People can always elect to go on an Activist Road Trip but the concept itself must be institutionalized to make it easier for people in general to go on these trips and, ideally, to build active networks of people who are interested in similar issues. As with other patterns we concentrate on how to promote this incrementally, with little pieces that organically build towards larger networks or assemblies, rather than through a grand, top-down, plan. Therefore we must build upon the basic components: physical locations, activists (hosts, guest, and guides), information and means of getting from one place to the next. Many pieces of this pattern now exist. When, for example, punk rock aficionados, travel they often share information with each other — who's cool in the next town, whose couch is available, etc. This works, at least to some degree, for the punk community, but what if a non-punk (like me?) wants to meet with some punks or if a punk wants to find out more about a non-punk group?

The chore is to help promote processes and ideas to build a thriving alternative to existing approaches to travel that are disconnected and disengaged. Ideally each visit helps to build the network while advancing positive social change. How can the network promote people from different communities getting together? Some of the pieces that we can envision include integrated calendar of events and atlases specifically designed for this type of trip. These atlases would necessarily be dynamic — events as well as the non-profits, infoshops and other host organizations — are often short-lived.

Of course the above discussion suggests that the point of the road trip is to visit activist sites along the way. Another approach is going on a road trip as activists. The Bee Hive Collective that travels throughout Latin American and develops intricate and beautiful murals that illustrate indigenous issues and struggles, and the Miss Rockaway Armada that traveled down the Mississippi River in the summer of 2006 to share art, music, environmentalism and an anarchist perspective with everyone they met, are great examples of this. In both of those cases, the groups essentially brought their activism with them. The ultimate activist road trip in the U.S. would have to be the Freedom Rides in the spring of 1961 where activists traveling on buses from Washington, DC to various towns and cities in the deep South to publicize their fight for civil rights were met with racist violence that was only quelled after federal intervention.

A person implementing this pattern should expect a number of challenges. For example, people working in one activist destination could be overwhelmed by large numbers of people "passing through." It is incumbent on the traveler to make sure that the host is not taken advantage of. Visitors must be sensitive to their host's situation and aware of their responsibilities as guests. Encounters between visitor and host, important as they are, have several potential complications. Who knows that the "field trip" to, say, a worker's collective is not to a "Potemkin village" that has been carefully "staged" in order to convey certain impressions to the guests, perhaps in a bid for funding. And how do we ensure that the visitors to a favella in Rio De Janeiro, a township in Capetown, or to the South Bronx, are not simply treating what they're witnessing as a spectacle.

The possibility exists that when any destination is made public, in an "atlas," for example, hostile townspeople might choose to harass the travelers or the host. There could also be other types of vexing side-effects. If, for example, people in the hosting situation were serving food to visitors, the local health department could decide to pay a call on an "illegal dining establishment." Also the network is built on social relationships and the ones encountered in an Activist Road Trip are more likely to be dynamic than more established venues.

There are dozens of possible places to visit on an Activist Road Trip: activist organizations, collectives, shelters, migrant camps, small businesses, reservations, encampments, sanctuaries, labor halls, organic farms, conferences, concerts, environmental disasters, prisons, community media centers, barrios, refugee camps, etc. Ideally the travelers could stop at "World Citizen Travel Bureaus" along the way or at "People's Embassies" or, even a "Museum of Civil Society" — if people create them!

And People can add an Activist Road Trip to another trip. Rather than fly in to their destination, dropping in out of the sky as it were, people could explore the region en route to, or returning from, the event to observe first hand the realities that the forum examines. This can even be done within the city itself. One doesn't have to travel very far — physically — to find unexplored regions. The Activist Road Trip can be done in your own region or city.

Note: The photo above is from The Miss Rockaway Armada activist road trip.


References: Bridging the Global Gap; Global Exchange web sites & other literature

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Travel offers immeasurable insights if people are receptive to them. The trouble is, of course, that it's possible to travel all around the world and not get anywhere at all. The Activist Road Trip pattern is used whenever activism is combined with travel. Activist Road Trips can be long or short; meditative or obstreperous. One doesn't have to physically travel very far to find unexplored regions sometimes in one's own region or city.

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