Alessandro Montesi is Head of Activism at Amnesty International and a Bocconi graduate of the Master in Science Degree in Economics and Social Sciences. During his study years he began to get involved in different activism projects and, since then, he has worked with many different organizations all over the world from Kenya to Italy, to Bolivia, and others in between. With L’Africa Chiama, an organization from his home town Fano, he has spent long periods working in Soweto East, a part of the Kibera slum in Nairobi. Here he focused predominantly on children’s rights, and worked with the street children of the area. For this issue on the theme of Social Change, we discussed with him the role that activism plays in bringing about change and his view on many issues that currently involve the world.
Can you define and describe activism, as you see it?
Activism is the action of giving a voice to the vulnerable and the oppressed, to those people that are unheard and cannot speak out for themselves. But, first, you must start from understanding yourself and the world that surrounds you. You need to become aware of your own environment and that of the people around you to be able to see what needs to be changed, and where you can act. However, you must always be careful and vigilant not to impose your own perspective and view on the people you are trying to help. It is important that activism does not remain theoretical: there is no activism without action. Therefore, we must take little but meaningful steps every day to bring about the change we want to see in the world.
What do you consider to be the role of activism in bringing about change?
I like to us the metaphor of activism being like many little drops of water: it consists of many small acts that by themselves might seem inconsequential but that, when summed together, can bring about change with the force of a crashing wave. At the beginning, perhaps it does not look like the actions you take make much of a difference. However, as time goes on, almost without you realizing it, they will have had a considerable impact. This shows how important consistency is within activism to initiate change. In life we are put in front of many small choices, and the way we decide to consistently make each one is very important. Change within society is a slow process because it involves transforming long standing beliefs and mentalities. This can be a frustrating side of activism that is only overcome through perseverance.
How do you locate activism among other factors such as politics, economics, and technology as a source of progress?
Politics, economics and activism are all made up of people: they can be seen as three ways to understand the needs of societies and as three different approaches to satisfy those needs. I believe they must work together and activism can serve as a pressure to push the other two in the right direction. Economics is important because we have to acknowledge that the world is moved by money and, as activists, we have to find a way to interact with this world to pursue our campaigns. But I also believe it is important to try to return to the roots of what is meant by the word ‘economics’ and therefore to the idea of ‘proper management of the household’. As a society we have forgotten that when we think of the economy, we have to worry about making sure that everyone’s needs are satisfied and not only about increasing wealth.
How has activism changed in the era of social media and “social engagement for likes”? How has this taken away legitimacy from the role of the activist?
Social media can have different effects and it really depends on the situation. On one side, there are instances of people that will be part of an activism project just to post a picture online and show others that they are engaged, but I believe that this goes against the core idea of helping others which underpins activism. It is not about us; it is not about looking cool. And I think these actions do sometimes take away legitimacy from the people that are truly engaged and dedicated. For example, it is not enough just to show up at a protest and post a picture online, because protest without persistent action is ineffective. On the other hand, the advent of social media has allowed us to leverage new strategies and new technologies to face changing social issues. For example, during the recent campaign by Amnesty International for the liberation of Patrick Zaki we were able to have a wider coverage through the engagement of some well know personalities and this greatly extended our reach. A further example is another new project launched by Amnesty International called Task Force Hate Speech, which aims at fighting for human rights online by contrasting hate speech and discrimination on the web. This new project uses the tools offered by social media and the Internet to contrast the problems that emerge from them and it implements a specially trained group of activists that directly counteract online discrimination.
How has the global pandemic brought to light new issues around the world that we did not know before and that are going to need immediate action?
The pandemic has acted as a wakeup call, especially in richer countries, where we are further removed from many of the day-to-day struggles that there are in the world. It showed us that we remain quite vulnerable and I think this was a new experience for many of us. It made us more conscious of how other people are living. We often take for granted privileges such as food security, economic stability and feeling safe in our homes, which are not givens in most of the world. The pandemic, with its new difficulties and unknowns, brought a little bit of that back into our lives, even if only for a short while. I remember that, when I first went to work in Soweto East, I discovered how a small fluctuation in the price of flour or corn can have a dramatic impact on people’s ability to feed their families. In Italy we can always go to the supermarket and find a box of pasta that will be more or less sold for the same price, but during the initial stages of the pandemic some of those uncertainties crept up. The pandemic reminded us of these daily struggles and my hope is that moving forward this is something that we will not forget.
How important is belonging to the community for which we are advocating? I have heard people being told both to stay out of other people’s business and people saying that who does not cry out is complicit.
I have always tried to start from a position of respect towards others and I believe this underpins the very heart of a proper approach in activism. Activism should not be something we do for ourselves but something we do for others and therefore we cannot base activism on our own perspectives. When I am engaging with an issue, I initially try to learn and to build a connection with the people, so that we can develop mutual trust in order to create a path together. I try to understand people and their reality. However, sometimes they will not want your help: you have to respect that as well. As long as you are respecting other people and are genuinely trying to help, I do not believe you have to worry too much about what people might say.
How can students that are trying to insert themselves into the world of business know where to stand up for their ideals and where to face the world as it is?
This is a dilemma. My advice is to try to learn and get experiences of the world while you are still studying. The most important thing is to become aware of what surrounds us and of how the world works, and, after that, I believe everyone will be able to make their own choice. Travelling and facing different environments will put you in front of questions and will force you to find your own answers. However, by travelling, I do not only mean going abroad: I also mean seeing new sides of your home city because there are situations that need help everywhere.