Takin’ It to the Streets: Citizen Activists | Collection Development

By Sarah Nagle

It should have come as no surprise that Time magazine’s choice for its 2011 Person of the Year was The Protestor. From Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt during the Arab Spring and cold Wisconsin in February and March to autumn’s Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement in New York City and beyond, citizens took to the streets worldwide in 2011 to make their voices heard.

In October 2011‚ perhaps as prolog‚ the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to three women actively working for peace in Africa and the Middle East. Tawakel Karman, a Yemeni human rights activist, was a public face of Yemen’s participation in the Arab Spring protests. Leymah Gbowee brought Christian and Muslim women together to help end years of civil war in Liberia and paved the way for the election of third Nobel laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as president. These women joined laureates such as Shirin Ebadi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, and Desmond Tutu in demonstrating how citizen activism can change the world.

Several books of the past decade have examined historic periods of activism and political upheaval. Citizen-led revolutions in 1789 and 1848 unleashed decades of pent-up unrest and changed the course of political and social institutions forever. During 1968, television viewers saw student revolts, antiwar protests, and the democratic stirrings of the Prague Spring. The year 1989 brought massive change with the destruction of the Berlin Wall and, more symbolically, the Iron Curtain.

New outlets for change

Just as TV brought larger audiences to the events of 1968 as they unfolded, so did the new social media technologies create wider participation in 2011. Not only could people worldwide see events in real time, they also were able to use social media to plan and publicize events and shape reactions to them. OWS was conceptualized and developed through email and Facebook. Twitter and similar tools were essential to creating networks and organizing political action across North Africa and the Middle East. Videos and tweets went viral, and formerly anonymous individuals became global symbols of their movements and the voices of millions.

Citizen activism in 2011 also referenced historical events, as well as inspiring new and often controversial interpretations of them. Reader interest in the founding events of the United States continued unabated, as citizens attempted to understand the realities of today by learning about the American Revolution, the writing of the Constitution, the philosophies and intentions of various founders, and other seminal doctrines and historic milestones.

The events of 2011‚ and their consequences‚ continue today. Egypt’s transition to democracy is fragile, Syria is politically unstable, and the new presidents of Tunisia and Libya must deal with many of the problems that existed under the previous leaders. In the United States, social and economic unease continue as the country embarks on what promises to be a contentious presidential election year. And the economic remedies being worked out in Greece and other financially troubled countries are certain to displease millions of stakeholders.

Libraries take action

During the past 12 months, new titles relating to citizen activism have appeared, some originating from blog posts and other social media content and repurposed as print volumes. Other titles have been produced as a result of aggressive writing and publishing timetables. Announcements for the upcoming publishing season include several books dealing with political upheaval in the Arab world, OWS and economic dissent, and the use of social media to promote democracy.

For those wishing to effect positive change on a more modest or personal scale, there are plenty of works to stir the activist in every citizen. Those wishing to create change can make conscious choices as to how they spend their money or donate their time, thus living their values. New ways of forging consensus can lead to more fluid and effective organizations in any context.

The titles below provide an introduction to the activism of 2011, to significant uprisings and revolutions of the past few hundred years, and to practical methods for citizens to employ to become active and influence society in positive and constructive ways. For graphic novels on the subject, see LJ ‘s earlier article Occupy This: Graphic Novels About Economic Justice, Social Movements & Historical Revolutions (ow.ly/9z3M8). Titles designated with a star [starred review star] are core purchases for most libraries.


Andress, David. 1789: The Threshold of the Modern Age. Farrar. 2009. 456p. ISBN 9780374100131. $30.

Both the U.S. Constitution and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man were created in the revolution-wracked year of 1789. One document, beginning with the words We the people and ending with the Bill of Rights, still guides a nation. The other, while adopted as the basis of the French Constitution, led in part to a bloody revolution and repression. (LJ 11/15/08)

starred review starBaker, Jean H. Sisters: The Lives of America’s Suffragists. Hill & Wang: Farrar. 2005. 288p. ISBN 9780809095285. $65; pap. ISBN 9780809087037. $17.

It took 80 years for a group of determined women to win suffrage for American women. In this group biography, Baker details how the personal was definitely political in the lives of five leaders of this movement. (LJ 9/1/05)

starred review starBreen, T.H. American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People. Hill & Wang: Farrar. 2011. 352p. ISBN 9780809024797. $27; pap. ISBN 9780809024797. $15.

In the two years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, argues Breen, thousands of ordinary citizens became insurgents, first resisting the new laws passed by the British Parliament and then moving openly toward revolution. The Continental Congress could not have fostered a revolution without the thousands of people behind it.

Gilman, Rhoda R. Stand Up! The Story of Minnesota’s Protest Tradition. Minnesota Historical Soc. 2012. 176p. ISBN 9780873518499. $16.95.

Minnesota’s history is that of a state eager to turn the world upside down, according to writer John Gunther. This survey describes over 150 years of vibrant political struggles comprised of countless third parties, a distinctive farmer-labor tradition, and the examples of Harold Stassen, Walter Mondale, Jesse Ventura, and Paul Wellstone, to name a few.

Hogeland, William. The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty. Scribner. 2006. 320p. ISBN 9780743254908. $26.95; pap. ISBN 9780743254915. $16.

During his terms in office, George Washington faced the unenviable task of uniting a fractious and insolvent nation while dealing with British harassment and political infighting. His biggest crisis, however, was dealing with the protests in western Pennsylvania over the first federal tax on a domestic product‚ whiskey. Rebellious gangs threatened secession and even civil war.

starred review starKurlansky, Mark. 1968: The Year That Rocked the World. Ballantine. 2003. 464p. ISBN 9780345455819. $26.95; pap. ISBN 9780345455826. $17.

It was the year of the Prague Spring, student riots in Paris, the Mexico City Olympics where two American medal winners gave a Black Power salute, and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, at which police clashed violently with protestors. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, the Vietnam War had divided the nation, and television was there to capture and broadcast it all. (LJ 1/04)

starred review starMaier, Pauline. Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787‚ 1788. S. & S. 2011. 608p. ISBN 9780684868554. pap. $18.99.

Writing the Constitution was the easy part, argues eminent historian Maier. Ratification required special committees for each state elected by popular vote. During the ensuing year, citizens gathered throughout the country to argue the merits of the young nation’s Constitution and the accompanying Bill of Rights. (LJ 9/15/10)

starred review starMeyer, Michael. The Year That Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Scribner. 2009. 272p. ISBN 9781416558453. $26.

As a reporter for Newsweek, Meyer was in the midst of the unimaginable events occurring in Eastern Europe during 1989, the most iconic being the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Yet Meyer was present as well for the triumph of Poland’s Solidarity, the ten heady days of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, and the aftermath of Romanian leader Ceausescu’s Christmas Day execution. Throughout, Meyer portrays the individual and collective actions of millions of people determined to bring democracy to their part of Europe. (LJ 6/1/09)

Rapport, Mike. 1848: Year of Revolution. Basic Bks: Perseus. 2009. 496p. ISBN 9780465014361. $29.95.

In 1848, the first (and only) trans-European revolutions erupted to protest over 30 years of antidemocratic rule, termed springtime of peoples. By the end of the year, these revolts had been quashed, and authoritarian rule reestablished in France, the Austrian Empire, Germany, and Italy.


starred review starGbowee, Leymah. Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War; A Memoir. Beast Bks. 2011. 256p. ISBN 9780984295159. $25.99.

Gbowee, a young and abused Liberian mother, realized that her countrywomen could do one of two things: continue to be the victims of violence in this wartorn country, or do the unthinkable‚ band together to work for peace. In 2003, Gbowee helped organize both Christian and Muslim women to stage nonviolent protests against Liberia’s brutal regime‚ protests that helped lead to the 2003 overthrow of president Charles Taylor and led to her receiving one of three 2011 Nobel Peace Prizes.

Gerzema, John & Michael D’Antonio. Spend Shift: How the Post-Crisis Values Revolution Is Changing the Way We Buy, Sell, and Live. Jossey-Bass. 2010. 288p. ISBN 9780470874431. $25.95.

Mindful, not mindless, consumption, is now driving the expenditures of more than half of American consumers, argue the authors, and there is a shift back to traditional values of thrift and self-reliance. By recognizing this, responsible companies and organizations can indeed do well by doing good.

starred review starGhonim, Wael. Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power; A Memoir. Houghton Harcourt. 2012. 320p. ISBN 9780547773988. $26.

Ghonim was Google’s Mideast marketing director when he became active in Facebook campaigns protesting Egypt’s repressive government. This is the memoir of an educated, tech-savvy Egyptian who found himself in the middle of the Arab Spring‚ and in a Cairo jail for 12 days during the height of the protests. A personal view of the social, political, and economic realities leading to the events in Tahrir Square in January 2011.

Khalil, Ashraf. Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation. St. Martin’s. 2012. 336p. ISBN 9781250006691. $26.99.

The 18-day uprising in Egypt may have been a shock to the world, but to insiders like Cairo-based journalist Khalil, it wasn’t unexpected. Here, Khalil details the events leading up to the 2011 revolution and the subsequent end of almost 30 years of repressive rule by Hosni Mubarak.

Mason, Paul. Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions. Verso. 2012. 244p. ISBN 9781844678518. pap. $19.95.

BBC journalist and blogger Mason has observed and reported from global uprisings in Egypt, Athens, New York, Manila, and many other places in the past few years. He is especially cogent on the power and effectiveness of the new social media tools in the hands of millions of far-flung individuals. His original post, Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere (ow.ly/9zbXg), went viral.

starred review starNichols, John. Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street. Nation Bks. 2012. 208p. ISBN 9781568587035. pap. $15.99.

As a native Wisconsinite and an editor of the Capital Times, Nichols was well placed to report on the rapid transformation of the Wisconsin state capitol from quiet statehouse to epicenter of national protest. Nichols details the progress of events during those cold months of early 2011 and shows how popular protest and solidarity flowed from Egypt, Greece, and other global flashpoints to Wisconsin and then to Wall Street and beyond.

Van Gelder, Sarah & Yes! Magazine Staff. This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement. Berrett-Koehler. 2011. 96p. ISBN 9781609945879. pap. $9.95.

This instant book presents ten ways that the Occupy Movement has changed everything and documents its beginnings, fluid structure, and developments. Essays propose ways to change income inequality, create a fair tax system, and develop living wage jobs. Contributors include both OWS insiders and activists from the larger progressive community. (LJ 11/15/11)


starred review starBoles, Nicole Bouchard. How To Be an Everyday Philanthropist: 330 Ways To Make a Difference in Your Home, Community, and World‚ at No Cost! Workman. 2009. 215p. ISBN 9780761155041. pap. $10.95.

Philanthropy consultant Boles outlines simple everyday steps to making a difference. Each step can be completed within one day‚ often with only an hour or two invested. Add a bit of talent, a physical presence, and positive energy and these steps can result in significant citizen involvement and better communities.

starred review starBoyte, Harry C. The Citizen Solution: How You Can Make a Difference. Minnesota Historical Soc. 2008. 224p. ISBN 9780873516105. pap. $15.95.

Through stories and parables, Boyte shows us that citizens are more than mere consumers of government and society. Working together, citizens can effectively overcome powerlessness and devise solutions to remedy divisive politics and disengaged individuals. Each chapter lists skills for citizens to develop and gives constructive tips and tools to use to become citizen professionals and fashion a true government of the people.

Rosenberg, Tina. Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World. Norton. 2011. 402p. ISBN 9780393068580. $25.95.

Prizewinning journalist and MacArthur genius Rosenberg details how peer pressure can be a positive force for social activism worldwide by helping to reduce teen smoking, make villages in India healthier, and bring down Slobodan Milosevic. (LJ 2/15/11)

starred review starSmith, Wendy. Give a Little: How Your Small Donations Can Transform Our World. Hyperion. 2009. 368p. ISBN 9781401323400. pap. $14.99.

Almost half of the total aid raised for victims of the 2004 tsunamis came from American individuals, with one-quarter of all households donating. The author describes how small donations to certain organizations can help make large changes in global hunger, education, health, and infrastructure.


Cry Freedom. color. 139 min. Dir: Richard Attenborough. Universal Studios, www.universalstudios.com. 1987. DVD ISBN 9780783230535. $11.99.

South African journalist Donald Woods (Kevin Kline) followed activist Steven Biko (Denzel Washington) in his fight against apartheid and repression in the 1970s. When Biko was killed in 1977, Woods was determined to discover the truth about the crime and continue Biko’s fight, even if it meant that he and his family would have to leave their country for their own safety.

Gandhi. color. 190 min. 25th anniversary ed. Dir: Richard Attenborough. Sony Pictures, www.sonypictures.com. 2007. DVD ISBN 9781424840946. $29.69.

Ben Kingsley won a Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of the Indian statesman Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a fierce proponent of using nonviolent protest to achieve political change and, ultimately, independence for his country from the British.

starred review starIron-Jawed Angels. color. 123 min. Dir: Katja von Garnier. HBO Home Video, www.hbo.com. 2004. DVD ISBN 9780783125367. $9.99.

Hilary Swank leads a stellar cast in this drama based on the struggles of Alice Paul and other suffragists to gain the vote for American women. In the process, they gained their titular nickname for refusing to eat during a hunger strike. The 19th Amendment was finally ratified in 1920.

starred review starPray the Devil Back to Hell. color. 72 min. Dir: Gini Reticker. Fork Films, www.forkfilms.net. 2008. DVD UPC 844667019926. $24.99.

This documentary chronicles how thousands of Liberian women banded together to end years of violent civil war in their country and overthrow its dictatorial president. Two of the leaders shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize (along with a Yemeni woman) for their efforts in bringing peace to Liberia. (Best DVDs of 2009, LJ 1/10)

starred review starThe Singing Revolution. color. 94 min. Dir: James & Maureen Tusty. New Video Group, www.newvideo.com. 2009. DVD ISBN 9781422922712. $22.99.

For over 50 years, the tiny Baltic nation of Estonia was occupied by two dictatorial regimes‚ the Nazis and then the Soviet Union. Estonians used singing and song festivals as an expression of national unity and occasional defiance. In 1991, as Russian tanks poured into the country to prevent further independence, they were met by hundreds of thousands of Estonians singing peacefully. This is a stirring portrait of a nation’s rebirth, accompanied by the songs of its journey to freedom.


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