I’m running a marathon in 48 hours! Maybe in a blizzard because it’s in Northern Minnesota in October. I trained in the summer. I’m currently wearing sandals because it’s supposed to get up to 75 where I live. Here’s what I’m telling myself:
You trained for this.
You got this.
Maybe the weather will change.
Probably the weather won’t change.
This is your story for the ages.
You do not waste hard work.
You can handle anything that is put in front of you.
Alice Cohan is on the short list of most effective living feminist organizers in the United States. The principal organizer of the Equal Rights Amendment marches on Washington, she is in a category of her own: There is no other Alice. For those of you, who like me, were not alive then, perhaps the best way to acquaint you with Alice’s work is to tell you about the 2004 March for Women’s Lives that brought 1.15 million people to the National Mall in support of abortion rights. At the time, it was the largest such march in history.
Today Alice is political director for Feminist Majority, a role she previously held for the National Organization for Women. Many know Alice as the indispensable right-hand woman of Eleanor Smeal. I have been fortunate to know Alice for nearly 20 years, meeting her when I was in college. She has been a mentor ever since, and while I have been blessed with several, no other feminist mentor has had the longevity and, frankly, the patience with me that Alice has. I would not be doing the work I am today if Alice had not invested in me.
In honor of Alice, I’d like to share some of the organizing lessons I’ve learned from her over the years:
1. Invest in young people. Freely share information, and invite them to ask questions. Invite them to the meeting, whether or not they ‘belong.’ Do the work of today’s movement and fostering the next generation of the movement at the same time. Alice and I first developed a relationship when I spent a semester cleaning out her office, which remains a fire hazard in spite of my best efforts. I will never forget her telling me not just to put the files away, but to “read them, and ask me questions.” The following summer while she was visiting my (then) home state of Minnesota, she invited me to accompany her to a private, important meeting between top feminist leaders and a big-time lawyer representing victims of abuse by Catholic priests. Who does this with a 21-year-old kid? Alice. This is not about me, it’s about Alice, and I know there are trails of young people she has encouraged and fostered over the years.
2. If you disagree on strategy or tactics, say it plainly and without hesitation, and explain why. Alice is not one to stay silent when she disagrees. There’s a no-bullshit frankness about Alice that eschews some of the gendered teachings that women should be passive and/or passive aggressive when we disagree. Because of this, we’re all smarter, more honest, and often more well-rounded in our approach when we air differences openly and respectfully.
3. Organizing a national march is a tremendous amount of work. It is not the solution for every problem. When it is to be deployed, carefully thinking through strategy and timing helps us use our resources most wisely. This is an important point that still has its place in this era of social media-declared marches. For example, a demonstration on the National Mall shortly before elections is not a great idea because it pulls people away from door-knocking in communities where turnout is critical.
4. Actions look bigger when we all wear one color. White, in particular, really looks big.
6.Get on the phone. Have a meeting. Sending messages back and forth pales in comparison. Nothing beats a call, or a real meeting with several people around the table, in order to get things done.
7. Never stop trying. It is 2019, and Alice and Ellie are still giving their all to bring the Equal Rights Amendment into the Constitution. If Virginia’s elections this fall go well, we could get our last state to ratify and … this has not been an accident. They have never, never stopped working and organizing for this moment.
8. All issues are women’s issues. There is no such thing as single-issue feminism. Make it intersectional. Work for it all, ask for it all.
9. Make time to laugh and invest in personal relationships with other feminists. Do not let ‘factions’ or issue disagreements get in the way. Maintain those relationships. This point is critical, and I don’t think it can be understated. At times, Alice and I have disagreed deeply on issues. At others, we have run in different circles that included people who were vehemently, in some cases, even toxically opposed to one another. In these situations Alice never gave up on me — even when she would be angry with me — and she continued initiating regular contact and encouraging me to ask her questions about organizing.
10. You can get a tremendous amount done if you don’t worry about taking credit for it. To be honest, I don’t know if Alice would agree with me that this is one of her biggest lessons. But it’s one of the biggest takeaways I’ve had from watching her work, working with her, and listening to her, and I come back to it often.
I fear I’ve butchered this all horribly, as there is so much more to learn from Alice. However after nearly 20 years I wanted to share with you directly a small portion of what I’ve learned from this organizer extraordinaire. And if you have been mentored by me, or in any way have felt some learning from my work, know that because of the profound influence this woman has had on me, I consider you as linked to Alice’s generosity of teaching, as well.
I did not set out to develop an eating disorder. I wanted to get in shape. I started running. I started eating ‘healthy’ snacks. I started dieting. I lost control. I almost died.
I would never be able to run marathons today if I was still playing around with that bullshit.
Through multiple humiliating rounds in the hospital, I have learned in the hardest way possible that dieting is an addictive scam. Attempting to placate negative self-image through restrictive eating or unhealthy exercise patterns is an onramp to self-destruction without brakes.
Thank God I figured out how to keep running, because it’s so great.
We are living through an age of authoritarianism and fascism. It is global and heartbreakingly local, including our own failed leaders who are openly embracing white nationalism and using biological sex as a weapon against women and LGBTQ people. It is easy to get overwhelmed — overwhelming you is core to the strategy bad leaders and bullies use to amplify their power.
So, we must practice resilience.
Resilience is a practice, a verb. Rather than judging yourself for being resilient or not, my encouragement is that you focus on building daily awareness of resilience and moving yourself more deeply toward a state of sustainable resistance. What is one thing you did yesterday that represents a victory in your daily practice of self-care? What is one thing that could have gone better in this regard? Write them down. I do this every morning.
For activists, practicing resilience looks like:
Saying no. Not every request made to you needs to be fulfilled by you.
Stepping away from your phone. You don’t have to be on top of everything, all the time. Activism is intense work. Take extended breaks, with family or friends who have nothing to do with your activism, and leave the damn device off the table.
Rest, hydration, and good food. This stuff is basic but real. Give yourself adequate sleep. Keep drinking water. Eat good, real food. Breathe. Go for walks. Stretch your muscles. Your body is not your container; it is yourself. Treat it well.
There are times that call for working ludicrously hard, when the work is a strobe light in your face for prolonged moments on end. We are living through such an age. Pacing is going slower than you know you can most of the time so that you are able to speed up when the moment absolutely calls for it. Doing so creates space to surge, finish, and stay in the work for the long haul. Where we need you.
A simple request to ‘pick your brain’ can be costly and frankly insulting to some consultants who make money based on sharing the expertise they have built in a given field. But I’d like to argue for a more nuanced position:
Not all requests to ‘pick your brain’ are bad.
Personally I grant a good deal of requests for ideas, conversation, or advice from young and/or less established people who share my values. My belief is that if I’m not investing in the next generation of feminist leaders and creators, I’m not doing my job as a social change agent. This not to say that I’m a pushover: If I’m too busy, or simply don’t see a request for a conversation as a good use of my time, I will respectfully decline. But I am proud to have spoken with a number of people over the years to offer support, encouragement, or a few words of advice on their journey.
I respect those who have boundaries such that they automatically turn down all requests for free advice or quote an hourly rate. Where I have landed, however, is evaluating requests on a case-by-case basis and maintaining strict control of how much time I allot to these requests. As I do so, I remember all of those who have helped me, with gratitude.
We have a classroom’s worth of politicians angling to be captain rather than part of a winning team. This is not how we defeat an authoritarian leader who lies, violates democratic norms, and welcomes misinformation campaigns from foreign adversaries that actively work to sow division among his opponents.
Let’s be honest: The current bloated field is filled with candidates who are replicas of one another. An ever greater number of these candidates don’t have a chance in Jupiter of winning Democratic primaries, much less the general election. Democratic Party leaders have failed to take control of this situation. This has happened likely in part because of fear of a renewed batch of complaints similar to what occurred from the Bernie Sanders campaign and its supporters after the last election, but an intramural and dated fight about a ‘rigged system’ within the Democratic Party shouldn’t be a factor, because it’s both an echo of the complementary waves that brought Trump into power within the Republican Party and also irrelevant to voters in the suburbs and exurbs who need an alternative to Trump.
I am not arguing for a coronation; an ideal number at this stage would be five or so candidates — enough to have a significant exchange of ideas, but also enough to get real and create the conditions where candidates with low poll numbers decide to move on. As it stands, not getting traction or polling into relevance is not enough incentive for our bloated field to winnow itself down now, because most candidates don’t have traction or high polling, creating an effect where no one leaves.
We cannot choose a strong candidate to support when we can’t even fit all of our candidates on one stage.There is a reason why no conference, ever, invites more than 20 panelists to weigh in on a given topic. Please, for the good of the Democratic Party, the United States of America, and the entire free world, if you’re thinking of running for president as a Democrat just now, don’t. And if you’re not getting traction, do the honorable thing and drop out.
Sometimes the greatest acts of leadership are not when one person’s name blinks in giant lights, but when that person assesses the real landscape in which they operate, recognizes what exists and what is needed, and declines to blow a fuse.
I ran a marathon. To achieve this, I surrendered to process. I stopped accepting my own excuses and limiting mental frameworks. And, one day I became an athlete.
Running is one of my love stories. Breath visible in the air, classical music on the radio, solitude in the found gorgeous.
Training and the finish line transformed me. Surprisingly, the biggest challenge has been what came after the marathon: not running.
I am learning the limitations of my body. After completing the race, my right knee announced itself as a hostage-taker. With time, it has transitioned to a toddler testing for power.
In the last week I have begun to ease back in. My pace is considerably slower than my endurance allows, and each step brings unwelcome sensation. One month later I do not look like a marathon runner. I look like someone who is just learning to run.
Who cares, I think. I have found a way back on the road. Accepting pain — observing my pain, accepting my pain, and embracing the deep and vulnerable plunge required to stop my instinctive resistance to my pain — is the deepest meditation I have experienced.
Although finishing a marathon was pretty fucking cool.
Greetings from January 42, 2019, more often identified as February 11. I joined Dry January this year on a lark. And, I haven’t yet stopped.
Started in the United Kingdom as a way to help people reset their relationship with alcohol, it’s pretty simple for folks who, like me, can stop drinking alcohol without encountering physical problems. Tonight I drink tea.
I like red wine, and I like hoppy beer. What I have learned over the past month and change is that I don’t need them. More than anything, Dry January has taught me how much of my drinking has been mindless and out of habit: Ordering a drink because a server at a restaurant asks me if I want one. Drinking because other people are. Drinking because I’m watching a movie or a game.
I was most nervous about attending a friend’s surprise 40th birthday party without drinking. But, it wasn’t bad. Not drinking during a night with dear friends who were drinking did nothing to interfere with my enjoyment of the evening, and it was easier to get up too early the next morning to catch a flight home. I can also report that not drinking in the face of stressors — such as, oh, being a Virginia Democrat — has been fine. I’m 42 days clear that drinking does nothing to resolve problems or calm me down.
My not drinking does seem to make some people nervous. That’s interesting. It’s easier for me to hear dark humor and offhand comments about drinking for how dark they truly can be. How hard walking and breathing through our culture must be for those with alcoholism. Compassion and respect, y’all.
Physical: I’ve had fewer problems with acid reflux overnight. My skin has lost its barest trace of a Keith Richards-like quality. I’m eating all the time and in the best shape of my life, although that one’s hard to tease out from training for a marathon, which has been happening simultaneously and is also why I decided to stay straight edge, for now.
When this is all over I’m looking forward to a glass of red wine with a piece of bitter, punch-in-the-mouth chocolate that makes my cheeks flush. The dark chocolate is at least as exciting. It has been nice to gain a greater appreciation for little life things I had conflated with alcohol.