Root Your Activism In Your Moral Clarity

I’ve been at social justice work since I was a kid. It didn’t necessarily start with my parents — though they discussed public affairs with me as if I were an adult, they were hardly activists or political people. I just liked to read newspapers and books about politics, and had a strongly felt sense of right and wrong.

My activism started out as general liberal/progressive-type stuff. I started phonebanking in middle school for what could have become Minnesota’s first woman senator, and by the time I hit high school I was dodging the police officer assigned to the outside of the school to catch skipping students (I was out campaigning for Senator Paul Wellstone).

It wasn’t until late high school and early college that my general leftist activism channeled into explicitly feminist activism. I developed anorexia and nearly died, fighting tooth and nail for my life. When I got on the other side of that, I vowed to do whatever I could to help prevent other women and girls from having to go through what I did — or at least, to make it easier for them to get out. I saw my eating disorder as a manifestation of a society that demands women and girls take up less space.

I took a wider view and went into general feminist activism. Women and girls are consistently pressured to take up less space in public life, to have bodies held to impossible standards and open to the public approval and judgement of others, subjected to violence and control, paid less, respected less. The areas where women are most praised for stepping up — presenting ourselves in sexualized ways, for the pleasure of others rather than ourselves; or taking notes at the meeting or having a really clean house —  do not refute my view of less space because they, too, support rigid gender roles that help no one, woman, man, or gender non-conforming. I should note, here, that my commitment to feminism has also kept me on track and in some ways, helped to save my life on an ongoing basis. Having the views I do now makes it pretty hard to go back to hurting my body the way I once did.

Over time, I have specialized more and more in reproductive health, rights, and justice issues, and I see strong links between cultural control over women’s bodies in the form of impossible standards of physical beauty; legal control over women’s bodies in the form of sexual repression and the shame and stigma that supports it; and medical control over women’s bodies in the form of forced C-sections, “religious freedom” with the effect of denying women access to health care in health care settings, denial of accurate medical information for fear we might choose to have abortions, and the like.

Reproductive activism can be a hard field to be involved in — our side loses a lot, the opposition is unhinged more often than not, and terrorism and violence is part of the pro-life movement’s playbook. But frankly, all activism is hard. That’s why I shared my story. The reason why I do my work is rooted in my moral clarity: I’m doing this work because I survived, and I feel a sense of purpose in advancing women and girls. I’m doing this work because if I could stand up to my eating disorder, I can certainly stand up to anti-abortion, sexist, racist, homophobic bullies who are trying to intimidate activists and ordinary people out of the discussion.

If you’re an activist, I encourage you to think about your story. Why do you do the work you do? This is the moral clarity you bring to your work. It will feed you when days and nights are long, and help you avoid burnout (though you also need to take care of your own life or you will burn out — for more on that, see my old post Time Management: Activism Without Losing Your Mind).

Your story and your moral clarity are not a set of political views. They are not an emulation of people you admire or a repudiation of people you can’t stand. They are not about what you think other people should do to move closer to justice in the set of issues you advocate. They are not even your theory of change, or how you think the work should be done.

Your story and your moral clarity are why you, uniquely you, feel motivated to do the work you do. I encourage you to take some time to think about yours, and remember to come back there every so often. This will nourish your work for the long haul. At least it has for me, for my entire adult life.

If you’ve read this far you must be an activist; so long as you’re fighting the good fight, thank you.

Gratitude For People With Depression Who Choose To Keep Going

I am grateful for everyone who struggles with depression and related conditions, and chooses to keep going.

It’s not easy. You rock.

The radical act of self-affirmation — even when we feel like crap — is the root of all power, personal and collective. Our ability to make change rests upon our ability to believe in ourselves.

Believing in ourselves has never been more important. Our nation is on the verge of leadership by those who rule by force, lying, and manipulation. The attempts to tear people down will be many.

When we are hurting we are easier to hurt. We must resist attacks on our bodies, minds, and lives.

It should be noted that external realities are not the reason why you should love yourself.

Every day is the right day to stop taking shit from a brain that is working against you, to stop taking shit from other people, and to accept your body’s right to take up space just as it is.

There is nothing strategic about allowing anyone — including yourself — to treat you as lesser than.

Affirm your right to take up space. Embrace your right to pleasure and freedom from violence, including psychological violence.

If you can’t love yourself yet, just choose to keep going. Another day may allow you to get there. Truly this is the most radical thing you can do.

P.S. As I always say to someone I care about, “Keep pushing. It’s worth it.”

If You Want To Win, Try To Win

Y’all, I am so inspired by Monday’s win for abortion rights at SCOTUS. While I welcome any opportunity to wake up, hop on the Metro, and dance party on the Supreme Court sidewalk with a few hundred of my feminist besties for hours, it is so much better when chased by Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.

Erin and Amy Hagstrom Miller

Me and Amy Hagstrom Miller, Founder and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, on the evening of her Supreme Court win. (My life is not usually this cool. If it were, I wouldn’t be sharing this picture so proudly.)

 

I’ve been reflecting on this decision and what it means to me, and it means many things. First, it feels great to win. Winning in a concrete, immediate, meaningful way happens rarely in the feminist space. Yes, we may be winning some long games, but those are gradual and not always perceptible at the moments they are being won. The concrete, immediate wins we are presented with are typically not substantive. The sad truth is these ‘wins’ are often losses disguised as compromises, engineered and subsequently celebrated by organizations with fundraising goals to meet this quarter.

A real win is the rare, best bird, and it feels good to feel good.

Also, in the decision itself: Lying is not a legal basis for restricting women’s rights and people’s rights. Facts matter, and people can’t just make shit up and expect to get away with it forever — even the pro-life movement, which has been doing it for decades.

But more than anything, my reflection comes in the bright light cast around this country by Whole Woman’s Health Founder and CEO Amy Hagstrom Miller, who decided to press her case against the Texas abortion clinic closure law even when conventional wisdom suggested that taking a big abortion case to the Supreme Court probably wasn’t a good idea for abortion rights advocates. She did so fearlessly and without shame, and while centering women and what it means to treat them well. She has taught me this:

If we want to win, we have to try to win. Even when trying to win means risking a loss. If we want to win, we must hold our heads up, and fight, and believe. 

For decades many leaders in the abortion rights movement and the feminist movement have hunkered between our shoulders, trying to hide in plain sight, hoping it would all get better if we just tried to say the right, inoffensive, message-tested thing at the super-strategic time that, coincidentally, almost never comes (because too many of our political allies are using our issues for votes and campaign commercials, and can’t be bothered to stand up for us at inconvenient times after election day!).

This matters for activists and organizers inside the women’s movement, but it matters to activists and organizers in every sector. And also at the individual level for people in general and women specifically, who are too often taught to put ourselves last.

We must dare to try, to try to win, and to try to win big. We must become comfortable with the prospect of loss. We must not be cowed by opponents who fight dirty, or people on our side who feel the need to speak in whispers. We must speak clearly, convincingly, and with love in our hearts. We must try to win. Otherwise we are hoping on games of chance.

P.S. It comes as no surprise this lesson comes from an independent abortion care provider. People who provide care and listen without judgment or unsolicited solutions tend to know most of all.

Loving My First Gray Hair Is Political

Yesterday I got my first gray hair. It’s beautiful and light, hugging the soft space to the side of my forehead. I love it.

I have been waiting for this day. I am 35. Gray hair was going to happen. Years ago I made a conscious decision to continue loving myself as I grow older. This is an act of self-preservation, and defiance.

This is about my feminism — hatred of women is intimately tied in with dangerous, racist, and unrealistic expectations of beauty that we are expected to internalize. We must reject that as much as we can (real talk: this can be a day-by-day thing, and feeling like crap about your looks doesn’t mean you don’t get to be a feminist).

This is personal — I almost died of anorexia. Gray hair is a victory! I am fortunate I made it to my 18th, 19th, and 20th birthdays. I am both grateful and proud I did, because damn that was a lot of work. My personal interest extends beyond having overcome nearly lethal negative self-talk related to my appearance; I’ve reached an age where too many peers have died for no good reason. I’m lucky to get old.

This is about parenting, too — my daughter deserves the example of a woman who dares to look like herself and love herself.

As a social justice activist and organizer, I struggle with the decision to write posts like this sometimes. Today yet another video has surfaced of a Black person losing their life to police violence; his name was Sam DuBose. Racism is one of the most pressing issues of our time.

And so, I ask myself:

Is it indulgent to be introspective about the first freaking gray hair on my head at a time when people are dying, when politicians fail to acknowledge that Black lives matter, when terrorists are targeting abortion providers because they dare to help women?

I struggle with this question, and yet this post speaks for itself: Here I am, writing. My firm belief is that self-love is radical. You cannot fight effectively for equality, dignity, or justice when you are unable to treat yourself with respect. You cannot find the courage to accept difference in others if you’re unwilling to accommodate difference for yourself. Loving yourself is not ego or dominance (those are rooted in insecurity, after all); loving yourself is about compassion. Best part? Inner compassion is compassion, and both are contagious.

So, when I embrace my gray hair, what I am also saying is that we should embrace ourselves and one another as we are. We must treat our fragile lives with respect and love, and break every convention necessary.

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Video: July 2015 To The Contrary Appearance

I appeared as a panelist on this week’s episode of To The Contrary, and discussed young feminists and the evolution of feminist activism.

You can watch a video of the show here:

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We Can Change Attitudes

A few months ago, I so happened to be at Georgetown University during a protest hosted by the Westboro Baptist Church. They had their hateful signs in tow, targeting LGBT people, Muslims, and anyone who does not subscribe to their hate club masquerading as a religion.

What was remarkable to me was not the haters, but rather the student response. There were several counter-demonstrations. Some students were playing songs like “Let It Go,” and “Born This Way,” loudly to drown out the hateful chants and bullhorns. Others wore rainbow leis and stood out with their homemade signs bearing messages of tolerance and hope. Still others held hands silently with their backs to the demonstration, and there was an official unity rally with students speaking up for LGBT rights and more.

Some students chalked inclusion messages on the bricks, surrounded by hearts.

We Are All Hoyas

I graduated from Georgetown in 2002. While there were people who were out, and there were people who supported LGBT rights, I know this counter-response would not have happened in my time.

Three cheers to younger people leading the way with love and positivity today, and also to those (sometimes) deeply hated outcasts who came before them and demanded recognition when others were inclined to sneer, or look away if they were being charitable.

All of it matters. We all can do something.

We must never forget that we can change attitudes, and even dramatically.

You Should Start A Feminist Blog

How do you be a writer? You write. How do make change? You speak up. And that, my friends, is why you should start a blog.

The written word is an intensely powerful thing, and it plays an important role in social change. Especially for feminism. Writing can be a more accessible way to reach people who are undecided about or opposed to your point of view; while they might automatically tune you out if they see you on a street corner with a clipboard, or outside a statehouse with a bullhorn, your written words are more approachable and give you a chance to more fully explain what you mean. (Although please know that more direct forms of activism like signature gathering and physical demonstrations are also useful and effective, and they belong in your activist toolkit, too.)

In addition to making your views on political issues more accessible to a general audience, writing can be an easier way to share more personal narratives if you are so inclined. I’ve said this before: I believe each time a woman tells the truth about her own life it is a radical act with the power to change society. It transforms others, and it transforms you. The baggage we carry as a result of sexist bullshit — including but not limited to internalized shame we might feel for having imperfect lives, bodies, relationships, class status, desires, you name it — loses negative power over ourselves and others when we dare to acknowledge it out loud. Oppression feeds and breeds on your silence.

I am routinely asked how to start a blog. The best thing to do is start. There are a variety of platforms that will let you build your site for free. I’m partial to WordPress because I’m used to it, it provides fairly sophisticated yet usable data on who is reading your stuff, and because they have been so kind to feature my previous posts on Michelle Obama and my late, great dog on their Freshly Pressed hub, which got me exposure to tons of new readers who didn’t get here through the traditional feminist channels. That said, I also use Tumblr for my other blog, white guys doing it by themselves, and when I hit the jackpot and got featured on their homepage I gained more than 7,000 followers in a few days, many of whom like to reblog pictures of white men running the show (every show). There are other platforms, of course. When picking your platform, think a bit about what you want to do on your site. Are you going to be doing more in words or images? What are your goals for your site — who do you want to reach, and how? Is reblogging important to you? Think about what platform better suits your needs.

Once you get that blog going, be sure to promote your posts on your various social media accounts. Also, however, be sure to invest the time to read other people’s blogs and as you are so moved, comment upon and share their work. One of the best ways to build readership is to engage in organic and authentic conversations with others — especially over their ideas.

Many people who ask me about starting blogs are currently involved with organizations that have blogs of their own. If you have a chance to write for those, great. By all means do. My advice is still to start and have a blog of your own as well, because — and this is important — no organization, even a great one that you love, deserves a monopoly on your precious and unique voice in an era of modern feminism that needs you just as you are. I look back and remember the tears streaming down my face as I closed the predecessor to this blog around the time I was elected to be a vice president of the National Organization for Women in 2009; in some ways that moment presaged why I chose to leave more than three years later. It is always the right time to say the right thing, and when you have your own platform, you can hit publish whenever you want.

If you do paid writing work, you should still have a blog of your own. While it doesn’t pay and may not get you the same exposure as published works in other publications, a blog is still an invaluable career tool in supporting your ability to get those paid opportunities. In addition, it provides folks with an easy way to contact you. Finally, a blog of your own allows you to write those things that are so important or personal to you that you don’t want an editor tinkering with it. (This is not a bashing of editors; editors make my work so much better and I love them!)

Another thing: Having a blog of your own means you don’t need to approach, count on, or wait for other people to say what you think. I get many requests to write about issues, and while I enjoy that and take that feedback seriously, my first response is almost always: You should write that! Seriously, the more voices the better.

Starting this blog that you are reading now is among the best professional decisions I’ve made. Yes, it’s not for everyone — if you work in a field where you can’t be an out feminist, I get it. But even in that scenario you can start a blog under an avatar.

Do you have more tips for starting a blog? Questions? Thoughts? Or just want to promote your feminist blog in the comments? Then, please, by all means, comment away.

Georgetown Responds To Alumni Letter Regarding H*yas For Choice And Free Speech On Campus

Recently, I organized a letter that 232 Georgetown alums signed after campus police removed a small group of students representing H*yas for Choice from a public sidewalk. You can read a copy of that letter here.

Today the administration sent me the following response:

Dear Erin:

Thank you for sharing your concerns regarding the recent incident with H*yas for Choice.  We are responding on behalf of the University to the petition you presented on September 29, 2014.  

As you know, on September 22, 2014, a Georgetown Department of Public Safety (DPS) officer asked a group of students representing H*yas for Choice to relocate from the public sidewalk at 37th and O Streets to a location on campus.  The students relocated to a location on Copley lawn.  The officer should not have asked the students to move, this was a mistake and should not have occurred.  Upon realizing the mistake, the DPS officer informed the students that they were free to move back to the original location at 37th and O Streets if they so chose. 

In response, Georgetown University Police Chief Jay Gruber, reached out to the students to offer an apology for the mistake the next day.  He has also scheduled additional training for all DPS command staff and officers on the Georgetown University Speech and Expression policy in an effort to prevent this from happening again.  In addition, students have raised this incident with our Speech and Expression Committee and the Committee is planning to respond appropriately.

Georgetown University is committed to our Speech and Expression policy, which guarantees the right to all members of our community to express themselves freely and to foster the free exchange of ideas and opinions.   We share Chief Gruber’s regret in how our DPS officer responded in this case and please know that we will work to prevent it from happening in the future.

Sincerely,

Todd Olson
Vice President for Student Affairs
Erik Smulson
Vice President for Public Affairs
If these issues get you fired up, I encourage you to check out an additional piece I wrote for RH Reality Check on abortion, speech, and the Catholic campus. You can read that here.

Swapping Oppressions Is Bad Organizing: Why “Fitch The Homeless” Is No Good

Let’s say the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch explains that his stores don’t sell clothing for larger women, while they do for men, because they only want to market to “the cool kids.” This is outrageous and worthy of action, something many of us have done (myself included — here’s my open letter about eating disorder culture to the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch).

Action is applying pressure to a decision-maker to bring about a change. There are many ways to take action. In the case of Abercrombie & Fitch, a corporation dependent upon success in the consumer market, some of the most obvious routes to change include letter writing, petitions, demonstrations and meetings — basically direct “look at me here” actions targeting the company itself. Public pressure of this kind makes sense not just because Abercrombie & Fitch makes its own decisions about what clothing lines it will carry, and what kind of CEO behavior they are willing to tolerate, but also because it is motivated to have a brand that sells.

Successful organizing often entails not angering your natural allies. You want the focus to remain on your cause, not on a newly created controversy of your own making. This is why a recent viral effort called “Fitch the Homeless,” a campaign where some disgusted with the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch started giving away his clothes to homeless people and videotaping it in order to allegedly tarnish his “cool kid” brand was so off-base. Using homeless people as props is simply offensive. It does nothing to dispel eating disorder culture. Further, it does not help homeless people with issues they are facing (in fact, one of the larger issues in helping the chronically homeless is establishing trust — and how does forcing them to become part of a viral video campaign in which they are expected to play part of a joke do anything but erode trust toward those who say they want to help?). Finally, it alienates potential allies who are justifiably angry with the dangerous and as-yet unrecanted words and policy of an eating-disorder culture promoting CEO.

Takeaway for organizers: Don’t take advantage of vulnerable people to make a point. Trust that your message is strong enough to stand on its own two feet — introducing one oppression to end another doesn’t work.

Is Volunteer Activism More Legit?

It is fashionable, in feminist quarters, to bash the non-profit industrial complex. To imply that activist work done while receiving a paycheck is somehow less legitimate than a labor of love and only love.

There are a number of problems with this argument. Namely confusing the solution to movement organizations doing a bad job, which is creating and/or fostering movement organizations in a position to do a better job, with martyr-like personal sacrifice. However much your actions matter — and they do profoundly — personal solutions, especially ones that hurt you, will not resolve systemic problems.

Many feminists express justifiable anger with and avoidance of “feminist” organizations that purport to speak for all women while actually representing the needs of women who are and/or look like their leadership; or compromise to the point of becoming a partisan pom squad; or treat the women who work for them like shit. I agree with that. I’m there. But I want you to have your principles and be able to get paid. Here’s why.

First, “don’t get paid” feeds right into economic exploitation, particularly of younger people, that is already common practice at many non-profit women’s organizations. Unpaid internships to do clerical work? Sure, budgets are tight and maybe it’s not illegal, the way it is in for-profit business environments. It’s still highly unethical for the workers it displaces and the students who are often paying tuition for the privilege of answering phones and making copies. And don’t get me started on the low wages many junior staffers are paid, particularly when there’s enough money for others to pull decent salaries. It’s disgusting and a source for shame.

Second, the women’s movement is shifting and needs to keep shifting. #femfuture, a recent report created by online feminists in New York, named and began offering potential solutions to a problem that desperately needs to be resolved: The unsustainable nature of the unpaid work model for online feminism. I argue the concern needs to be extended to feminist activism in general, online and offline (we’re almost at the point where these distinctions shouldn’t be made anymore). We all need to be having #femfuture discussions of our own. There is a point, when people are working so hard to the point of exhaustion, that we need to say — you know what? The old model of feminist organizing, which was heavily dependent on volunteers who were — what do you know — white middle-class housewives, can’t be force-fit to women struggling to pay student loans and support families and “get it all done.” It’s impractical to the point of ridiculous to think that model can somehow be revised to fit the present-day, at least if success is the end goal. We need to figure out a way for more activists to get paid.

Finally, your activist work is not inherently more or less legitimate based on how much you are not or are getting paid for it. Period.

Now that I’ve said that, I’m going to give some advice and share an experience that are outside the realm of “go work for a feminist paycheck.” Because wanting non-profits to pay you for your work, if that’s what you want, and wanting the best for you are not perfectly overlapping circles.

Realistically you can make a lot more money working outside the women’s movement, and making money is not a bad thing. Practically you can make a huge difference in workplaces that aren’t primarily feminist spaces. We need feminists in every industry. If you can do that, and still want to do volunteer activism that speaks to your heart, great. Much of my career has gone this way.

These days I get paid for some of the feminist work I do, but certainly not all of it. It’s a newer situation. After leaving a movement job last year, I was not paid at all for the work I continued to do for some months on a self-directed basis, and I can honestly say what I’ve just described is one of the best things I’ve done for my feminism. Dreams and integrity are too precious to be outsourced to any non-profit organization, no matter what it purports to represent. But I also recognize that it’s not all lofty. I was in a situation at the time where I could afford to have my presence, including a lack thereof, match my values. Being able to afford time for unpaid activist work doesn’t make me any better than someone who can’t.

So in summary, is volunteer activism more legit? No, not inherently. More of this work needs to be paid, and there’s nothing wrong with insisting that you be paid fairly for it. At the same time, unpaid opportunities offer you chances to follow your heart that a check signer may never endorse. I know you’ll do what’s best for you.