For My Fellow White People After Charlottesville

To my fellow white people looking with disgust upon the white nationalist rally and violence in Charlottesville that killed Heather Heyer, know that the responsibility to address racism is squarely ours.

Go to solidarity vigils. Donate to Black-led organizations and follow their leadership. But most of all, know that some of the most profound activism you can do involves examining and dismantling your own whiteness and encouraging the white people around you to do the same. Your white privilege makes it more likely other white people will listen to you about white privilege.

So please, do the activism and the donations. But that does not absolve your responsibility to talk to your uncle about his racist joke or to challenge the white people on your Facebook feed who think racism doesn’t exist in their own communities. Racism is everywhere, and the responsibility for dismantling it is not just political — it’s deeply personal.

Parenting Is Political

Having a baby changes your life, and that’s true for activists, too. In my microsphere of feminist and progressive activism, I’ve long been uncomfortable with the way children and specifically having children is viewed.

Having kids can be seen as a burden, an impediment to career advancement, a selfish move that hurts the environment, or a means by which women without children are forced to do more work for the people who get to go home early. I’ve heard feminists who don’t have children say all of these things, and I died a little each time. (To be clear, I’ve also encountered feminists who accommodate caregiving and inspire the best of me as a mom and an activist.)

A feminism that directs women to outsmart the reality of caregiving is probably superficial, market-oriented feminism at its worst. By all means, women and all people should be free to live their lives without being accused of having a maternal instinct to tend. Women who don’t have kids are doing right by themselves and don’t need scrutiny or second-guessing or third-party guilt trips. But to conflate the choice of some women not to have kids as an imperative for all women not to have kids or dependents of any kind, if they want to get ahead in the adult world — why, that’s crap.

Children are part of the universe. They are people with needs. Until we accept the presence of people with needs as part of the public and not just private sphere — be they children, adults with disabilities, or seniors in need of help — equality for women is going nowhere. Whether a woman will have children or not, others will use her presumed reproductive capacity and their opinion of her fitness for it to make decisions on her behalf.

It was tough for me to have a baby, and to adjust. I have always been what my husband calls a “gunner.” Prior to having a child I have, at times, run myself ragged chasing my dream of equality. Once I hit a limit to the point that a friend allowed me to sit on the phone stupefied, unable to speak, only able to cry, because I was working so hard (and without pay), completely disconnected from “life.”

More often it was healthy and fun, where instead of watching TV I liked to go to activist meetings and throw protests (I mean, it is more interesting)! In my last incarnation before getting married and having a baby all domestic-like, I was doing work-related things most weeknights and weekends. It was my community and my passion, and mostly, I was having a good time.

Once I had a baby, the activist labor of planning actions/meeting with activists, going to panel discussions and meet ups, and the endless cycle of board and committee meetings most every evening screeched to a halt. And, in the quiet of a burbling baby who needed to be rocked to sleep and would wake up again 10 minutes later, I began to internalize how removed some feminist quarters I occupied were from the reality of so many women’s lives.

It took more time still for me to realize that some of the most profound activist work I can do is not “activism.” It is not shouting the right thing into the bullhorn, or rounding up the permit and building the engagement ladder, or deepening my understanding of privilege and pushing my own boundaries of what it means to accept and love your neighbor. I do not denigrate these things — I do them.

The most profound activist legacy I leave behind may well be my parenting, and if that winds up being true, I see it as no lesser than the accomplishments of starting an organization, speaking truth to power, and forcing change in the public sphere. Giving my daughter a sense of love and justice, and encouraging her questioning and willingness to participate in collective activism, matters.

Parenting can be activism. Parenting can be a more profound contribution of activism than the things people associate with activism. It’s not anti-feminist to believe that. Frankly, the anti-feminist problem may sit in the slice of feminist spaces that don’t explicitly accommodate people with children, that don’t encourage their participation by explicitly welcoming families in actions and meeting spaces, and that don’t explicitly lift up the importance of the caregiving work that so many women do as a site for collective liberation in the the struggle toward equality.

To My Lovely Young Feminists, Don’t Apologize For Being Young

To my lovely young feminists, don’t apologize for being young. You are not “just” an intern or however many years old. You are a person. You deserve to take up space.

In many spaces, declaring yourself a feminist can be hard. Working for change is even harder. Overcoming internalized sexism and other forms of oppression is a bitch. For this, you are strong. Remember that strength and take up the space you deserve.

As women, we are taught to doubt ourselves and our worthiness to be at the table. I have seen this play out especially with young feminists — an identity I held for so long, it turned me old.

This is not to say that older people don’t have something valuable to share. For that matter, a younger person could be more seasoned than an older person within feminism specifically, and this isn’t to say that more experienced people — regardless of age — don’t have something valuable to share. Humility toward the experience of others is an asset. Having the wisdom to listen to others rather than shutting your ears before they open their mouths is a form of maturity that will carry you everywhere.

But as that goes, being young is also a lived experience. Yes, older people were young once, but they are not living the life you lead in this current moment. So it’s important for you to speak up and take up space. In fact, it’s critically important for you to take up space at a time when women of reproductive age are treated with such disdain under the law (and, unfortunately, even by some lawmakers who claim to be on our side but are willing to compromise on our bodies and our humanity in order to win elections or achieve other policy goals).

Don’t apologize for sitting at the table, minimize your opinion, or disclaimer your thoughts with your lack of experience. Clear your throat and say your piece. If you are afraid to do it, hate on the gendered nature of imposter syndrome — and then speak up.

 

May 2017 To The Contrary Appearance

I appeared on PBS’ To The Contrary, and spoke about Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos getting booed at Bethune-Cookman, Trumpcare and women, and sexual assault on college campuses:

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.