Activists in Their Twenties
Activists in Their Twenties
Abstract and Keywords
The six women and one trans man in this chapter were between the ages of 20 and 30 years old. Like the other activists in this book, they search for ways to balance their passion and commitment to making a difference in the world with the need to earn a living, maintain their health, and craft lives that include time for friends and families. Several have been activists since they were teenagers. They discuss how the events of September 11, 2001 and the Great Recession of 2008 shaped their lives and their ideas about activism. They reveal how “intersectionality” inherently defines the way most of them think about feminism and see interconnections between issues --- whether reproductive justice, sexual assault, police brutality, Black Lives Matter, transgender experiences, housing and economic development. Several discuss the role of philanthropy in the feminist movement. These young activists’ ingenuity and their ability to tap into local and international networks, and to bring theory to practice, reflects a wealth of experience and knowledge that promises feminism remains a vital, evolving, and exciting movement.
Keywords: Sexual assault, Reproductive justice, Philanthropy, Girl activism, Transgender movement, Black Lives Matter, Noorjahan Akbar, Ivanna Gonzalez, Ho Nguyen, Park Cannon, Andrea Pino, Rye Young, Alice Wilder
The six women and one trans man in this chapter were all under thirty years old when I interviewed them, at the beginning of their adult lives. Their stories, though, are not ones of pure youthful optimism. They have been active in feminist causes for years—some of them since they were preteens—and they have a clear-eyed sense of both the possibilities for and the obstacles to change. Like the women in the first two parts of this book, they search for ways to balance their passion and commitment to making a difference in the world with the need to earn a living, maintain their health, and craft lives that include time for friends and families.
The events of September 11, 2001, happened when these activists were children, and their lives were shaped by the events of that day. Noorjahan Akbar, a young Afghan woman, had fled with her family to Pakistan six years earlier to escape the Taliban; after the American intervention following 9/11, she and her family returned to a devastated but optimistic homeland. Akbar later left her country; when I met her in Washington, D.C., in 2015, she yearned to return home but could not, fearing for her life. Rye Young points to 9/11 as a turning point in his own coming-of-age story in suburban New York, affecting the issues that interested him in school and the way he viewed the world. Park Cannon posits that as a youngster who had moved from the south to the north, 9/11 refashioned her understanding of race and her position as a black person in the United States.
These young people came of age during and after the Great Recession of 2008, and it, like 9/11, had a profound impact on most of them. The economic collapse shaped the way they thought about the choice to be a “professional” activist and whether or not that would remain an option for them. Ho Nguyen of Minneapolis noted that because of the crash,
75 percent of my friends are not working in our field. We couldn’t find jobs in our field, and we’re all insanely in debt. You know, it’s been almost ten years since we graduated and we’re all still paying off our student loans. A lot of my friends who were doing activism with me all (p.162) left. I’m probably one of the last of my friends that is doing activism for pay. You know, a lot of my friends, when we talk about it now, they say, “Oh, you know, I sold out,” and I say, “Well, you didn’t sell out; you did what you had to do.” Activism is broad. I’m a gay for pay. You know, you don’t have to do those things. You don’t have to—your job doesn’t actually have to reflect your personal identity for it to be legit, right? This is just the path that I chose.1
Alice Wilder, at nineteen the youngest person I interviewed, recalled how during the recession “there were all these news stories about young people and unemployment. It changed my perception of possible career paths. Especially now that a lot of my friends have graduated college and are underemployed or unemployed, my thought right now is just ‘How can I put myself in the very best position by the time I’ve graduated, where I can have skills that are marketable and enough of a cushion that I feel like I can pay my rent?’ And activist work just is not really going to be able to provide that for me.”2
Like their elders, these activists tackle a variety of issues. For them, intersectionality rolls naturally off the tongue and inherently defines the way most of them think and talk about their views of feminism. Although some of them focus on a particular issue, most of them see interconnections between issues—whether reproductive justice, police brutality, Black Lives Matter, transgender experiences, or housing and economic development—as key to making progress.
Their activism, fueled by youthful energy, is not necessarily joyful. Andrea Pino, whose journey as an activist fighting sexual assault on university campuses has been featured in the documentary The Hunting Ground, took up activism to save her own sanity after a brutal assault but nearly lost everything in the effort. Noorjahan Akbar aches to join her family in Afghanistan but does not want to be a “sacrificial lamb.” Former girl activist Alice Wilder was burned out by the time she got to college. Who Needs Feminism founder Ivanna Gonzalez felt motivated to keep going to a large degree because she didn’t want to abandon new online activists who might feel all alone. “It’s really scary, and I know how scary it is.”3
These young activists display remarkable ingenuity, an ability to tap into local and international networks and to connect theory to practice. Their wealth of experience and knowledge promises that feminism will remain a vital, evolving, and exciting movement.
Founder, Free Women Writers, Washington, D.C.
Feminism and women’s rights and equality are not Western inventions. The West does not have a monopoly on freedom. Women have been singing about freedom in every little village you can find in Afghanistan for centuries. Women have been writing about it, if they could. They have been teaching their daughters. That is an act of protest in a country where people think that women’s voices are a sin to be heard, to be spoken loudly.
When I arrived at Noorjahan Akbar’s apartment building on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C., there were fire trucks with running engines and flashing lights parked at the curb and scores of residents—apparently from dozens of different countries—milling about outside. There was no real emergency; someone had burned her dinner and set off a smoke alarm. Once we were able to get into Akbar’s apartment, I noticed the folding chairs stacked around the spare living room. She revealed that her father had recently died in Afghanistan, and since she was unable to go home, a group of friends had come over to eat with and comfort her earlier in the week. Akbar’s father was a critical figure in her upbringing, and his death was clearly a source of pain, but she insisted on carrying on with the interview.
Only twenty-four, Akbar was already a well-known figure here and abroad. She was one of Glamour magazine’s College Women of the Year in 2013 and was named one of Forbes’s World’s 100 Most Powerful Women, the American Association of University Women’s Woman of Distinction, and one of the Daily Beast’s Women Who Shake the World. She has appeared on Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC, and Fox News to discuss Afghan women’s issues, and her writing has appeared in many outlets including the New York Times. She cofounded Young Women for Change, an organization for Afghan women, when she was in college, and when I interviewed her she was actively engaged in a new endeavor, a blog and website for women writers in her home country called Free Women Writers.
Raised in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the daughter of progressive activists and teachers, Akbar came to America through family connections to attend her last two years of high school at the George School in Pennsylvania, and (p.164) then received a BA in sociology from Dickinson College. She earned a master’s degree from American University and was working in D.C. and running her blog on the side. She worried about the safety of her siblings and her mother in Afghanistan and felt deeply torn because she ached to help her country on the ground but recognized that to do so would mean putting her life directly in danger. Her powerful story points toward the international dimensions of feminist activism and highlights how the internet makes new forms of engagement possible.
My best memories from growing up with my family was my mom helping us with schoolwork and our dad giving us extracurricular books to read because he loved books. Even when we were poor and could barely afford food, he somehow found ways to buy us books. For as long as I can remember, we have had a library of thousands of books always in our basement. It’s always been a part of my life. I think that he looked at books as a window to an outside world. When I came to the United States to go to school, I had read more Charles Dickens than any of my American friends. I had read more Jane Austen than any of my American friends, and it was because my father, somebody who never lived outside Afghanistan and Pakistan, had this vision that we didn’t have to limit ourselves to a geographical boundary. I think that had great impact on me. My dad also loved poetry, and I remember [that in] winter we would sit around reading poetry. It wouldn’t just be Afghan poetry. I read Langston Hughes, I read Bertolt Brecht. I grew up with literature that had a cause; literature that had passion. He never learned English, so all his books were translated in either Pakistan or Iran by authors who changed it from English to Farsi. But his love for poetry, I think, is sort of an Afghan trait. Afghans love poetry.
My mom is incredibly resilient. I do not know how she does it. She has seven children, she teaches, she has been a teacher for over seventeen years. She has arthritis right now but she doesn’t want to stop teaching, so she goes to school despite the fact that she’s in pain, there are security threats, there’s street harassment, there’s so many obstacles for women who work outside the home in Afghanistan. And she does more than that. On several occasions, she has volunteered with me; she has participated in the protests I have organized; she has written for my blog that I run for women’s issues; once she ran a creative writing project with me for girls in an orphanage. So she’s incredibly passionate about women’s rights, and I think she takes pride in the fact that so many of her daughters also have taken on that cause.
(p.165) It was 1996, I was five years old, when the Taliban took over Mazar-i-Sharif, which is where we were living then. This is in the Balkh Province in the north. We moved because my father was a teacher and my sisters went to school, my older sisters, and with the Taliban coming, they couldn’t do that anymore. In addition, it was well known that my father was very progressive and he would bring students over to our house and he would have poetry readings. Women and men would sit together and learn about poetry, and my father would teach them at our house. This was not something that the Taliban under any circumstance, even now, would accept. So we moved to Pakistan and we were there for six years.
We first lived in Peshawar and then we lived in Attock, another city close by. When we were in Attock, we actually ran a learning center for other refugees, so we taught about 700 Afghans. My entire family was teachers. I was around twelve, and there’s a photo of me teaching. We had a huge population of refugees who went there, and especially important, there were a lot of refugee girls who came to the school. That was something that my father always was a proponent of.
In 2001, the Taliban fell out of power. When they lost power with the United States’ intervention, we went back to Afghanistan and we opened a school, a learning center, again. And we had about 300 women that we taught. This one was just for women because they had lost the opportunity to go to school for six years because the Taliban did not allow it. In Pakistan we had had the chance to learn English and computer skills, something that most Afghan women, they don’t have the chance to do, so we were able to teach those skills to Afghan women. My father also taught literature class, because that’s one of his passions, and my mom taught a variety of school subjects for people who needed to catch up so that they could go back to school.
This was a time when Afghans were very, very hopeful. If you look at surveys, it’s like a skyrocket, the amount of hopefulness and passion and people returning to the country. The numbers are just staggering compared to now, thirteen, fourteen years later. I remember going to the local school—the first day was my first day in school back in my own country—and there were so many students and it was a big chaos because so many girls had returned to school. I was supposed to be [in] sixth grade, but there was literally no space left in sixth grade, so I repeated a grade. But it was never something that I thought of as a negative thing, because in my mind it was always equated with “Look at this movement! Look at this life growing in Afghanistan,” and that was really beautiful. I remember the first few weeks—this was right after the Taliban had left, so the city had been shelled completely by air strikes (p.166) and, of course, fighting on the ground against the Taliban. You could see bullet holes on the streets and buildings that had fallen apart, and it was such a stark contrast to see these girls dressed in uniforms, full of laughter and energy and excitement that they could have a normal life again. So that really stuck with me. It’s one of my favorite memories of Afghanistan.
I never felt like a victim growing up. I, of course, living in Afghanistan faced discrimination; living in Pakistan I was a refugee—that’s never easy. And, of course, there was war and, of course, we lost our house and we lived in poverty—I lived in poverty for most of my life. But I never felt like a victim. And it was because my parents found this little haven in our house where we could be ourselves, where we could express our feelings, where gender would not be a means to control us. Gender rules were not implemented the way they were in the general society. So I always felt free growing up. And it also gave me the tools to deal with my oppression.
When I was twelve, my father [said], “If poverty makes you so upset, you should do something about it. Why don’t you start a magazine with your classmates?” And I did. They always made me feel like I had agency. I think that served me very, very well when I came to the United States [to go to the George School in Pennsylvania]. Because when other people looked at me like a victim, I would be like, “What are you talking about? Yes, of course my life was tough, but that’s not all that I am. I also have these skills; I also have these good experiences; I also have all of these things that I can bring. I don’t need your pity.”
That pity is never a solution to creating a global feminist movement, or a global anything, or any kind of human connection. The moment that you pity someone you dehumanize them, and I never wanted that. And I never do that to women I work with, regardless of what their experience has been.
I took a class on African American history my junior year in high school. I realized that I knew more about discrimination against black people in the United States than most of my American classmates because my father gave me a copy of Roots; I had already read Angela Davis, I had already read Audre Lorde. I had read it all in Farsi. Separately from my own oppression as an Afghan woman, and as a brown woman in America, I first got to know oppression through learning about slavery in America. And one of the things that stuck with me most was that slaves were told to not read, were told to not write. This was so striking to me because I had moved from Afghanistan to Pakistan because the Taliban had told me that I couldn’t read and that I couldn’t write and I couldn’t go to school. At the heart of it—I’m not original in thinking this, Edward Said has, for example, written a lot about this—is (p.167) that power is basically knowledge. Who gets to create knowledge? Who gets to create information, create terminology, create language? It’s the same person who creates power. The fact that men have had the monopoly on power to call forced marriages “marriages” instead of slavery is very telling to me. It’s because of our language and the ways that it’s created.
So, for me, oppression—language can be a force of oppression, but it can also be a very incredible force for change and for fighting back oppression and for taking back terms and for taking back history. I think it is a universal thing that women’s literature is always looked at as secondary, as less important, as less critical or even less academic, less valuable. Women’s words are considered less valuable. There’s the words of a Palestinian poet [Suheir Hammad] who says, “I have stories to tell you. Listen to me.”
I think about this a lot in terms of women, because we have so much to say and literature is such a powerful tool for us to say them. So it’s important to create those platforms where women can speak, because it doesn’t just benefit us. Men could learn a lot from shutting up and listening to us once in a while. They don’t have to do it every day. Just once in a blue moon would be very nice. Literature has the power to change minds. It’s tough in a country like Afghanistan, where only less than 30 percent of the population are literate, but what gives me hope is that also in Afghanistan around 67 percent of our population is under the age of thirty. Which means that they have more chances and time to get an education, a chance to at least learn how to read and write, and they’re the future. If we want to target anyone, we should be targeting them with our literature, with our writing, with our poetry.
I’ve seen it make a difference. I have done a lot of creative writing projects in Afghanistan. I worked in two different orphanages, with children—girls and boys—to help them write their stories. That was something that I began in 2008 or 2009 or 2010, very early on when I had started working on this. I worked later with an organization called Young Women for Change, and we had a huge effort toward writing women’s stories and getting international and national media to pay attention to it. We would literally write media updates and we had dozens of media contacts, and we actually created a lot of stories by writing about street harassment for the first time in decades. It had never been talked about in Afghanistan in this way before: that street harassment is an issue, that street harassment causes women to stay at home and not participate in the society, street harassment causes social and economic and political marginalization.
In 2008, I traveled to Afghanistan and I collected women’s stories, women’s songs, and traditional folk songs. Because—actually, I didn’t know why (p.168) I was doing it; I found out later. I went, and I thought most of the songs would be about love, but I found out that a lot of them were actually about women’s issues. They were about early and forced marriages; they were about not being able to go to school. That was really a wake-up call to me, because I had seen this top-down approach of feminism and women’s rights in Kabul, where I lived, where an educated woman would come to the grassroots women of the poor neighborhoods and tell them about their rights. But I was like, “What? Let’s wait a second, let’s listen to them and see what they have to say.”
They were actually singing what they had been singing for decades, for centuries, about these issues, and we just didn’t want to listen to them. So I’ve recently begun publishing those on the website and on the social media pages that I run. So right now I’m working on a blog that has about 114 contributors from inside the country. They mostly write in Farsi and in Pashtu. We have 26,000 readers, and I just started translating the stuff into English. This is a one-woman project; I do all the editing, I do all the photography, I make all the posters, and I do social media, and I connect with the writers and follow up with them.4 So it’s exhausting. And it’s not my day job; I have another day job. So it’s taken me a while to translate the stuff into English, but I’ve translated about thirty of them and try to do at least one or two a week. I try to put them in English as well because I think there’s a void in American media of real voices, authentic voices, of Afghan women and men. Because we are so often, especially women, are so often talked about and rarely listened to. We’re the subject of so many conversations, we’re looked at from afar, but we are silent. But these stories of women writing bring a new voice and create a new narrative for Afghan women. I don’t necessarily think that the more educated class of women who are working for women’s rights are ignorant or are not connected with the real issues, but the real stories and the narratives of rural women could really enrich those experiences and those stories and our activism.
But another, bigger part of it, to me on a personal level, was realizing that feminism and women’s rights and equality are not Western inventions. The West does not have a monopoly on freedom. Women have been singing about freedom in every little village you can find in Afghanistan for centuries. Women have been writing about it, if they could. They have been teaching their daughters. That is an act of protest in a country where people think that women’s voices are a sin to be heard, to be spoken loudly. So it gives me this perspective to never look at women as helpless and to never give both the Islamists who say, “No, feminism, women’s rights are (p.169) all Western propaganda,” and the bigots and racists in the United States and Europe who are like, “Oh, those backwards Afghans. What do they know about women’s rights? This is our—we are the flag bearers of democracy and progress and freedom”—no. You’re both wrong. The need to be free is a human need.
I want to contribute to change in Afghanistan. I think it’s best then when you’re on the ground. But I’m also aware that the security situation is not really great, and I want to go back, I want to help; my entire family is there, so I want to see them and spend time with them. But I don’t think a Noorjahan who’s dead is very helpful for Afghanistan. I’ve been threatened a lot before for my work, and I’ve never taken it seriously. Dozens of women’s rights activists have been killed, and [in] the recent attack in Kunduz, the Women for Afghan Women organization office was threatened. So I want to contribute to the change in Afghanistan, but I want the Afghan government to know that it has a responsibility toward our security. I hear this so often from governmental officials who say, “Oh, all the Afghans who are outside the country should return. You’re betraying the country, you’re betraying Afghanistan.” No, a country that can’t give at least the basic services of security—we don’t even want paved roads, we just want to live there without getting killed—doesn’t have the right to tell us. We can’t be sacrificial lambs for a corrupt government. If the government cleans up its act, I will be the first to join them. But I don’t see it coming. So I’m stuck. I don’t know. I fight with it, with myself, so many times. Every day I’m thinking, “I could be writing so much better if I was there. I could be gathering women’s stories; I could be running a print journal for women, a magazine for women, using the stories that they contribute to the blog.” I want to do all that, and even if I don’t have the money for it, I’m happy to fundraise for it and get it done. But I don’t think I should be a sacrificial lamb.
Afghan women have been killed for so many different reasons. We have been sacrificial lambs for the socialist Soviet movement in the country. We have been sacrificial lambs for the Taliban’s Islamist movement, for ISIS. Generation after generation of politicians has profited off of our bodies—off of our dead bodies. And I don’t want to be another dead body.
I’ve been able to create a safe space for the women to come and write their views, knowing that I won’t call them an infidel and kick them out or run a smear campaign or anything like that, while the vast majority of internet platforms will do that to them in Afghanistan. They won’t be harassed, because literally anyone who threatens or harasses a woman is immediately blocked off my page. Because my priority is not talking to men; my priority (p.170) is talking to women to create these systems of support, to create the means of advocacy, and to raise the awareness of women, as well, about their own issues. Because we haven’t had a chance to do that yet—self-realization and getting over our inferiority complex. All of this needs some interconnection. That’s what I’m trying to do. Literally, I think if women have the power to speak up their voices and realize their own power, we don’t need to beg for our rights from men.
Cofounder, Who Needs Feminism, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
It just was a social media campaign that was run by a bunch of college kids and got really big, and I think that was exciting to a lot of people. I think the story of how it happened really captured people’s imagination and made them think, “Wow, I can make a difference,” as cheesy as that sounds.
I first met Ivanna Gonzalez when she took a course on poverty in North Carolina at Duke University that I cotaught. Since both of us were returning to Chapel Hill, twenty minutes down the road, I often gave her a ride after class and enjoyed our long conversations. She later took another course I taught at Duke, Women in the Public Sphere: History, Theory, and Practice, and was instrumental in developing the Who Needs Feminism social media campaign that emerged as the final project in that class. The campaign showcased images from people across the globe holding up signs explaining why they needed feminism. When I interviewed Gonzalez, long after her graduation, she was continuing to monitor the Who Needs Feminism web page and email inbox on her own time, communicating with other young activists around the world.5
Gonzalez is the daughter of Venezuelan immigrants to the United States and grew up in Miami. Her father is an entrepreneur whose life was turned upside down when one of his business partners was caught committing fraud. Her mother, trained as a doctor in Venezuela, never practiced professionally in the States, but her skills were widely valued in the community. Gonzalez was an activist even in high school, where she organized a protest against the firing of a beloved local teacher.
Coming to the University of North Carolina on a prestigious Robertson Scholarship, Gonzalez originally planned to major in journalism but later switched to political science. She became active in student government, and through a variety of campaigns, classes, and experiences developed a sophisticated approach to her ongoing activism centered around labor organizing.
In the following excerpt, Gonzalez reflects on her development as an organizer and on the role she sees for online campaigns in the wider landscape of social justice activism.
(p.172) One of the things I remember about growing up is my mother was a doctor, and people in the community that I grew up in—this little suburb-y part of Miami, it’s called Doral, it’s kind of this little enclave of Venezuelan people, mostly middle- and upper-class Venezuelans. It’s grown now, but it was a pretty tight-knit, small community when I was really young. My mom was like the town doctor. She would get calls in the middle of the night: “So-and-so’s coughing, we don’t know what it is.” “So-and-so has a mysterious bump on their shoulder. We don’t know what it is.” My mom would just go wherever she needed to go. [She] would just herd all the kids in the car, my little sister and I, whatever time it was, could’ve been midnight, could’ve been one in the morning, and off we were, wherever we were needed, and my little sister and I would be asleep in the car. So I think that was just a part of the culture in my house. My dad was always really out of the picture, because he was not emotionally there, always financially supportive but not present in other ways. So I always kind of think that my mom raised me and my little sister, and that’s what she was like. The impulse to help came from that, and I think that’s what put me on this path to where I am now. It starts with this kind of very naïve, almost paternalistic “I need to help everybody”–type thing. Thankfully I got the opportunity to be challenged by people here at UNC and took a lot of really important classes that took that energy and turned it into something that isn’t just an impulse to help but is part of bigger movement building and working with people as opposed to for people. I think I trace that back to my mom.
That [History of Poverty in North Carolina] class was the class—it’s really cheesy, but I think it just kind of turned my life upside down. I remember somebody [in that class] saying something to the effect of “Anybody can go to Harvard. Anybody can apply and you can just get a scholarship. Or you can just get financial aid and then you can go to Harvard.” I was like, “No, that’s not true.” I had perfect grades in high school; I did all of the things and had really supportive parents, but I wouldn’t have been able to go to Harvard. I think that was just the first time that I learned about privilege, essentially, and the fact that not everybody starts in the same place. I think something as basic and fundamental as that is what I got out of that class.
I went to London, I studied abroad there. And while I was in London, there was going to be the biggest public sector strike that there had been in the UK since the 60s. I was bored out of my mind so I was just trying to find random things to do. I found that there was a women’s committee of the big labor union, and the meetings were open to the public. I showed up, just sat there, and listened and watched these women have a conversation (p.173) about how these public nurses wanted to stand in solidarity with all the other workers, but they weren’t willing to leave their patients because if they didn’t show up to work their patients would die. I had also started dating somebody whose family was really involved in the labor movement. That was the first thing that made sense and captured my imagination and was at least theoretically rooted in letting the people who were affected be the ones calling the shots in making change for themselves and for their families and their communities.
So when I came back I started to get involved [in] Student Action with Workers. We were trying to do this housekeeper bill of rights thing. We were hosting small group discussions with housekeepers that we knew and trying to get more people involved in trying to collectively write this housekeeper bill of rights document, which is something that had been tried in the early 90s when there was a housekeeper association that was worker led at UNC. But while we were kind of wrapped up in trying to collectively write this document, somebody from the employee forum at UNC came and told us that the legislature was considering a bill that would have eliminated the State Personnel Act, which is essentially the only labor protections for public workers at UNC. And that became our campaign, to make sure that this bill [SB 575] did not get passed. That just consumed my life the second semester of my junior year. We were having three or four meetings a week, because we would have internal meetings among ourselves, we would have the coalition meetings with community members and some members of the labor unions, and we were having separate meetings with campus workers to keep them informed.
We were planning actions that culminated in the disruption of a [UNC] Board of Governors meeting where they were going to fake-discuss this bill. We had written a statement with a couple of workers who had become really involved. Everybody had the same statement, and we had students and workers and community members planted inside the room. Everybody would stand up and start reading the statement aloud and disrupt the meeting until security came and took you out. Then the next person would pick up where the last person left off. We had people on deck waiting outside so that when those people got removed, they would take their seats and be ready to pick it back up. I remember that I was trying really hard to keep myself busy outside because I didn’t want it to be my turn to have to go in there and be the one speaking. I remember talking to the folks who did end up doing that and telling them that I was so impressed by how brave they had been, because I was terrified and decided to stay outside and coordinate the in and out of everybody. I’m just one of those kids that really liked (p.174) getting As and being loved by the teachers and every person of authority. So it’s really terrifying to me to disappoint people who I think are in positions of authority. Upsetting the president of the UNC system and the board of governors was not something that I wanted to do.
We got a meeting with [UNC system president] Tom Ross. He hosted a public forum and he claimed that it was all his idea. The truth is that he hadn’t responded to a single email of ours until we disrupted the meeting. I realized that, without even really getting formal training, we ran a by-the-books campaign: We started with a petition. We asked for a meeting. They weren’t responding to our emails. We emailed every single member of the board of governors multiple times, got no responses. We held actions in front of [the main administration] South Building and the Campus Y and invited faculty members to talk about the history, and we escalated. We delivered petitions to Tom Ross’s house and were just ignored every step of the way. When we got shut out of [an earlier] meeting, they essentially gave us the reason to do what we did. And that was when they reacted.
My roommate first year and second year called herself a feminist from day one. We weren’t allowed to say the word bitch in our room. You’d get kicked out of our room by Elizabeth if you said it. She convinced me then to live in a women’s living-learning community at UNC, and that group was filled with a lot of self-identified feminists. They were the first people that exposed me to that. Before that I was always like, “I’m a woman. I can do anything I want.” I just didn’t see how my gender was relevant to my life and to my existence and to my experiences. So it had been on my to-do list, take a women’s studies class, and I decided to go for it.
I remember thinking it was really weird to be in a class [Women in the Public Sphere, at Duke] with all women. That had never happened before. I can’t remember a particular thing that triggered it, but it gave me gender as a way to analyze and see the world. I think it happened gradually. I was completely enamored with the stories of the women activists that we read about. I was in the middle of this campaign mostly working with housekeepers, women of color, and I was drawing all kinds of connections, especially once we started to read about labor.
One column [about Ai-jen Poo, founder and director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance] in Time magazine just completely blew my mind. I had been working with UNC housekeepers. They’re women; they’re cleaning after people. It’s what women do. It’s what my mom did in our house. It’s what my dad never valued. Everything kind of just came together. So I sent Ai-jen this groveling email: “I have the money. Just let me come hang out (p.175) with you for a summer.” I ended up interning with the Domestic Workers Alliance in Oakland.
I remember pretty clearly the day that we came to class—we had finished the first phase of the class where we read all of the history stuff—and you came in and said, “What did these women do and use to achieve what they wanted?” I remember we filled the entire whiteboard with all of these strategies. They used humor, or they picketed, or they used their “maternal immunity” to demand welfare reform. So we filled up that whole board. I was furiously taking notes. I was like, “This is perfect. This is amazing.” I was getting really excited. We were supposed to look at this “toolbox” of our fore-mothers, essentially, and decide what we were going to do for our project. We spent this whole class talking about how it’s so obvious that we still have such a long way to go to achieve gender equality but we couldn’t talk about these things [on campus]; we weren’t finding space to have those kinds of conversations that would, in theory, turn the tide. We had talked about running a PR campaign for the Women’s Center, and then you pushed us a little bit and asked us, “Why the Women’s Center? Is the problem that people don’t like the Women’s Center, or is there something else?” And that’s how we came up with [the idea that] the problem is that people have this horrible idea about what a feminist is.
I remember that when we started going down the path of this poster campaign, I was kind of a little bit upset about it because I was thinking, “I’ve lived on Duke’s campus. I’ve spent a lot of time there, and poster campaigns at Duke are a dime a dozen.” There are so many of them. They’re all beautiful and colorful and really amazing, but I had seen so many of them and I didn’t think that it was going to make a difference. This is all with the background that I’m in the middle of running this direct action campaign, right? I was like, “All right, fine. I’ll do this poster campaign. It’ll be fine, I can help with pictures, I can do stuff.” And I don’t think I was really sold on the idea when we started to do it. It wasn’t until I got out there and started taking pictures—we just had some really amazing conversations with people when they came to take their pictures.
We wanted to get men and women of different races who were College Republicans and College Democrats, who were dancers and athletes and science majors and just people who ran in really different social circles. That was part of our goal; we were trying to be really intentional about that, with the intent of saying, “You can’t put feminists and feminism in a box.”
We had different teams; we had people on fundraising, on photography and design. We had people on outreach, who were getting folks to actually sign up for time slots. We had a group that was writing the op-ed that (p.176) eventually got published in the [Duke] Chronicle the day that we put up the posters on campus. So all of these teams were doing their work simultaneously, and we started to take these pictures. We set up stations on different parts of campus, and I would go over to Duke and spend the afternoon, and people would just come. Sometimes random people would just be like, “What are you doing?” I would tell them and they’d be like, “Oh, I’ll do it.” I think we ended up with sixty pictures, maybe more. What was really amazing about it and made them really meaningful was that I was there when people sat down to think about what they wanted to write down.
We spent a lot of time putting them together on Photoshop and got them printed in the middle of the night the night before. They got plastered all over campus at the crack of dawn the morning that the Chronicle op-ed was going to be run. I wasn’t living at Duke so I wasn’t a part of putting up the posters, which I was really sad about because I had this vision of this feminist army just falling all over Duke. I wanted to be a part of the feminist army.
It was funny because we had spent so much time photographing other people, we didn’t think to take a picture of ourselves, of doing our own “I need feminism because” sign. So [classmate Ashley Tsai] decided to take a picture [of herself ] in her dorm. She posted it on the [campaign’s] Facebook wall, and pictures then just flooded in. That first night, the pictures were just flooding in and our Facebook wall was being overtaken with both really positive things of people who were inspired and amazed by how great it was but also people saying horrible things. The posters on Duke’s campus, some of them had been defaced, and Post-its that said “Make me a sandwich” had gone up. We decided to put pictures [of those] up on the Facebook page to show how bad the negative reaction was. I had this huge paper due the day that happened, and I was in the basement of my boyfriend’s dorm hitting refresh, like, every second. I cried because I was so panicked. I was like, “Something bad is going to happen, one of these nutcases is going to hurt somebody.”
It was really tough because our class was once a week, so all of this happened, we put up the posters at the beginning of the week, and we didn’t see each other until a week later. We started to get our act together and have people monitoring the Facebook page as much as possible. We had two-hour shifts, and we even had shifts in the middle of the night. I remember when we actually walked into class, Kate [Gadsden] was on her computer as we were starting to talk about everything that was happening and what we were going to do, and a picture of somebody’s penis popped up on the Facebook page and she said, “Oh, boy.” And she hit delete and she told us (p.177) what had just happened while we were sitting in class talking about all the trolls. It was really weird, just really scary. I wasn’t excited at that point. I was just really scared.
We wanted to have dialogue. I was really concerned with this idea of democracy. We wanted people to not be afraid to bring out the little things they think about women and everything and to be OK saying that, so then somebody could refute it. Because if you’re afraid to say it out of quote-unquote political correctness, then nobody’s ever going to challenge you on it or to say something to you that might get you to change your mind. But then there were some really obvious cases where this is not productive dialogue. Saying “Go make me a sandwich” is not that kind of dialogue. So the whole process of coming up with a comment policy was really important because it helped us think about that.
I just had to understand what was the role of Who Needs Feminism and other campaigns like it and this bigger sphere of [online] feminist activism that in isolation probably doesn’t mean a whole lot, but the reality is that our campaign didn’t exist in a vacuum. It existed in a time that was really kind of politically important for women in the United States. There were so many other things happening around it; there were other people, other organizations, and other campaigns that were doing the direct action, that were doing the policy advocacy. Who Needs Feminism, in my head, is supposed to be a gateway, the kind of entry point that is then supposed to expose you and send you to all of these different organizations that are experts at doing that work. The thing that I heard from other people—and I believe made it successful—is that it felt like it was run by a bunch of college kids. It wasn’t super glitzy or feel corporate or polished. It just was a social media campaign that was run by a bunch of college kids and started on a college campus and got really big, and I think that was exciting to a lot of people. I think the story of how it happened really captured people’s imagination and made them think, “Wow, I can make a difference,” as cheesy as that sounds.
What was really amazing is that then people naturally weren’t just thinking, “I’m just going to run a Who Needs Feminism campaign on my campus.” People were then thinking about “What am I going to do with it?” Doing something like what we did at Duke was a way to start a conversation on your campus about other issues. To learn about what other people care about so that you know about what issues you need to be focusing on, which issues are important to people, and then figuring out what to do about it. It was pretty amazing. Lots of students, really young students, middle schoolers, high schoolers, college students at community colleges (p.178) and at Yale. Everything in between, and Oxford, just everywhere. There were students in Kazakhstan that did a campaign.
I helped some folks, walked them through the whole “people are being really mean” thing, this horrible backlash that happened. You can’t do this alone. You need to do it with people that you trust and are going to support you, because it’s not easy. Having people around you say these things that are horrible about you as a person and about all these things that you care so deeply about—that to me was the most important part of this whole thing. [It’s] the reason that I, a year and a half, two years, out—I do my best to keep up with the inbox because I have this fear that I’m going to get an email from somebody in rural Kentucky who’s trying to run a campaign by herself and doesn’t know what to do with the backlash. That’s the main thing for me, because it just wasn’t so much about keeping the campaign and the brand alive. It’s that people are doing this and they’re living it and it’s really scary, and I know how scary it is.
Program Officer, PFund Foundation, Minneapolis, Minnesota
I very much knew in my core that I couldn’t talk about myself as being this gendered woman without talking about my experience as a kid of refugees and a person of color and a first-gen[eration college student].
I met Ho Nguyen at the sunny, modern offices of the PFund Foundation in Minneapolis. PFund serves as a “regional LGBTQIA grassroots community foundation,” and Nguyen described herself as a “gay for pay.” Sitting in a conference room on hard plastic chairs, neither of us knew that Nguyen would be laid off the very next day due to budget cuts. Later that summer she landed a position working on statewide policy at the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women as its housing and economic justice program manager, a position that drew on her experience in the field of housing earlier in her career.
Nguyen’s parents arrived in the United States in the 1980s as refugees after the Vietnam War. Of her four siblings, Nguyen was the only one born in the United States; the others were born in refugee camps. Her father was disabled by a wartime back injury and could not work. She grew up in Section 8 housing in Minneapolis, moving with her parents and three siblings from one “black and brown” neighborhood to another. Nguyen described herself as a “carefree” and “happy-go-lucky” child, whose father cared for the children while her mother worked hard to provide for them. Eventually their frugality allowed them to buy a house in a middle-class neighborhood. Nguyen’s parents took education seriously and encouraged her to aim for college. But by the time she was a teenager, although she got good grades, she was disengaged and unhappy in school.
Nguyen’s interview is a good example of how young activists both draw on and push forward the frameworks of their elders. She remembers how her introduction to second-wave feminists like Judy Chicago and Betty Friedan “blew [her] mind,” but she also felt frustrated by what she saw as the limitations of much feminist work. She struggled to convey to older activists in the reproductive rights movement that she valued their work but also wanted to broaden the movement to encompass a reproductive justice lens. She reflects on the roles of philanthropy and social media in community formation.
(p.180) I was sort of that kid in high school that didn’t really connect with anybody. I had a really hard time making friends, had a really hard time blending, I think. I never really hung out with any cliques. You know, high school is pretty cliquey. I just remember hanging out with a mixture between the theater kids, the potheads, and the goth kids. It was sort of like this hodgepodge crew. I think I was pretty unhappy and disengaged. My junior year of high school, I was talking to another classmate, and she was telling me about this thing called PSEO, which is Postsecondary Enrollment Options, and what that means is high school students can apply to take college courses and you get college credit, and that was just like, “Oh my God, I need to do that. I need to get out of here.”
I remember going to my high school guidance counselor and asking him about this, and the first thing he said was he thought I was being really “ambitious.” He’s like, “Do you think this is too ambitious that you’re doing this?” I think maybe the teachers and counselors didn’t really have a good cultural lens, not really understanding my experience and who I was and never connecting with me.
Anyhow, regardless of what the counselor said, I was like, “Well, I’m applying anyway.” So my senior year I took courses at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, and for the first time in my life, at that moment, I remember just feeling like, “OK, this makes so much sense”—it was amazing. I took a bunch of women’s studies courses. I took sociology courses. I took earth science courses. That was the first time in my life where I connected to something else. I connected to the students in my classes. I connected with the professors. Nobody knew I was in high school. I didn’t tell anybody that I was in high school, because I was still buying my own books and had my own car at that time. I was seventeen or eighteen.
I remember taking a course and reading about this artist named Judy Chicago, and it just blew my mind. It was so radical. Then, in another course, they’re talking about The Feminine Mystique and it was incredible, and in the sociology classes I took, I just felt on cloud nine. I loved it. I absolutely just loved it because, I think for the first time in my life, I had language. I had language to describe feelings, feelings of loneliness, feelings of noticing, feelings of sort of something greater, something greater is happening in the world than just me. I remember in high school I just knew that there were bad things happening in the world and there were injustices, and I just couldn’t name them. I could see them and I could feel them, but I just had no words or language.
I ended up going to Hamline University. I actually wanted to go out of state, but my parents claimed that they would be pretty devastated and I (p.181) felt really bad. My parents still dealt with a lot of language barriers and I just couldn’t leave. Anyway, so I ended up going to Hamline, which I still think to this day was probably one of my best decisions.
That was one of the first places I ever really felt at home in my own body. There was a lot of support for students of color and especially for first-year students of color. That came out of our Multicultural Office, and the framing in which they welcomed first-year students was the first thing that made sense to me. I’ve never heard anybody else talk with this narrative of being a first-generation kid of refugees. That was the first time in my life in which I had heard that, and I was like, “Wow, that experience absolutely reflects me.” There’s a space in which they completely nourish that, and they can really sort of help you flourish and really help you figure out who you are. I think that, to me, was one of the first times I sort of stopped, like, hating myself.
I was probably a pretty stereotypical eighteen-year-old college student who just learned about activism the first time and I was like, “Oh, I’m going to save the world.” Just learning about the political history of, What does it mean to be a person of color? What does it mean to be queer? What does it mean to be a woman? What does male privilege look like? What does white privilege look like? What does capitalism … ? I was inculcated with all that and really feeling like, “Oh my God, this is what’s happening. Yes, this is what’s happening and here are the words to describe what’s happening.”
My coming-out journey felt so much more complicated than my coming out as a person of color and political, you know. I actually had a girlfriend at fourteen, and I remember actually the first moment for me wondering was twelve. I was in sixth grade and I remember having a crush on my female teacher named Jamie, and I just remember being like, “Oh, man, Jamie is just so beautiful,” and all the other girls were wooing over Kurt, who was the handsome male teacher. I had zero interest. But these were things which I kept, like, kind of tucking away, tucking away, tucking away. I kind of had this one foot in and out. I think it was until my midtwenties where I was just like, “OK, just be honest with yourself, Ho.” At that point, I was just like, “OK, I am queer.”
For me, queer is also political, it’s not necessarily just a sexual orientation. I suppose sexual orientation—the closest thing would be, like, a lesbian, and I don’t necessarily identify with that term, but it’s more true than not. I started reading a lot of Audre Lorde, who very much identified as a black lesbian, a woman-loving woman, and I think there definitely is power in that, and I think there is definitely something really radical about that. (p.182) For me, I also really think about [the fact that] there are people who I have dated and fallen in love with that don’t necessarily identify as female—you know, they’ve either identified as gender nonconforming or genderqueer—and still loving that person. Well, if I say I’m a lesbian, then what does that say about this person I love? So for me, queer always sort of felt more radical in the sense that it’s more encompassing and it’s wider, and it also sort of talks about how I see myself politically too.
Feminism for me, up to a certain point, felt very second wave, and it felt very white and very middle-class and very exclusive, and so during that time [in college], I was really dabbling in trying to figure out what does feminism mean to me, really trying to define that and think about that. I think it was either bell hooks or Audre Lorde that coined the term womanism, and that resonated more with me.6 Now I think about it, and I think what was missing for me now that I can name it—then I couldn’t—was that feminism in college lacked a certain amount of intersectional work, and I couldn’t connect with it. Because for me, I very much knew in my core that I couldn’t talk about myself as being this gendered woman without talking about my experience as a kid of refugees and a person of color and a first-gen[eration college student]. I couldn’t talk about any of my experiences without talking about all of my experiences, and feminism in college, or that brand of feminism, didn’t bode well with me.
In my senior year, I was working, I think, three jobs, and at some point my best friend at the time emailed me [and] this email probably changed my life. She emailed me, “There’s this job posting you should check out. It definitely sounds like it’s right up your alley,” and it was a job to be a desk person at the shelter. I applied for it and I got it.
It was a transitional family shelter and people stayed there for about a month, and it was all families with, I think, boys under thirteen. So I worked there and I worked at another day shelter later. I worked at both simultaneously and that sort of launched me into the next six years of working in housing and homelessness and doing tenants’ rights and crisis housing and mental health crisis housing and all that. I was pretty lucky that before I graduated that May of 2008, I had landed a full-time job at a mental health center being their housing specialist. Here I am, twenty-two, you know, just fresh out of college, and somebody’s like, “Help mentally ill homeless people find housing,” and I was like, “OK.” I was up for the challenge and it was exhilarating. It was probably the most exhilarating, I think, four, five, years of my life, and I loved it. I loved it quite a bit, and it was during that time that I also started noticing that social services and direct service in itself was really problematic. I remember having this moment with myself and some of my (p.183) friends. I said, “We just spend so much time case managing and putting out fires all day long. Do any of us actually think about why the fires are starting?” I also was pretty close to getting my master’s in social work. Everybody else around me that was working at this organization—their next track was you get your master’s in social work, and then you get your licensure, and then you become a social worker for the rest of your life. I was like, “Yeah, that’s exactly who I’m going to be,” and my dad was super excited about that. He said, “Yes, that’s a great job for a girl,” and I was just like, “Well, that’s kind of weird, Dad,” but, you know, my dad’s old-school, so he still has some of his patriarchal stuff.
I remember having that feeling again that I had in high school where there was something missing I couldn’t name. I think in college I learned language around identity and politics and stuff, but then it was during this time where I really started hearing people talk about systemic oppression and systemic racism, and I was just like, “I need to find out more.”
I remember sitting on Facebook one day and somebody had posted something about Lobby Day from NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota, and I thought, “I want to understand what that is.” I did a ton of research on them and was like, “Oh my God, who is this organization and how do I get involved?” They ended up having a fellowship. It was through this Choice Leadership Institute, and I think that opened a door to me being able to do this work.
Choice is really about bodily autonomy, right? But if you don’t have a house, you can’t make this choice. If you don’t have a job, you can’t make this choice, right? If you are burdened by systemic racism and economic burden, you’re not able to fully self-actualize. That’s when I started getting into really heavy reproductive justice work.
I ended up doing that in conjunction with my master’s thesis. We had to look at a real-life policy, and I ended up doing mine on something that our super conservative governor had passed years ago called the Positive Alternatives to Abortion. Essentially it was giving money to CPCs, which are crisis pregnancy centers.7 I had to be neutral, just looking at the history of it, the implementation of it, how people apply, where the money goes, all that stuff. Two-point-something million dollars goes to CPCs and nobody really monitors anybody. I stayed connected with choice work and ended up getting a full-time job at a partner organization called Pro-Choice Resources doing their grassroots advocacy stuff there, working around abortion policy in Minnesota, working around grassroots stuff, building a base, educating people on reproductive justice, helping people make the connections, the intersectional connections, of the importance of thinking about (p.184) reproductive health and rights as also a matter of socioeconomics and a matter of race and a matter of gender and not just this siloed issue of abortion or not.
Our base was predominantly middle-aged white women, and they were just like, “Who the hell are you?” We did extensive training and it was hard. It was a really hard conversation to have with people, to really say that the different waves of feminism were all incredibly imperative, that all that was important, and that broadening our lens and broadening the way in which we talk about this work doesn’t necessarily—we’re not trying to steamroll anybody’s work. So really working through that reassurance to say, “No, that organizing that you all did back in, like, the 60s, that was important. That is important work, and now let’s think about the work that we do broader. Let’s think about the women that have not been a part of the work. Like, historically women of color had not been a part of mainstream feminist movements. Low-income women haven’t been a part of mainstream feminist movements. LGBTQ people have not been a part of mainstream feminist movements.” So, it was just about how do we make our movement smarter, stronger, and more efficient and more effective? But, yeah, it still took people a long time to get there and it was—it was hard. It was probably the toughest two years of my life, doing that work.
I remember learning about the third wave in one of my feminist study classes and thinking that third wave was sort of more open, more broad. Somebody said that we’re entering another wave of feminism and I’m just like, “What is that—the fourth wave?” That’s still something I struggle with. I mean, I still call myself a feminist, right, like I absolutely have no shame in that word. I also just want people to really parse it out, to really think about what that means. What does your feminism mean, and what is mainstream feminism lacking? I don’t think that it’s a dirty word, and I also don’t necessarily feel comfortable with running around saying I’m a womanist. There’s a part of me that feels like that’s kind of co-opting. That framework came out of black women, and unless I understand a lot more, that’s just not something I’m comfortable with. So, but yeah, I mean, I still definitely claim myself to be a feminist.
PFund is an LGBTQ foundation. It’s a community foundation. At this point in my life, I was really interested in economic stability. I think two years of doing hard-core policy lobbying, then having a grant—my job pretty much almost taken away. I was just like, “This is a problem with nonprofits; it’s not sustainable.” You’re in the groove, you’re doing great work, and then the money is gone. The same thing when the Ford Foundation pulled their money from reproductive health and rights. That was millions of dollars for (p.185) the entire national movement. I was just like, “What is happening?” Then I was curious. I wanted to understand what philanthropy is, and so when this position opened—“OK, I’ll make the jump. I’m going to see what’s on the other side,” you know.
It is interesting. People do not think about philanthropy like I do. I walked into it really thinking about it as economic redistribution and sort of moving money around, and that is not how the field thinks of itself. I think philanthropy really sees themselves as the maverick of all the different fields to help communities propel themselves forward. I still don’t know if I see it that way.
When I started, my counterpart and I, we were given the opportunity to revamp the [grant-making] program, and we were able to create the program that we thought was the most equitable in terms of the application, in terms of the questionnaire, in terms of money, in terms of accessing us as program officers, the foundation, all that stuff. So we were able to knock down a bunch of barriers. But what we’re doing is not what is necessarily considered philanthropic best practices, because philanthropy has a set way in which they do it. You have an application. The applicant comes in. They have to give you a budget. They have to give you outcomes. They have to give you benchmarks. They have to do x, y, and z because trustees and the founders want to know where their money is going and what the impact is. We think about it differently—not that we don’t care, but for me the impact is “You’re an organization that has their own funding. We gave you funding. What you do with it, you’re doing your work, and so we don’t necessarily need all that.” So when we are playing with other partners, it gets complicated because we try to push them and they’re just like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. You’re so radical; why would you do that?” Then for us, it’s “You’re this big behemoth of an organization that’s moving at this glacial speed and your community is suffering.”
I think the movement, whatever that is, has become increasingly fragmented. We talk a lot about a feminist movement. We talk a lot about an LGBTQ movement. We talk a lot about Asian American movements, and if you really dig into it, none of those are quite real in the sense [that], I think, people in each of those categories are mobilizing hard-core separately. Especially, like, in Minnesota, it’s quite decentralized, so we don’t have any, I think, aside from the Women’s Consortium, which is still pretty siloed—they’re not necessarily working with a lot of racial equity or economic justice organizations.
I think within the feminist movement, within the social justice movement, whatever movements, it’s fragmented, it’s siloed. People always (p.186) think that somebody is always going to quickly jump on another person for a wrong tweet, a wrong term, a wrong word, a wrong statement, a wrong sentence. It’s come to the point where people are filtering themselves so much because people are worried somebody’s just going to jump down their throat. We’re just not as generous with each other to sort of let people fall and fail as much as we did at one point.
I think we are all becoming increasingly disconnected with each other. The way people think about community is so different. At some point, community meant coming together, literally coming together with your fellow humans. Now you can build community virtually, and I think because you can build community virtually, there is a certain disconnect when it comes to critique, criticism. I think it’s a little more desensitized because you can post something and call somebody really mean names and then walk away, versus if you’re in a community and you’re fighting with somebody that you had to look in the eye, I think that feels different. That definitely looks different.
We are doing a better job than five years ago in talking about the intersections of a person’s identity and how that affects their world view. I think that’s still something that people have to work on.
Program Coordinator, Feminist Women’s Health Center, Atlanta, Georgia
I hope that abortion access is considered vital to the feminist movement’s future.
I first met Park Cannon when she was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was editing the campus feminist journal, Siren. She had also participated in the Who Needs Feminism campaign at UNC. Cannon was clearly a leader on campus, and I remember being impressed by her energy and maturity (as well as her signature eyeglasses). At the time of this interview with graduate student Rachel Gelfand, Cannon was the coordinator for the Black Women’s Wellness program and a health advocate at the Feminist Women’s Health Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Cannon had been born in Albany, Georgia, and then moved to New York City as a young girl. She later moved back south to “reground” herself. In 2016, less than a year after this interview, Cannon was elected to the Georgia state legislature, as one of three openly LBGTQ+ representatives and, at twenty-four, the youngest.
The interview was conducted at her partner’s dining room table. A passionate advocate for reproductive justice, Cannon expresses her gratitude for the commitment to women’s dignity and value at the Feminist Women’s Health Center and for the recent passage of the Marriage Equality Act. Her interview helps us think about the importance of place in people’s lives, the impact of 9/11 on young activists, the significance of reproductive issues and justice, and the experiences and perspectives of queer black women in the feminist movement.
After living in Albany, Georgia, going to school there, definitely experiencing a good amount of racist stuff, we moved to New York, to Brooklyn. So that’s where I grew up mostly. I spent about ten years living in Brooklyn. That was totally different. I was living with all these urban kids who were just mixes of Puerto Rican and black or Italian and Greek and helped me better understand that people are made up of so many different types, and it’s not just white or black. So that was really nice.
We lived with my maternal grandparents in Brooklyn. They would take me to school every day. My grandfather was a taxicab driver who liked to (p.188) gamble. My grandmother loved to go to church and cook. They were very influential in my childhood. I was growing up hetero, a black, hetero, churchgoing, extracurricular-having girl. I was pretty happy. I was blissfully happy. I had no clue of anything that was going on in the world. I was not a child that was raised politically aware. I was made to believe that being black was fine and that no one had a problem with it, only people in the south, and we were in the north, so we didn’t have to worry about it. I was rudely awakened because we moved to New York right before 9/11 happened, so when that took place, ideas of ethnicity and social class and being a citizen or not became really apparent to me because I saw all of that collide in violence, and it was a very confusing time. I think that’s when I woke up, actually, now that I think about it. I started to realize that if people don’t get their way or they feel like they’re not listened to, they’re going to stand up and do something about it. I needed to reground myself, so I came back to the south. I am a southern gal. I was born here. I was taken elsewhere to learn about myself, but I think I needed to return to feel who I really am.
The concreteness of feminism came into my life in college [at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill]. I started taking women’s and gender studies classes. I had this professor, Karen Booth, who has this purple hair, and she was just so honest and real and helped me see that the stuff that I was experiencing was worth studying. It was not to be discarded. And so that was really exciting and appealing to me. But I think that feminism has always been trickling in, in all the little ways that I interact with people. Like, I always knew that the way that men catcall women is ridiculous. So it’s always been there, but it, feminism, became major to me in college, and I don’t ever want to live without it.
UNC had Students United for Reproductive Justice, a student undergraduate organization. I just showed up at some meetings and went to a conference and started talking a lot more, getting on social media. My Twitter was big. I had a blog at that point, too, where I started to talk more about the importance of women having choice and women being able to access abortion and how 80 percent of the counties in North Carolina have these fake clinics, these crisis pregnancy centers, and like no percentage have abortion clinics. That was my main thing.
[After graduation, Cannon moved to Atlanta, where she got a job at the Feminist Women’s Health Center.] My weekdays consist of working in our advocacy and empowerment network. That’s our downstairs area, where we have a variety of different staff members work on policy or political engagement activities. For example, I work for the Black Women’s Wellness program, creating a program where women who receive abortion services (p.189) or need health insurance or just want to talk about sexual health can come and say, “Listen, I’m having these problems. I really need someone to talk to. I need a community.” We set them up with five or six other women, have them come together, talk about it; now they have a network.
The weekends, I’m up in the clinic, and that’s in the same building, just on a different floor. That’s where we provide our gynecological care services. Our main one on weekends is abortion. We do up to 23.6 weeks, and that means we take the women through all the stages. They come in our door pregnant; they leave not pregnant. So whatever that takes. If that means that they need to speak with a health educator and talk through their decision and work with their family to have them understand why they’re making this decision, we help them do that. If they have a fetal anomaly so the fetus is not viable or will not live outside of the womb, we help them find a way to cope with that and undergo surgery to not to have to deal with that anymore. Also if women are coming to us because they’ve been raped, [we’re] helping them feel like they have a place that is safe to access these services where their perpetrator won’t come and find them or know what they did or ask any questions. Yeah, it’s just like a safe haven.
It’s really cool. I love working there. We are such a close-knit family that when someone leaves to go back to school or for a new job, it’s really sad because we experience so much together that we can’t really explain to other people. We hold people’s lives and make sure that they’re breathing and they’re happy and not crying, realizing that this is their choice. They don’t have to be stigmatized about it. If this is something they need or want to do, we can do it safely.
Our doctors are awesome. They’re Emory [University] doctors. They really care about women’s lives and are willing to do whatever it means at the state capitol to make sure that women can access abortion, which I think is really important for the actual medical professionals to be advocates for this service, because sometimes, actually more so than not, the medical professionals just have to do what they do, walk out the door, and pretend like it never happened because they don’t want to be scrutinized or impose danger on their families, which I understand. But for the future of abortion access, it’s so critical right now. We’re forty years away from it being legal. It’s been that way since the 70s, but states are just moving back and back and back and making sure that women are denied access.
The south is already like a world of its own. I’m black. I live in the south. I’m passionate about black people thriving. Atlanta is generally thought of as this place where it’s the black mecca. It’s all these black people, and they seem to be doing good. But it’s also a place where white people really want (p.190) to resist it. So they do small things. The most recent thing that has really bothered me took place in Conyers, which is about forty-five minutes from here. KKK members were putting flyers on people’s driveways and cars, recruiting for more members. And it wasn’t necessarily in neighborhoods that were black, but it was just like, “Yo, we need to up our people because these black people are coming out and talking about all the injustices.” It made the news for a hot second but was not something that was deemed important by our governor or our mayor. So that’s been really frustrating for me. I have marched a couple of times in the past three months for different causes that have to do with either black women being beaten or black men experiencing unnecessary violence or being killed. I took my mom with me recently and we marched. It was awesome. We wore all white. It’s definitely at the forefront of my every day.
So, luckily, working at a place like Feminist [Women’s Health Center], we’re talking about those things. We’re on them, and it’s not like, “Everyone close your Facebook, don’t check that until after work.” It’s like, “No, post something right now. Make sure you retweet this, sign this petition, and tell other people to.” So it’s actually been helpful for me working at this type of organization, because I don’t have to hold on to it all day and then bring it home. But at the same time, it’s really hard for our organization to stand up for so many things at once. Abortion access in the south is already such a taboo topic, to then also bring in police brutality is just too much, [to] also bring in economic access and the need for funding is extra. It’s a lot of strains on top of our organization. But I’m committed to it.
Social media is important when we’re trying to reach out to organizations. Building credibility, showing that we support these types of issues, telling people about things. I did come of age with a lot of social media outlets, and it’s cool. I enjoy it. But I also have a deep hatred for everyone knowing everything about everyone at all times. I have a lot of social media pet peeves, like people who check in every single place they go. I’m like, “Now they know where you’re at; they’re coming for you, they’re going to kill you. Now they know what you’re thinking.”
But social media is powerful, too, because it gets you across the world. I have been able to be a part of the Women of Color Sexual Health Network, which is women all over the United States who do any type of work like this. And it’s really good to look up, and that’ll give you a lot of people to talk with. So it’s helped me see that people are experiencing the same types of bullshit in different places and how if we actually talk to each other, we might be able to do something about it; whereas if we just felt like we were isolated here, then we might not be able to make as much of a stink, because we can (p.191) compare ourselves to other places. So I think that social media is powerful in positive ways too.
Social media is also a place of harassment for us. We have to be really careful about how we respond to trolls and how we are vigilant with who gets access to our files. Hackers are real; they try and do what they can to shut us down at all times. Being careful with our password chains, and if we log in to something, making sure we log out. Whereas in other places you just might not have to worry as much. Literally none of us are allowed to have our cell phones die; we always need to have our phone in case something happens, especially in the time where right now we’re having a lot of extra scrutiny and protestors.
They know that we do abortions on Fridays and Saturdays, so those are the main days that they come out. But I think they’re lame. I had a lot of protestors in New York when I lived there and saw them at the Planned Parenthoods there. They had really graphic signs and were screaming curse words and trying to not let you walk in physically, and here they’re just like, “Oh, please, can we help you?” So I think they’re pretty lame.
That was my claim to fame in Chapel Hill; I shut them down. I shut the Genocide Awareness Project down. I was like, “There’s no way you will be on our campus.” I literally counterprotested for two days straight because it was ridiculous. I was standing in front of them with a bullhorn and signs, throwing condoms at all the students. We created a little space with balloons and blankets and coloring books and finger paints and nail polish and yummy foods, so that if people were feeling triggered by seeing that, they could just go be isolated from it. Yeah, those people, the Genocide Awareness Project, are really relentless with their decision to display graphic stuff. I taught sex ed at that point to sixth graders, and they happened to come on a field trip to UNC’s campus that day, so they saw the stuff, and it had an effect on them that was really negative, which further pissed me off and made me stay longer.
Feminist Women’s Health Center provides comprehensive gynecological care to all who need it, without judgment. We support who I call my rainbow family. Whatever it is you feel in your body, we support it. We have a Trans Health Initiative that’s run by this awesome guy who does a lot of workshops.
We have been, as an organization, really excited about this new federal ruling that people can marry whoever they want, and it’s important for my relationship because we’ve experienced a lot of confusion and hatred from our families because they’re very conservative. And so, kind of having this federal truth is exciting for us. Marriage equality federally is really exciting. (p.192) Like the day that it happened, we went to this burger spot, and I get there before [my partner] gets there. And I have my flowers and my cupcakes, rainbow cupcakes, of course. And then she shows up, and she has the same flowers from the same store—they were called, like, freedom flowers. And she had a balloon, that little balloon right there that says thank you. So then we were happy and we were eating burgers and drinking four-dollar margaritas, and someone walks up to us and they’re like, “What are you celebrating?” And we were like, “Equality.” And the whole restaurant just cheers. It’s like, “Yeah, this is awesome. This is fun. This is really cool.”
It’s also helped my mom come around a lot. She had some elevated levels of homophobia, and now they are decreased. So it’s had a lot of implications that will continue to evolve, I think, because people are just realizing like, “Oh, I can’t be racist anymore. OK, I won’t be racist. Oh, I can’t be homophobic. I won’t be homophobic.” So I’m excited about it. And our organization is too.
Obama’s two terms, for women, has meant that he put a really strong black woman, Michelle Obama, in the forefront of everyone. He put two black girls [his daughters] also as admirable role models, and that’s huge. But at the same time, he’s never once spoken about the importance of matriarchs or not beating on women or defending abortion access. He just doesn’t. I kind of understand it. He really can’t rock the boat right now. There’s just been too much conservative whiteness for all these years that he feels like he can’t do it. He just needs to slowly make these changes.
I’m fine with people deeming me as in the third wave. I was at some meeting recently at Spelman College with my colleague Kwajelyn [Jackson], and the students were leading the meeting. The icebreaker question was “Tell your name and what kind of feminist you are.” So some people started off with “Hi, I’m Sarah. I think I’m just, like, a regular feminist.” “Hi, I’m Susie. I think I’m a womanist.” “I’m Athena. I’m really Chicana feminismo.” Then I was like, “I’m just Park and I’m a feminist.” Like, chill; we’re all in this. It’s good to identify with certain struggles, but then you get back to the oppression Olympics and that’s annoying. Saying that white feminism really doesn’t get to the root of intersectionality; no, it doesn’t, but that doesn’t mean that white feminists suck, or you’re better, or that you’re a womanist because you read Alice Walker’s In My Mother’s Garden or whatever.8 I think it’s evolving naturally, and we should just be happy that people are interested.
I hope that abortion access is considered vital to the feminist movement’s future. I also hope that we have someone in office who says feminism out loud once a day on a microphone. I also hope that more men (p.193) begin identifying as feminists and start realizing that it’s not a term just for women. I also hope that feminism is nurturing and is kind. My brother even said to me when I told him I was taking a women’s studies class, “Ah, you’re going to be one of those mad angry feminists. I hate that.” In some regards, I hear what he’s saying. I think that we have a right to be angry, and I always defend myself as an angry black woman, but at the same time I want it to be gentle with its people. I want it to be kind to the people who subscribe to it. I want it to be fun. Like, let’s go out drinking and dancing. Let’s go out celebrating. Let’s dress up nicely if we want to; let’s not. Let’s protest. Let’s look beautiful. Let’s look sad and angry. Yeah, I want feminism to be fun.
Cofounder, End Rape on Campus, Washington, D.C.
Senator [Kirsten] Gillibrand had this very nice receptionist named Bo, and we said we’d like to meet with someone to talk about sexual assault. Bo looked at us in a way like, “Girl, that’s not how it works.”
Andrea Pino and Annie Clark both attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a prestigious public university with a beautiful campus of treelined quads and rhododendrons that burst into pink and white blooms in early spring. Both survivors of sexual assault, they became famous when they rocked the bucolic academic world with their complaint to the federal Department of Education, arguing that UNC was not complying with Title IX because no student could equally access education if she did not feel safe from sexual violence. They and other students on campuses around the country worked together to demonstrate how campus rapes should be seen not as isolated crime stories but as the result of a culture of violence and misogyny and to show that universities were not taking the issue seriously enough. They cofounded End Rape on Campus, a direct-service organization through which they support victims and help them learn how to become activists. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand declared that they had inspired her to take up the issue of campus sexual assault, and they helped her write a bill, which she introduced to Congress. Their work was highlighted in a dramatic documentary, The Hunting Ground, which was released at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
In December 2015, Pino and Clark were living in a cozy house in Washington, D.C. The front porch prominently displayed a UNC banner, and I met them and their friendly dog in their small living room that was dominated by a Christmas tree. They had been living and working intensely together for three years by that point and had recently moved to D.C. from the West Coast in order to be closer to the legal and political networks in which they were now moving.
Pino’s story is full of conflict, pain, and exhaustion as well as growing confidence, guarded optimism, and a coming to terms with her role in the world. The granddaughter of Cuban immigrants, she grew up in a tough neighborhood in Little Havana, Miami. Her father started a business but lost it in the crash of 2008. Until she transferred to a charter high school, her academic ambition (p.195) was frowned upon and discouraged by her peers and unsupported or simply not understood by the adults around her. Driven to succeed, she made her way to UNC—which she had fallen in love with on a campus visit—through her own hard work, supported by scholarships and money she had saved by doing graphic design, something she taught herself in eighth grade.
Despite being valedictorian in high school and always succeeding in her leadership activities, adjusting to UNC as a first-generation Latina student was hard for Pino. She had a difficult time finding resources or meeting peers who could help her adjust to college life. After a troubling experience where she was pressured into drinking and then left behind at a party, Pino became cautious of her peers. Her confidence plummeted even further, and she began to experience severe anxiety.
When she returned to school for her second year, though, Pino started getting involved in student government, joined a program called Women Engaged in Learning and Leadership, took a course on violence prevention, and got involved with Project Dinah, an activist group on campus focused on sexual violence.
None of that protected her from a sexual assault. But together with her decision to reach out to Annie Clark, an activist who had graduated the year before, her training helped her see her own experience in a much broader context and planted the seeds for her approach to making change.
My grandparents are from a small town in a port area of Cuba called Gibara. They came over fifty years ago seeking employment opportunities. My grandfather, for a living, he painted warships. He raised us to be Democrats, meaning he’s always believed that the government should be there for the people. He always instilled in me the desire to be politically active and to call out things that seemed to be unequal and unjust. He’s definitely where I got most of my political drive from. Since growing up, he used to tell me, “Nunca, nunca, nunca pares de luchar.” You never, never, never give up. He said despite what you might have to deal with, always remember that you can do what you set your mind to do.
My schedule throughout most [of] high school was I would wake up at four in the morning; I would study for the SAT; I would do research on a [college]; I would brush up on my notes for my classes. I would go to school at six, start school at seven thirty, and be in school all the way up until three o’clock. At three o’clock, I would take a bus or walk to the local community college to make my dual enrollment class—that’s how I made up for not having access to AP classes. My day did not end until seven o’clock. That’s when I went home and did my homework. That’s because, in a way, to be (p.196) able to compete in the marathon that is college admissions when you are a person of color, you have to make up for the fact that you don’t have shoes. That’s how I felt for a very long time. It wasn’t about keeping up with people; it was the fact that you don’t have shoes throughout most of the race. It was a commitment. I graduated high school top of my class.
It was hard to adjust as a first-generation Latina student at UNC. I felt lost. You have some people who are willing to help you, but you’re very much on your own. That’s very much what life is like when you have to navigate college as a first-generation student and as a student of color. There’s nobody helping you out. I went from a valedictorian to feeling like I had to survive in my classes. It was difficult to talk about. It was something that my parents noticed when I went home for Thanksgiving. I wasn’t really bursting with happiness like they had left me in August.
[In fall semester of sophomore year] I had taken a violence prevention class, Women’s Studies 298. I began caring about sexual assault and gender-based problems. I became a peer educator for a bystander intervention program. I thought I knew everything about sexual violence prevention, the causes and what it looks like. I was training people. I was an advisor and educator. I was training women and men about how to notice the signs, how to be safe, and how to get resources. I guess in many ways I felt that people like me couldn’t get sexually assaulted. I had a scary incident my first year, and after that I didn’t go out to parties. I didn’t get wasted. I didn’t do these things because I realized that I really wasn’t into the idea of blacking out. One experience is enough for me.
I had a friend, and she invited me to a party. It was right around spring break. I went to this party with her. I ended up being sexually assaulted. It happened to me at a party in which I knew the hosts; I knew someone going in there. They were also student leaders. They were people who should have seen the signs, who should have known that this was going on. In many ways, I thought for a long time that I must have put myself in a certain place. I must have not seen the signs. I must have been vulnerable in some way. I must have invited it in some way even though I was wearing black jeans and boots. I was very much in winter gear. It was March, after all.
I didn’t know what happened. I remember waking up [in my bed] that morning, the morning after, in a pool of blood. I grew up in Little Havana. There were a couple of people around me who were santeros.9 My grandfather used to always joke [that] if there was ever a dead animal in front of your house, then it must mean somebody was after you. He said that the worst thing that could happen is if someone left a goat head dripping in blood. I thought, “I guess this is what one of the severed goat heads would look like.” (p.197) I remember not being able to understand what had happened. Who was there that night? Why was I in so much pain? Why did I have bruising and this amount of blood? I did not stop bleeding for a few days.
I didn’t report anybody. I didn’t go through the adjudication process. I didn’t go to the police. I didn’t go to the hospital. I didn’t do anything that a good victim is supposed to do. I felt very guilty. For a very long time I felt, “How could a person like me speak about this issue if I didn’t do what I was supposed to do?”
Later I saw these silver boxes that are fixed to the wall in the entrance of the women’s restroom in the student union. It had this little sticker that said, “If you’ve been sexually assaulted or if you’re a victim of interpersonal violence, consider anonymously reporting.” I thought, “Huh.” I remember getting the paper and taking it into the handicapped restroom. I was sitting on the toilet, not even going to the bathroom, sitting on the toilet and looking at it and reading it. I remember pulling out a pen, and I started to cry and I filled it out. I remember looking at the boxes and not really knowing what counted as rape. What was assault? What did that mean?
I Googled. What is this box? Who created this? Why didn’t I know about this before? I read the article that was interviewing a then senior named Annie Clark, who had created these boxes for students. I ended up emailing her and saying, “You don’t know me, but we have a couple of common friends, and I wanted to talk to you about the boxes that you put in the union.” She said the reason she did that was because she had a bad experience. She wanted to give a space to people that might not know their attacker and might not feel safe coming forward or might not know how to articulate their experience. She wanted to give those survivors the space to be able to come forward.
I was appointed to the Title IX coordinator search committee; it happened to be that the student body president had read that I was interested in women’s issues. He said, “I’m going to appoint you to this committee. It’s somewhat important but I don’t know what it’s about.” I said, “Title IX, interesting.” I thought, “What does sexual assault have to do with Title IX? I’m very confused.” It was then that I stumbled upon the “Dear Colleague” letter which was released by the Department of Education in 2011.10 It was pretty recent. It was in reading it that I learned that universities are responsible for adjudicating sexual assault. I thought, “Interesting. I’ve never heard of this.”
It made me think a lot about, What were we doing? How did I not know about this? How did I not know that I had a right to report to the university, that I had a process independent of the police? Then I Skyped Annie. (p.198) I remember asking her, “Have you heard about Title IX and its connection to sexual assault? Did you know that UNC adjudicates sexual assault in the Honor Court?” She said, “Yes. I’ve been to some of the hearings.” I said, “This is insane and it’s illegal.” She said, “Yes. I had friends who lived through the process and nobody was found responsible.” I said, “I don’t think anybody’s been found responsible. Ever.”
Annie was the first person I told my full story to. She’s the person who said, “You were raped.” That for me was a transformative point. In accepting it and talking about it for the first time, I could come to terms with what happened and be able to translate that into doing something about it. I realize that I was like the majority of survivors: the ones who never come forward; the ones who don’t really know what to do; the ones who don’t think their incident is terrible enough to come forward. I realized that I wasn’t going to seek any justice for myself. What I could do was I could influence how students were educated about this in the future. I could do something directly by helping hire the administrator who would change this policy.
I began taking more political science classes and I enrolled in Feminist Political Theory. We were assigned most of Catharine MacKinnon’s readings and her work. I read that she had written a legal brief arguing that sexual harassment was a violation of Title IX. I thought, “Interesting. Everything is coming full circle. My classwork is coming full circle. What I’m doing in this committee is coming full circle.”
When I read MacKinnon’s work and I learned about the case she wrote that brief for, Alexander v. Yale, I began to realize that the arguments the plaintiffs brought forth against Yale in 1979 were similar to the ones survivors at UNC were arguing. I met dozens of other survivors at UNC and had never heard of a single case in which an accused assailant had been found responsible, much less expelled. That was the final straw for me. Then I realized that we could no longer work within the system. That was a very difficult decision. I loved my school. Since I got to Carolina I’ve worn the school’s seal around my neck; getting into Carolina is still one of the happiest moments of my life. It was something that I worked so hard for. Everything about the Carolina Way and about the institution’s history is something that is so integral to my identity.11 I realized if I loved my school, I had to fight to change it. I never wanted to shame UNC. I never wanted UNC to get in trouble. I simply wanted things to change. It was when I was told the policy was set in stone, that this is how it had been for decades and that nothing was going to change, I realized that something had to change.
(p.199) [From MacKinnon] I learned that you don’t have to have an attorney to use Title IX. The cool thing about filing a federal complaint is that you simply write your complaint directly to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. That’s it. It’s essentially as close to filing a lawsuit as you can without passing the bar. You could be a twenty-year-old and take on a 200-year-old university without legal help. That’s what we decided to do. We weren’t going to wait until we found an attorney who would take our case pro bono. We didn’t have the time for it.
Annie and I decided to look up as much as we could around the case law of Title IX that happened until then, about the cases of the Jane Does and John Does that were not being covered. We were able to put together this framework arguing that sexual assault was a violation of Title IX because no student can feel safe if they are afraid of the fear of sexual assault. That’s not to say that we were pioneers; this had been argued before. What made us a little different was that we were among the first students who filed a complaint publicly, not anonymously, and without legal representation.
We wrote a letter to [the student newspaper] the Daily Tar Heel and said that I, Andrea Pino, and Annie Clark were going to file a federal complaint in January of 2013. Everyone laughed at us. I had meetings with a couple of the higher administrators. They were promising that they were going to take it seriously and they were going to change their policy. I said, “I’m not confident enough that you are going to change anything.” We filed our complaint in January of 2013. We did so with a press release that said that UNC is one of many schools that are struggling with this. At the time, we did not know this was going to become the movement that it did.
It wasn’t so long after that we began hearing from other survivors. It was repeated across dozens of campuses time and time again. We realized that this was going to be way bigger than we ever imagined. We started talking with these survivors, and they reached out to us through Twitter, through Facebook, through LinkedIn even, wanting to do what we did. We developed this model of being able to teach survivors how to file complaints.
This is one of the times when I began to read more refined research on media framing in particular. I had a theory that a movement would happen if we could frame sexual assault as being thematic, not episodic. To do that, you would have to create a climate in which survivors felt safe coming forward publicly, using their names instead of being Jane Does. We know the media aren’t trained to connect a story thematically, because they don’t cover crime as being thematic. What if we could force them to do so? With sexual assault, it’s often seen as the one case of which a girl possibly put (p.200) herself in a certain place that made it happen. Whereas if you were to see thematic coverage, the media would have a better grasp that women are targeted on campus. It’s not that the girl put herself in a bad place; it’s a bigger problem beyond that. It’s a culture of harassment and a culture of violence that is happening on every college campus.
The way we were going to solve this is, if the media were not going to cover our stories collectively, then we were going to force them to do so. We started connecting survivors across the country. We all did a public press conference and filed together. That became really powerful to get the media to cover it that way.
In March of 2013, I heard from [reporter] Richard Pérez-Peña. He reached out to me and said, “I’ve been following your social media and there seems to be a movement that’s building.” His article, which at the time I did not realize was going to be as big as it was, became one of the first thematic news stories around campus sexual violence. It was on the front page of the New York Times website when I was in my Women’s Studies 101 class that semester. I remember clutching at my chest and thinking, “Oh my God, I’m on the front page of the New York Times.” It was a photo of me and Annie.
Since then, it’s only gotten more and more and more coverage. It went from the New York Times to be covered by Time, to be covered by MSNBC, and to be covered by CNN. It’s something that completely exploded after that. So did the calls from survivors who were trying to get ahold of us.
My residence hall had been broken into on Easter Sunday . I began feeling very unsafe at Carolina. They had spray-painted on my bulletin boards with phallic symbols; they left a knife behind; and there were fingerprints across the hall from me. I decided I was going to take some time off. I moved out to Oregon to work with Annie. It was then that Annie and I, together with Alexandra [Brodsky], a former Yale student that filed a Title IX complaint in 2011, and Dana [Bolger], an Amherst student activist, began talking about formalizing and creating somewhat of a network. Alexandra and Dana ended up formalizing an awareness campaign called Know Your IX. Annie and I went on to create an organization called End Rape on Campus [EROC]. They are two different organizations that we created around the same time. Know Your IX was focused on more of a campaign educational approach informing students of their rights. EROC is a direct-service organization. We support survivors in finding counsel, in finding mental health care, and predominantly supporting them in taking action. That’s what most of our work comes from.
One of the things that is most frustrating to me now is that while there seems to be a lot of interest in this issue, there doesn’t seem to be a pipeline (p.201) for funding it. My income in 2013 was $4,000 for the entire year. That was when Kirby [Dick] and Amy [Ziering] reached out to us and said, “Would you like to move forward with the work on this documentary [The Hunting Ground]?” Of course, to a theorist like me who works on media framing, what an awesome opportunity to create a documentary. Talk about perfect thematic framing, creating a documentary that can be used as a tool to propel the idea of the thematic problem of campus sexual assault. Of course I said yes and packed my bags for Los Angeles.
The PTSD had completely taken over my life. It wasn’t just my assault; it was more the vicarious trauma of listening to some of these survivors. I didn’t have money for therapy. Later, that fall, I got really sick—it turns out it was a severe staph infection. I was given prednisone to help with the inflammation that it was causing; I ended up having medical poisoning because of it. I became severely suicidal for about twenty-four hours. I ended up being taken to the psychiatric ward. Even though I wasn’t admitted, being in the hospital even for a short time, I realized that I had given up everything to [that] point. Because of all this work, I did not have a body that was working for me anymore. That moment in the psychiatric ward completely changed how I was an activist thereafter. I was working twenty-four hours a day, if not with the film, it was with survivors. I had given up everything: my education, my life, and my body. It was some of the hardest times of my life.
These are things you don’t really see in The Hunting Ground. What you don’t really see in all the coverage about me is that I gave up everything to become an activist and to dedicate my life to this issue. The one thing that I gave up that really haunts me is that I gave up my education. When I returned to Carolina in January of 2014, I was told I wasn’t going to graduate because I did not have the needed courses that I thought I had. It was three intro-level classes; it wasn’t even a whole semester’s worth. It was three classes that I had forgotten to take but I couldn’t take when I was gone.
At the same time, when I was taking my finals, Annie and I decided to go to D.C. because we had a meeting with the White House. We decided to walk to the Capitol and then walk to the Russell Building. We stumbled onto Senator [Kirsten] Gillibrand’s office. Senator Gillibrand had this very nice receptionist named Bo, and we said we’d like to meet with someone to talk about sexual assault. Bo looked at us in a way like, “Girl, that’s not how it works.” [Laughter.]
Then out came Brooke Jamison, who is the legislative director, and Alyson Kelly, the legislative aide at the time. They’re looking at us like, “You’re clearly in college. You’re clearly a student. So what are you two talking about?” We told them how we were two activists, how I had given up (p.202) everything to work on this issue and my life had really changed. Our schools weren’t paying attention. You could tell they were [like], “Oh my God.” We talked for forty-five minutes. We were in the middle of the hallway in the Russell Building surrounded by marble columns.
A few days later, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand gave a public speech and said, “I’m taking on campus sexual assault.” She said, “These two young women came into my office a few days ago and they told me what was going on. I’m taking on this issue.” Since then, we worked with her on writing a bill that she introduced to Congress. I often say that the year of my senior finals, I was in Washington talking to a senator and talking to the White House.
I didn’t officially graduate, but I walked so that my family could be there. After the 2014 commencement, Annie and I took the car and we drove across the country and visited survivors. We went to seventeen different states and went to all these incredible natural landmarks. In a sense it was this cool cross-country college road trip. It was the first time that I began realizing that what we were doing was remarkable and it was successful. Although nobody saw it that way at first. Nobody saw that what we did would be anything but two women complaining about their sad experiences. It was seen as something that was just for attention. It wasn’t seen as something that was radical. It was something about Kirsten Gillibrand and other activists—the Jaclyn Friedmans, the Emily Mays, the people we’ve met throughout our work—and kind of being in the same circles, we realized that we were activists, that we were part of this movement, that we were part of history. I think often about that Women’s Studies 101 class and the fact that I was in that class when we were on the front page of the New York Times. A few months later, students who were taking that class messaged me and said, “I saw you during my lecture today, you’re in the PowerPoint slide. We’re learning about you. You’re part of the curriculum.”
This has happened so fast. I will be twenty-four in a few weeks, and this all started when I was twenty. It hasn’t been that long since my assault. My life has completely changed. I never thought I’d be meeting all these incredible activists, speaking in the Senate, going to the White House on a regular basis, living in D.C., and running a nonprofit before I turn twenty-five without a college degree. One thing I thought that would happen: I would definitely have a BA. I have everything else. It’s been hard. It’s been hard to come to terms with the fact that my family isn’t sure how to feel about what I am doing. My abuelos don’t know I was sexually assaulted. I think, in many ways, I can’t really articulate what happened to me in Spanish even though I’m fluent. There are certain things I don’t have the words for to describe what happened. There’s something about your mother tongue (p.203) that makes things more real, that makes things more vivid. I feel like if I say that it happened in Spanish, I have to bleed all over again, in a way. Maybe, because they don’t know what happened, they don’t see all this as success? I don’t blame them. They worked so hard for me to get my degree, and I don’t have it.12
People have heard my story; they’ve seen the film. They’ve read what I’ve written. They’ve told me that “it’s because of reading your story that I came forward.” I often think about politics this way. It doesn’t mean that I have to work with people individually to empower people. For me, it’s balancing these options and thinking, “How much of a normal life will I have?” At the rate that I’m going, I’m never going to have a normal life, which is totally fine.
Executive Director, Third Wave Fund, Brooklyn, New York
I’m interested in having a different conversation about how [cisgender and transgender activists] work together, how our issues connect, how they’re the same thing often, and really be explicit about misogyny at the end of the day.
Rye Young grew up the child of Republican parents in Scarsdale, New York, and never felt like he fit in. I met Young in his shared Brooklyn apartment, where we talked more about his thoughts on the role of philanthropy in supporting activism than we did about his decision to transition to the man he is today. But his trans experience shapes his approach to and understanding of feminism and his ideas about how the movement needs to evolve.
Young is the executive director of the Third Wave Fund, the new iteration of an organization that dates back to the Third Wave Direct Action Corporation founded by Rebecca Walker in the 1990s, which then for many years operated as the Third Wave Foundation. The Third Wave Foundation raised money and gave money away in support of youth-led activism around issues of gender justice. Just before the economic crash of 2008, the foundation had its own office and a significant staff and had received two $1 million gifts, their first ever. But the effects of the recession were significant and led the group to restructure. When I interviewed Young, he was the only staff member for the Third Wave Fund, now operating as a fiscally sponsored fund at another organization. Like Ho Nguyen, Young explains how philanthropy both shapes and responds to the changing dynamics of movement activism.
I grew up in Scarsdale until I was seventeen, and oh my God, I don’t know what I can say about Scarsdale that hasn’t already been said. Scarsdale’s kind of a joke of a place that’s incredibly rich, incredibly college focused, a very homogenous environment in terms of race and class. There weren’t even private schools in Scarsdale because the public school was so good. People would sacrifice a lot to send their kids to Scarsdale High School.
To me, it was socially disturbing and I hated it. I was very much a fringe-y kid. I was probably a different kind of kid since forever. I was the kid in (p.205) middle school with blue hair and drumsticks in my tube socks. Always ran with a pretty queer or punk or goth crowd.
For a while, I was kind of Republican in my stance on things, not in a fully formed way, but my parents were Republican voting and their libertarianism sort of sunk into my brain. It was really the Iraq War that I think tipped the scales for me and made me see the light.
What happened was that I went to an alternative school. We were encouraged to do a senior project and mine was about “Can outside governments create democracy for another country?” I was just exploring that as a question, because to me that was a big question, but it was the whole premise of the Iraq War. I did a study on the history of attempts to bring democracy to other places. I did a lot of research and basically found that it never works. It literally never works, and I had this epiphany. That was when I just realized, “Whoa, our government doesn’t live by any code or moral compass that I thought it did.” I had a real breakup with the government.
I remember [9/11] was one of the first major international political things that put me at odds with my parents. I was out at some kind of alternative school bonding trip. We were out in the woods somewhere outside New York, or upstate New York, and we were told that we were going to leave early and go back home because the Twin Towers had been hit, and first of all, I was like, “Why are we going toward the city if there’s a terrorist apocalypse happening?” I didn’t know what was going on. Maybe I was sixteen. But a lot of people had parents who worked there and were really terrified, and I think that people just wanted to go home.
I remember thinking immediately about that the people doing this, what are the chances that they’re all crazy evil people? I’m remembering thinking early on, “I think our job is to understand the forces that led to this and not respond out of anger. If sometimes resistance is OK, could this be one of those times?” I remember saying it out loud and people being like, “What the hell? What are you even talking about?” But I still feel that way.
I went to Bard [College]. I just was excited to be in a place where the norm is to be a little bit different and having a critical mindset is sort of normal. That felt exciting to me. At that point, I was pretty leftward leaning, not to the extent where I am now, but I was getting there. I studied Arabic language, culture, and literature. It was connected to 9/11 for sure, to the Iraq War more specifically, and to this kind of feeling I had that we’re so arrogant in the way that we talk about cultures we know nothing about. I think I just wanted to learn as much as I could about why things are the way they are.
I’ve never taken a gender studies course in my whole life, which is funny because I feel so tapped into that right now. I never did LGBT work on (p.206) campus. I always found it to be so apolitical and sort of removed from critical inquiry. It was often about throwing parties and distributing condoms.
I don’t know if I identified as queer or genderqueer or dyke or something—it was waves of all of those things at different times. I wasn’t trans identified in college, but I was definitely visibly queer and hung out with a queer crowd. And so, often the students would be like, “Why aren’t you in the LGBT group?” And I was like, “Why aren’t you in solidarity with any of the activism on campus?” It seemed like a social space, you know? I wanted a political space.
I never got the sense when I was at Bard that feminism was alive and happening and was a thing. I knew it to be an affiliation or a way I was being impacted and growing through, and thinking about my own body and my own life and sex was very affected by feminism. I probably identified as a feminist in a way, but it didn’t seem to me to be a movement that was present or active.
Then I went straight to Third Wave as an intern right after Bard. I had never heard of it; I didn’t know what it was. I just saw it [on Idealist.org] and was at the end of my rope. I had applied to a million things. Had no applicable skills for most things that I wanted. I wanted a job in the nonprofit field. I didn’t want to do work internationally. When I found Third Wave’s work, it just appealed to me as a way to continue doing racial justice work within a gender-focused space, and that was more appealing than anything I could have imagined for myself. I found Third Wave and started as an abortion fund intern.
It was really trial by fire. I got there. The intern that had been running the fund was there for the first five minutes I was there, and she was like, “Here’s a notebook where you write things down. People are going to call you starting now, so answer the phone and give money away for abortions, and then call the clinic and tell them how much money you’re giving. Tell Tara and she’ll write a check.” Day one, and I’m giving away money.
There were definitely really hard moments, because people would be telling you their lives, their life situations. And some of it was really hard. There was not a lot of time to feel, because it was so busy and it was a moving train. People would call constantly. There were way more people that needed funding than we could ever possibly fund, and so I felt like I had way too much power. It felt overwhelming to make decisions like that that affected people’s lives so severely. But it also felt really rewarding to be able to say to someone that the $3,000 procedure that you need covered, we’re going to pay for half of it and the clinic will discount the rest.
(p.207) When I was coming up in the organization, there wasn’t a ton of funding going to trans work. I think in part because it was so focused on reproductive justice, and there weren’t a lot of trans groups really situating themselves as repro justice organizations. I was in culinary school in between being an intern and being hired as a part-time program associate. I went to school and then I took on a line-cooking job at the same time that I was working at Third Wave. I worked seven days a week for eight months, built up enough money to get top surgery, went and got the surgery done, and I think it was sometime around then that I was offered a full-time position. Then I was able to quit my line-cooking job and do Third Wave full-time as program assistant. Then I got a promotion to program associate. And then in 2010, there was a major round of layoffs, and in that round of layoffs my direct supervisor, who was the program director, was laid off due to budget cuts. That’s when I became the program officer.
We announced [recently] that we’re becoming the Third Wave Fund. We’re pausing all programmatic activities and redeveloping our donor base. In addition to that, we set up at a fiscal sponsor institution, so we’re now Third Wave Fund housed at Proteus Fund. We don’t have an office; I have Skype meetings with interns and fellows. It’s very, kind of, flexible and different. The grant-making programs are new and launching right now as we speak.
We’re setting up two movement-building funds. We’re not trying to create subissue categories or put work into boxes, because it just doesn’t work. It really doesn’t. That’s the beauty of our grantees, is that they’re multiple things. I think that’s always been the beauty of third-wave feminism, is that it’s not one thing; it’s a multi-issue agenda. It’s a multicultural agenda and intergenerational agenda.
The Mobilize Power Fund is a direct action rapid-response fund for urgent community-organizing needs. It’s very flexible and open to non-501(c) (3)s, individuals, collectives, and pretty much any way that the work might pop off. It’s really geared to be flexible, such that if all abortion clinics in Mississippi are going to close, we could fund direct action around that. If a trans woman of color is murdered on the street and there’s a need to urgently respond, we would fund that. If black girls are organizing around state violence and the murder of black people in America, we’re funding that. So I think it’s putting our intersectional priorities into practice in a way that’s responding to urgent needs. It kind of reminds me of the abortion hotline. It’s like, OK, this isn’t necessarily that long-term work, but this is where it’s needed right now and we’re going to be there for that.
(p.208) We just created a new process that’s really meant to be something that, if you’re in a crisis, if you’re a young person, if you’re not versed in philanthropy, you have multiple ways that you can apply for funding. The proposal itself, it can be two paragraphs, it can be a list of bullet points. It can be a half-hour interview with us on the phone. It could be a selfie video that you and your members, whoever’s applying, can respond to the questions in a video.
One of the things that we’ve done recently with this rapid-response fund, Mobilize Power Fund, is have crowdfunding platforms to support moving bigger grants to the field. We’ll put up a grant, but we’ll ask people to crowdfund to match that grant. So the idea is, if the work around Black Lives Matter [and] #SayHerName campaigns are taking off on the internet, there’s a whirlwind of interest in that work and inspiration that is coming out of that organizing, but the organizers of the campaign are doing the work, they’re not necessarily fundraising. Part of what we’re trying to contribute with the rapid-response fund is to take some of that momentum and drive it into donor activism. Having this engaged, online network of people whose interests are evolving around specific real-time campaigns versus gender justice philanthropy and theory—this is something happening now; we’re talking about it right now.
We want to plug into that whirlwind and sort of add a donor activist dimension to it and make sure people know that their five-dollar gift plus a retweet is going to have an effect of strengthening organizing through grassroots philanthropy. We’ve developed a network of communications social media leaders who are committing to playing an active role in the campaigns that we roll out. So we identified people who are sort of the most tapped into the things we do—people who favorite our things or retweet our things the most or share our posts on Facebook—and we’ve made direct interactions with them and have said, “You’re awesome. People care what you have to say; we care what you have to say. Can we work out an arrangement where we can send you updates on our campaign work with specific asks around communications pushes and sample tweets and different ways you can support this growing movement?”
That’s been really effective and so far almost everyone has agreed to do that, and so as we launch this new fund, we have this ready and willing group of people who are going to help our campaigns take off and hopefully go viral if that’s possible. Integrating a somewhat sophisticated and preplanned online approach to tying grassroots philanthropy to urgent campaign work and political activism is strong fuel.
(p.209) I think our nonprofit field mimics our economy. A vast majority of them have no budget, are staffless, are essentially cash-poor institutions that have no resources, truly, but they’re community efforts. The vast majority of grassroots groups are that: they’re informal, maybe a part-time staff member, maybe not. That kind of thing. And then there’s this precarious middle class that’s evermore precarious. And I think we don’t have a solution for that. It speaks to the real lack of commitment to building long-term social justice infrastructure in this country. That’s the big question for us, is how to support groups that can really last and withstand a big funder leaving, which most of them can’t. So a lot of groups that we find to be beloved organizations, grounded so deeply in our values and our vision, most of them close; if not while they’re a grantee of ours, soon thereafter. It’s often after a big jolt in funding that a group will close their doors. I think we are interested in convening conversations around that to think about what our responsibility is for groups that might have between a $200,000 and a $600,000 budget but they feel terrified like they always might close. Or if they rub a funder the wrong way, then they’re gone, or if they have a leadership transition and people don’t like that leader, then everything they worked for would go away. That’s where a lot of groups find themselves. And they’re considered successful! If that’s our measurement of success in terms of the nonprofit model that we support, how do we create something different or fund differently to not create that constant crisis mode? I think it’s a profound question and a challenge to some bigger foundations to change and to really fund long-term and to stop their self-serving rebranding that brings groups on and kicks them off. You know, it’s a cycle of boom and bust.
I do think it’s important that gender be explicitly talked about because it’s so easily wiped off the map of funding priorities to organizations that might think about economics but they’re not thinking about gender or vice versa. I think a lot of what we focus on is naming a gender justice frame. What does that look like? Third-wave feminism is not what we lead with, in part because it’s not an effective way to lead any conversation to give a history lesson or talk about the genesis of ideas and movements. It’s to say, “What is the agenda now? What do people care about?” In many ways, we’re naming a feminist agenda, and that’s politically important work but we don’t talk about it like that. There’s so much that we’re trying to avoid. Some of the only ways to talk about feminist work is to have an inner battle about feminism in the media, and it’s so sad to me because the media’s interest in feminism is to look at it as a point of conflict and always being in a battle with itself and to make the movement seem funny and sort of sad. (p.210) I would challenge some of the current rhetoric makers and narrative makers to say, “How much are we playing into that? And why aren’t we trying to build solidarity across issues of structural oppression? And why are we still having conversations with ourselves about feminism in an exclusive kind of way?”
That’s one of the things I talk about as being a trans person running this foundation: I’m not interested in having a debate about trans inclusion in feminism. I’m interested in having a different conversation about how we work together, how our issues connect, how they’re the same thing often, and really be explicit about misogyny at the end of the day. I think that somehow that gets lost in a lot of “Are trans women actually women? Can trans people be feminists? Can they be in this space or that space?” The reality of misogyny is absent from most of that conversation, and we try to bring it back and keep that at the heart of what we do. For us, it’s more important than the label third-wave feminist. But I did keep the name in part because I think that legacy is important. I think we’re really standing on those shoulders of people who invented intersectional ways of doing work. I think feminists of color invented intersectionality, and I think it’s important as it goes off into the world that the legacy really stays there. I wanted to keep the name and the name recognition but rebrand it and brush the dust off and say, “This is relevant now.” [To] point people to specific action that’s happening, that young people are leading, and to say, “This is Third Wave in action right now. It looks like Black Lives Matter. It looks like Free CeCe McDonald.”13 That’s what we hope to do now.
Member, SPARK Movement, Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Harry Potter is the foundation for most of who I am as a person. A sense of justice, to me, was imparted by those books: how you treat people who are looked at as inferior to you says a lot about who you are; and what it means to be kind; and when it’s OK to break rules.
Alice Wilder had just finished her sophomore year of high school when the final Harry Potter movie hit the theaters. For Wilder, the Potter book series and the communities that formed around it—both in person and online—were central to her life, and the film’s release felt like the end of an era. Depressed about that and a recent breakup, she spent the summer of 2011 watching the television series Parks and Recreation. Inspired by what she saw as a woman-friendly show that took female friendships seriously, she started reading online and finding feminism through the internet and an online publication called Rookie. Rookie tweeted that applications were being accepted for SPARK, a “girl-fueled, intergenerational activist organization working online to ignite an anti-racist gender justice movement” founded and run by Dana Edell (whose story appears in part II of this book.) Wilder applied, seeing in it a way to combine her love of popular culture with her budding feminism.
When I interviewed Wilder, she had just finished her sophomore year of college and had participated in many key SPARK campaigns. In college she was the editor of a campus-based feminist magazine and had been active in a variety of progressive causes. Feeling some burnout already, and wary of working for advocacy organizations and nonprofits that she felt sometimes took advantage of people’s passion, she was starting to think about how she would integrate her continuing enthusiasm for girls’ activism with her own needs as an adult who wanted to be able to “eat and go see a doctor.”
Until I was three, we lived in Baton Rouge. That’s where my parents met and got married. Then my dad got a job at the University of Rochester in upstate New York, and so we moved there. I lived there for ten years, and then when I was fourteen—I was going from middle school into high school, about to start ninth grade—we moved to Charlotte, North Carolina.
(p.212) I think the first year of high school I was floundering a lot, because it was like I had been taken away from my entire life, basically, that I had always known. It was a big transition to move to the south after having grown up in the north. It was a huge culture shock for me, but I think overall I liked high school. I went to a small arts magnet school, and so it was more intimate. I had friends, and I really liked a lot of my teachers.
I had [been] and continue to be a very deep and devoted Harry Potter fan. I mean, Harry Potter is the foundation for most of who I am as a person. A sense of justice, to me, was imparted by those books: how you treat people who are looked at as inferior to you says a lot about who you are; and what it means to be kind; and when it’s OK to break rules. I really liked the idea that you could be like Hermione, who really likes school and likes to follow the rules, for the most part, which was who I was as a kid—I was very much a rule follower—but also there are times when you can kind of throw that out the window and be like, “Following those rules that this person sets out is not right, and so I should be breaking these rules.”
I was rereading the books every time I got the chance, and when the last movie came out, in that moment I knew that it was a new period of my life, because this was this huge part of growing up for me. I had a lot of friends that I had made on the internet about Harry Potter and from Harry Potter conventions, and it was just this really solid part of my life. After that, it didn’t end, but that chapter was definitely closed. I sort of was just like, “Well, what do I do now in terms of media consumption?” I started watching a lot of Parks and Rec and reading books by John Green and doing sort of the typical internet girl route to feminism. The internet kind of leads you quickly from one source of interest to another, and then you kind of go down that road, and so that’s how I got to that internet location where suddenly I was reading posts about bell hooks and intersectionality and the wage gap.
My parents are liberal people. The Iraq War and surveillance and wiretapping and stuff like that was something that we talked about in our home, about who was George Bush, and let’s watch The Daily Show when you’re eight years old. So I mean, obviously there’s some feminism to that, but I think my parents didn’t guide me to those sources. It was pretty self-directed.
For me, that first thing was just watching Parks and Rec. I think the thing that hooked me into it initially was that friendships on the show between women were not competitive or toxic, which was not something you see very often, especially when you’re that age. It was really cool to see the characters of Leslie and Ann, who just straight-up love each other. Not in a corny way. It was also really funny and sincere and authentic. It was a funny show (p.213) that I could watch without feeling like all the jokes were sexist or racist; that’s always a plus as well.
I probably applied for [the SPARK team] late at night when I should have been asleep. I remember being very nervous. I had seen what they had done to petition Seventeen magazine to include more diversity in terms of race and body type and ability and then to also pledge to no longer Photoshop their images for girls.
At that point I had sort of identified within myself dual passions for media and feminism, and that is what SPARK is. I felt this divide between “OK, I really love this book series, and I really love TV. I think TV is great, and music, and all these things, but I’m feeling this disconnect between that and what I know of feminism.” This seemed like a good way to sort of bring those two things together. And [to have] a nice, larger community, because I had friends in high school who were interested in feminism by that point, but they didn’t want to talk about it all the time. So it was nice to know that I could possibly have this online community of girls who would want to talk about it all the time and also adult mentors as well.
Pretty soon after I joined, we got a message in our private Facebook group: “No one can say anything, but we know that Seventeen is going to publish this Body Peace Treaty, and who’s ready to talk to the press? Who needs to rehearse?” It was very undercover: “We’re talking to the New York Times in two days.” Suddenly, I get to know these secrets, and that’s so fun. I love secrets.
[As SPARK members] we would write posts. Basically, we would pitch to Melissa [Campbell] an idea that we had, and then she would tell us 99 percent of the time to go for it, and then I would just write it on a Google doc and share it with her, and then we’d kind of go through and make edits. This would be whenever I had free time at school or after or before homework. I was like, “Oh, I get to actually write and get feedback from someone who’s a really good editor,” which was something that I really enjoyed a lot.
[In 2013, YingYing Shang] and I were talking about how it would be kind of fun for the month of April to give evidence of how hard it really is to actually abide by the instructions that these magazines set out to just live by. And then we talked about it with Dana on a conference call, and she was so excited about it. So we made a plan. We basically just flipped a coin for who was going to get Seventeen and who was going to get Teen Vogue.
For each week of the month, we had a different theme. There was a beauty week, there was a fitness week, there was a lifestyle week—so basically just different sections of the magazine—and then we would basically live according to that for the week and then write about it on the blog. This was (p.214) a Tumblr account that we both had access to, and it ended up getting over 1,000 followers or maybe more. By today’s standards, it wasn’t that popular, but back then it felt like a pretty huge deal.
I remember being hungry. I remember being really hungry during the health and fitness week. The whole notion behind the fitness activities they had in that magazine is that there’s never a time where you shouldn’t be working out. So they had “sneaky workouts to do in class.” While you’re in your math class, you should also be gripping the table in such a way that you’re flexing your biceps. I knew I was doing it for the challenge, but it was also crazy to be sitting in class and just thinking, “OK, what are the exercises they were telling me to do, and how can I do them in class?” It also looks ridiculous when you do it in real life.
I think my favorite action that I actually got to be a part of was a reaction to the Steubenville case in Steubenville, Ohio. I think I was seventeen when this happened, and this was pretty soon after the first time someone who I was close to had disclosed being sexually assaulted. This was when sexual assault came onto the scene for me, in addition to the idea of just sexism in the media and body image. Not that that other stuff isn’t serious, but it was also this feeling of “Oh, we’re being killed and attacked and we don’t have a lot of time. This is not something that you can just sort of wait around on because this is happening every day.” So hearing about that case of the young girl, who was my age, who found out about her sexual assault because it was Instagrammed—we had a group Facebook chat about it, basically just to process it, because all of us were around that age and everyone was just kind of stunned. “We’re all so angry and we feel powerless, and what is going on here?”
From that grew the Educate Coaches campaign. We petitioned—and this is not our most glamorous action, but it’s one of the ones I’m the most proud of—the group that certifies high school coaches. We petitioned them to make sexual assault prevention training, or just sexual assault awareness training, a part of the certification process for their coaches. I don’t think they actually made it mandatory, but by the end of the campaign—and this is a campaign that I worked on a lot and did a lot of things for—they ended up putting some of our workshops and some of our resources on their site that is visited and downloaded by millions of high school coaches. So that to me felt like, “OK, well, this awful thing happened, and we were all really mad about it, but look what we did.”
When you’ve been doing something since you were fourteen, at a certain point it’s easy to get burned out. First year and sophomore year [of college], the nature of what I was doing changed from activism that felt really fun and (p.215) exciting to activism that felt just like wading into more trauma, especially the sexual assault aspect. It felt like “Oh my God, this is all just so painful and also so real.” There was a point in my first year—because I had trained with the Orange County Rape Crisis Center, once people know that about you, they disclose to you a lot, which is something that I understand is a sign that people trust you and that they feel like they can come to you with things like that, which is something that I value, and that means a lot to me. But at the same time, it can definitely be pretty exhausting when you’re just going about your day and then someone comes up to you and just sort of tells you that they’ve been raped. It’s just like, “Whoa. This just completely shifted; now I’m in this crisis mode and working out all this stuff.” I’m the coeditor of the feminist magazine on campus and I’m working on that, but it’s not my main thing that I do in my life, mostly just because I have a part-time job.
I’m a pretty staunch defender of quote-unquote millennials because I think that we’re very politically engaged, and maybe this is just the people I tend to be around, but I think for a lot of us there’s a lot of cynicism about politics, especially because we all grew up in the Bush era. I mean, I haven’t really decided how I feel long-term about Barack Obama yet, but I think there’s definitely been a certain level of disappointment from a lot of people of, like, “Well, why is Obama still sanctioning these drone strikes in the Middle East that are killing lots of innocent civilians?” At least, that’s what I’ve seen, a lot of cynicism around that. People are hyped about Bernie Sanders, which is, I don’t know. I don’t know if I would even define our political engagement by presidential politics, necessarily. I think at least my activist generation is much more actively engaged in politics around race and class and gender—and gender not just as women but as gender identity and fluidity and queerness. I’ve seen a lot of activism that’s much more based from younger and younger kids. There was a girl who I mentored during our mentoring program in high school, and we’re still Facebook friends, and she’ll post about mental health stuff and about Black Lives Matter and about respecting genderqueer people, and that’s really dope to see that the internet has given younger and younger kids access to learning and identifying privilege and oppression in their lives and taking action about it. That’s something that just makes me feel very excited.
A lot of my friends in Rochester were employed by Xerox and Kodak, and those groups started to fold and lay off tons of people after the  crash. There were all these news stories about young people and unemployment. It changed my perception of possible career paths. Especially now that a lot of my friends have graduated college and are underemployed or unemployed, my thought right now is just “Well, how can I put myself in the very best (p.216) position by the time I’ve graduated, where I can have skills that are marketable and enough of a cushion that I feel like I can pay my rent?” And activist work just is not really going to be able to provide that for me. It doesn’t mean it’s not going to be a part of my life, but it’s not going to be the main thing because, you know, I want to be able to go to the doctor and eat food.
I don’t think there’s anyone in the world that’s braver or more powerful than teenage girls. When people ask me what I want to do, I’m just like, “Whatever teen girls need me to do. Whatever is most helpful to them is what I’ll do.” I think that when it’s done right—and I think that SPARK did it right—when girl activist groups focus on girls and trust girls as leaders who know what they need the most, then they’ll be successful. Where I personally don’t find it fulfilling is groups where they have adults sitting you down and saying, “So you are thirteen, we’ll teach you how to do these things, and we’ll give you a task, and here’s our plan for you.” SPARK was much more like, “Hey, what are you all mad about right now? And how can we work together to work on that? How can we help give you the resources that you need and the skills that you want to learn?” I think as long as girls are in the driver’s seat and have adults who are willing to support them and an amount of funding where they can hopefully make a stipend or some sort of thing off of their work, I mean, I just think teen girls are the best, and it’s going to be fine.
(1.) Ho Nguyen, interview by Rachel Seidman, SOHP (R-0886), 20 April 2016.
(2.) Alice Wilder, interview by Rachel Seidman, SOHP (R-0894), 6 November 2015.
(3.) Ivanna Gonzalez, interview by Rachel Seidman, SOHP (R-0878), 28 February 2014.
(p.239) (4.) Since this interview, Free Women Writers became a registered 501(c)(3) with a team of volunteers in Afghanistan and the diaspora, and it reaches 70,000 people every week through its website and social media.
(5.) For more information on the Who Needs Feminism campaign, see Rachel F. Seidman, “Who Needs Feminism: Lessons from the Digital Age,” Feminist Studies 39, no. 2 (2013): 549–62.
(6.) “Womanism” is a term coined by Alice Walker. See Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1983).
(7.) Crisis pregnancy centers are generally run by Christian anti-abortion organizations and have been criticized for deceptive advertising, suggesting that they provide abortion services when they do not and actively discouraging women from seeking them. For example, one study of crisis pregnancy centers in North Carolina found that 86 percent provided false or misleading information. See A. G. Bryant and E. E. Levi, “Abortion Misinformation from Crisis Pregnancy Centers in North Carolina,” Contraception 86, no. 6 (2012): 752–56.
(9.) Practitioners of Santeria, a Caribbean religion.
(10.) The Office for Civil Rights sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to colleges and universities asserting that sexual harassment and assault “interferes with students’ right to receive an education free from discrimination.” They reminded educators that Title IX prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex and that sexual harassment of students, including acts of sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX. https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201104.html, accessed 2/07/2019.
(11.) The Carolina Way is a phrase coined by famous former basketball coach Dean Smith to describe a way of playing basketball that emphasized sportsmanship and team togetherness. Over the years, it came to be associated by Carolina alumni with their school more broadly, and although interpreted differently by different people, it generally means doing things “right” with a focus on community and generosity.
(12.) Pino received her degree from UNC in 2017.
(13.) A movement to free CeCe McDonald, a trans woman who was attacked while walking with friends and was imprisoned for killing a man while fighting back. Trans actress and LGBTQ advocate Laverne Cox was the executive producer of a film about the movement called Free CeCe.