THE REVOLUTIONARY NEXT DOOR
by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards
Excerpted from GRASSROOTS: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright (c) 2005 by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards. All rights reserved.
The Revolutionary Next Door
"You must be the change you want to see in the world."
- Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the India independence movement
In college, it seemed I was always in a fight with the one virulently antifeminist philosophy major in the room, ignoring everyone else. At some point, he'd corner me and say something like. "If men can rape women, then provide me with the logical argument of why they should not." I'd sputter and, hysterical, resort to yelling, "If I can shove this broomstick up your ass, explain to me why I shouldn't!"
It's funny - I never have that conversation anymore. One of the main differences in my life now compared to when I was younger is that I no longer take the bait from people who just want to goad me. Earlier in the book. I talked about how important it was for me, as a feminist, to figure out what I authentically believe and separate it from the viewpoints I had simply inherited. Once I started doing that, I realized that my feminist problems with pornography, for instance, had more to do with the fact that it excluded me - it appeared to be for men only - and not that I found it fundamentally degrading. (Though it can be.) I also began listening when women told me that they are "pro-life, but they don't want to make that decision for another woman." Now I no longer say, "Oh, but that is prochoice." I let her define herself and use her own words.
I guess I'd say that now I'm more firm and clear about what is true to me and, therefore, find other's opinions to be less threatening. Knowing what I believe is related to understanding who I am, which is related to my effectiveness as an activist. I don't force myself to get on board with a party line if I don't believe it, and I know that I can be an important feminist activist without abhorring porn or giving up shopping. This not only gives me peace - I think it helps keep the women's movement accessible. One anecdote that bears this out: I recently attended an Our Bodies Ourselves fund-raiser in a gorgeous Manhattan loft. Like many women who grew up post-1970s, Our Bodies, Ourselves was one of my adolescent totems, along with Judy Blume books and Love's Baby Soft. Judy Norsigan, part of the original collective and still one of its most vibrant spokes-people, addressed those attending the fund-raiser. She was great, as always, talking about how much progress we'd made on women's health and women's rights - identifying the moment when women realized that doctors weren't God and that they could check their own cervixes. But then Judy lamented the way that pop culture undermines those strides: "I mean, young people today are learning about sex and their bodies from Sex and the City!" she cried.
I loved Sex and the City. While it certainly had its irresponsible elements, they center on afternoon drinking and profligate spending. If anything, the characters Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha are very Our Bodies Ourselves - from their blithe acceptance (and know-how) of masturbation, contraception, and Sapphic relationships to their healthy sex drives. During the Q&A, I asked Judy what she thought was specifically dangerous about the show. "I like it," I offered. I'd even say it reminds me of my friends and me." Judy admitted that she hadn't really watched the show, she was just interpreting that it was retrograde from the title and its style. As it turned out, this fund-raiser was filled with intense Sex and the City fans, ages twenty-five to seventy, and they piped up about their favorite episodes. There was a time when I would have heard a feminist criticize something I secretly liked and I would have remained silent. The Sex and the City moment made me realize how unproductive that silence is - it contributes to misinformation about what it means to be a feminist and encourages others to self-censor.
In the same way that Jennifer was a magnet for the antifeminist right-winger when she was in college, I still seem to attract the holier-than-thou leftie and end up in similar predicaments. Who knew that the grungy Nation reader could be just as oppressive as the Phi Delt? For example, shortly after Manifesta was published, Jennifer and I were giving our first big talk: San Francisco's City Arts and Lectures. Joining us were Michael Franti (of the band Spearhead) and Gloria Steinem. Activism was our topic. To augment what those onstage were saying, I invited young activists whom Jennifer and I respected to be in the audience as our guests so I could point them out as examples of Third Wave feminism. Taking it one level deeper, I even convinced the sponsor to make the event a fund-raiser for the Third Wave Foundation and to give away dozens of seats to young people who couldn't afford the $18 ticket price. In short, the whole night was designed less for promoting our book and more as an example of how to make an event accessible to the working poor and younger people, and how to turn any event into a fund-raiser.
I was accustomed to creating environments where I put either other people or the issues themselves in the spotlight. I anticipated that it would be uncomfortable for me to be the focus, which is another reason I asked these other activists to be in the audience. It didn't help that I was also nervous that something would go wrong; having organized countless events, I was well aware of this possibility. Still, I was excited and eventually thrilled that the evening went off without a hitch. People actually showed up, the audience asked questions, I got a few laughs. Elated after the talk, I traipsed off for a late dinner with some of the young activists I had pointed out in the crowd. I quickly felt deflated when one of the young women I had invited said, rather abruptly, "Amy, I have to say, I just don't understand what is activist about what you do." I would have interpreted this question differently if it was coming from someone who genuinely wanted to know more about what it was I did. But this was coming from someone with whom I'd worked for years. Her comment seemed designed to put me in my place, which was, apparently from her perspective, behind the scenes doing hours of scut work, not anything pioneering that would lead to my being onstage being acknowledged as an activist. I was shocked and angry - and I felt very vulnerable. To defend myself, I immediately listed my recent activist efforts: the dramatic late-term abortion I had raised funds for that same day; the twenty-five desperate e-mails I had waiting for my reply at Ask Amy; my refusal to participate in an event with only white panelists; and the launching of Third Wave's I Spy Sexism campaign, which I created but insisted (as with most of the work I did for Third Wave) that it not be owned by me but by the foundation.
This exchange haunted me for years. I felt judged and misunderstood, and I interpreted this woman as saying that I was misrepresenting myself as a revolutionary when I was clearly just a privileged white wonk. I made peace with this conversation when I realized that any amount of energy I spent defending myself only legitimized her assumption. Before coming to terms with this exchange, I felt compelled to bring up the fact that I was raised by a single mom or on welfare for part of my life in order to justify myself as an activist or as more than the textbook entitled white woman. Precisely because that is part of "my story," I can relate to the power of assimilation and the value of the mainstream. You can only safely reject something once you have access to it.
This process has made me contemplate a fundamental conflict of progressive organizing. Poor or otherwise oppressed people are perceived as natural allies. Conversely, rich or otherwise privileged people are challenged before they are welcomed as activists. While we should never generalize that poor people are lazy, we shouldn't assume that rich people are insensitive, clueless, and selfish. Most social justice work is about providing resources so that people who are poor or victimized can have comforts, education, basic health care - "privileges" that are currently available only to those who can afford them. The problem is that as soon as someone is successful, he or she is often accused of as being too privileged to be radical. I don't fall prey to that critique anymore because I know from my own experience that I am using what privilege I have to expand resources to others.
* * *
I am a 20-year-old woman who considers myself to be a feminist, yet I don't feel that I am making any sort of contribution to feminism. My friends feel the same way I do. Do you have ideas of things we can do or organizations we can help with to make us feel more a part of the "Third Wave"? Help please!!!! Stacey Yannacopoulos
We began this book wondering if you even imagined yourself as an activist. In the preceding chapters, we analyzed the people who had asked us "What can I do?" We hope you saw yourself in at least a few of those scenarios, even if you aren't a high-school student desperate to start a club or an artist processing September 11. Maybe you are someone who took a friend along to go vote or asked a relative who supports the death penalty to go with you to The Exonerated, a play by Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen that tells the true stories of the wrongfully convicted on death row. Perhaps you took charge of recycling for your office or turned your mothers' group into an advocacy circle where the kids play while moms work the phone bank. The final frontier as an activist is having it be "in you" - so integrated into your life that it's instinctual, not premeditated. Your life no longer contains the question "What can I do?" because the way you lead your life is the answer. Once you try on the identity of an activist, it starts to feel....natural.
This is the sort of thing we are talking about: When you go to the dentist, you leave your copy of Ms., Colorlines, or Bust in the waiting room next to - or on top of - People and Town and Country, introducing your fellow patients to a perspective that is missing from mainstream media. If you're shopping, you go into the Gap armed with cards identifying where and under what conditions their jeans were made - and you tuck the card into the back pocket of every pair. After all, you don't have to be an expert on child labor practices to inform other shoppers about Sweatshop Watch or their jeans' provenance. At the post office, you buy the more costly breast cancer stamps that donate a percentage to research or the Thurgood Marshall stamps to show that there is support for black heritage. Both stamps send a message of your values to your correspondents. Besides bringing your own bags to the grocery store, you bring back your returnables or put them directly into the hands of a bottle redeemer. Otherwise the five cents per bottle goes directly into the hands of the businesses - and they don't need your donations. If you are at a job interview, you ask about the policy on same-sex partner benefits and prescription birth control coverage, regardless of whether either issue affects you personally. In fact, it;s sometimes better if it doesn't affect you personally, so it can't be written off as a selfish interest. Instead of the latest Hollywood movie, you go to the women's basketball games in your town to prove that they have an audience and that the professional players deserve to make a semi-comparable salary to men's basketball players. After your workout, you lobby the gym for towels that cover people who are larger than a size two. While reading the morning paper, you write a positive letter to the editor commending the newspaper for having a female sports columnist and their leadership in breaking out of the gender ghetto. If geopolitical events call for it, you stage an eat-in at the Middle Eastern restaurant in town or order the French wine.
Does the above list sound trivial? It shouldn't. Being an activist in the world doesn't have to be complicated and full of sacrifice - it can be as simple as influencing conversations around you. Saying "That's not funny" to a racist (or sexist, or homophobic) joke can be enough to provoke change - and there doesn't have to be a gay or black person in the room to point out bigotry. Maybe it's saying "I like Hillary Clinton" at the Junior League brunch or "I've listened to Eminem and, as an artist, he has something insightful to say about gender" at the NOW-NYC meeting. There are likely to be allies in your midst whom you didn't know existed until you bravely spoke your mind. Confront and name bigotry where you find it. You don't have to be righteously indignant, merely informative. Respectfully disrupting the status quo is eye-opening, as Jennifer's Our Bodies Ourselves example attests. Honesty alone can be transformative: for instance, disarming others by revealing that you have herpes or HPV or have had a miscarriage. This could lead to your being a resource for those who need advice about how to have a sex life after diagnosis or who need to know that they are not alone. Breaking the silence is often a welcome cue for others to do so - and comforting for those who are not yet ready to share their "shameful" secrets. Bringing your vulnerabilities to a conversation can be a contribution, too. You can admit that you're a feminist who doesn't have it all worked out, from your relationships with men to worrying about your weight.
These small organic forms of activism focus on what you can do, right now, right here. They fly in the face of history and common assumptions that traditionally define activist behavior as something that requires you to seek change outside of yourself or your community. Northern white students going down South to register black voters in the sixties, sixth-grade girls wanting to help girls in Somalia who are in danger of female genital mutilation: these are valid forms of activism - but they are not the only forms. Massive letter-writing campaigns do help curb human rights violations in other countries, but they also perpetuate perceptions that such atrocities only happen elsewhere. While we would never discourage this type of meaningful activism, the problem with looking outside of your community to change another's situation is that it involves "helping others" without understanding one's own stake in the issue. For instance, when Amy helped organize the Freedom Summer '92 cross-country voter registration drive, she thought that she was doing it to help poor people who didn't have access to voting. She eventually realized that she also wasn't served if she lived in a democracy where so few people participated.
The more profound reason to look closer to home is that everyone who is spurred to activism is really responding to a need inside himself or herself. It might be unacknowledged guilt over privilege. It might be empathy because you feel out of place and thus relate to other outcasts. It might be that sexism or racism damaged you, but you haven't yet realized it. Looking close to home can be threatening (and thus critically important), because then you have to admit that you are possibly part of the problem and confront people whom you actually know. Telling your Catholic father about your abortion is more dangerous than wearing a keep your laws off my body T-shirt at a march. The consequence is greater - you could be ostracized in your family or community for acting up - but the revolutionary potential is much greater, too.
When you yourself embody your activist values, then every space that you inhabit - from the ice-cream shop to the dentist's office to a seat on the subway - has the potential to become an activist space. After all, political realities intersect with every aspect of your life. Incorporating what you think and believe into what you do confirms that you are an activist. Doing this is challenging because you begin to question every decision, from the paper products you buy to the car you drive. When your activism is this instinctual, you stop asking "Am I good enough?" because you realize that you are doing something - you are always doing what you can.
In 2002, a lawyer named Lois Abraham was just your normal concerned citizen. She cared about social justice issues, volunteered when she could, gave money to support her local (Taos, New Mexico) Planned Parenthood, and generally kept abreast of world politics by reading the paper and watching CNN, but she didn't consider herself above average in her activism. That is, until April 26th when she read a New York Times editorial called "Devastated Women." In it, the writer Nicholas Kristof detailed the impact of the United States withholding $34 million in funds promised to health care programs in some of the poorest countries in the world. The article criticized Bush's first action as President, which was to reinstate the "Mexico City Policy," commonly referred to as the "global gag rule." This policy refers to the U.S. government's refusal to release money to any international organizations that perform abortions or even mention abortion as an option, even if no U.S. money is used to pay for them.
Lois was particularly upset by a young girl Kristof reported on who was in obstructed labor for three days as a result of a fistula, an entirely preventable pregnancy-related rupture that can leave a woman permanently incontinent. Lois never thought that random funding battles would feel so urgent to her, but as she told us, "I became very angry about the coercion in the Bush administration." Besides, she thought, $34 million was a "pretty pitiful" contribution by the United States when you consider that it's the same amount pledged by considerably smaller countries such as Norway and Sweden. Unlike the United States, Norway and Sweden actually honored their financial commitment to the UNFPA. According to The Economist, America is consistently the biggest donor to poor countries in absolute terms but one of the stingiest relative to the size of its economy, spending only 0.12 percent of its GDP. Meanwhile, Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands are the most generous, each giving more than 0.8 percent of their economies to developing nations. This isn't so surprising. Most progressives dream of taking refuge in Scandinavia with their year of required family leave for men and women, universal health care, and honest, comprehensive sex education.
Although it looked impossible to lobby a right-wing administration to fork over the $34 million, Lois had a flash of brilliance: What if there were another way to approach this goal? What if 34 million people who were in favor of family planning each gave one dollar?
Inspired, Lois called the UNFPA office in New York and left a message on the general voice mail outlining her plan to make up the $34 million through individual one dollar contributions. "I told them to give me a call if they were interested," says Lois, "but I thought to myself, 'Well, now I'm off the hook, because no one's going to call and answer that message.'" To her surprise, someone at the UNFPA called back within an hour, saying, "We love the idea!" To create the campaign, Lois requested just two things from the UNFPA: that they read and edit the letter she intended to mass circulate on the Internet (which they did by the end of the day), and that they provide a mailing address for the donations (which they did). Then Lois called forty of her friends and colleagues and "got the commitment from them not to hit the delete button when they got the e-mail" and to forward it to everyone in their address books.
In an odd fluke of synchronicity. Jane Roberts, a retired French teacher and tennis coach in California, connected with the U.S. Committee for UNFPA the same day with essentially the same suggestion. 1 By August 2002, the two joined forces to create the 34 Million Friends of UNFPA campaign - the world's most effective chain e-mail. (When we each received the e-mail plea, we procrastinated for two months and then sent in our two dollars. Despite the delay, we can attest that this campaign was compelling, since neither of us had ever responded to a mass e-mail letter before.)
Creating an e-mail campaign that attracts its members through personal relationships is the most effective way of doing an e-mail petition. First of all, friends are more likely to help you. If you can't even get people who know and like you to support your project, 34 million strangers probably won't either. Second, targeted campaigns mean you send the e-mail to people who would be interested in what you are doing - so you wouldn't send this e-mail to your uncle in North Carolina who loves Jesse Helms, but you would to your secretary who escorts at the Planned Parenthood on Saturdays. Finally, receiving an original e-mail from a friend about a campaign that she is spearheading guarantees its legitimacy. 2
Further, Lois and Jane's request in the e-mail was both specific and pro-active: send $1 to UNFPA. The whole action takes less time and money than making a call to a politician's office. Plus, you never really know whether that message you left with the senator's intern had any impact. Three weeks after they began, fifty responses came to UNFPA all at once. By late fall of 2003, the two women had raised $1.5 million - most from one-dollar donations, although a few big hitters, like Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry's, donated $10,000 in one pop.
Lois and Jane's project was a more formalized riff on a surprise success the year before, also protesting Bush's antichoice policies. When Los Angeles Times writer Patt Morrison jokingly opined in her column that people who support abortion rights should make a Presidents' Day contribution to Planned Parenthood in honor of Bush, people forwarded the column all over the country. The next thing Planned Parenthood knew, they had received $500,000 and more than fifteen thousand cards to deliver to the White House in time for Presidents' Day.
Lois and Jane's approach is infinitely more effective than just complaining. For instance, the money raised by 34 Million Friends begins to make up for what the United States isn't paying, and the funds are free from the censorship and restrictions that come with U.S. federal aid. They can even use the money for abortions directly, which flies in the face of all governmental meddling on this issue. The campaign is still a long way from its financial goal, but beyond money, their efforts have kept the issue alive in the media and people's in-boxes. As a result, more people know about the health care struggles of women in developing countries and how manipulative aid from the U.S. government can be. Certainly, it helped prevent some of the 4,700 maternal deaths, serious illness in nearly 60,000 pregnant women, and some of the 2 million unwanted pregnancies - which is what the UNFPA funding was calculated to accomplish. There is one downside to this story: projects like these let the government off the book. If women and feminists raise money (on our gender gap salaries) every time the Bush administration deems our health care too controversial, we are inadvertently propping up a terribly sexist policy.
Lois's evolution from your average citizen to an activist crusader shows how an individual's mundane lifestyle has political reverberations. Lois was just reading the Times when she had her "click." Lois and Jane are now models for feminist fund-raising. This is wonderful but tricky because the force of their idea comes from its uniqueness. If we received an e-mail plea every day asking us to give a dollar to help save the seals or fund a foster child, we'd stop giving and start deleting. This is called burnout. As activists, we can burn out in one of at least three ways: on a strategy, as an overwhelmed individual, and on the "stars." There are days when getting the seven MoveOn.org e-mails is not only uninspiring but irritating, and going to a Meetup is no longer urgent but a chore. The strategy - and its tactics - become stale. Further, unreachable standards of purity cause people to burn out. Sometimes we have to let ourselves off the hook. For instance, just because you were once a vegan or vegetarian in order to have a more holistic life or one that is consistent with your values, doesn't mean that if you decide to eat meat again this all goes out the window. The truth is that all of our lives are complex, and often conflicted. Who absolutely accepts her body, knows where and under what condition his food is grown, knows who stitched his sneakers? And who always recycles? Even the rare person who has successfully disavowed globalist consumer culture and lives in a hemp hut can most likely only afford to do so because of a trust fund.
Movements burn out on the superstars, too. They become overexposed and vulnerable to their own contradictions. On this note, one of the biggest enemies to activism is other activists, as Amy's experiences attest. The most undermining and critical people we have encountered are not right-wing ideologues like Rush Limbaugh or libertarian absolutists like Camille Paglia - it's the super-activists who act like they were imbued with the responsibility to decide who is radical enough. Activism brings its own elitism, clubs, and rules. One demoralizing moment for us was when a women's studies professor at a Wisconsin school stood up at our packed lecture and said, "I'm glad you're out there attracting young women to feminism, I guess, but where are your politics? What sort of message are you sending these already apathetic women?" This, at a lecture organized 100 percent by younger feminists who were staging The Vagina Monologues the next week and orchestrating a Take Back the Night demonstration. Another version of this kind of behavior is when people, usually white, take it upon themselves to point out how important it is to have a feminism that includes Asian, Native American, Latina, and black women and challenge us about what we are doing to ensure that it happens. We used to respond defensively and list our alliances, bring up the fact that Third Wave's entire staff is women of color, and point out the many, many women interviewed in Manifesta and Grassroots who are women of color. Now we don't take the bait - we know that we organize within a diverse community, and that diversity is actually more complex than simply seeing brown faces in a room. From experiences like these over the years we have learned our own valuable lesson and strive to give people who are self-described as activists the benefit of the doubt, rather than assuming that because they don't do things our way, they are against us, ineffectual, or uninformed.
Social justice movements will always produce stars, competition for resources, conflicts, splits, and trashing - but these problems involve a small number of activists. While the media focuses on the super-successful Eve Enslers and the MoveOn.orgs, it's the constant influx of new average people with new ideas attempting to make the world better who are the pillars of activism. Our friend Tara Brindisi has been a great inspiration for being a normal girl who incorporates her activism into everything - her conversations, her wardrobe, and her homework. Tara has two role models: Gloria Steinem and Marilyn Monroe. She speaks in a soft, babyish, Monroe-like voice and wears homemade T-shirts decorated with Steinem's quotes and visage. When we met her she was a sophomore in high school, and her e-mail address was the highly racy seductress69, which she changed to the slightly tamer SeDcTivE66 when others pointed out that the "69" reference might be partly to blame for the overtures she was getting in chat rooms. Now a fiercely feminist junior at NYU, Tara is vice president of her campus chapter of NOW and recently worked part-time in Gloria Steinem's office. Her current e-mail address is lueluestone. We assumed it was a reference to Lucy Stone, the nineteenth-century feminist and inspiration for the movement for women to keep their names after marriage. Actually, Tara told us, it's for Sharon Stone and, "I just like the name LueLue."
Years ago, when Tara was eleven, she was sexually molested by her fifth-grade teacher at Cliffside Park school in New Jersey. At the time, she didn't have a clear understanding that what he did to her was actually wrong - as in illegal - though it certainly felt wrong. As she grew older, she gained the political and feminist vocabulary to describe what had happened to her. Five years after she was molested, then age sixteen, Tara was in an e-mail chat room where the topic was rape. Girl after girl told stories of being molested or assaulted and almost all of the narratives ended with the same sentiment: "But....I'm okay now." Finally, one correspondent typed, "It doesn't matter if you're okay with what happened, how would you feel if your perpetrator did what he did to you to someone else?" Reading that question was enough to prompt Tara to call the police about what had happened to her years earlier. As it turned out, there had been several complaints against this same teacher over the years, but after the girls would graduate to middle school, the administration would let the individual cases fall away. Coincidentally, the year Tara called the cops, one current student of the molester - a ten-year-old girl - finally took her case to the police rather than just to the school. With this case, the teacher pleaded guilty and was forced to leave his New Jersey teaching job, though he did get to keep his pension. Having Tara's complaint on file with the police contributed to the successful case against him.
Beyond personal injustices, Tara manages to follow up on seemingly random things as a part of her daily life - even if it's five years after the fact, she usually manages to bring some justice to a situation. For instance, as a sophomore in college in 2002, she produced her campus's production of The Vagina Monologues. As producer, one of her responsibilities was to put together the evening's brochure. She scoured the Internet to find statistics to include, typing in the search terms "rape" and "violence." Rather than feminist resources such as Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) or even FBI crime statistics, she was led to disgusting Web sites that detailed "how to rape a child" or "how to sexually harass your student." She clicked on one and was inundated with a barrage of porn pop-ups. By the time she was able to close the graphic and offensive windows, she had discovered numerous sites that depicted older men raping boys, including one in Texas that featured a man who was clearly over fifty sodomizing a prepubescent boy. "I guess I was naive," says Tara, "I didn't think there would even be a market for looking at this sort of thing."
There was most definitely a market, but Tara began to question why these blatantly violent sites were so easy to access. A professor encouraged her to call the New York Police Department. When Tara explained the sites to the "Director of Internet Crimes," he researched them and told her that most could not be shut down because they were either sufficiently "artistic" or, more often, they had been created in other countries over which the United States had no jurisdiction. There were, however, three that she was able to eliminate simply by following up on her own belief that child pornography shouldn't invade her computer screen as she researches schoolwork. Tara isn't the first feminist to be upset by the onslaught of porn, but she is possibly unique in that she did something very specific, small, and ultimately effective. Internet pornography ostensibly portraying rape and sexual harassment are common - even rampant - and there is no magical cure to abolish them.3
Tara's victory, though subtle, demonstrated that she had volition and that there was something she could do to help. She didn't create a new group or start a campaign, but she was effective. Lone individuals without affiliations are crucial because they aren't immersed in the politics of foundations. They don't use foundation-speak nor do they tailor their solutions to what is fundable. The danger with a passionate activist like Tara is that she doesn't leave any time when she isn't overscheduled and responsible. She hasn't learned to ever say no, because she fears it's letting down the movement. We encourage people like Tara to look beyond what they can accomplish right now and realize that they have their whole lives to work on this. People who try to cram it into their college years or their twenties become overwhelmed.
YOU'RE WORTH MORE THAN YOUR NET WORTH
During the era of the dot-com millionaire, many of whom were barely old enough to drink, organizations from Safe Horizons to Amnesty International began to reach out to these and other young people as funders. They claimed they wanted to get young people involved, but the avenues were limited to donating money. Using the Natural Resources Defense Council as an example, the "junior committee" brought in a few new donors but the NRDC was disappointed by the lack of interest. When we were asked to assess what was behind this (their assumption was either apathy or stinginess - and as far as the so-called millionaires, no one seems to have taken into account that for many of them their fortunes existed entirely on paper), we suggested that young people recognized that they weren't being invited to change the environment - they were just being asked to write checks. What would have been equally if not more valuable is asking for the commitment of their lifestyle - especially while they are still young enough to change their lives easily. Rather than asking people to show up for an event or give money to a campaign, it would be more useful to have them demonstrate how their own lives can reflect their value system. If they had enough cash to contemplate a $1,000 gift, they could certainly afford to add solar panels to their home or to buy organic, locally grown food. If they had time to attend a black-tie event, they had time to refit the lamps in their house with energy-efficient bulbs. If more people's lifestyle was their activism, it might mean less of a need for social justice organizations and more dependence on our own ability to make significant change.
Unlike the people who pay $250 for the NRDC fundraiser but then drive there in their gas-guzzling SUV, the folk singer Amy Ray has made integrating activism into her every move an art form. She adapted her home and life-style to match her politics. Her primary cause is the environment but she is also devoted to reproductive freedom, gay rights, indigenous movements, and antiwar work. As a celebrity, she gets numerous daily requests to participate in urgent causes. By prioritizing the environment, she is able to pace herself and not become swallowed up in the specter of so many problems that need attention.
Amy's car is a hybrid, which gets forty-five to sixty miles to the gallon in town. Her floors are made from salvaged wood, the paint in her home is nontoxic, and the outside of the house is composed of a highly efficient heat and coolness-preserving stucco-like material. The landscaping consists of plants that are indigenous to the area and she composts on her property. Even the staples of running a household are purchased with political impact in mind. She won't buy GE lightbulbs, for example, because of the 109 superfund sites that they have created and refused to clean. Her paper products and cleaning supplies are made by the green Seventh Generation, Inc. It definitely takes more effort to live this way - and certainly costs more up front- but the act makes one's own home a part of the solution. In that way, she's the best ally an environmental group could ask for. The goal of these organizations is to pressure the government to in turn pressure the auto industry to make fuel- efficient cars, but the same effect is achieved when people like Amy create the demand. This doesn't mean that your checkbook is in no way a reflection of your values. One of the best fund-raising pitches we've heard is by Gloria Steinem. She asks you to imagine that you've just left a fabulous political event when you are hit by a Mack truck. Passersby look through your checkbook registry, trying to find clues about who you are. Would this be an accurate reflection of your values? Most people grimace and think, "No, it would reflect someone who loves J. Crew and pays their electric bill on time."
Activism should be of you, not outside of you. This is a critical message for readers of this book as well as for the representatives of organizations - the ones that are so anxious to get people involved. We can't always be looking to enact change through organizations or even movements - we have to look at ourselves and start with the individual.
We sometimes ponder what it would take to get people protesting and active the way they were in the "radical sixties." We used to think it would have to be some major world event - a war, for instance - something very public that would get us angry and scared and out of our homes. We have gone to the streets, amassed the masses - especially since September 11th - and more and more we see that the last frontier is the individual. Therefore, it's not getting everyone in the United States to protest the war on the same day with the same point of view - it's getting everyone to do something. As Harleen Kaur Singh, a girl who attended our lectures at the University of Maryland, put it in a note she slipped to us, "I enjoyed your lecture and learned that I can do something small and be a feminist. Suggestions for a word for this: collective activism." She defined this as, "If everyone does a little, it adds up to a lot."
We hope by now you realize that you are already a potential activist. In a way, that's the most profound change you have to make: to see yourself as part of a revolutionary history. Then ask yourself a simple, but nonetheless important question: What opportunities for change does your life present?
Excerpted from GRASSROOTS: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright (c) 2005 by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards. All rights reserved.
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Read an excerpt from Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future by Jennifer Baumgardner
and Amy Richards
About the Authors:
Jennifer Baumgardner is a former editor at Ms. and writes for The Nation, Glamour, and National Public Radio. Amy Richards is a member of the advisory board at Ms.; a co-founder of the Third Wave Foundation, an activist group for young feminists; the author of Shopping in New York and author of Feminist.com's online advice column, Ask Amy. They are the co-authors of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future (FSG, 2000; Soapbox, Inc., a speakers' bureau representing outspoken experts with a progressive take on current events and culture.
1. Jane Roberts responded to news of the UNFPA funding cuts by writing a letter to the editor of her local paper, the San Bernardino Sun. In the letter she called on 34 million of her fellow citizens to join her in sending one dollar to the UNFP
2. This is unlike the many forwarded, out-of-date calls to "Stop Dr. Hager's appointment to head the FDA!" (Dr. Hager, who believes prayer is as good a cure for fistula as adequate health care, was appointed to an FDA advisory panel, but he does not head it), or urban legends such as the one that claims that the U.S. Postal Service is discontinuing the Black Heritage series of stamps and destroying the remaining stock. When you get the un-personalized campaign e-mail, it's always wise to check it out at snopes.com before forwarding it.
3. In a similar vein, in 2004 a grandmother named Mary B. Conyers lobbied Congress to enact a law, the Obscene Internet Material Classification Act, requiring porn sites to end with the suffix ".XXX" rather than the innocuous.com, .org., or .net. At present, whitehouse.com is a porn site.