This Woman’s Work: Blueprints for Being an Activist

6 thoughts on “This Woman’s Work: Blueprints for Being an Activist”

  1. Becoming a Feminist
    Barbara J. Berg, Ph.D.

    How do we evolve into the people we are? What shapes our thoughts? Motivates us to action? Fixes our moral compass? Many would answer these questions by describing significant people in their lives, books they’ve read, inspiring classes they took, each building on the other. But for me, there was one defining moment responsible for pointing me on the path I have followed my entire professional life.

    It was a cold, wind-swept day in late February. I came home from elementary school to find my mother sitting in her bedroom crying. “I wish it were me, I wish it were me.”

    I was afraid and confused. What my mother told me was terrible. My forty-six year old father had just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. For several weeks I’d been alerted to “something” going on. I’d walked in on gloomy whispering between my parents and muffled evening telephone conversations. In the way of children I assumed that whatever it was would resolve. How could our lives not continue along the same smooth lines? But when my mother described the devastating symptoms of my father’s illness, the naiveté of my earlier hopes fell away. Still, I didn’t understand. Why in the world did she want to be the sick one?

    “Because Daddy would be able to take care of me and the family,” she explained. “I have no job, no income. How will I be able to get him the best treatment? How will I support us?”

    Then she looked at me gravely and said, “You must always be able to work. Do you hear what I’m telling you? Do you hear me?”

    And I did.

    It would be many years before I would learn the word “feminist.” But on that miserable winter afternoon I became one.

    At first it was hard to grasp why my mother was so worried about finding a job. I thought that she was amazing. The child of immigrant parents whose income fluctuated with my grandfather’s factory work, she’d put herself through Barnard College working nights and weekends at Macy’s Department store. I didn’t yet know about the cultural noose around women’s necks¬—the workplace discrimination, ghettoized jobs, and paltry pay strangling us into self-doubt. But I became determined to find out. And as I did I committed myself fully to helping women become independent, autonomous beings.

    Not long ago I participated in a documentary, Miss Representative– an unflinching look at the way the media under and misrepresents women. Whenever I speak about the movie many people in the audience will tell me that watching it changed the way they look at popular culture and how they are influenced by it. In a similar vein, that conversation with my mother became the lens through which I experienced my life and the lives of other women.

    Whether it was working at a coffee shop as a waitress while in college and organizing a strike to protest the gender pay gap, or during the years when I was getting my doctorate in history, finding safe havens for my female students desperate to escape from violence at home, or serving on the Board of the New York Correctional Association fighting for the rights of incarcerated women or the Mount Sinai Hospital Community Board ensuring quality healthcare to underserved women, I have tried to make the betterment of girls and women my focus.

    Whatever activities I’d been involved in, I came quickly to realize that for me, the best way to reach the largest audience was through writing. So along with my teaching women’s history at various universities I’ve written numerous books and articles about the privations and challenges that different groups of women have faced and, sorrowfully, continue to face. I wrote my most recent book, Sexism in America: Alive, Well and Ruining Our Future as a wakeup call, meant to pierce the complacent myth that we are a postfeminist society.
    Throughout our history, the struggles for social justice—for workers, minorities, women, and gays and lesbians—were successful because they were genuine movements made up of outpourings of courageous, committed people determined to make things happen.

    Everyone who believes in gender equality—women and girls, men and boys, whether they call themselves feminists or shun the label—must join together to push for progressive policies that will enhance all of our lives. A truly workable universal healthcare policy, inclusion of women and minorities in medical research and analysis, national standards for affordable childcare and elder care, and equal educational opportunities for our children. We must work to rescind the current limitations on Title IX that constrain girls’ athletic programs, and to eliminate workplace discrimination, sexual harassment, and outmoded institutional structures that still draw from the male wage earner/ female wage earner model. We must put in place paid family leave and paid sick days in every state. And strike out at the gender wage gap and wage penalty women face when they take time off, make flexible and part-time hours more available to all workers, and reinstate the collection of data on women in the labor force with has been deleted from government records.

    We need to ensure the rights of lesbians and bisexual women and bolster programs protecting our servicewomen from sexual assault and enhancing their medical care. And its within out power to urge lawmakers to expand funding for the protection and treatment of HIV/AIDS, strengthen the Violence Against Women Act and increase supports for single mothers.

    We must also try to counteract the extreme misogyny in our popular culture and find ways to engage and empower young women so that they’ll see themselves in a mirror or their own making. And we have to help our daughters to see one another as friends, not adversaries and competitors. We can encourage all our children to become active participants in their own lives. And to remember: the narrative of the next decade is yet to be written.

    I realize that this is a long list. But with apologies to Robert Browning: A woman’s reach should exceed her grasp.

    We all can imagine a fairer more equitable world than the one we are living in.

    Now we have to make it happen.

  2. Tanya, thank you for this inspiring website and encouraging us to write about our activism! Here is my story:

    I wake up in the morning eager to get to work, inspired by the knowledge that there is an endless amount of social justice work to be done. The unending hunger, violence, discrimination, and hatred in this world used to be overwhelming and depressing, but I have learned to focus my efforts on smaller, tangible outcomes. My personal mission statement is to “live the change I want to see in the world for women — particularly poor women and women of color — through radical political actions, student inspiration, mentoring, public education, never by-standing, and loving well.” My activist tools of choice are research, teaching, media work, mentoring, and organization building.

    My activism often takes the form of research and teaching that centers around non-meritorious systems of power – racism, classism, sexism, etc., in the U.S. political context. I co-edited a book, Rethinking Madame President: Are We Ready for a Woman in the White House? (2007) that exposes sexism in presidential elections and notions of leadership more generally. My research also focuses on how women are portrayed in media and the negative effects of being raised in a society where the objectification of women is seen as “normal.” Additionally, I teach a course on Hurricane Katrina that delves into longstanding systems of racism and classism that led many New Orleanians to lose their lives as a result of the human-made disaster of the levees breaching. I make sure that my work extends beyond the university through active blogging (www.carolineheldman.wordpress.org, Ms. Blog, Soc Images blog) and public speaking about systems of power.

    Another tool in my activist chest is media work. I produced and directed the documentary, “Aftermath: New Orleans in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina” (2005), a film that documents the predictable, preventable tragedy of the drowning of New Orleans. More recently, I served as the advisor to “Miss Representation” (2011), a film that aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network that describes how media portrayals of girls/women in popular culture prevent us from being seen as competent professionals and leaders. In addition to film work, I am a commentator on Fox News, Fox Business News, RT-America, MSNBC, and Al Jazeera English. While I don’t get to choose the topics I discuss, I often work in systems of power critiques that align with my personal mission statement.

    Mentoring is another tool I use to promote social justice. Beyond being a professor, I am also a martial arts instructor and a heavy metal singer, pursuits with very few women. I am constantly dismissed by male peers or subordinates in all three of these “masculine” domains, and I make sure to respond in fearless ways to let other women know that intimidation isn’t an option. My goal is not to elevate traditionally masculine activities, but to show that no activity is off limits.

    The last activist tool I use is organization building. I co-founded the New Orleans Women’s Shelter after Katrina to provide a resource-rich, safe space that promotes personal empowerment for needy women and children. This organization is now managed by Dawn Fletcher, an amazing woman who daily inspires the shelter residents to achieve their personal goals.

    I am presently working on two new projects: the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum and the Community Inspiration Center. The purpose of the Living Museum is to remember the rich culture and histories of the Lower Ninth Ward as only 1-in-5 residents in this neighborhood have been able to return. This is a place for local residents to tell their stories. The Community Inspiration Center, managed by my good friend Miss Elizabeth, is a space where community members run free life-affirming programs: support groups, tutoring, AA meetings, resume development, ESL, etc. We are still in the planning and fundraising stages of both projects, but will have them up and running within a year.

    My activism is driven by a (selfish) desire to have meaning in every waking moment of my short life. My activism is an attempt to restore my humanity as someone who inherently upholds unjust social systems.

  3. Let me begin by offering, or I should say adding, my congratulations to Tanya for the work you are doing on your blog. It takes some courage to put one’s thoughts (heart and soul) out for public consumption. I join with you in the hope that your work will provide an avenue for women, especially African American women, to learn of and from each other.

    My belief and style has always been to let my work speak for me, so I have not often taken steps to promote the me side of it. However, I thank you for the opportunity to share and my hope is that the few words I provide will allow someone else to have an “ah-ha” moment of broader visions. Having said that, let me share the following…

    I began my professional career as a special education teacher and wanted to work with those students considered by many to be the underdogs, the most cast out and most difficult. I taught students who were classified as learning disabled, hearing impaired/deaf, visually impaired/blind and multiplied handicapped. To work with the students, it was also imperative that I work with their parents who were often made to feel “less than”….less fortunate than many, less important than other parents and less than welcome. In working with parents it became obvious to me that they needed to be the focus so I conducted workshops for parents in how best to support their children’s learning – things that could be done inexpensively at home, strategies to assist with behavior management, structures at home that would create a consistent learning environment.

    Something in me propelled me to reach more kids, so I moved into educational positions where decisions were made that would effect greater numbers of students and their families. I believed that people at the policy levels needed to be more grounded in the realities of the interface between policy and practice. What looks good on paper may or may not be effective in practice and ultimately when a policy fails, it hurts the most vulnerable – the children. In working in a variety of leadership positions at the New York State Education Department for a number of years, I was able to have an impact on statewide practices related to special education, school improvement and the operation of the Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES). Each of these areas are areas that touch the lives of thousands of students of color, students who are poor and students who often considered unreachable.

    In 1998-99 when the state legislature enacted the charter schools act, I was esctatic. I thought charter schools would be an area where I could have the greatest ability to utilize all of my experience and expertise to directly effect positive changes in the education of thousands of students who had few, if any, advocates and to ensure that they had access to high quality education programs. So from 2001 until I retired in 2010 as the Senior Vice President of the Charter Schools Institute of the State University of New York (SUNY) all of my work was driven by the desire to ensure that every student attending a SUNY-authorized charter school was afforded an education based on research and best practices that resulted in increased student learning.

    Now that I am retired I have had the opportunity to touch charter and traditional schools in some of the larger metropolitan districts, i,.e. Chicago, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, as well as a few charter authorizers, i.e. Ball State and Baltimore, in relation to the quality of practices and programs and student learning.

    There are a myriad of possbilities for continuing to effect positive changes in the field of education, but my focus will always remain on those students who tend to get the short end of the deal. They are not to be undersold for within their ranks are future leaders who are yet unpolished stones. It’s our job to collect, cultivate and produce brilliant contributors to society.

    Charter schools are part of the American education fabric. They are here to stay and offer many opportunities to students and their families. If you want to support them, go to your state’s charter school association, contact local charter schools to see where your help is needed, or go online to identify charter organizations you can support. Go now. Each day counts for kids.

  4. I am loving the fact that you are compelled to share your gifting with the world. Thank you for including me in that. I am awed and humbled.

    First of all, I truly give God all of the credit. This is the line of work and interest that I had no intention of following, but am grateful for. Working to enrich the lives of others is what I was born to do. As a school social worker I see much of the dysfunction that the lives of adults have on children. Students moving from one location to another because they do not get along with parents, students taking anti-psychotic drugs at levels unheard of due to mental illness, students who have no hope and see no use of actually ‘trying’ in school, students so disgruntled with the systems in their lives that they no longer believe in dreams….The possibilities of impossibilities…Students who can not see their worlds beyond where they live.

    As a solution to all of what I see I felt compelled to intervene when the opportunity to merge my loves – youth, leadership, business strategy & having fun – came about. God saw fit to bring this opportunity my way…CEO Kids of Atlanta is a franchise, so to speak, of the CEO Kids of Washington, DC program. It is primarily a summer program where we expose middle schoolers to the world of work, by helping them connect what they are learning in school to what it takes to succeed in professional careers. They learn their strengths and identify their talents to see where they can fit into the world. They are taught through team building exercises to uplift one another and challenge those around them. Lastly, it gives the parents insight into their child’s world and strategies to help them both grow during the middle school transition.

    This past summer we had a ‘backstage’ pass to watch a CNN show from conception to completion, we visited with an actual stuntman who showed us some moves, among many other visits and ended the summer in Washington, DC at the White House. The success (i.e. positive impact) of the summer program caused the parents to ask for more; sooooo…we established an academic year program, CEO Goes to School, where we focus on leadership and personal development. There are challenges…yes, but the joys of seeing kids emerge more confident and hopeful than when they started…priceless !

  5. Tanya, I applaud you for writing such a thought-provoking and empowering article, I am more than honored that you allowed me to share your work with the readers of my magazine. I wouldn’t describe myself as an activist but I can most definitely say that I am an agent of change in the empowerment of women, particularly African-American women. I chose to use my voice through my online inspirational and lifestyle magazine called Bronze, where I serve as Editor-In-Chief. Bronze Magazine celebrates, empowers and inspires women of color by highlighting the works, accomplishments and contributions of individuals in the arts, business, community and entertainment. Bronze Magazine also contains various articles that inspire and inform through beauty, fashion and lifestyle topics.

    There aren’t many media forums that African-American women can turn to to find ourselves represented in a positive light. We are constantly placed into these one-dimensional characterizations that are depicted in negative (even demeaning) ways. This has been very disturbing to me because I know that there are many great women (as well as men) of color who are out in the world taking great strides, making great achievements and important contributions but have very little spotlight and recognition. Bronze Magazine is the platform for those women’s voices.

    My hopes are that one day Bronze Magazine will become an important fabric within the African American community for inspiring change about the overall way that the African American culture/community is viewed as well as how we as African Americans view ourselves and one another.

    If you would like to share your important achievement or contribution for an opportunity to be featured in Bronze Magazine, please do not hesitate to contact me at editor@bronzemagonline.com.

  6. Great piece, Tanya! I was just saying to my female friends the other day that on TV I constantly see women at one another’s throats, fighting, disrespecting one another, and generally showing the very worst sides of themselves. Meanwhile, my friends are nothing but supportive and loving. We encourage one another to be our best selves and to put that kind of energy into the world. My friend Diane just ran the NYC marathon, and we could not have been prouder of her achievement. Her success felt like a victory for us all.

    I don’t know if I would consider myself an activist on the same level as the women you mentioned in this post, but I’m a firm believer that every little bit helps. We can each use whatever talents and time we have in a positive way. For me, that includes writing. I have now had seven children’s books published, which is a dream come true. But what I’m most proud of is the effect the books have had on the readers–most of whom are young girls.

    The Your Life series (Your Life, but Better; Your Life, but Cooler; and Your Life, but Sweeter) are choose-your-adventure stories in which the reader is the main character. But instead of getting to the end of a chapter and just making a random choice, the reader must take a personality quiz to see what she would really do if faced with the situation she just read. In this way, she begins to figure out what kind of person she is: brave or cowardly, a follower or a leader, romantic or practical, jealous or supportive. As in life, not all of the outcomes in the book are good. And the reader soon learns that every choice she makes–who she befriends, how she chooses to treat people, how she reacts to problems–has a consequence. I hope to empower girls to know who they really are and to embrace that; to make their own decisions, and accept responsibility for those choices, instead of just going along with whatever their friends want.

    A few months ago, I received an email from two eleven-year-old girls from NYC. One of them told me that the books had given her the confidence to stand up to some bullies in her school and that she was happy now. I can’t even tell you how good that made me feel. I’m grateful that over the past year or two, I’ve gotten to visit bookstores and libraries, and attend festivals–meeting a lot of young readers in person, many of whom want to be writers themselves. And here I am, a Puerto Rican girl born in the Bronx, who went on to college and achieved her dream of becoming a writer. If I could do it, that means they can too.

    Aside from writing, though, I enjoy volunteering and helping in whatever small way I can. Every year I organize a team to participate in AIDS Walk NY. This year my team raised more than $2,000. I’ve volunteered with NY Cares, helping to clean up schools and parks. I signed up with the Red Cross after 9/11 to feed the rescue workers at Ground Zero. For two years I participated in the Everybody Wins! Power Lunch program, spending one lunch hour a week reading with a child. I’ve donated books to Adele Taylor’s literacy program, and food to City Harvest. My point is that, while none of these things may have been earth shattering, if my actions helped even one person, then I made a difference. And as a woman, I feel it is especially important to show girls that they have power and can use it to effect real change–in their own lives and in the world.

Please share your responses, reactions and ideas in the space provided below. Thanks so much.

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