Ready for battle: community service versus solidarity

During the DukeEngage Academy (the 2-day pre-departure training session for all DukeEngage students), we discussed “community service,” “help,” and “partnership.” This week we asked students to think about “How have your notions of what these words mean shifted if at all?  Has it changed what you will do in the future or how you think about past experiences?”

Stephanie Kershaw has interned at the Ms. Foundation this summer.

“Community service”, “Helping”, “partnership”, “solidarity.” What do these words mean? If there is one thing I have learned for certain this summer it is that language and vocabulary are pivotal in the non-profit sector. The words we choose must be accessible, understandable, and relatable not just for the organizations that use them, but for the communities that they hope to create change in. Ultimately, the terms that are chosen have to be appropriate for the situation; however I do have some immediate reactions to several words that we have been grappling with going into this summer.

“Community service.” Community service never meant anything to me except obligation turned extra-credit. When I lived in Maryland, it was a graduation requirement that I came to detest. There was no sense of urgency or desire to be the change I wanted to see in my community, rather I would often times hunt for the easiest, most convenient means necessary to complete the mandatory 75 hours. I “served” my community by cleaning out stalls at a local rescue horse shelter, tutoring younger students occasionally, and attending “mission trips” for Youth Group (imagine my delight- it was killing two birds with one stone since Youth Group was a gold star that my parents always wanted to see) that never forced me to give up too much time for other things. It became exactly what the word described: “service,” doing work for someone in exchange for something else which in my case was the opportunity to graduate. There was no purpose, no end goal other than the diploma. Later, after we moved and the service requirement no longer loomed over my head, those 75 hours I had accrued became a symbol for colleges that I was a contender. Not only was a good student, but I also participated in a plethora of extra curriculars including community service?? I must really have my priorities straight.

This is not to say that this is what community service is to everyone. I am sure that many people use the term to describe the actions that they take in their lives to better the community. But in my experience, this often involves simple, band-aid actions of fleeting involvement. A task may be completed, but it is very surface level. What actually changes? The reason that the issue or disparity is present is never explored and remedied, and even more than that, there is a strong sense of “helping them”, “for them”. There is no understanding or recognition of a collective fight.

In contrast, this summer has given me a moment of “solidarity”; a strong sense that my struggles are linked to the trials and tribulations of others. At the Ms. Foundation, I would often hear the staff talk about their goal of “bringing the margins in.” The thought is that if we provide access and fight for social change from the margins, inward, then collectively we will fare better. This made logical sense to me, and I felt myself continually nodding along meeting after meeting- “yeah yeah yeah, makes perfect sense. Got it. Ok great.” However, after working on my economic and immigrant justice fact sheets, I would still find myself recounting these facts to friends in horror and saying “this is such an injustice….for them” (them being women in poverty or migrant women). I had no sense “their” struggles were in anyway linked to mine. When I started my reproductive justice fact sheet however, it was like I suddenly had all the pieces of the puzzle. Through that fact sheet, the connection to abortion and rights to make safe, educated decisions about our own bodies, I began to piece together how these were not just “immigrant issues” or “welfare issues” but women’s issues. I can see now that reproductive rights are directly linked to health care, to economy, to education, to class, to location, to legal status, to violence and completely encompassed in this broader scope of power dynamics. It was an “aha” moment of solidarity, and also a moment of real understanding of what it means to be a part of a women’s collective; like an army, we stand together through every skirmish, not just the ones that we feel like fighting.

I am not entirely sure that I have found the right word that resonates with my when talking about the organization and mobilization for social change. As I previously mentioned, different situations call for different vocabulary. Sometimes “collaboration” or “coalition” are an option (words I am learning to navigate), while sometimes “helping” with an understanding of implicit privilege and offering up your resources is best. What is important is that everyone agrees and understand in the language within the situation so that if nothing else, everyone is on the same page.

Lingering Eyes: My New Take On “Partnership” After Duke Engage

Alex Alston has been interning at, a movement to end street harrassment.

At the time I thought the Duke Engage Academy was one of the most redundant environments I have been in since I left public school in eastern North Carolina. I distinctly remember back in early May, as the conversation began to turn toward “help” vs “partnership” and the nuances around community service, much of this was new to many students.  I was certainly surprised, and rather than take the more productive approach of working to see these concepts from a new angle, I was content with mentally ridiculing those who had yet to make a distinction between them at all.    Many of my peers had never considered the negative impacts of community service or even thought about that service in larger global and historical contexts. Looking on as some of them considered for the first time that there were people out there who, in fact, did not want their “help,” was slightly entertaining (in a cynical way) but mostly disheartening.  I did a lot of head shaking during those discussions, “How do people not know this?” I asked myself.  I clearly had a thing or two to learn about introspection.

Fast forward 2 short months, and here I am grappling with much more developed, much more dynamic definitions of “community service” and “partnership.”  My question has now become, “How did I ever think I really understood this?”  This summer has really given me the chance to be an intricate piece (my organization is staffed by 3 people including myself) of a partnership, and to be involved in serving the community.  But I will never again be able to think about those terms without a host of questions like, “What community am I actually serving?”, “Is this a community that wants my services?” , “What am I willing to sacrifice for the success of a partnership?” and perhaps most importantly, “What privileges of my own am I jeopardizing by rallying to the causes of other marginalized groups?” In other words, the concepts of community service and partnerships are now much more complex than they ever were to me.

If the questions that I mentioned above are a little abstract to some or maybe even slightly “meta” to others, allow me to be a bit more concrete.  Before this summer I certainly would not have considered it problematic to let my eyes linger on a passing woman that I thought was attractive, whether that be in the city or at Duke.  Of course, staring is rude, and gawking is creepy, but lingering eyes, especially in the case of a well-dressed or beautiful woman, was not a problem. This would have been the extent of my thought process in May.  But now, having worked as a partner with Hollaback! in the fight against sexual harassment in public space, I’ve really had to call into question that way of thinking.  I’ve been forced to consider whether or not the way I look at any given woman that catches my eye is intimidating or simply unnecessary.  What does it mean that I feel inclined to hand out my approval of a woman, even in a way as subtle as looking at her for a split second longer than I would anyone else?  The point is not the physical act of looking. The point is my mentality, my way of thinking that says, “You should definitely let her know she’s attractive by making eye contact, or fixing your eyes.”  The fact is, validation is not something most people look for from strangers on the train. The warped sense of reality that says it is in a case like this, is undeniably a product of my male privilege.  Now, I’m not asking you to pity me for my terrible dilemma of having to try and not stare at all the beautiful women in New York, but I am saying that working as a partner, rather than just a volunteer or intern, with Hollaback! has pushed me to think about what it means for my own privileges to help others who are fighting for equality, legitimacy, or power.

Ultimately, I think my attitude toward community service and partnerships, particularly regarding social change, will definitely change in the future.  In many ways I have learned that it is important for me to be very aware of what I need to be willing to surrender if my goal is to help someone else achieve something.  Generally speaking, in order for all of us to be on the same plane, many of us need to be brought up, but others need to be brought down.  At the same time, I don’t anticipate this will turn me away from advocating for social change or doing community service. I imagine, rather, that I can march forward, more conscious of the sacrifices that have to be made, the privileges that must ultimately be surrendered, and better equipped to do the work of movement building.

what they need me to be.

Libby has interned for Sanctuary for Families this summer. 

The mission statement of the nonprofit that I intern for, Sanctuary for Families, says: “Sanctuary for Families is dedicated to the safety, healing and self-determination of victims of domestic violence and related forms of gender violence. Through comprehensive services for our clients and their children, and through outreach, education and advocacy, we strive to create a world in which freedom from gender violence is a basic human right.” Sanctuary uses “help” and “partnership” to foster the safety, health, and self-determination of domestic violence victims and related forms of violence. They don’t just help people by giving them housing or helping them get orders of protection from their batters, they want to cultivate a better world with better systems for their clients.

Part of helping effectively and serving effectively includes listening to people- Listening to those in need about who they are and where they have come from, what their state of life is, what they are missing that they need, what they have that they would like to change, what they have done already to try to better their situation, and what they would like others to do to help them. It is so easy to assume you know how you can help someone, but until you have asked these questions, your actions in “helping” them might not actually be helping them at all.

At Sanctuary for Families, the voices of clients have to be heard in order to produce effective outcomes for those clients. Sanctuary has transformed over the 26 years it has been around because Sanctuary leaders were able to understand from the people they were serving and understand that they needed to provide a holistic set of services to accomplish their goal of helping domestic abuse victims.

Feedback from clients constantly helps the staff of Sanctuary know how they are impacting them in the long term. Listening to the voices of those they are trying to help helps Sanctuary know how to attack domestic violence at the root of the problem, working to prevent it from happening and educating law enforcement how to recognize and handle domestic violence situations and also by helping clients build themselves back up to a place where they can have successful, functioning lives again.

My notion of what it means to help someone has been and will continue to be evolving. Coming into this summer, the ideas of community service and partnership were to me part of the umbrella of service. Service is helping but helping does not always mean serving– they are not completely interchangeable.

When I think of community service, I think of volunteering. I think of going to soup kitchens to serve food and wash dishes, picking up trash on highways, keeping the elderly company in nursing homes, visiting patients in the hospital to cheer them up, etc. Growing up, I thought it meant something that people committed to doing because they were nice people and wanted to give back to the community. In my mind there was no deeply linked passion behind helping others achieve something when it came to community services. Volunteering is the same in my mind, but it could also be linked to engaging in a passion to help others in a certain predicament based on personal preference as to what causes one cares about.

Partnership digs even deeper. Partnership means people working together. It is a relationship of give and take and of working together. I think it is so important for helpers to be in a partnership with their “helpees.” A partnership implies communication and with communication comes mutual knowledge of what is and what is not needed. My perception of these terms will definitely influence where I go and what I do in the future. When it comes to service I will be both humble and aware of who I am working with to try to serve them. I will listen to what they really need and I will do all I can to understand where they are coming from, so I can truly be what they need me to be.

Solidarity and the Levels of Interaction within Nonprofits

Steff Niessl is a rising senior and interned at Legal Momentum this summer. 

Throughout this program, it has been a struggle to come to terms with the idea of working for social change professionally. It is a privilege to be able to love what one does I suppose, but being exposed to and attempting to alter all of the negative aspects of what you love can be extremely hard. Similarly, it can also be necessary to come to the realization that it is neither your place nor within your realm of duty to alter specific things. While a certain period of acclimation can be expected while starting any new job, the critical difference in nonprofit work is that one is usually becoming acclimated with injustice and discrimination. Not in the workplace environment itself (hopefully), but rather in our society as a whole. Such is what I took away from working as an intern for the National Judicial Education Program at Legal Momentum for the past eight weeks. Nonprofit work is not an easy way out, but rather the gateway to an entire attitude that one must adopt in order to be able to confront life’s harsher realities each and every day.

One of the major pieces of advice I took away from the Duke Engage Academy back in May was the notion that “helping” a community required a level of mutual respect between the community and the outsiders who are serving it.  For me, I think it was less difficult to strike a balance between myself and “the population we were serving” because I didn’t interact with people who were largely different from myself. A lot of the work I did this summer consisted of research and small writing pieces, mainly for the purpose of educating judicial personnel on specific aspects of sexual assault cases. Indirectly, my work could be potentially helping victims of sexual assault by informing judges, lawyers, and juries of things like “implicit bias” and the predictable behavior of domestic abusers. The emotional toll wasn’t there because I could easily identify with these (mostly) women in terms of basic descriptors such as gender or age, yet through at least a few degrees of separation. I know for a fact that this summer would have been much more difficult for me if I was directly interacting with those who I am “supposed” to be helping. I look back on this aspect of my work with neither regret nor relief, but rather a sense of wonder about how dramatically different my summer could have been. Technically my work aims to benefit all women, so is it applicable to say that I helped myself?

This notion of “different levels of interaction” certainly relates to the larger theme of the vast differences between nonprofit organizations themselves. From grassroot startups to full-fledged foundations, it is hard to grasp entirely the intricacies of the networks that link feminist nonprofits together. Yet these networks exist, underscoring first and foremost that despite differences in background, demographics, and viewpoints on issues, we are to some greater extent working together to combat inequality. This epiphany became the driving force behind how I tackled my Duke Engage summer, and also changed my attitude towards what it takes to actively be participating in the movement. At the same time, I realized that half-heartedly championing for a cause is no way to productively instill change—a person who believes in themselves and the work they do is not always easy to come by, but is nearly necessary in the world of nonprofit work. Working for Legal Momentum this summer made me realize that I should incorporate social justice into my daily life, not just in what I do but more importantly in who I am.

Politics As Usual

This week we asked students to reflect on the role of electoral politics in creating social change.  They were asked to answer the question “Do we need a female President?” in light of Rebecca Traister’s book Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election that Changed Everything For American Women, and to think about the connections between grassroots organizations and electoral politics.  The students also interviewed people at their worksites about the role of politics in their lives and work. 


Libby Hase is interning at Sanctuary for Families this summer.

I have observed that following politicians’ stances on issues is complicated. They have their own personal beliefs. They have the beliefs that they want to portray to the public in order to get votes. And sometimes they vote for certain regulations just because they want to gain favor with other politicians, regardless of beliefs. These observations, along with the fact that college has just kept me honestly very busy, has caused me to stop following politics closely in the last couple of years. I also honestly and even ashamedly admit that once Obama was elected, I lowered my effort in keeping up with politics probably because I felt I didn’t need to. Once the presidential election was over, I didn’t need to pay attention until the next one came around, right?

I say ashamedly because after this summer, I am even more aware how important it is to follow political issues so that people can vote and support what causes are particularly important to them in life.

(And I do not accept the reply that someone does not have a cause that is important to them.)

The struggle to improve the way our government works and to improve the quality of life of Americans is something that is constantly being discussed and voted on. I believe we, as inhabitants of this country and as human beings, have a responsibility to help in this struggle. This might mean voting to keep an existing law or place, or actively calling senators to vote for a new law. As a woman, I want to keep up with politics so that I can continue to have a voice in what happens in this country pertaining to women’s rights (among other things).

With at least three waves of the women’s movement behind us, how many more will it take before women can confidently say they feel like they have equal rights as men do? Women have slowly been gaining more rights in the last century, but there has recently been a battle over keeping funding for reproductive rights and controversy over abortion laws. I think it might just take a woman president to finally push more equality for women through the senate and congress. Having a national role model could be the answer to influencing groups of Americans to jump to action or vote a certain way. I believe in the power of collective action and in individual leaders. When one is not working, sometimes the other one will.

Mrs. President

Lillie is interning at Third Wave Foundation this summer.

Do we need a female president? Does having a female president matter?

These are two questions that I struggled with last week, when we focused on women in government and politics. When I reflect on these issues, a couple of different levels of complexity emerge in my answers. First, let me just say, yes. We do need a female president. At the very least, having a female president would mean bringing a new perspective to the position. Like many people, I think it is very important that our leaders come from diverse backgrounds, and it is clearly impossible to achieve this goal if we only elect men.

However, to me, the obvious next question is, if we need a female president, which woman should it be? Can it be any woman, regardless of her political views? Does she have to be a feminist? These may seem like obvious questions with straightforward answers, but it gets somewhat confusing for me, especially when women like Sarah Palin claim the title “feminist.” I have relatively liberal political views, especially regarding social issues such as a woman’s right to choose, gay marriage, trans health issues and more. So, to use the abortion issue as an example, electing a right wing, anti-choice woman to be president is not appealing to me, even if it means achieving the goal of having a woman in office. I hate to sound judgmental, like I am trying to define how “feminist” other women are, but at the same time, I do not think someone can be anti-choice and a feminist. Thus, I would not support an anti-choice candidate, no matter what their gender is, because having a woman in office is not as important to me as having a president who takes feminist issues seriously and supports the feminist movement.

Thinking about whether having a female national role model matters is an equally tricky issue. On the surface, I think it does matter. As Rebecca Traister writes in her book, Girls Don’t Cry, it was an incredibly significant moment when Sarah Palin immediately turned to pick up her young child on national television after a key debate. While I’m sure this act was partly meant to gain goodwill for Palin, even for a woman who is absolutely not a Palin supporter, Traister writes how that moment was extremely powerful and profound. Having a female president (or better yet, having more women in high profile government positions in general) is essential because it will hopefully broaden Americans’ view of what a powerful person looks like, break down stereotypes about how women lead, and implicitly encourage other young women to view themselves as leaders because having women in power will not be seen as an unusual, unnatural thing.

Even while I see the real effects having a female national role model can have, I still strongly believe that feminism’s goals cannot be achieved only by having feminist women at the top. Rather, change also needs to be come from the common people and the corporate world. Now the question is, how do we make change happen? How can we all bring change to whatever sector or environment we find ourselves in?

A Madame President would advance more than just politics

Avery is a rising sophomore who is interning at Legal Momentum this summer.

I believe we need a female president because I think it is one of the best ways to change perceptions of gender norms. If future generations grow up hearing adults refer to the leader of our country as “she,” this would have a significant impact on what they grow up believing women are capable of. When we learn about our country’s history as kids, and see that it is made up almost entirely of men (in regards to leadership positions in government), this naturally affects how we see what is commonly expected of men, and therefore what isn’t commonly expected of women.

I think that the structure of government, businesses, families, and organizations in general affect our perception of gender more than we realize. We observe so much as kids, and these observations shape our view of the world. The majority of the time, we view white men making laws and minority men being arrested on the news, while we see mostly women doing shopping in the grocery store. No one explicitly tells us that white men typically have more power, minority men and women are typically subjected to poverty and end up in the dangerous neighborhoods, or that women typically cook and run the household. This is just what we see every day, and our minds are trained to categorize and therefore discriminate amongst the information we take in.

While education does a good job of highlighting a lot of the prejudices, it will never rid the mind entirely of discrimination. My supervisor at Legal Momentum, Lynn Schrafran, told us about an article she read about this mental process, and described how most of the time it’s a good thing. It enables us to learn, make connections, and even protect ourselves. But this “survival of the fittest”-type encoding leads to discrimination and stereotypes about the people around us, too. We deal with this a lot at the National Judicial Education Program. The majority of people discriminate everyday, but are not aware they are doing so. We aim to educate judges of these implicit biases, so they can better address them and also avoid making biased decisions in court.

This isn’t the final solution. This work is obviously valuable to our country’s judicial process, but it’s just another way of treating the symptom, rather than curing the disease. If we continue doing this and nothing else, we will forever being doing this work. Every new generation of judges will need to be taught again and again.

If we want permanent and lasting change, we need to stop a lot of these prejudices from forming in the first place. If we get more women into visible leadership roles, more minority men and women out of poverty, and more men helping out in the home, demographics will change, and new generations will begin making very different observations than the ones we made growing up. I can’t think of a leadership role more visible than that of President of the United States. Maybe the Pope, but that I really can’t see happening any time soon.

However, this doesn’t mean I plan on readily supporting any female willing to run for office. I would go so far as to say that if given the option of two poor candidates, I would support the male over the female, just because he is a man. The first female president needs to be great. If she’s not, there will be people out there ignorant enough to blame it on the fact that she is a woman. Even those people who aren’t ignorant will have their opinions of female leadership tainted if the first female president does an awful job. My idea of the perfect female candidate is someone who is confident of herself, articulate about where she stands on issues, but at the same time is compassionate and cooperative- traits commonly assigned to women. We need someone who is more than a woman who can act as a man; we need a woman who isn’t afraid to lead as a woman.

Does the United States Need a Female President?

Sarah Kendrick is a rising junior interning at Legal Momentum for the Equality Works Division, which works to increase the entrance and retention of women in nontraditional careers.

Although a female president will not mark the end of gender discrimination, the first female president will present a giant stepping stone to overcoming gender discrimination. Without a female president, it seems that gender discrimination can only improve at a sluggish pace and thus would take decades more to overcome or, on a more practical note, to make any headway. A consistent flood of women running for president and winning on a frequent basis will condition society to be more comfortable with women in high political positions and thus eventually end, or minimize, gender biases in this field.

Further, the president of the United States is one of the most public figures in the world. A female president will not only defy gender discrimination and biases within the political world, but will adjust the lens that Americans see the entire country with. Consequentially, the position of women across all sectors will improve.

For instance, the media greatly influences the United States’ perceptions and biases. If more women are running the media will be forced to report more on women and will hopefully become more comfortable talking about women in an appropriate manner. This conditioning combined with greater experience covering female candidates will hopefully help to rid the media of biased reporting that promotes gender norms and discrimination.

Additionally, consistent backlash from Americans against the media for discriminatory reporting will help to bring greater attention to gender discrimination in this country and thus shame media to report in an unbiased manner. Without constant biased reporting and discriminatory language flooding the media outlets that pour onto our computer screens, phones, televisions, iPads, and radios, Americans will have one less influential outlet to learn discriminatory language and biases from.

But how do we get more female candidates running for president and thus eventually a female president? I believe that one of the many vehicles is role models. Role models provide a source of encouragement and example for women and girls. In a field where women are highly underrepresented, role models are crucial to persuade and support more girls into running for office. Role models provide women with a safe and understanding ear to confine in with their struggles in a male dominated world. This support will provide women with the courage and strength to continue forward. Lastly, role models serves as an example for all women and girls for they can be or become, thereby influencing their aspirations and goals in life, such as to be the first female president of the United States.

Politics is a crucial way to improve women’s status. While it is a messy and often fraudulent endeavor, it is essential to carry out and enforce many of this nation’s operations and goals. Politics has done both good and bad. For instance, it has ended slavery but also created it. Its immense power for good and the intricate delicacy that makes up politics are most interesting to me. People must efficiently weave in and out of various political ideals in order to use politics as an effective vehicle to achieve social action. This often controversial dance is what allures many to follow, utilize, and loathe politics.

I believe that both the government and grassroots groups are necessary in order to achieve significant social change. Grassroots groups encourage the government to make changes and the government implements and enforces grassroots’ goals so that all people must follow, in order to achieve universal change. For instance, during the civil rights era, if only grassroots activism had been utilized to rid segregation it would have been impossible to persuade every single employer, public location, educator, local government, and anyone else to stop segregation without the enforcement of the government.

Political Literacy

Sunhay is a rising Junior and is interning in Queens, New York at the Women in Need Center, which primarily serves as a shelter for Asian women in crisis.

I want our first female president to be different and better than all our previous presidents. Yes, I have higher standards for female leaders. But it’s because I want everyone to see how great a woman can be as a leader. It’s not okay for women to fail and give reasons for their weaknesses! When in the spotlight, they must shine.

At least that’s what I feel—as though all women are out there to prove something to the public, that they must prove their equal footing with men and squash any inklings of doubt based on their gender.

But my biggest desire would be to see the day when a woman can be a president like it’s no big deal—when mediocre women can stand side by side mediocre men in positions of power. In this manner, it’s important that we have a female president in the imminent future. To make it less special, to make it part of the mainstream consciousness: ‘Yes, women can be presidents. So, what?’

I have issues with the way political campaigns are run based on individual candidates and not their respective political parties. Since when has a single person brought about change all on her own? The advent of technology has also made political campaigns that much more manipulative, deceptive and complicated. National politics have become so complicated for the average person to understand while political campaigns have become dependent on provoking simple mob-like behaviors amongst voters. And I can’t help but think it’s all intentional—to keep the public unaware while letting them feel involved.

National role models in this manner don’t matter to me (they only matter in the sense that they can start the process of normalizing our current notions of the extraordinary).  No one person should carry an entire nation’s future on her shoulders much less get the credit for doing so.

All the above criticisms come from my own experience and exposure to politics. I grew up thinking it was cool to be disengaged. Where anything political was deemed boring, annoying and stuck up. When I got into politics and became unable to ignore certain news items, I found myself still unable to read up on my representatives. On top of all that, my reasons for voting for Obama were because I couldn’t vote for McCain. Even though my friends were crazy for Obama and I went to his inauguration and was moved by his speeches, I didn’t know specific things he stood for. I just knew he was more progressive and inspirational and wanted change (whatever that meant). I wasn’t thinking. I was part of a mob.

I’m reading a lot more about politics and exposing myself to different ways of thinking about governing systems. But it still angers me that I have to read so much to even have the tools to be critical of how I am being governed, to think independently from the masses, to think for myself.

The Blind Leading the Blind

Alex is working this summer at Hollaback.  By collecting women and LGBTQ folks’ stories and pictures in a safe and share-able way with its mobile phone applications, Hollaback! is creating a crowd-sourced initiative to end street harassment.

This week we asked students to reflect on their own “gender socialization” growing up; how did they learn what it meant to be a girl or a boy?  And how did that connect to the ideas they read about in Jessica Taft’s book Rebel Girls: Youth Activism and Social Change Across the Americas.  Taft argues that while many programs focus on girls’ “empowerment,” which she suggests mostly prepares them to fit in to the way the world is today, she supports a focus on girls’ “activism,” which helps them find ways to make a real difference in the world.

One distinct memory I have of my father during my childhood was his constant desire to berate me with what it meant to be a “man.” Usually he was using it to accuse me of not being responsible, or timely, or focused, or honest or anything that he wanted me to be, that, of course, didn’t really have anything to do with being a man.  There are plenty of irresponsible, impolite, dishonest, and simply unpleasant men in the world; it seems most of them have been elected to our federal government but I digress.  “When you become a man, you’ll understand.” If he only knew.

I’ve always thought of socialization around gender to be very implicit, but the fact is, it wasn’t.  It was rarely audibly articulated, but it was, on the other hand, quite explicit.  In my case, much of what I learned about gender roles growing up was a product of my parents’ attempts to bring my siblings and me up in the Christian faith. I can definitely see, now, that implicit in their moral and religious agendas were very defined and limited gender roles.  My mother was never loud, rarely argued with my father or even disagreed, always cooked and cleaned the house, did most of the childcare, and later on dealt with most of our issues surrounding school.  My father on the other hand, always gave his critiques of dinner though he never made any effort to make it himself, ordered my siblings and me around as far as yard and school work, taught us to read and write and play instruments, while always managing to keep us fearfully obedient with his booming voice among other things.  All in all, I might as well had been sent to a deep south “gender school.” The interactions between my parents, much more so than anything they ever said to me, were responsible for socialization around gender.

As it pertains to the empowerement vs activism debate, the ideas I got about what a woman should be from my parents were strictly limited to the empowerment model.  A woman should be confident, articulate, intelligent, and so on.  If, for some reason, she could not succeed at something in life, it was because she was not doing something right.  Activism, on the other hand, was beyond the scope of proper for a woman.  After all, if there were no institutional inequalities, then there was no cause to be an activist about.  I’m still curious to this day if either of my parents is even aware of the advantages/disadvantages their respective genders have faced them with in life.  And considering that fact, I can’t really blame them for giving me a dynamic view of gender roles in society that they didn’t even have themselves.

By the grace of God, (oh the irony) and perhaps because of my natural hostility to authority, I never really took well to a lot of the things my parents told me, including the way my father and my mother proceeded to socialize me around gender.  In some ways, where I am today is because much of it has backfired. This story probably sums it up well; on one occasion I recall my father discussing with me how Adam and Eve were once only Adam, neither male nor female having the control over the other.  “In a perfect world man was not over woman,” he earnestly explained, “they were equals.”  But of course we all know what happened when Eve ate the forbidden fruit, and quite predictably, my dad never seemed too upset about that.