What happened to the ‘act’ in activism?

photoo1This week probed some interesting discussion surrounding the role of social media in constructing a new form of activism for the younger generation. Malcolm Gladwell’s “Small Change” article in the New Yorker articulated the struggle, risk and danger posed for youth 50 years ago in trying to contribute to the civil right’s movement, and he points out the flaws in the modern social media approach for advocacy.

I have been both aware and unnerved by this notion for a while, concerned that I was ‘all talk, no walk’. The idea connects to the differences in information sharing between the generations. Our culture is conditioned to accept nothing less than instant downloading, immediate answers and entirely accessible information now. As students, we are able to be educated far more passively, even lazily. This critique can also be applied to the young people of this generation trying to advocate for change. We turn to social media to spread updates about our cause and…what else? Where is the literal, risky, putting-ourselves-out-there action that must go hand in hand with social reform? Coming into this summer, one of my goals was to ‘take all of my careful reading and passion surrounding issues and mobilize my beliefs to make positive change’. Upon starting my work at Sanctuary however, I can appreciate the extremely slow process of reform and the ‘behind the scenes’ role that some must take while the whole organization works to improve the lives of women. With each tweet that I send, I feel like I am speaking to those in power and causing them to question our currently reliance on patriarchy and controlling others. While an effective tool for educating and uniting the general population, social media can only be taken so far until it is time to go offline and into the field.

Choices

This Saturday, I experienced my first taste of firm, definitive action that fought for my beliefs in the face of protesters. Maya, Grace and I volunteered to escort women and families into Choices for whichever health screening or procedure they needed. “We are for life, they are for death”; “We hate killers”; “Everything and everyone in there is murderous”. Yes, I had to defend (verbally and physically) my pro-choice stance and yes, there were times when I felt scared and exposed on this street corner in a bright white lab coat, definitively entering this ‘war over choice’.

Our first encounter with an outspoken street person occurred around 8 AM—a confused man wanders by us slurring his speech. He asks Maya and I, “why kill the babies? She should just have it. Every baby makes parents happy. My mom wanted to abort me, and I know you probably look at me and say, what a pathetic life, maybe she should have.” I asked him if he had any of these ‘guaranteed happiness’ children. “I have twelve children, all different women. Child support sucks. I have no money” I asked him about women who couldn’t financially support a child, and if their choice was the most responsible decision. I also reinforced—as I did all morning—that us volunteers in lab coats were not on the street advertising that “EVERYONE GET AN ABORTION! PRO-ABORTION;” rather we were simply advocating for a women’s right to choose and assess her own situation. “If they chose to do the sex, they have to have the kid.” What about in the cases of rape? “Well that’s different. Then I don’t know I guess.” He walked away and I was hopeful that our interaction forced him to take pause and rethink the pro/anti-choice argument as without a hard line; the need for case-by-case analysis reinforces the need for choice.

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Though we were told not to engage with the protesters, I intervened in one situation where a harasser, Randall, was ranting to two women—who had never heard of Choices before—about ‘all the murder under the blue awning’. I approached them and used my pamphlet to outline the other necessary medical procedures offered inside, which they were excited about. I informed them of the preventative screenings, referrals and choices for their pregnancy. The woman said she was very against abortion, and I explained the pre-natal wing and all the services provided. Randall switched his tactic—“how can you trust killers to provide safe treatment? They will kill you like they do everyone else! It is all a scam!” I asked him where else these women could go for this treatment. He wouldn’t look at me, continuing with his false threats. The women were very confused by our contradicting claims. As they walked away, the pro-lifers pounced. At the end of the street, three of them (including the pastor) continued to fill their heads with nonsense. I was elated when I heard one of the women cut them off and say: “yes, I also do not like abortions. But I cannot make that decision for every woman, she must choose. And there are so many other services here, I will be back.”

My most enjoyable interaction was with a large man who approached us in disbelief, saying, “You actually need to be out here to protect people from them? What has this world come to? Of course I’m pro-choice—who am I as a man to try and dictate the lives of women. We can’t hold that kind of power. I don’t want to pass judgment on anyone because I don’t want them to judge me. I’m up there in the methadone clinic; everyone leads different lives and needs to make different choices.” So eloquently summarized, I was inspired and encouraged by how this man really gets it.

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