The Role of the State

When working for Legal Momentum this summer, I had it drilled into my brain that fostering social change through the implementation of new policies was the chosen method because of the universality of laws and the respect they command. I didn’t ask myself until recently how things like implicit bias—something I also learned about through my internship—created “unintended consequences” based on years upon years of socially ingrained opinions that were often formed as a result of policies—like the Jim Crow Laws.

One of the major critiques against VAWA is the part it plays in a much larger crime bill that unfairly targets racial minorities and places too much emphasis on the role of the state. Despite the fact that moving onto “state terrain” often paves the way for getting more resources and funding, it often ties the influence and direction of bills to “traditional moral values” or the “patriarchal structure of society” promoted by the state. As evidenced in Bumiller’s book In An Abusive State, the battered women’s movement core philosophy was anti-state—“part of the core beliefs of the grassroots movement was that the shelter was both a physical and symbolic boundary between women’s space and the violence of the male world.” Another critique is that VAWA is “a limited remedy that fails to protect women or to discharge the United States’ obligations under international law,” due to its non specific language, lack of funding, and inadequate protection for victims of domestic violence. Because of the aforementioned critiques of VAWA, would it make sense to refocus the direction of the Violence Against Women movement, away from the criminal justice system and towards policies that favor community-based responses and dispute resolution? More importantly, is it even possible for this to happen?

I don’t claim to be an expert on the violence against women movement, I’ve never proposed a policy nor do I even know how to go about making that happen, but I have a grasp on what works and what doesn’t. Economic power is social power. Putting less emphasis on what happens to perpetrators and more emphasis on rebuilding the lives of their victims is what will create empowered women instead of perpetuating the creation of the broken family. People underestimate how powerful communities really are—in advancing movements, pushing activism, but most importantly, in helping their own members. If the Violence Against Women movement is to get past the restrictions of bureaucratic red tape and truly help women, perhaps they should look to the individual communities to foster these principles.

Young, Wild, & Free – My Moxie Experience

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

I admit, I’ve been putting off writing this last blog post for the past week because part of me doesn’t want to come to terms with the summer being over (and the other part of me has had my nose buried in a Kaplan LSAT endurance practice book). Since being home a mere five days, I have already transitioned back to my old summer job and have started a pile in my brother’s old bedroom of things I am taking back to Duke. These past eight weeks were a blur. A stressful, surreal blur. But even then and now, I think my moxie experience was one of the best things to happen to me.

I think about my dorm room in Union Square and realize that I too am now a guest, that I am no longer able to come and go as I please with the effortless swipe of an identification card (and how much this makes me sad). I think about Legal Momentum and my morning commute, how with only one week left I finally figured out where exactly I needed to stand on the subway platform to get in the car that would take me closest to the exit gates at Houston Street (and how it WOULD take me this long to figure out). I think about the nights out with my friends, gallivanting around without a care in the world so long as I had people to laugh with (and how New York City served as the perfect backdrop). All of these little things seemed unimportant at the time, but they all contributed to the person I became during my moxie experience. It sounds a little dramatic, claiming that this program “changed” me, but I believe it did.

Moxie destroyed my sense of apathy with respect to politics and policy (and made me wonder how I could have been so disinterested before). Moxie motivated me to start planning for my career after Duke and start studying for my looming October 1st test date. Moxie gave me the power to stand up to my guy friends who greet me in public by jokingly saying “Whuddup slut” as opposed to using my real name. Moxie exposed me to a lot of injustices I didn’t really notice at Duke, but it also gave me the means to fight these injustices. I refer to Moxie as if it were its own entity, but after this summer I realize she’s been dormant inside of me all along, it just took a few people to wake her up. So I’d like to give a special thanks to my Duke Engage leaders Ada, Erin, and Rachel, as well as my Legal Momentum supervisors Lynn Schafran and Tracy Vris for pulling me out of my slumber.

And thank you to my fellow Moxies.

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.

The Price of Social Change

Whenever I am asked by my parents what I want to do once I leave the booze and sex filled fairytale land that is Duke, and embark on what can only be grudgingly referred to as ‘the real world,’ I give them the same answer they’ve heard for the past five years: “law school.”

But seeing as I take courses more so focused on gender and sexuality as opposed to politics and philosophy, this answer usually doesn’t satisfy them.

“But like, you are going to make money, right?” is often the question that follows. I usually answer defiantly, making respectable fields like “international human rights law” and “gender equity law” sound like taunts, rolling off my tongue with a certain level of acidity that is usually reserved for insulting my worst enemy. My parents are worried that I may be hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt after school with no way of paying it off unless I work in a traditional high-paying field.

And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t at least share some of their sentiments.

From a young age I was always taught to value money. Not for the flashy things it could immediately get me, but rather what it could provide if I saved enough of it. An education. A downpayment on a house. Things that my parents considered luxury items but what most consider items necessary for survival. See, my parents immigrated from Czech Republic in the late 80’s speaking no English, with little to no money in savings, and with a young child in tow from my mother’s first marriage. They are the epitome of the American dream, with my mother getting her nursing degree after cleaning houses for several years, and my father working as an HVAC Mechanic for a large pharmaceuticals company after doing basic janitorial work wherever he could. Because of the importance they placed on saving as much money as they could, they were able to send my brother and me to two extremely expensive private universities. They celebrated smart investment decisions last year by buying a third home. In their eyes, going in to low paying nonprofit work would be the ultimate slap in the face because it would mean that the money they spent on my education would be something of a waste. Every decision in life has a cost-benefit analysis. Even during this unpaid internship, my parents have been asking me to come home on the weekends and lifeguard at my old pool club in order to make some extra cash. 

But truthfully, my parents’ disapproval of going in to the nonprofit sector is not the only thing keeping me from engaging in this kind of work. At what point can you say it isn’t worth it to you anymore? If you really cared about ‘the movement’ then you wouldn’t care about money, right? How can you help others if you are struggling so hard to make it yourself? Many of the people I’ve encountered in the nonprofit sector (including the President of my organization) have held corporate jobs first, making enough for a comfortable safety net and then embarking on their ‘true passions.’ Admittedly, this seems like much more of a viable option for me, as expectations for post-graduation have been piling up on my shoulders like permanent cinderblocks. I don’t consider myself a sellout so much as I consider myself a realist. But perhaps that’s just what I tell myself in order not to feel guilt when I see that others are making it happen.

This is what a feminist looks like

Steff is a rising Senior working at Legal Momentum with the National Judicial Education Program.

“She’s really strange. She’s really loud and opinionated, and messy, and I’m pretty sure she has some sort of weird lesbian infatuation with me! Hah I can’t explain it… It’s weird.” My friend was half laughing, half sketched out as she was telling the story of her roommate this past semester at school. We were in our usual hangout place, in her basement,  lounging on the cozy L shaped couch with a few others. Many a significant occurrence had happened on this couch, from first kisses to first alcohol-induced slumbers, from existential conversations to typical girls’ night bitchfests. Tonight was no exception, as it was the last weekend before I was to depart for my summer in the city and therefore one of the last times I’d be able to attend one of these ritualistic basement rendezvous. In typical fashion, we were having a great time doing really nothing at all.

After struggling with her words for a little bit while describing “weird” aforementioned roommate, another girl offered up what she at the time probably thought was the perfect categorization. “Oh… is she like…a feminist?”

The girls around me laughed, and the conversation continued smoothly.  I looked around in disbelief but said nothing, tuning the rest of them out as I took a second to ponder the weight of my friend’s words. Despite the fact that my silence had probably signaled approval to the rest of the girls, I was definitely confused. Why is labeling oneself as a feminist a bad thing, even amongst other females?

Actress Ellen Page said recently “you know you’re working in a patriarchal society when the word ‘feminist’ has a weird connotation.” A connotation that we hate men, for example. Or a connotation that we demand certain privileges because of our gender. Around my the friends who I grew up with, and even some of those I go to school with now, feminists are seen as extremists, making things complicated for what they like to see as “the natural world order.”

For these reasons, I absolutely consider myself a feminist, but usually only refer to myself as such around like-minded individuals who understand that the term has nothing to do with hatred and everything to do with equality. Am I proud of this fact? Certainly not. But am I afraid of situations becoming hostile just because I promote basic human rights? Definitely. People would argue with me that I should be educating my peers instead of staying silent, but it’s more complicated than that. Ignorance is a choice. I can be disappointed with people because of the choices they make, but they themselves must possess the will to change—something I’m not sure I am able to instill in them.

Labels can be dangerous, especially for those not born at the top of the privilege totem pole. People are immediately stereotyped based on their ethnicity, sexuality, gender, religion, etc. Even after telling my friends about my internship for a women’s legal advocacy foundation this summer, I was met with plenty of questions regarding “my status as a feminist.” When asked point blank, I have no problem admitting it. But I hate the appropriation of the term “admitting” in this situation because I feel as though I’m likening being a feminist to having a dirty secret. But that’s just what I do—I admit my feminist status as opposed to take ownership of my feminist status.

As time goes on, however, I find myself talking the necessary steps towards becoming more involved in the feminist movement of my generation. I have a sticker on my laptop that says “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like”—something I probably would have been hesitant to do as recently as a year ago. I enjoy telling people that I want to go into gender equity law because it shows of my ambition as a smart and capable young woman. I am proud to be a part of the Duke Engage Moxie project because my program peers are involved in all different types of things on campus—but we can unite together here with our shared interest in equal opportunities for all.

Through this program, I’m confident I’ll make the change from “admittedly feminist” to “proactively feminist”—because I possess that will to change.