Risky Business

I don’t like drawing attention to myself. Nor do I like doing things that force me to step outside my comfort zone. Throughout my time at Duke, and especially during this past summer in New York, I’ve learned that to grow and to change requires making sometimes uncomfortable decisions when confronted with challenging situations. The Moxie project has given me the chance to think a lot about social change movements both from the past and in the present. Prior to this year, I read and learned about protests and other radical forms of activism that led to triumphs in areas such as civil rights and women’s rights movements. Looking backward makes these strategies seem so obvious and simple, perhaps because I knew the outcome, but they were stories that I felt disconnected from. Making social change seemed to require the presence of a certain kind of person who has a strong, radical personality. Or so I thought.

But, maybe not. It wasn’t until a class period a couple weeks ago that I began to see how being an activist in promoting social change wasn’t such a far reach for me. I read articles on Nikki Craft, a woman who took radical action, including vandalizing photographs that depicted women negatively and destroying copies of Hustler magazines that also depicted women in an oppressive nature. While Craft destroyed private property, she brought attention to an issue she felt needed addressing: how society devalues women. If the intention of the action is to benefit a larger community—in this case women—is it okay to undertake that action, despite illegality? After all it is our society who creates the laws that we abide by, so if a law is discriminating against a portion of the population the law is supposed to protect, why shouldn’t we change it?

Thinking about Craft’s decision in this way rationalized how extralegal tactics may be okay in some circumstances. Raising awareness is an important factor in changing a cultural norm and individuals certainly listen when the legal system is involved. But what role could I play in addressing issues that are important to me? What strategies could I use? I’m certainly not as bold as Nikki Craft. I prefer to do what’s most comfortable. But for an issue that I’m passionate about, how far would I be willing to go to meet my social change goals?

I’ve been thinking more about this question as my class has been thinking about our final project. The project’s aim is to identify an issue on campus in need of address and develop an intervention to raise awareness and/or change the way our campus culture perceives the issue. Not that my class is considering extralegal tactics to address issues, but there is still a certain amount of social risk that remains when challenging the status quo that most people are willing to accept. Am I willing to take actions that may isolate myself from my friends or even anger my peers? Asking people to reform views they have come to accept as the norm is difficult and many may not be willing to do so. Then again, it’s possible that other students are also angered by the same issues that I am. In either case, I feel many social change movements, or at least social change conversations, begin this way: with an idea, passion, and courage to undertake action that may carry heavy legal or social risks. There comes a point when making individual sacrifices are necessary to produce long-term, wide-scale benefits for the community. In these cases, assuming those risks just may be worth it.


Shifting Perspectives and Making Unexpected Connections

On my way to visit a friend on Saturday morning, I noticed a commotion, some sort of large-scale event, happening on Duke’s East Campus. Out of curiosity I chose to drive past the campus and was immediately thrown into an atmosphere full of rainbow flags, elaborately decorated cars, and people dressed in vibrant, colorful outfits. There was an air of lively celebration that I couldn’t help but smile at. I then remembered this was North Carolina’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Festival. At this time last year it was easy for me to take in the scene without thinking too much about why the festival was being held in the first place. But after my experiences this summer, where I began learning about the gay rights movement, I realized this festival and that it was freely happening is evidence of just how far our society has come in terms of gay rights.

In thinking about this parade, I began to compare my reaction to the festival when I first saw it my freshman year to my reaction this past weekend. They couldn’t be more different. Coming into Duke, I had never known anyone from the LGBTQ community. This fact along with the fact that I’m straight made me think the issue of gay rights didn’t pertain to me. As I observed the festival I remember feeling uncomfortable as well as disconnected from everyone there. But three years later, I find myself looking on with happiness and pride. Though I didn’t stop and physically take part, I felt connected to the scene. What was it that changed for me?

I learned a lot about the history of various social movements through the Moxie Project this summer. The readings I did along with the interactions with individuals who are actively working toward social change pieced together a picture of society for me that was much more interconnected than I had realized. While I used to feel that I could only relate to issues involving discrimination against women because I am a woman, it has become clear that I also relate to other populations who also face discrimination. Working together with and supporting other social change agendas that focus on discrimination, whether it be based in racism, sexism, or classism, is a necessary aspect in influencing social change at a policy level.

The fact that a gay pride festival attracts so many supporters and no visible opposition marks a tremendous achievement when considering where the gay rights movement was 40 years ago. In the 1970’s there were instances of police brutality against members of the LGBTQ community and gay rights activists. In 2011 the police are helping block off roads so gay pride festivals can take place. In the 1970’s and 1980’s there were laws against same sex marriage and the right of gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. In 2011 we have seen the passage of a New York law to allow same sex marriage and the repeal of a policy that banned gays from openly serving in the military. At least from my perspective it appears there are major strides being made in terms of gay rights. That legislation is beginning to be passed in favor of gay rights suggests there may be some shift in perspective on the issue. Gay rights opponents used to find more successes in striking down gay rights initiatives based on the idea that homosexuals are a threat to traditional family values and thus the status quo our society had contrived. Now there seem to be more and more successes on the pro gay rights side along with more supporters. Could it be that efforts of the gay rights movement are slowly succeeding in shifting our society’s perspective of what is the status quo?

It’s a complicated question and one that I don’t have the answer too. After all true social change is a long-term process. It takes time to truly make social change because breaking individuals from what is perceived as the norm is uncomfortable. It means taking risks and working with others who share similar goals of achieving equality for all. And that’s a recognition that results in success: that it is not enough to fight only for gaining rights for one population. It is necessary for social change movements to take into account where racism, classism, and sexism may still exist in social change agendas and take the routes that will benefit every population that faces discrimination. All populations who face discrimination should have freedom to live the way he or she wishes.

Maybe that’s why I felt so connected to the festival that day. Whether members of the LGBTQ community have the right to marry, among other things, may never directly impact my life but that this right exists for them has a broader meaning that does affect me. It means that I live in a society that has become accepting of an individual’s right to choose a lifestyle without fear of discrimination. At least it’s getting there, slowly but surely.


From Sit-Ins to Facebook Groups: The Internet and Activism

The other day I logged onto Facebook and was greeted by the red notification flag informing me of an invitation to join a group page. One invitation struck me in particular. Fellow Duke students had created a group with the purpose of expressing dissatisfaction with how well the administration listens to and acts on the voices of its students. There were no specific evidence presented regarding the claims nor was there indication of any planned action to address the issues. The language was persuasive, but what’s going to happen if I agree? What would happen if I don’t? Would I get in trouble or would nothing come of it? It’s just a Facebook group afterall. The beauty of the Internet is that I can express my opinions without fear of getting in trouble, especially when those opinions are part of a larger group’s. What results are really to be gotten by joining a Facebook group?

The Facebook group invitation fit in nicely with the topic of class discussion for the week: social media as a tool for activism. Is the Internet as effective in producing social change as more physical forms of activism such as protests, sit-ins, and rallies? Sure the Internet serves as a way to communicate and send information quickly and thus has the potential to recruit more supporters of a cause. But my response to the Facebook group forces me to consider the negative impact of social media. As a Duke student, I absolutely want the administration to hear and respond to my voice, but will joining a Facebook group solve the problem? I often receive invitations to support various causes on Facebook, but even if I join them, how invested in the issue am I? And how willing am I to take action in addressing that issue?

Not really. True, these networking opportunities are good at raising awareness that issues exist and often recruit a large amount of support that there needs to be something more done to address the issue. But being able to agree with an opinion on the Internet decreases the accountability by which the individual is held to those expressed views. In Malcom Gladwell’s Small Change article, he defines activist tactics that require physical participation such as sit-ins and protests as high-risk activism. Faces are linked with views and, when participating in sometimes illegal acts, there is risk for imprisonment or violence, as was the case in civil rights movements. When expressing views over the Internet, such as in the large Facebook group I was invited to, it’s unlikely all individuals will suffer negative consequences and if there are, it’s much easier to back out of those opinions. If social change takes time, there must be a large number of supporters deeply invested in taking necessary actions to produce that change. Even if I joined that Facebook group, I’m not anymore willing to take action on the issue. At least for me, the Internet is an impersonal medium that, when used to connect individuals to a social change issue, provides only a weak tie to both the issue and other supporters of that issue.

So are individuals who use social media wasting time? Not necessarily. It’s obvious the Internet is a useful way to connect individuals to one another and most people today have become dependent on the Internet. Email and Internet access are available on phones. Newspaper articles are now posted online. I have made getting on the Internet part of my morning routine. In terms of the usefulness of Internet technology in social movement settings, there is a place. The Internet can be used as a tool to raise awareness for issues and connect individuals to the need for social change quickly. The Internet allows for the voices and different perspectives of many to be heard. But the Internet doesn’t accomplish what traditional “high-risk” activist strategies do. Face-to-face communication and collaboration is effective in promoting social change. Just look at advances made in the civil rights movement. The issue now is, as our society adapts and technology advances, how do we use technology to our advantage in social change goals? How do we apply the model of in-person activist strategies to online strategies, and is it possible?

I’m not convinced the strategies we are using now, such as Facebook group invites and blogs, are that effective in producing social change movements alone. Maybe with time, these strategies will be. But the amount of information I receive regarding social causes on the Internet is too overwhelming for me to become deeply involved in any one issue or even know which issues are most pressing. As for now, I think I’ll just leave my response to the group invitation pending.


Mind Games

Emily is a rising senior and worked this summer as a Development Intern at Sanctuary for Families.

I’m a huge fan of brain-teasers. From crossword puzzles to riddles, it fascinates me how the brain can absorb, sort, and organize information in order to make sense of such puzzles. In a psychology class my freshman year, I remember a professor displaying optical illusions on a PowerPoint and asking us what we saw. Someone shouted, “An old woman’s face!” Another person argued, “No, a young woman with her head turned!” They looked like black and white blobs to me. The professor smiled and said they were both right. He then outlined the details of the shapes and how they were connected to in fact form two different pictures, one of an old woman’s face and the other of a young woman with her head turned. Once he showed us how the pieces of the illusion worked together to form a complete object, it was just so obvious, how did I miss it?

Different students saw different images and some saw none at all, but once the whole picture was pointed out to us, we all began to make the connections. As humans we choose to absorb different kinds of information based on what we are paying attention to or based on what we have been taught. Sometimes we don’t see the broader picture unless we allow those who have found the links and pieced together a full picture to show us. I guess I could say my summer is like that optical illusion: one of realizing the connections between people, between ideas, between the struggles many of us face such as racism, classism, and sexism. And these connections allow us to share a common goal in creating a society in which none of us feel the burden of any of these forms of discrimination.

In the beginning of the summer, I had no idea how feminism would fit into the work I was doing at my internship. I was convinced the seminars, readings, and reflections were simply there to add stress to having to adapt to living in a new place—not to mention this new place was the jungle of New York City, it truly is its own world—and having to adjust to keeping up with a near full-time job. I gradually reformed this opinion as I began to realize the concepts I was learning in seminars, those of money, power, and activism, were constant considerations in the work my organization does.

It was one week not too far back that I began reading the articles for my seminar, and it was about the ways in which women in poverty are at a disadvantage to become economically self-sufficient because of policies that are in place. These policies, which focus on job placement in minimum-wage jobs, are often influenced by the stigma associated with women of poverty. This cycle of poverty is perpetuated when public policy makes it difficult for poor women to gain access to higher education in order to find living-wage jobs that will help them achieve economic self-sufficiency.

After reading half the article, my supervisor called me in to discuss my project for the week. He wanted me to write a grant proposal for Sanctuary’s Domestic Violence Workforce Initiative. I read through the project background and a lightbulb went off. The model Sanctuary advocates for is the same that the article advocates for! I jumped out of my chair and ran into my supervisor’s office to show him the article. He was just as excited and asked if I would send him a copy. At that point I realized I’m not reading these articles and discussing topics such as feminism and politics in my seminar as a means to an end. I’m not going to write a research paper, get a grade, and be done with this information. These lessons, these theories, these skills I’m learning in my job and in my seminars and readings are valuable assets to my development personally and professionally.

The way in which I view our society and the way in which I’m going to approach helping others have changed. Discussions concerning feminism, the values, beliefs, and issues surrounding the concept, have helped create a more complete picture of the world in which I live. Though I knew it was right to try to make the world an equal place for everyone, I didn’t understand why. What do I have in common with those who come from different backgrounds, those who differ from myself in race, class, or culture?

The answer is actually a lot. Though I may not look the same as others on the surface, we are connected as human beings, deserving of equal rights and opportunities, who are living in a society that deems some as unequal and undeserving of these rights because they look or think differently. As someone who comes from a place of privilege in terms of my access to resources such as education and connections with others who maintain similar goals, I feel compelled to use the resources I have to work toward making our society not only a more equal place for myself but also for others who face discrimination as well. But it’s also critical for me to keep in mind that my needs may not be the same as those in the community in which I’m helping, and thus the ways in which I approach this fight should be one that reflects the voices and needs of the community, and not necessarily my own.

It’s all about recognizing and being willing to understand that the world looks different to different people. The struggles I face as a white woman may not be exactly the same as the struggles of a black man or of a homosexual couple, but we are united by a common desire for equal rights, for the freedom to make choices. Whether you are the person who sees the old woman’s face, the person who sees the young woman with her head turned, or the person who sees nothing at all, the details you do see are connected to create a broader picture.

The Power of Money

This week we asked students to reflect on the role of money in their own lives, in the organizations in which they have interned, and in the world of non-profits and movement building as a whole. 

Emily is working this summer at Sanctuary for Families, a domestic violence organization in NYC that  provides crisis intervention, emergency and transitional housing, individual and group counseling, job readiness and mentoring programs.
I can’t go a day without thinking about money. Many of the decisions I make on a daily basis are driven by money. Without money I wouldn’t be able to eat, to sleep in a bed, or to attend Duke, among many other things. It’s amazing to me to think that our society has created a culture where something such as money, which at first glance seems meaningless, is valued so highly. Money has become synonymous with power and control. The idea of success, at least to me, has become so intertwined with the possession of money. It’s clear to me that the choices I make surrounding my future career have to take money into account, at least to some extent. Otherwise, how else could I live?

When thinking back on my time growing up, I’ve realized I have been extremely lucky with the lifestyle I am able to lead. I have always lived in a home where my parents could provide me with food every day as well as a loving, supportive environment. I had the privilege of receiving an education and I am now grateful that my parents are continuing my education by funding my college years. I used to take this lifestyle for granted. I had never considered that there are others who aren’t privileged to have the growing environment that I did. This became obvious when I began thinking about social change and the individuals I’m trying to help in my internship this summer. Not everyone has access to resources I have been given, resources otherwise known as money.

I’m sure I have thought about the money as power metaphor before this summer, but our most recent seminar really made me think more deeply about it. To what extent is living in a money-dependent society useful and to what extent is it dangerous. Sure, it provides a system that allows our economy to function efficiently (for the most part), but it also is a limiting factor for me. By that I mean, I’m considering going into a career field such as psychology or social work, which often doesn’t make much money. I want to love what I do, but it’s hard to get rid of that nagging bit about making a living for myself that remains in the back of my mind. I’m sure I would be happy with the work I’m doing, but is it worth compromising having the kind of  lifestyle I have now to go into a field like this?

It’s clear that fields that work toward social change and helping people are needed, but if I have to worry constantly about making enough to eat and having a home, it’s difficult to justify the career choice completely. Perhaps this is why social change is so hard. It takes power and the support of many to create social change. But if money is so closely linked with power in the society we have created, individuals have to have these resources to become involved in a social movement of this scale. When social work is valued less than other more lucrative professions, it makes sense that many individuals would opt to work in a profession that pays more.

I continue to be torn with this issue especially as I approach my senior year. Do I want to pursue a career that I’m passionate about if I have to compromise a comfortable lifestyle? Or do I seek a profession that might reap more monetary benefits in order to take care of things such as my own needs and the needs of my future family, that are important to me? Or am I just completely in the dark about what it takes to live the way I want to? It’s just frustrating and scary, not knowing if I will be able to have both.  I fear it won’t be easy to have both until we change the way our society values work that’s focused on social change such as nonprofits. And that will take money.

Take a Chance, Make a Change

Emily is interning with Sanctuary for Families.

Growing requires changing, whether it’s a lot or little. Changing requires taking risks and stepping outside of your comfort zone. That often involves making tough decisions. As a creature of habit, I’ve never been a huge fan of change. I just find it easier to stick with what you know. But the Moxie Project is not going to allow me to stick with what I know.  Sure, I came in expecting to learn about myself but as I’m sure we have all experienced before, expectations don’t always match results. I never considered learning about myself might result in a conflict between what I used to believe and what I now believe. After 21 years of thinking I know myself, it’s hard to accept I may be changing.

It was the first reflection dinner when it happened. It, being the realization I was heading down a road that is different and unfamiliar from where I had come from. At this dinner we played a game where our supervisor read a statement and we moved to sides of the room which indicated whether we agreed or disagreed with that statement. One statement read, “I consider myself a feminist.” I was one of two out of a group of ten who stood on the “Disagree” side. I began to feel an emotion I wasn’t comfortable with. It was as if everyone was speaking in a foreign language and I was the only one who didn’t understand it.

That sense of isolation followed me home that night and still remains with me. On one hand, I’m glad I can be strong enough to be honest about where I stand in my beliefs. On the other hand, it’s difficult feeling like I don’t quite fit in with the rest of the group.

I began writing in my journal that evening and before I knew it I had 5 pages filled with thoughts, many of them I had no idea I possessed. At that moment, I started to think, could this sense of isolation be just what I needed to push myself to grow? Uncomfortable, yes, but it forced me to navigate through the compartments of my mind where I was letting ideas gather dust. In the past it was easier to just not decide what I thought about controversial issues such as feminism. But I was now being confronted with them, whether I liked it or not. The hardest part was the recognition that what I used to think may not match what I’m beginning to think. Uh-oh. Looks like I need to start making some serious decisions. Sure, I want to grow and I know that requires change, but I was comfortable with who I thought I was. Or am I?

I think this resistance to change lies at the root of the biggest struggles I have here in New York. And feeling like I don’t quite fit in doesn’t help. Not only am I struggling with redefining and solidifying my beliefs, but I also struggle with maintaining relationships with friends and family both here and at home. It’s so easy to get caught up with the discussions, work, and fun events that are happening here that I often find myself shoving relationships back home (and some here) down a few rungs on my priority ladder. But when I do, I can see evidence of how I’m changing. I find myself discussing topics I wouldn’t have wanted to discuss before and thinking in ways I’m not used to thinking. In these moments I have to stop myself and wonder, do I really want to head in the direction I’m going?

Obviously I’m not going to resolve this issue in a blog post. It’s going to take time. And more reflection. And risk-taking. And decision-making. If only you could hear my groaning through the Internet. But it’s a good thing, I think. Learning to take risks and step outside my comfortable bubble is going to push me to become the person I want to be.

I realize it’s likely I may never adopt the exact same beliefs as everyone in my program or as my family and friends. But I want to continue challenging myself to really listen to the many different perspectives of members of this Project, as well as individuals outside this Project, and remain open-minded to the idea that I might decide to reform my beliefs, or not. And either way, it’s okay. It’s okay to disagree. It’s okay to believe what I believe because my experiences may be different from someone else’s.

I guess I should brace myself for a long summer still as I send myself down this bumpy road of balancing my own needs to redefine my identity with my relationships with others that I value so highly. It won’t be easy as it requires more risk-taking and more changing. But I’ll accept the challenge. Looks like I’m making progress already, at least a little.


NYC Pride Rally: Is it Activism or Something Else?

 Emily is a rising senior and is a Development Intern at Sanctuary for Families. Sanctuary for Families is a nonprofit that combats domestic violence and sex trafficking by providing a range of services for victims including legal, clinical, and economic empowerment.   

Ever since I began studying women’s history, feminism, and social movements through this Moxie Project I keep returning to the issue of definitions. By definitions I mean, how to define a concept such as feminism so that I can discuss the issues that pertain to feminism. I struggle with identifying myself as a feminist, I believe, partly because I still don’t have a solidified definition of what feminism is. This is the issue I ran into when I was asked to comment on whether I believed the Pride Rally I attended last Saturday was a form of activism. In beginning to reflect on this question, I realized I wasn’t completely sure how to define activism. What does activism mean? So finding a definition was my first step.

I began by looking up the word in the dictionary. Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines activism as “a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.” I would certainly consider gay and lesbian rights, issues underlying the rally, to be controversial. But the event was organized, structured, and had a supportive and welcoming atmosphere. There were no screaming protestors or instances of outrageous protesting strategies. Instead there were speeches and performances that made it clear that the point of the rally was to raise awareness for the struggles facing the gay and lesbian community.

The rally also aimed to gain more support from any community members, not only those who are part of the gay and lesbian community, in order to work toward eradicating discrimination based on sexual orientation. The speakers detailed accounts of individual discrimination as well as examples of more widespread discrimination such as restrictive laws. Speeches and song performances: do these count as the radical, vigorous action I originally conceived? I would have to say no. Sure, these strategies moved me and were raising awareness for a cause. But is raising awareness for a cause enough to encompass the definition activism?

After thinking about the impact the rally had on me, I find myself considering the definition of activism to be a bit different than what I initially believed. I had never seriously considered the serious struggles facing the gay and lesbian community before as these struggles didn’t seem to pertain to my life. But after hearing Damian Furtch’s story of being beaten and teased for his decision to live as a gay man, I began to see that I too don’t think it’s right that any group of people be subjected to this kind of treatment. I also realized it’s important for everyone, not simply those in the gay and lesbian community, to become aware that this discrimination is wrong and needs to be addressed.

Social movements can only progress and work toward achieving their ultimate goal if there are a large group of supporters actively working to change the way society views certain issues. Perhaps I was under the wrong impression of what activism is. But my definition now includes any strategy that allows individuals to become aware of issues in need of address. So, yes, at least a part of activism is raising awareness.

Despite not being directly affected by the issues brought up at the rally including same-sex marriages and immigration laws, the rally allowed me to see the tough battles that have been fought and will continue to be fought if social change is going to happen. Because my eyes were opened to consider these issues in a new way, the rally serves as an excellent example of activism. Individuals are fighting, albeit more calmly, for acceptance and equal rights and these individuals are allowing me to recognize the importance of supporting the struggle. Maybe there is more to activism than raising awareness in the community, but raising awareness is a necessary first step.

This one rally won’t completely get rid of the discrimination facing the gay and lesbian community, but it did allow me and perhaps others like me, who don’t know much about this struggle, to acquire new perspectives. But this doesn’t mean it can’t be considered activism. Opening others’ eyes to issues in order to acquire more supporters is important. In order to make progress in mass movements toward social change, this initial stage of activism, which includes raising awareness, is key.