Empowerment at the expense of Activism

Sarah is working this summer at The Sadie Nash Leadership Project, which was founded in 2001 to promote leadership and activism among young women. The program is designed to strengthen, empower, and equip young women as agents for change in their lives and in the world.

My experience with gender socialization growing up in suburbia, CT, centered very much on the idea that I was special. I was smart, beautiful, and I had a good sense of morals – which, according to almost any adult I encountered, made me unique and a step above most of my peers. I think I grew up with the slightly supercilious sense – or at least a sense of forced humility – that I had been handed the perfect package from God, that I was blessed with many gifts and, better yet, I had been groomed to use them for good, not evil. So this made me strikingly different from other youth.

That was the message I received from my parents, my teachers, and my ministers. I was taught that I came from a position of privilege and that I had a duty to help those less fortunate than I. This viewpoint neglected to include any sense of equality, of mutual respect or of reciprocity between the subjects of my benevolent aid and me. It wasn’t until college that I started to question this ideology behind community service.

And that was most definitely the limit to which my work extended: community service. I thought of it only on a localized scale, probably because no one had ever challenged me to look at issues on a systemic level. Not to devalue community service – I still do a fair amount of it and it has certain undeniable benefits to a community – but it neglects to really address the underlying, societal causes. It tries to fix the symptoms rather than cure the illness, if you will. If taken on its own, it is not the kind of activism we need to make real social change. But this wasn’t something I ever considered until I left my safe bubble in the suburbs of Connecticut.

I was also raised with this idea that I was not or could not be a part of a larger movement among other youth to make actual change. I was always taught that I, specifically me, on my own, could do anything I wanted to. I could achieve anything, I was so smart and so talented and so special that nothing would stand in my way. What was missing from the equation was any sense that I needed or could bond together with other people my age to start or contribute to a movement. What ended up happening was a sense of isolation from my peers, as well as a sense of engulfing hopelessness that nothing could ever be changed if it was me against the world.

So I grew up with a vague sense that I was alone in my idealism or in my urgent sense for change. I also lived in a WASPy, wealthy town where talking a lot about societal problems but not doing anything about them was kind of the norm, and I think this contributed to my despair that nothing would or could be done. I wasn’t even sure that other people my age saw the problems in the world that I saw.

Then I got to college. And suddenly my experience was similar to the experiences of other people; in fact, most of my peers were incredibly involved in social movements and were thinking about social justice issues on a level of which I hadn’t even started to consider the existence. It was heartening. My experience at SNLP this summer has similarly led me to realize that I’m not that special (whew! pressure’s off!) and that, in fact, there are more than enough peers for me to work with, to bond with and to collaborate with to promote and further social change.

Underprivileged Privilege

Sarah G. is interning with Sadie Nash Leadership Project this summer.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my personal privilege and how it shapes my perception of the world. As one of two white girls in my office, I’ve been confronted with my race for the first time.

I’ve never really considered being white as a significant part of my identity. That sounds kind of silly, but for most of my life race has been a complete non-issue, so I never spent much time thinking about it. Growing up, this translated to me being very much oblivious to race as a factor in any situation. Because I wasn’t really aware of how my race influenced my life, I was also blind as to how it shaped the experiences of other people. My ignorance has whittled away with the years – especially since I’ve been in college – but it wasn’t until I found myself as the obvious minority that I really began to examine how race shapes who we are and how we interact with other people.

Recently we had a particularly heavy conversation at work in which many of my coworkers – who identify with various racial and ethnic minorities – spoke candidly of their experiences with white people. The overwhelming majority of these were negative. I found myself feeling acutely guilty, and embarrassed – which I realized wasn’t exactly fair – but mostly I wondered how I could work my undeniable privilege to my advantage as I become more involved in the feminist movement.

The truth is, I’m not really sure how I can do that.

Does being white and upper class automatically render me unable to meaningfully contribute to the movement? I hope not, but I think the first thing I need to do is really understand that I do come from a position of enormous privilege, and that though I can’t necessarily relate to certain experiences of other people, it doesn’t mean that I can’t respect those experiences and try to take the resources that are available to me and channel them towards contributing to social change. I’ve been thinking a lot about the excerpts from Manifesta and Grassroots that we read, and the idea that we should use the resources we have access to rather than try to utilize resources we don’t have really resonated with me. As a white college-aged girl, there are certain resources I have – like knowledge of social media and connections to older and wealthier people – and there are certain resources that I don’t have.

Rather than try to be someone I’m not, or feel bad for being who I am, I should recognize the power and privilege that I do have, and go from there. If I can do that, and also respect the power and privilege of others, I think I’ll be on the right track towards productive, active feminism.

Summertime and the livin’s…Busy

Sarah is a rising sophomore interning at the Sadie Nash Leadership
Project in Brooklyn, NY. SNLP strives to empower young women to become active leaders and proponents of change in their communities.

Surely that’s what Gershwin would have written if he had placed Porgy and Bessie at the heart of Greenwich Village. At least, that’s what I think to myself as I hum the tune while standing in line at the Whole Foods on Union Square. It’s 10:30 PM on a Sunday, and it’s packed. So is Walgreens, and the Food Emporium around the corner. Each store is so fiercely illuminated the light spills out onto the sidewalks and seeps through the park, where it mingles with the bright glow of stores down Broadway and along 5th Ave. Squinting my eyes against the piercing glare of a Duane Read, I head back to my dorm and think: who needs street lamps when this around-the-clock frenzy of grocery shopping makes it practically daylight?

It seems this city truly is rarely asleep. This is demonstrated to me again as I hit the sidewalk 6:30 Monday morning, expecting to be one of the few miserable, sleepy souls on the prowl only to realize that every store is already open and has apparently been for quite some time (the smells of the bakery on 14th continue to follow me down the street). If I found this surprising, what was more so was the number of New Yorkers out jogging, walking their dogs, looking generally awake and alert and on their way to do something important. Which is basically how all New Yorkers look, all the time. Having grown up across the way in Connecticut, I, too, am in the habit of walking fast and looking slightly harried while doing so. We all have places to go. Lately, however, it feels like life might be at a faster pace than what I was ready for.

In the past 24 hours I have moved my life into an NYU dorm, gotten hopelessly lost in Manhattan for two hours on a walking tour gone awry, and found my way to Brooklyn (after taking the G train in the wrong direction, of course). I’ve met up with the incredible student cohort of the Moxie Project, which will be my sounding board and grounding force these next two months. And I’ve started my internship with the Sadie Nash Leadership Project, an outstanding organization dedicated to the empowerment of disadvantaged young women from all over the city. (The office at SNLP has blue floors, in case you were wondering. Very trendy.) I’m excited for the next few weeks to unfold, to settle into a routine – this includes efficiently navigating the Subway – and to learn from and work with my supervisors. It can be a lot to adjust to and process at once. Life in the Big Apple is always moving. For now, I’m trying to soak in as much of my surroundings as possible: the buildings, the restaurants, the people. Moxie and SNLP provide a wealth of incredible resources right at my fingertips. The challenge of the next two months will be to take full advantage of what they, and this pulsating, vibrating city, have to offer.