When I hear a word like activist, my brain hums along. A loose definition forms, gossamer and ghostly, until it eventually takes shape and I am left with something concrete. A name, an example.
Activist: Rosa Parks. Dolores Huerta, Ida Wells, Cecile Richards, Audre Lorde, Tarana Burke. Flip, flip, flip. More names.
Nowhere in that catalog, not even at the very back, not even in the margins, does my own name appear.
So what makes an activist? Is there a set of criteria which must be met, a level of activist activity, akin to one of those strongman hammer do-dads at the town carnival, which must be reached before one can wear the label?
I’m sure I’m not alone in envisioning activism with a capital “A” and an exclamation point. An all-encompassing noun involving sweeping gestures and noble sacrifice. The word conjures ideas of single-minded crusades, 100% dedication, and bold acts.
How many times can you screw in a lightbulb emblazoned with the word ACTIVISM before you think of yourself as an activist?
The day after the US 2016 election I set up an ongoing monthly donation to Planned Parenthood, an organization of great importance to me. If anyone asked me what I wanted for Christmas I pointed them to the Center for Reproductive Rights. I ramped up my funding for political candidates whose ideas and ideals I could get behind.
Still, I didn’t consider myself an activist.
I marched in 2017 during the Women’s March, but also in 1992 in Washington, DC for reproductive rights. In the late 1980s I marched along the streets of NYC in black, high-top Adidas during Take Back the Night. I marched against the Gulf War, with young men I knew, men just tripping into adulthood, whose eyes reflected their fear that a war none of us wanted would reach out its greedy fingers and mark them irrevocably.
Still, I didn’t call myself an activist.
I write and publish essays about feminism. I regularly bore the pants off many men…and women… highlighting gender bias. I endure countless eye rolls as I patiently work my way through the nuances of the wage gap. I introduce new-fangled terms like the Motherhood Penalty. I use my social media platforms to speak out against harmful policies. And I have raged, oh, how I’ve raged, both privately and publicly, each time we take two steps back in this tango of equality.
Yet still, I don’t use the word activist to describe myself.
Perhaps, however, my definition is too narrow. Perhaps…just perhaps…I should be embracing my personal acts of activism. Activism with a lower-case “a” rather than a capital. With a quiet sentence ender rather than an exclamation point.
The everyday activism.
And perhaps…just perhaps…if we all did that, instead of assuming that what we do is too little, too late, or too insignificant, there would be enough excitement to warrant that exclamation point after all.
There are times when you face the mountain and the mountain seems un-scaleable. What is one person, one act, one small thing going to do? When one lone person takes their canvas tote to the supermarket, is it really going to help the Earth? Is it going to make a difference to climate change?
It’s difficult to fit you and your small, canvas tote into the bigger picture.
Is my ten dollars a month going to make a difference to Planned Parenthood? My fifty dollars a year is, after all, merely a drip in the coffers of the ACLU. My body, one of thousands, will not be missed if I don’t march. My voice, one among thousands, will not subtract from the din.
But if we’re all kicking the can down the road to others because we think we can’t make a difference, if we’re putting out a small spark because we’re not comfortable carrying a torch, does that torch, regardless of who is carrying it, ever stand a chance at staying lit?
Imagine if a young Ruby Bridges, walking to school under the protection of federal marshals to desegregate a Louisiana classroom felt one lone girl wasn’t enough. Imagine if Shannon Watts thought one mother crusading to change the way we look at gun laws thought one mother wasn’t enough. Imagine if Dolores Huerta had assumed that one woman alone could not make a dent in the fight for farm workers.
What would we be left with?
There are hundreds of ways to help force change in the places we believe need change. We can donate money or fundraise to help others do so. We can give our time, our talents. We can add our bodies. We can show up. We can call out.
At the end of the day, I am but one voice, a whisper in a sea of noise. But if I add my voice, my whisper to the lone whispers of others, if we all do that, it becomes a scream too loud to ignore. And so I continue. Not because I expect to change the world all by myself, but because if there are a hundred other “me”s out there, a thousand, half a million, think of the possibilities.
We are all activists, intentional or not, when we stand up for change we believe in. When you carry the tote bag, when you call out sexism, when you join a march, when you donate to a cause. They are acts of everyday activism.
Find the cause or causes you are passionate about, find the things you want to change. And fight for them. Fight for them a little, fight for them a lot. Fight for them in ways large and small, but don’t ever think those acts, however everyday they seem, aren’t making a difference.
And don’t let anyone, least of all yourself, tell you differently.
Oh sure, uprisings are almost always the result of powder kegs of inequity and frustration built up over time, but no one can accurately predict the stray match which lights up the night. Who would have predicted a dearth of French cake or a shipload of too-taxed tea would be straws that broke the camel’s back?
Or a Hollywood mogul.
Glance around girls and boys, we are in the midst of a revolution, though it’s not the one promised or predicted. It’s not the one coveted by ethno-nationalists or the one hoped for by far-left socialists.
Don’t be fooled. The cascade of sexual assault allegations which are coming down as thick and fast as Niagara Falls? It is nothing short of a revolution. It is a seismic shift in the conscious thought of a nation, or at least, a good chunk of a nation. To move, seemingly overnight, from dismissing the concerns of women to not only believing them, but holding the men responsible….well, responsible?
That is a tectonic shift of attitude. That is a revolution.
Sexual harassment is nothing new. Women have been coming forward with allegations of contact ranging from inappropriate to rape for decades. They were kind of/sort of/maybe/sometimes believed. Yet even when we, as a society did believe them, the power structure remained intact. Nondisclosure agreements and arbitration, out of court settlements and gag orders, or just garden variety misogynistic I think women make shit up for the hell of it. Maybe there was a slap on the wrist or a reprimand, a closed-door meeting with HR. But more often than not, not only have women’s concerns, allegations, and evidence been largely sidelined, covered up, and ignored, but the men accused have faced zero consequence.
In fact, not only have they never faced any real consequence, they’re often rewarded.
Casey Affleck settled two sexual harassment suits. He was awarded an Oscar. Chris Brown beat the shit out of Rhianna. He sells out concert venues. Roman Polanski raped a 13 y/o girl. He’s the recipient of several lifetime achievement awards. Woody Allen. Mel Gibson. Charlie Sheen. That’s just Hollywood. That’s before we get to publishing, finance, tech, academia.
Like the roving hands of a serial groper, sexual harassment is everywhere. And powerful men who have had their hand in the cookie jar of women’s bodies, psyches, and pockets? They’ve been allowed to slide, chocolate chip crumbs all over their face.
Yet now, suddenly, there are consequences. Real ones. Not just financial settlements, but actual consequences. Powerful men who have abused their power and victimized women are being outed, fired, shunned, dropped.
Fox News’s Roger Ailes was a chink in the damn. Harvey Weinstein blew a whole in it.
And here we are, drenched in the downfall.
Women have long become accustomed to not having their stories believed, to having their motives doubted, their pasts dragged through the public. To suddenly have people believe them is both shocking and confusing. It is a welcome change, a long overdue and needed change, but one which drags with it in its wake a host of questions and uncertainty.
Perhaps there are women who were expecting it. I’ll be honest: I wasn’t. And like those street urchins standing below a tri-colored flag at the end of Les Mis, I don’t quite know what to make of it all.
It’s glorious and affirming, but also scary as hell.
Human beings are complex and flawed. Both men and women. Add the dimensions of sex and power to that and our relationships become even more complex.
And here we are, standing in suddenly abandoned enemy territory, a flag ready to plant. New map lines must be drawn. What is acceptable, what is not? There will be gray areas that are fought over as fiercely as Kashmir. Does a photo depicting a violating act = a violating act itself? Does a forced kiss = grooming a fourteen year old? Is there a hierarchy of shitty male behavior? And more importantly, the realization that we, as women, must turn inward and contemplate our own questionable feelings and shitty behavior.
What we need is time to figure it all out.
In a revolution, time is a luxury you don’t have.
In any major cultural shift, there is a period of panic and disorientation. There are snap judgments and on-the-ground decisions, some of which will turn out to be wrong. When you start dredging the depths, you’ve got to wade through a lot of muck and sludge. You’re going to take a bit of it with you, no matter how hard you try to scrape it off.
Revolutions are a messy business. People are going to get hurt. There will be fallout. Once the dust has settled, a lot of soul-searching will be required. It will take a massive amount of long, hard work to remold the status quo.
And this is where we must be smart. We must take our time and redraw the map of acceptability and accountability. And that requires women to look at their own behavior, their own process, their own complex relationship with sex and power. Because if history has taught us anything, it is this: if you drag out a guillotine and start demanding heads, you run the danger of having that guillotine sharpened and readied for your own.
These are terrifying and exhilarating times. The potential seeds for great change are being laid. All that remains to be seen is which way the wind blows. Away from us, toward that arc of justice…or back in our face, dirt and all.
It’s not often I delve into what it must be like for the catalyst expat. The one whose job brings you to another country, whose carefully negotiated package determines everything from where you live to how many times a year you get to go home. The one upon whose shoulders rests the weight of the world, quite literally at times.
We first packed up and moved with the peacekeeping arm of the United Nations. We bypassed all the shit postings you often have to get your feet mucky in on the UN circuit. We skipped the war zones and zipped past the just-finished war zones. We circumvented the countries without stable governments and landed, pretty softly, in what’s generally considered the cherry on top of the whipped cream atop of the UN peacekeeping cake: Cyprus.
I hated it, at least for the first year. I hated it so vehemently and vociferously that it became a running joke at my husband’s office, where they would often great new staff with a variation of the following:
Welcome to Cyprus, the posting everyone’s trying to get into, expect for X’s wife, Dina, who’s trying to leave.
I was so far up my own ass for those first twelve months it took me a long time to realize how my unhappiness was eating away at my spouse, who had assumed responsibility for my misery. It wasn’t a question of letting him as much as it was simply not being aware that it was going on. Yes, my head was that far up my ass.
There’s plenty of expat guilt I carry with me, but not the guilt, worry, and stress shouldered by the one responsible for pin-balling a family around the globe. My go-to joke is that starting work in a new country means a new office, a new cafeteria, and maybe a new stapler, but that essentially going to work is going to work, no matter where you are. That’s oversimplified, of course. Getting used to working in a new environment can be terribly stressful. Add in a spouse who is unhappy, kids who are crying because they miss their friends and eating unknown cuts of meat every night and well, is it any wonder expats seem to drink as much as they do?
Good friends who moved recently tallied the stress levels involved in picking your family up and repositioning them around the globe. Three months of packing up/leaving/worrying stress on the old end followed by three months of unpacking/settling in/worrying stress on the new one. Six months of feeling unsettled and a lot of the time, unhappy. If you move every two years, that’s a quarter of your life navigating the sea of stress with nothing but a flight home to paddle your way upstream.
That’s a lot of stress. It’s not good for your heart. Or your liver if you self-medicate with wine. Or your marriage.
I’ve joked (and been serious about) the anger some feel toward the working partner, most often as a handy stand-in for companies who like to toss employees around the world like rag dolls. But I’ve never really stopped to think about what it’s like to be the one on the receiving end of that anger or unhappiness and how much it has to affect the quality of their life.
Though we generally (knocking on every piece of wood I can find) don’t have to worry about cutbacks and layoffs as much as some (there’s never any shortage of war or disease), it’s a legitimate and sobering worry for other expats.
Redundancies are uncommon in the international civil service game, but Copenhagen is a hub for the oil industry, which is experiencing major cut-backs and lay-offs and sayonara, we-can’t-afford-you-anymores. We’ve watched families step off the plane get turned back around, a package and a pat on the back, others made redundant just as they were settling in. Some have been here for years, considering it home and suddenly they’re out of a job.
Obviously losing your job sucks whether you’re an expat or not, but the added of stress of losing your job, or potentially losing your job, when you’ve carted your entire family overseas is not something to be sniffed at.
Sometimes it’s the hard-to-shake worry you’ve made the wrong decision. Feeling as if that decision rests squarely on your shoulders, shaken-not-stirred with watching your partner and kids struggle to settle. Those things are HUGE. To absorb responsibility on one set of shoulders is enormous. And usually, unfair.
As much as I like to wax on/wax off about our crappy health insurance or paint the fence with the layers of common sense which are sorely lacking when it comes to expecting families to move around the world in 8 days, the sole responsibility should not be placed at my husband’s feet or on his shoulders, regardless of how broad they may be.
We are partners. In marriage, in parenting, in the topsy-turvy world of living outside our countries. We went into this beautiful mess together and we’ll shoulder the responsibility together. In the nearly eight years we’ve been doing this, I’ve pulled my head out of my ass long enough to see that.
If Atlas shrugs, shaking us from one continent to the next, we’ll shoulder the weight equally.
Let’s be clear. Whenever Donald Trump opens his mouth, I cringe. I recoil at each campaign promise. If there is a spectrum of ideals, I am as far away from Donald Trump as one can be. But at the end of the day I understand his appeal.
I get it.
He doesn’t pander to the left. He doesn’t pander to the right. He’s doesn’t seem beholden to campaign contributors who advise and look on in horror every time he opens his mouth thinking, “You can’t say that!” To the contrary, the more outrageous his rhetoric, the more support he garners.
I get it.
Americans are tired of hearing campaign speak. They’re tired of hearing life-long politicians campaign about issues that don’t affect them directly. They don’t want to hear about foreign policy and over there, they want someone to tell them how they’re going to make their mortgage payment and afford a tank of gas over here. They want answers to their problems. And they want someone to blame for those problems; anyone but themselves.
So let’s blame immigrants, homosexuals or Caitlyn Jenner. Let’s blame Muslims, big business, small business, Planned parenthood or the Democrats. Let’s blame Ted Cruz. Let’s blame Hillary Clinton. Let’s blame ugly women, welfare cheats, or President Obama. Let’s hold everyone else accountable for what is wrong.
Donald Trump has succeeded in finding the perfect scapegoat: Everyone else.
Americans are, understandably and rightfully, frightened. It’s a scary world right now. When planes are getting bombed out of the sky people don’t want to hear We will stand strong. People don’t want to hear, we need to rethink our foreign policy. People want someone to say “I’ll fix it. I’ll make the world a safer place.” Donald Trump found someone–or in this case 1.6 billion someones– to blame, and he’s offered a solution. Ban the whole fucking lot of ’em.
In a country where there are so many who work full-time and still can’t afford health insurance premiums or prescription drugs or a car payment let alone college, people don’t want to hear the only way we’re going to raise money is by raising taxes. They want to hear, “There is a reason you are out of work. There is a reason you can’t afford a nicer car.” That reason, according to Trump, is the worthless, immigrant who is scamming welfare. Trump has offered a solution: Build a wall. That’ll show ’em.
I get it. He’s offering tangible in a world that usually offers waffling abstract.
So maybe, just maybe Donald Trump is the best thing that could happen to America right now. Because maybe, just maybe his popularity will force a dialogue not only between political parties, but Americans themselves. Because right now that rift between those who believe that a wall or a banning an entire religion is going to solve the problems of the United States and those who don’t? It’s getting bigger and bigger with every poll, with every primary, with every day.
The folks out there who want that wall, who are campaigning and donating to get that ban? The ones who are screaming ‘burn the motherfucker” at rallies? Those people aren’t going anywhere. And they are just going to get angrier and more desperate. And that is way more frightening than a Trump presidency.
The American people are far more adaptable to change than the politicians they elect. The majority of Americans identify as pro-choice. The majority believe in marriage equality. More Americans identify as secular than ever before. Yet somehow the country keeps electing politicians who tell us otherwise. Politicians who keep wasting money and time on making sure that transgender teens in South Dakota have to use a specific bathroom or that bakers in Georgia can refuse to bake a cake for a gay marriage or that a woman who requires or wants an abortion, a legal medical procedure, has to jump through fiery hoops to get one. Politicians who keep trying to get ‘back’ to a certain way of life that never was, or if it was, may have been good for some, but certainly not for most.
So maybe, just maybe, Donald Trump is the wake up call the US needs. Maybe his candidacy is the reveille needed to get political asses out of bed, and more importantly, to wake up the rank and file Americans who elect them. Maybe Donald Trump will stir the pot enough that folks will stand up and say, enough of this, we don’t need anymore of this. We are dying. We are killing ourselves with drugs and guns. We are struggling to make ends meet. We are going under while the rich use our bloated corpses as stepping-stones to get even richer. We are looking for a world in which to raise our children in safety. We need real change. What are you going to do for us?
Shit, or get off the pot.
Donald Trump’s gold-plated, blinged out version of change is not the one I would choose. It’s not the one I will vote for. His version of a Great America is not the same as mine. But there is no denying the United Stages is balanced on a tipping point.
As the divide between YOU and ME, THEM and OTHER gets bigger, as the rift gets deeper, the only way to begin to fix things is to offer up a series of solutions that are going to work toward healing a country that is slowly strangling itself. And it’s going to have to be a solution that includes all those who support Donald Trump as well as those who don’t. Otherwise we haven’t learned a thing. We can’t keep blaming everyone else without turning to the mirror and taking a good hard look at what is staring back.
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