Being a better activist
problematic people doing problematic things
When I started at Duke four years ago, I planned on spending my time studying foreign policy and participating in groups like American Grand Strategy. While I certainly did those things, I never anticipated that I would become involved with activism against gender violence. It happened a little bit by accident; my time in therapy at the Women’s Center left me frustrated with campus silence when it came to sexual assault. I met some other likeminded survivors and we founded Duke Support, Duke’s first student-run sexual assault survivor support group. Before I knew it, the activist work I was doing took up most of my time.
When thinking about what to write for my final column, I thought about what I wish I could have known when I was just starting my Duke career. I wish I could have known how to be a better activist instead of learning some tough lessons the hard way. I have compiled a list of 15 things I wish someone had told me when I began working on anti-sexual violence activism. I hope those starting to engage with activist projects at Duke will find some use in them.
1. Learn[ing] to pick your battles. This was perhaps the hardest lesson I had to learn in my time at Duke, and I continue to learn it every day. If you’re the kind of person who, like me, finds injustice utterly enraging, it feels impossible to say no to a fight. There was a point in my life when everything seemed like a critical battle, but very quickly I started to lose the war. Activist burnout is real, and fighting on every front is a guaranteed ticket to exhaustion and a whole lot of therapy. I had to take a step back and decide what I really needed to pursue.
2. Protest with a plan. Duke students are good at kicking and screaming. When things are going down, it isn’t that hard to organize a rally of students at the Chapel to scream about the injustice of it all. After Trump’s election, a large number of students came together in protest and solidarity, but anti-Trump movements on campus have been relatively nonexistent since. I understand the allure of making glittery signs and marching in the streets, but protests don’t have a lasting impact without a long-range plan behind them. Come up with a list of goals or milestones in what you are hoping to accomplish. Develop ways of checking in with yourself to make sure you’re meeting those benchmarks. Protesting might be an invaluable part of the plan, but it should never exist alone.
3. Do your research. That idea you think is incredibly brilliant? It might already have been done. There is no need to reinvent the wheel when a perfectly good one already exists. Spend time learning what organizations already exist that do the kind of activism you care about. Find news sources that track the issues most important to you and stay up-to-date on what is happening. Look for gaps in what is already being done and ask yourself what you can do to bridge those gaps. I can’t tell you the number of times I met with someone who would ask me, “Why doesn’t Duke do anything to prevent sexual assault?” Or, “Why doesn’t Duke have any student groups that work on gender violence?” To which I would respond with an eye roll and perhaps a little more condescension than appropriate. While I was glad these people were feeling the outrage, it was frustrating that they spent no time reading up on what was already happening on campus before launching themselves into activist projects. Those who jumped right in often burned out the fastest, or had their projects torn apart by people already in the field. If you care about long-lasting change, do your research first.
4. Don’t reject respectability politics. I can already hear some fellow activists cringing or shouting at me because of this one, but hear me out. I understand the desire to say “screw it” and instead just f**k s**t up. As someone who happens to know an unfortunately large number of rapists at this school, believe me when I say I understand. But I’ve been most effective when working through the system. A lunch meeting with Dr. Moneta or another administrator is far more likely to result in a positive outcome than screaming into a megaphone on the quad. There is a time and place for the outrage, but start with a conversation.
5. But that doesn’t mean you have to be nice.
I’ve been called a b***h, “so very insulting, shrill, and whiny,” an “authoritarian halfwit,” and some other choice words not suitable for publication. Here’s a shocker: standing up for what you believe in means that some people are really not going to like you. Liberation is when you decide you’re okay with that. I built armor around myself: I do not care what others think about me. I care if I make a positive impact on the world. Letting go of others’ expectations made me a better, happier, more fulfilled person.
6. Find your heroes. I painted a three-foot portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and hung it in my bedroom. Her gaze has seen me through cramming for tests, stress-writing papers, planning projects, several mental breakdowns and much more. I’m not saying you need to resort to painting your heroes, but spend time figuring out who inspires you. Learn about their histories and how they became the people you admire. When life becomes overwhelming, these people are a reminder that many have walked the path before you.
7. Activism must always be 3-dimensional. The academic term is “intersectionality,” a term Kimberlé Crenshaw coined when describing “overlapping, multiple levels of social injustice.” Oppression does not look the same for everyone. Violence against women intersects with issues like race, sexuality, disability, and socioeconomic status. It isn’t enough to just focus on one aspect of oppression and ignore how many others interact. I’ve found Audrey Lorde’s words particularly helpful on this point: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different than my own.”
8. Know when to sit down. Allies to a cause are just as important as those who are directly affected by violence or oppression. But with allyship comes a responsibility to elevate the voices of people around you and not take up too much space yourself. As a person who likes to express my opinions, knowing when to stop talking is something that I’ll always struggle with. I have learned to take my cues from others and to start by listening.
9. Love your fellow fighter. Sometimes people we care about and respect make not-so-enlightened comments. If someone followed you around with a microphone, you would probably cringe at some of things that slip out of your mouth too. We all make mistakes and we all are participating in a lifelong process of learning how to make our brand of activism better. When a fellow activist screws up, I vote for compassion rather than condemnation. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ruth Bader Ginsburg each recently made comments that engendered a lot of criticism. One person I am Facebook friends with said she “was done” with RBG over the controversy. When people we respect and care for screw up, responding with compassion and civil disagreement is a better way of getting them back on the wagon than ignoring their previous contributions and leaving them in the dust. I would want the same courtesy extended to me.
10. Civil discourse makes you smarter. Some of my favorite classes I took at Duke were taught by people with whom I share fundamental disagreements. They were often filled with students from the other side of the political spectrum. Those kinds of experiences are critical. If your goal is to change the world, or to change one small piece of it, you need to engage those who disagree with you. Defending your beliefs in an echo chamber is a whole lot easier than defending them in a hostile environment. You need to develop the best arguments to win the hearts and minds of dissenters. You need to figure out what will convince people to join your side. That can only be done if you seek out those who challenge you.
11. Struggle to find empathy, even where it seems impossible. Trump is an anathema to everything I hold dear. He is a racist, a misogynist, a xenophobe and just an all around terribly unqualified person to be governing this country. I struggle to understand why people could have supported him. But I cannot with any level of credibility say that if I were born into a community that went 99% for Trump, I would have voted differently. We are products of our socialization. In our activist work we need to try to understand how people on the other side came to hold the beliefs that they do and recognize how socialization is largely what separates us. We can criticize and question and fight back, but if the end goal is to get everyone on the bandwagon, we need to understand why some people so angrily refuse to jump on.
12. Live what you preach. My work to combat gender violence did not stop at the borders of my personal life. I’ve lost three close friends to sexual assault while at Duke. One assaulted me, one chose his side, and one chose the side of her boyfriend when he assaulted another close friend. I’ve lost numerous other friends or acquaintances when I discovered that either they were rapists, or they remained friends with people who had committed assault. I have told others time and time again, people do not report what happened to them because they fear that no one will care or believe them. When people I had called my friends decided to do the wrong thing, I chose to remove them from my life. It was incredibly hard and painful, but there was no possibility of “staying neutral.” Neutrality is a lie cooked up to serve the side of the oppressor. Taking action in your own life is hard, but you have no right to counsel others if you can’t even start with yourself.
13. Prepare for burnout before it happens. Activism is exhausting. There were times I felt like I couldn’t get out of bed. There were times when the weight of problems in the world felt absolutely crushing. Self-care is a critical part of sustaining any kind of activism. That might mean taking a day off to spend time doing things you love, dedicating time to listening to music or going on walks, or knowing when to say you can’t help on a certain project or you can’t take part in some tough conversations that day. Know yourself and what you are capable of doing. It is okay to say no, it is okay to need therapy (really, everyone should be in therapy), and it is okay to take a break.
14. Embrace the label. For a statement that will surprise no one, I am a feminist. You’ll know this if 1) you’ve ever talked to me, 2) ever read any of my columns, or 3) seen me in my Beyoncé feminist sweatshirt. I’ve never seen feminism as a dirty word, but far too often I’ve met people who are “all for gender equality” but “don’t consider themselves feminists.” Sigh. Embracing the label is part of what normalizes the cause you are fighting for. A world that values women and gender equality would not see a word that represents those things as a problem. Embrace the label. Wear it on a shirt, on a backpack; share it loud and proud with others. There is nothing to be ashamed of.
15. Dream of a better future. One of the most bizarre classes I took at Duke involved primate sexuality. While there were certainly some strange moments, like the suggestion that whales can time travel (no, I’m not joking), the instructor challenged us to believe that a better world was possible. She was right; we cannot make lasting change without a vision of what that changed world looks like. We have to dream about the possibilities of this new world, of the challenges it may face, and how we might be able to make it a reality. A world free of misogyny, racism, homophobia, ableism, classism and any other kind of -ism may never come to pass, but our activist work critically depends on our ability to dream of what this world would look like and how we would inhabit it.
I will spend my life learning how to be a better activist, and by no means have I found the best way to be one. There are so many brands of activism and finding one that fits is a deeply personal decision that takes a long time. I am grateful to the upperclassmen from whom I learned some of these lessons when I was a first-year, and I hope that this list may serve some use for those still at Duke next year and after.
Writing for the Chronicle has been a pleasure.
Dana Raphael is a Trinity '17 graduate. This is her final column.