Open Letter to the University of Cincinnati

As submitted to our campus newspaper, the Newsrecord on September 15, 2015

After serving for twelve years in the University of Cincinnati’s Women’s Center, I recently resigned as the Interim Director. I write this open letter to our campus community in hopes of inspiring community dialogue regarding the role of identity-based programming in general and survivor advocacy services, more specifically.

When I came to the Women’s Center (WC) in 2003, its then twenty-five year old legacy was well established. Early on, I was moved by stories of the leadership and advocacy of those practitioners before me.  I soon learned why: students seek out the WC and other identity-based centers as they explore and make meaning of their multiple identities and lived experiences. Our space provides opportunity to consider who we are, who we want to be, and build community together as we grow into our whole selves. The Women’s Center holds a powerful place in the hearts and lives of those we serve.

For a decade, I served as the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator and had the true privilege of sharing in some of the darkest, most intimate moments of our students’ lives.  I witnessed the transformation of countless victims of sexual and gender-based violence to survivors, empowered with community and the passion and knowledge to create change. Advocating alongside survivors in the attempt to navigate complex systems provided the WC with keen understanding of how to improve relevant campus policies and procedures. Together with survivors, the WC effectively advocated for institutional change. The WC has made this campus better. The WC has made this campus safer.

I, like many of my colleagues in this field, was overjoyed and hopeful in April, 2011, when the Dear Colleague Letter was released. After all, we had been giving voice to the issues outlined in this federal guidance for years. This moment provided a critical opportunity for our institution to clarify our values and vision related to sexual and gender-based violence. Unfortunately, it seems our subsequent actions have been largely informed by a fear of compliance, rather than in the spirit of the law.

Together with survivors, the WC continues to center the pressing concerns of how to effectively end the violence at its root and how best to support victims of the violence. For example, immediately after our advocacy services were re-designated with a “limited confidentiality” provision last July, we set out to repair and rebuild the Reclaim program aligned with its historical purpose as a peer-advocacy, rape crisis program. Then, to support the hiring of the first-time, solely designated Title IX Coordinator, the WC led strategic projects to further build capacity and enhance the coordination of response efforts. Partnering with our statewide coalition, Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence (OAESV), we implemented an evidence-based community readiness project to lay the groundwork for effective, comprehensive prevention programming. We directed an external program review to help determine the future of survivor advocacy programming. Based on these findings and through extensive vetting of the position, we hired a full-time Sexual Assault Survivor Advocate who just started June 1.

On this campus and beyond, the WC has provided enduring leadership regarding campus sexual assault. Last November, Lynn Rosenthal, then-White House advisor on Violence Against Women, visited our campus in acknowledgement of the contributions the staff and Reclaim peer advocates made to the National Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and the Not Alone report. In partnership with local agencies such as Women Helping Women and OAESV, the WC has served on local, regional, statewide, and national levels to improve campus response efforts. Moreover, WC student advocates provide leadership to these issues as well, presenting at local, state, and national conferences. Just this past May, a Reclaim advocate coordinated a regional symposium, hosted by the Women’s Center, on Campus Response to Sexual and Gender-based Violence as a way to engage in dialogue around the evolving role that campus-based women’s centers play in this work.  A graduate student in Reclaim revamped the peer advocate training binder and this summer, another Reclaim advocate successfully proposed the creation of a co-op placement based on recommendations from the program review to develop prevention programming aimed at critical masculinities. Students grow as effective leaders and engaged citizens as a result of their involvement in the WC.

Given this history and the WC’s strategic efforts to support our campus Title IX response, I offer the following questions for collective consideration:

  • How might this moment provide an opportunity for reflection and assessment of the Title IX response, guided by questions such as “what has been and continues to be the experience of students victimized on our campus?”
  • How might the WC be better positioned as leaders and experts in Title IX efforts, including as key decision-makers?
  • How will campus-based survivor advocacy services be strengthened and resourced? To answer this, it must be first asked: Why was the WC survivor advocate program, RECLAIM, once again destabilized when it is the most established and arguably strongest link in our institutional response system?
  • How might the persistent questioning of “where should survivor advocacy live?” be answered clearly, strategically, and thoughtfully to ensure: 1) survivor support services are effective and accessible and 2) the WC is able to grow and support its other gender-based initiatives?
  • How might UC’s Title IX response efforts change to include: transparent and strategic decision-making, coordination of response, clear communication, and strong accountability?
  • How might the mission of the Women’s Center be more fully supported so that the Center is empowered to effectively meet the needs of students?

The Women’s Center, like all campus-based identity-based centers, plays a crucial role in creating an inclusive campus community. Students from underrepresented groups find a home, a safe haven, in these centers and all students have a place in them to learn, grow, and think more critically about the world. I have had the honor to witness first-hand the impact of this sort of space in students’ growth and development. They come to us seeking their voice, in search of themselves, and ready to join us in our change efforts. When these centers are under-resourced and destabilized, so too are our students’ safe spaces, educational experiences, and lives. I hope that we can learn from our experiences, listen to our students, and with support from strengthened identity-based centers, empower our students to lead the way in working to create a more inclusive, safe campus community.

Sincerely,

Amy J. Howton

UC Women’s Center 2003-2015

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Notes from the Mainstream

I pretty much hate mainstream feminism. Critiques of mainstream feminisms and the movement’s pervasive reinforcement of the status quo really get me fired up. And I mean fired up–head bobbing, fist pumping, mumbling Amen and all. Here’s the problem: I’m about as mainstream as it gets.   I’m white, married, middle-class, working as a professional feminist in a campus-based women’s center, I might as well get “mainstream” tattooed on my forehead.

Of course, the privilege that accompanies this mainstream status is nuanced in how I actually experience it. As I join with colleagues and students to advocate for gender and social justice in and beyond our institution, our work often times feels marginalized, dismissed, devalued. It doesn’t really feel like my work is mainstream. At all. Rather, it mostly feels that I’m working very much against the grain. Heck, most days, I feel downright radical. Sad perhaps, but true.

Nonetheless, privilege is there. It is always there.   That’s how it works—usually we aren’t aware of it. Our privilege drapes us in that unknowing bliss.

I have never come up against my privilege as a mainstream, professional feminist as I have this year. As I’ve struggled to navigate politically charged waters—with much at stake in terms of our work—I’ve come dangerously close to failing to recognize my own power and privilege. At times, I attributed my feelings of sadness, frustration, anger to being disempowered when all along, my feelings reflected a truth I could hardly face: not only was I being played by the Man, I was the Man. I can honestly recall actual moments when I grappled with this hard truth, for it was much more comfortable to feel powerless than to own my power. I’m guessing I’m not alone in this; that within mainstream feminism, there is a shared jarring effect when faced with the reality that despite all good intentions, our unwavering efforts to fight the good fight, we are in many ways reproducing oppressive power structures.   This is true for other social movements, as well.  It’s all too easy to reproduce the very thing we’re working against.

For many of us who work on college campuses to both serve the institution and to also work to create change within it, this “revelation” is anything but. We are all too aware that we are working for the institution, that at the end of the day, the institution pays our bills. We are the institution. Nevertheless, I find that I still need reminders. When my feelings of marginalization and silencing make me feel “outside” the institution, I know it’s time to check myself.

Six years ago, I attended a National Women’s Studies Association conference session facilitated by Xenia Markowitt, then Director of the Center of Women and Gender at Dartmouth University. The session focused on the role of campus-based women’s centers in creating change. At the time, I was trying to make sense of my role, and the role of our organization in student activism on our campus calling for a new, stand-alone LGBTQ Center.   I was not alone in my need to make sense of our work.  The room was packed with administrators thirsty for the opportunity to reflect on our work and the tensions inherent in it. Markowitt went on to turn her session topic into an article for the Chronicle of Education entitled Is It My Job to Teach the Revolution? (Oct. 2009). The piece opens with her poignant questioning, “Will this be the day I start the revolution? Or will I be called upon again to stop it?”   I’ve returned to this piece so many times during my work as a professional feminist and what I’ve come to understand is the importance of the questioning. The questioning creates space for us to be conscious of our roles and therefore, much more effective in our multi-faceted strategies to simultaneously start and stop the revolution (or, as I like to think of it, inspire and reframe).

Because of the nature of campus-based women’s centers’ work, we are particularly called to engage in the ongoing practice of reflexivity and role-clarification. Markowitt’s NWSA session was packed for a reason. Born out of the feminist movement, with common missions to create gender equity and address institutional barriers, there is an inherent tension in our work. This is true for identity centers in general. Lori Patton (2011) writes, “I suggest that identity centers can enhance their (institutional) mission by serving as spaces to disrupt privilege and address identity intersectionality.” She goes on to discuss “the contentious position of identity centers” as both symbols of commitment to diversity and scapegoats during institutional crises.” (p255). Our centers exist in the mainstream to change the tide in diversity and inclusion efforts at our institutions.  It can be tough.

Much of the time, I feel empowered in my feminism to make change, effective in my work. Other times, I feel co-opted and tokenized. Sometimes, I feel actively complicit in neo-liberal, capitalistic, patriarchal systems that oppress and silence.  The heart-wrenching part is realizing that most of the times—whether I recognize it or not—I am acting as all of these things simultaneously. It’s the act of remaining aware, or what Freire terms practicing “critical consciousness” that creates opportunity for transformation. I’ve been thinking a lot how to foster critical consciousness for individuals (me!), organizations (women’s centers) and communities. Mostly, I’m reassured not by the answers I find but in knowing that it is the wondering that matters.

Continuously contemplating my role and mainstream positionality allows me to see myself as both insider and outsider to the institution as I work to create change. This recognition resists the binary frameworks that drive oppression and therefore begins to undo oppressive forces. So, the best way to work against all I hate about mainstream feminism is to see, name, and embrace my own. Doing so, I believe, is a revolutionary act.

 

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom” –Anais Nin

By: Arthur King

The above quote has been a part of me for as long as I can remember. There are many moments in my life when my thoughts drift to Nin’s words and I wonder when my own need to blossom will become too painful. I am afraid that I will slowly fade away without reaching my potential, without the world knowing who I am. It has taken me years to open up about being a transman. In fact I am not completely out about this very fact. I live in a compromise of genderqueer with my name as only an initial. A remnant of who I was born to be and the signifying letter of who I am.

I feel awkward in my own skin, my name, and in most of my relationships. When I was 18 I admitted to myself that my gender identity was not congruent with my anatomical sex. I had come out to myself as a lesbian at the very young age of 12 and finally to the rest of my friends and family at 16. This coming out process did not go as well as I had hoped with some of those closest to me either turning their backs or being taken away from me. So, when I finally came to the truth of my gender, I could not go through this journey at the time. I could not risk losing the ground that I had made up over those difficult two years. In my mind, I could suppress it by being more feminine and immersing myself in the rich lesbian culture of the ’90’s.

My closest friends were very supportive but my partner at the time was extremely transphobic and all dialogue was quickly shut down surrounding the topic. I buried my feelings for three years and began to explore my attraction to men which was even more confusing than growing up queer and dealing with my gender identity. There was point in my life when I realized that my attraction to men was actually my desire to have that body. I hated my own body from the moment I hit puberty. I wanted that flat chest, those muscles, the facial hair, and yes even the penis.

I rarely hear my own name or see MYSELF in a mirror. I find comfort in the few friends and family that actually see me but I still wonder if I will ever bloom. There are days that I feel myself withering away and this creates sheer panic. Intellectually, I rationalize my place in the world because gender is socially constructed and so it should it really matter but it does, every day that I never see myself reflected back at me. It matters even though I teach others that gender is fluid and policed. It matters even though I pray every night that it won’t in the morning.

Bad Writer/Good Writer

by Kim Fulbright  @kimfullofbright

 

Parenting has made me a good writer. Not really, but I’m working on it. I have some kind of writing anxiety.  Not so much the getting-something-down-on-a-blank page variety but the kind that begins when I assume anyone might read the product, even me. When I journal I can’t look back at other entries I’ve written because it makes my palms sweat and I start nervously humming. It’s one of the most vulnerable things I can do.

I’ve never liked my writing. It’s been a theme throughout my life since at least high school. I remember when I applied for the yearbook staff I was supposed to submit a sample of my writing and I ended up writing something new. It was about how I’ve never written something I’m proud of- blah, what a boring theme. I have felt this sentiment throughout my life. What a disempowering script that runs through my head.

The feedback we hold onto usually continues to confirm what we already believe is true. My Master’s thesis got called “pedestrian” by the department head (as well as my thesis chair) to other students after I had graduated. This particular memory always pops up when I begin to feel small or vulnerable with my writing, in any form. I’ve been told over and over that I don’t write academic enough for academics. I know I have issues with grammar. I write like I talk. I never quite know where to put commas, so I guess. I know none of these issues are new or isolated to me.  I have trouble writing because I end up assuming it’s not good anyway, so why put too much of myself into it. The problem is there absolutely is importance in being able to write and communicate ideas to others clearly, especially in the workplace. I’ve used my writing anxiety as a shield for a long time and have missed out on opportunities because of it.

No other process works the same as writing when trying to organize thoughts, feelings and ideas. I have convinced myself that I don’t like writing but I’ve recently admitted that it’s not that I don’t like writing it’s that I don’t like feeling bad about myself and writing is an area that makes me feel bad and insecure. And when we feel insecure we feel judged. Big surprise, being in the educational system is all about being judged. I’m someone who got by with good grades but they meant very little when the voices in my head told me each time it wasn’t because of the writing it was because they probably didn’t read it, or other students did worse, or it was an easy assignment. Here and there I would have teachers worried about my passive voice or sentence fragments but it was easy to dismiss because obviously I knew I wasn’t a good writer.

I can’t stop trying to write because something keeps pushing me to try. I always write when I have a lot on my mind or I’m trying to inform out my position on an idea. I interpret this as evidence that writing is useful and meditative to me. I know writing shouldn’t be about being judged, it should be about connection and ideas. I want to connect through writing. It is truly spiritual when I read and connect to someone’s ideas or the beauty of their words. When you read something you can relate to without any self-consciousness of social graces (i.e. you can be in your pajamas pacing the floor with sweaty hands because you like something you’re reading so much). I love to read and appreciate people who have a writing style that seems effortless. This has typically has added to my writing anxiety. I wish when I sat down to put words on paper it sounded different than what comes out. I get caught-up in what I feel I’m unable to do and get discouraged quickly.

With the focus on what I am unable to do and stuck in a school-writing-model I lose the objective I have at heart which is connection. When you write for connection it is vulnerable in a completely different way than knowing you’ll be graded. You’re not only putting your skills out for people to judge but ideas you think about and parts of yourself that people may not know.

I’m concerned how many important voices we’re missing in conversations because of the silencing we do through dismissing their ability to write. In the era of blogs, essays, and social media I feel I am missing out on conversations because of my writing anxiety. I want to be able to respond to people who share their ideas and want to know their ideas impact. I want to be able to put my ideas out there when I feel I need to. I find myself too self-conscious to even Tweet most of the time.  I wind up wondering about correct prepositions and better vocabulary and then a tweet becomes way too much work. In an attempt to be more vulnerable in the world and stop silencing my own voice my challenge has been to write with the intention of sharing. It’s hard, scary and may not solve the problem of the self-created identity of “bad writer,” but as a new mom I feel like I have to model what I would expect and hope for my son. I would hope that he feels worthy of connecting to others by sharing when he feels the most vulnerable and most importantly listening for the voices that have been excluded.

“I’m not racist but…”: Engaging our White privilege in doing anti-racist work

White folks, we’ve got to step up.  Now’s the time. We cannot leave the work of addressing racism to people of color on our campus, in our community.

In recent weeks, conversations around racism have crescendoed on our campus, mostly due to concerns raised by people of color—students, staff, and faculty.  As a result, our campus is engaged in an institutional dialogue around racism and how to work towards a more inclusive campus. These kinds of institutional moments do not come along very often and therefore we need to seize the opportunity.  To really seize it, we cannot leave these conversations to those most directly impacted by racism and rely solely on people of color to do this work.

White folks, we’ve got to step up.

By step up, I mean listen. Seek understanding. And listen some more.

This time last year, there were similar campus-wide conversations around sexism & misogyny, in response to public comments made by the then-Police Chief which perpetuated rape myths and victim-blaming attitudes. At the time, I was deeply disappointed and discouraged at the lack of men’s voices in the chorus of people raising concern about the comments and the subsequent response (or lack thereof) from the university.  I found that men—even those I assumed to be “allies”–were generally dismissive in hearing these concerns.  With the exception of a critical few men, it was mostly up to women to educate, even while many of us were very directly impacted.

This is how privilege works.

Privilege is blinding.  When faced with our own privilege, the tendency is to respond defensively, dismissing and rationalizing. To see privilege, address it, and challenge it we must be vigilante in the hunt for it.  When we don’t see it, we’ve got to seek out ways to understand it and see it—because it is there.   It is always there.

That is how oppression works.

It grants the privileged permission to discount the voices of those affected by that privilege.  Often when advocating for more just responses to gender-based violence, I’ve felt dismissed as the “crazy rape lady”, just of those “radical feminists”, my concerns devalued with a wave of the hand and an utterance of, “here she goes again”.  Over time, internalizing these responses results in the undermining of our own experiences; I often wonder, “maybe I am just overreacting”.

Systematic oppression often makes us question our own individual and collective truths.  Privilege silences others’ voices that speak their own.  It is only through really listening to ourselves and others that we are able to connect the personal to the political and begin to see injustices at work.

We’ve got to listen.

Unfortunately, we listen more, differently, to privileged voices.

This means that to dismantle racism, White folks have some work to do.  We cannot rely on our community members of color to be the ones who alone speak truth to power.  We are all part of the problem and we all must be part of the solution.

Here’s what we can do, right now:

Confronting our own White privilege is uncomfortable. We’ve got to get over it.  To get stuck there in discomfort, shame, guilt is to continue to privilege our own experience at the expense of others.

Because of our White privilege, it’s hard to know what we do not know.  We therefore must start by acknowledging our White privilege, naming it, and calling it out.  We should challenge ourselves to be vulnerable in our not knowing and seek understanding from those that do through listening, reading, educating ourselves.

We need to show up for opportunities to engage in this work.  Step up by showing up.

Challenge either/or thinking.   Instead, think in terms of both/and.  For example, Dean Jackson’s administration can be both flawed and impacted by racism. To see one truth does not negate the other.  Oppression needs us to think in binary terms. Don’t buy it.

When faced with problems or posed with difficult questions, there’s a tendency to rush to offer solutions. Sometimes—actually, most of the time—it’s just as powerful to simply acknowledge and genuinely consider the questions raised.  The questions are just as important as the answers.

We’ve got to be prepared to screw up.  Addressing injustice is a messy and complicated process. We’re going to screw up. The fear of being perceived a racist cannot paralyze us in our anti-racist efforts.

We cannot rely on people of color and those organizations/positions/units/departments charged with “diversity” work to do the business of anti-racism and inclusion.  Such an approach continues to place the burden of oppression on those most directly impacted.  We must prioritize engagement in these issues—it affects each and every one of us as members of this campus community.

Let us pause in this institutional moment of dialogue and appreciate it for what it is: a tremendous learning opportunity, an opportunity for transformation.  I have found in the past few days that when I have taken the time to ask my community members about how they feel about racism on our campus, the question opens up powerful dialogue that would have been missed had I not taken the time to ask.

It’s unfortunate that it often takes moments like these to engage in this kind of dialogue, as an institution.  And yet here it have it.  We have a responsibility to ourselves, to our community to seize it.

We’ve got to step up.

Stop. Thank you.

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It’s been a wild couple of weeks.  The kind of wild that makes it really tough to savor the moments, to stop and smell the roses.

Yesterday, it just turned ridiculous.  I laughed like a wild woman as I sat, freezing cold, waiting for the third AAA truck to check up on me and my dead car.  I laughed out loud as the last tow truck showed up and couldn’t fit into the garage.  I laughed and laughed while we drove to the car shop and it was closed.  I laughed and laughed and laughed as I recounted the story to Michael and as we sat across the kitchen table running the numbers to determine which was the smartest, most grown-up decision to make.  I just laughed.

Sometimes, that’s all I can do.

Laughter often teeters on that ever-so-thin-line. So, laughter often gets me so far before I slip into an abyss of “why me?”.

This time, I refuse.  I choose instead to laugh. Then, stop.  Right now, I will stop right here and be thankful.  Right now, I will see and be in all that I have.

I am thankful for having two cars. I am thankful to Michael and that I was able to reach him just in time so that he could pick up the kids from school.  I am thankful that my kids were safe and sound.  I am thankful to have campus services available to help and for having AAA for extra help.  I am thankful to have sought help and received it. I am thankful for the last tow truck driver, Little Eddy, who finally decided to speak to me and then opened his heart about how much he loves his job and how much pride he takes in it, even on a “day like this”. I am thankful to Jonathon, who graciously stayed late on the job so that I could wait in the warm car shop for my ride and for lending me $10 cash so I could tip Little Eddy.  I am thankful for having a warm home to return to and healthy kids who met me at the door waiting for my story.  I am thankful for the cold spaghetti ready and the piles of dishes and laundry that remind me I’m mama. I am thankful for family and friends who offered to help and sent out good vibes. I am thankful for having a job with benefits so that I could take today off so that I could take care of this business. I am thankful to have Michael as a partner in life, as we try to navigate all life throws at us.  I am thankful.

Standing in this place of gratitude, I begin to see the past wild weeks with new eyes, with a new heart.  Right now, at this moment, instead of seeing all the things left undone, I see and feel thankful for wonderful moments that had sadly blurred into that wildness.  I am thankful for a long lunch with a dear friend; weekly run-dates with another; meaningful, soul-searching conversations with many brave and inspiring people; warm snuggles with my growing-up kids; birthday surprises for Meg; pizza and pjs; challenging and stimulating work; forgiving and understanding family; forgiving and understanding friends; leaf piles for jumping; privilege that grants me educational options for my kids; belly-laughs that are loud and result in snorts; Thomas’ first and very impressive student-led parent conference; relevant & many professional development opportunities; teachers who care for my kids and their learning; paints and crayons and creativity; wine; chocolate; writing; Black feminism; Barry Manilow; students with sass and vigor; space for practice and failure; coffee; a walk by moonlight with the kids; laughter.

Thank you.

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Feminism and Reconciliation

I’ve been trudging around in the swampland of Reconciliation lately.   Different parts of me stuck at different places, flailing around in various ways.  And feminism, my feminism has helped me find my way.  

Thirty years ago my mom left.  This is how I’ve always understood what happened and how we speak of it in my family, two simple words: mom left.  I was nine years old at the time, my brother six.  And thirty years later, a mother to three children myself, this truth continues to shape me and my relationships in deep and haunting ways.  Even now. 

I am still surprised and frustrated at the constant work involved in making sense of my mom’s leaving and all that meant and continues to mean.  So often I have thought that I have reconciled these feelings.  Worked through them, overcame.  And yet, I am constantly reminded that this is a process.  Reconciliation is a verb.   

And so here I am, a mother, a child.  Still trudging.    

A few days ago I was beckoned to my swamplands once again; I knew it had been coming.  I was sitting across the dinner table from my mom (who now lives nearby) and teenage daughter, watching the two of them argue.  They both glanced at me periodically, eyes rolling at each other and yet I could offer nothing.  I was gone, lost in myself.  So in those moments as I watched the heated scene unfold, these two people morphed from my mother and daughter  into strangers whom I did not know or understand.  Who did not know or understand me.  I could feel nothing for them.  

Trudging.

In my earliest days of motherhood, I remember cradling my firstborn (now my thirteen-year old) and vehemently vowing to her—amidst her wails that I would not ever, ever leave her.  I actually recall feeling self-righteous as I whispered into her tiny ear, “I’ll stay here forever.  I’ll always be here. You can count on me.”  Half an hour or so later, while she was still crying, I was compelled to try another approach.  I laid her down, in her crib.  She immediately quieted. Calm.  I learned in that instance that she was her own person.  I had been telling her the truth I needed to hear.  In doing so, I couldn’t hear her’s.  

I understand that I must continuously revisit my own pain and grief so that I might work through it, and disrupt its hold on me.  Otherwise, it defines me.  Otherwise, I cannot act as my whole self.  Otherwise, my actions are driven by my darkness.  This is difficult and exhausting. It means that I’ll never be done with my stuff.  It means that I’ve got to work to be honest with myself about the baggage I bring to each moment so that I might experience it fully, receiving all that moment offers.  Otherwise, I fail to see, hear, love an other. 

Thirteen years after attempting to hush my baby with my own reassurances, I am still learning so much about myself as I parent.  Honestly, it’s a lot harder these days.  My baby, now a thirteen year-old, has learned how to push my buttons with skilled expertise and it takes so much energy and care to not react blindly.  The authors of “Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting” put it beautifully:

“Being a parent is particularly intense and demanding in part because our children can ask things of us no one else could or would, in ways that no one else could or would.  They see us up close as no one else does, and constantly hold mirrors up for us to look into.  In doing so, they give us over and over again the chance to see ourselves in new ways, and to work at consciously asking what we can learn from any and every situation that comes up with them.  We can then make choices out of this awareness that will nurture both our children’s inner growth and our own at one and the same time.” (p26)

I do firmly believe that if I can be present and open, I can love in revolutionary and transformational ways.   That kind of love changes the world.  That kind of love changes everything.   

Feminism taught me this.  Feminism taught me that in working against oppressive systems that silence, marginalize, dehumanize that we must first be present with ourselves.  We cannot see others fully unless we work out our own stuff.  We must be whole.  We must be open.  We must be nonjudgmental.  Otherwise, our actions will perpetuate our own pain and hurt for we are acting from that dark place.

Feminism has also taught me that this work is a process.  Like reconciliation, presence and feminism are verbs. So in efforts to disrupt oppressive forces, to join with others in ending injustice, we must be vigilant in our self-critique.  I’ve thought a lot about this lately, in my attempts to practice intersectional feminism, in my attempts to be an ally. 

On allyship: Mia McKenzie (Black Girl Dangerous) makes this point beautifully:  

“The work of an ally is never ceasing. As long as the isms are functioning–and they are functioning at full capacity every hour of every day–then the action of allyship must function just as perpetually, just as fully, just as tirelessly. “Ally” cannot be a label that someone stamps onto you–or, god forbid, that you stamp on to yourself—so you can then go around claiming it as some kind of identity. It’s not an identity. It’s a practice. It’s an active thing that must be done over and over again, in the largest and smallest ways, every day.”

Unfortunately, too often this is not how allyship and/or feminism operate.  While feminism has helped me make sense of my world and how to be in it differently, feminism has also failed me, fails me.  As a static identity or framework, feminism becomes a shell of itself, distracting from and undermining its social change efforts.  As someone who is a professional feminist working in a campus-based women’s center, I experience (and perpetuate) this betrayal all too often.  And it makes sense since feminism is born out of pain and injustice.  Many times, this pain is personal.  Therefore, there’s a good chance—without some trudging around in those swamplands—that this practice will be self-serving.  No need to spend more time on this here, read this criticism of current mainstream feminism by Trudy in Gradient Lair.    

Because of my feminism, I am committed to routinely returning to my swampland; feminism helps me realize when I need to do some work.  Feminism also creates for me a roadmap while I’m “in it”, drawing connections between my personal experiences and political ones.  So as I make sense of how to be present as a parent, I also consider how to be present as an ally, as a feminist.  And these considerations are as political and revolutionary as they get.

So as I’ve been trudging through Reconciliation, I knew a conversation with my mom was necessary for me to actually move.  A couple of nights ago, I shared with her that I was working through some of this.  I told her I was still angry and hurt that she left.  And as I sit here writing this, I have to admit that I’m feeling pretty proud of myself.

And that is exactly why I have to keep writing.   

Keep trudging.