So if you’re tuned into internet feminism, you’ve likely heard a lot this week about the Newsweek piece on the lack of youth activism in the reproductive rights movement. And you’ve also noticed the anger coming from a lot of awesome young women who are actually quite active on the issue. (Check out Shelby Knox’s twitter list of young feminists for more.)
Working for an organization that supports youth activism, I feel compelled to add some words to this debate, even if other folks have already said them and probably said them better. Although SAFER doesn’t work on the issue of abortion rights, we do position ourselves as part of a larger reproductive justice movement, and the students we work with are more often than not campus feminists who are also interested in repro rights issues. Also, I turn 25 next month, which I think probably puts me in the “young person” bracket still. So that said, here’s my very jumbled two cents (not necessarily the SAFER two cents):
The Newsweek piece and the comments from NARAL staff focus on the assumption that they are losing youth support because they have been unwilling to have an “open discussion about the moral, ethical, and emotional complexity of abortion that would be more likely to resonate with young Americans.” And there may be something to that—outside of the super-left feminist circles that I seem to run in, anyway. But while the piece talks about the struggle to mobilize young people who grew up in a post-Roe world, it ignores the issue of HOW to mobilize young people, period. And while changing the language around “complexity” might be part of that, I feel like it’s a really small part of the equation.
I think that what these larger, older organizations are really struggling with is not a lack of interest in the issue; it’s a lack of interest in them, both because they represent a certain type of feminism (the kind that chastises people for not supporting a female candidate just because she’s female, and the kind that have not been successful at incorporating the voices of women of color, queer and trans women, and low-income women) and because their activist strategies are simply no longer relevant to a lot of young folks.
Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s a lot of value in these big mother organizations. They have and produce amazing resources, and have done an amazing job of accruing lobbying power and making important inroads for women’s rights at the institutional level. But I think you can’t underestimate how much power young women have on their own these days, without paying their dues (literally and figuratively) to a NARAL or a NOW. You have a blog, you get connected to other women on the internet, you feel like you have a voice, are part of the conversation, all without leaving your computer. A lot of people might call this kind of individualized activism lazy and useless (or not activism at all). But I would encourage those people to think of it not as individual but as local—this kind of internet activism is important because it shows that feminist issues DO hit really close to home for a lot of young women. They are looking at their immediate worlds and speaking up when they don’t like what they see. And there is something powerful about that: I have (gasp!) never gone to a protest, but I have had countless conversations with friends and family members about why I care about the issues I’m passionate about and (however implicitly) why they should too. And isn’t that how we change the world at large? By starting at home?
I get a lot of emails from a lot of organizations asking for my money and telling me about federal legislation that I need to write letters about immediately. And, as someone who works in the nonprofit field, I get why that’s the way it needs to be. But I am so much more likely to go to the benefit for the repro justice organizations working hard, without much funding, in my own backyard. I am more likely to be concerned about how the women I know or see on the street everyday are or aren’t being supported. And yes, obviously whether or not Roe v. Wade gets overturned has a huge impact on them too, but that’s just not all I’m thinking about because it doesn’t reflect the realities of what I see around me all the time.
Not every organization can be everything to all people. I mean, SAFER couldn’t be any more niche, so I get that. But if you want to be a national organization that gets youth support, besides actually “sharing power” and actually talking to young women about how they would like to be more involved (as the bloggers I linked to above have covered) I think you also need figure out how to make yourself relevant at the local level. What can your potential supporters do besides writing a letter to their congressperson or sending you a check? What’s going on around them that you should care about too? How do you frame the conversation about repro rights so that it’s more inclusive of issues besides abortion access for women who can already afford health care? How do you leverage the huge internet presence your issue has that simply isn’t affiliated with your own organization? Easier said than done with limited resources and huge staffs that need to get paid, I know….but. If you want nuance, move in this direction, not about the complexities of abortion. I think that’s what will feel more relevant.
If I can use SAFER as an example, not because I think we’re the best model (we’re not, we’re a volunteer collective, and generally just completely different animal here), but because it illustrates my point: SAFER’s founders were very clear about the role that the organization would play in campus organizing: a very small one. The goal was to support activism that arose organically on a campus, to arm students with strategies that would help them achieve success on their own terms, the idea being that every campus is different, and a sexual assault policy should be written to reflect the culture/needs/demographics of that specific campus. Although SAFER has guidelines for what makes a good policy, and requires that the activists we work with spend some time reflecting on issues of intersectionality and how sexual assault interacts with other oppressions on their campus, we NEVER write the policy for them, or tell students explicitly how they need to run their campaign. I really appreciate this approach. I think it helps turn young folks into the kind of leaders they want to be.
So you know that young people are interested in the issue because that’s what the polls tell you. But they’re not active in the ways you would like to see them be? Seems like it’s time to find out what they are doing, and what kinds of support they could use in doing it, or how they could take it to the next level. Different “generations” of women are clearly going to have different tools, strategies, priorities. The Newsweek piece seems to make it clear that the job here for older feminists is actually figuring out what those are for young women who care about repro rights. It shouldn’t have to be the young womens’ responsibility to come to you, especially if it hasn’t been made effectively clear to them why they need you in the first place. This doesn’t mean sending frantic emails about legislation changes. It means talking for real about how a movement works, how to be diverse without being divided, and how to meet each other in the middle.
[p.s. This isn't to say that youth activism is all online, or that all young folks do is sit around talk. That's far from true, as all of the students we know who are trying to change campus policy as we speak can prove. I just think it's hard to deny how the internet has changed feminist activism...]