I walked up the stairs that felt a little too rickety onto a stage that felt a little too shaky. I felt dizzy and nervous and afraid. I knew I needed to be proud that I was a part of something. I knew I should be confident; I didn’t have that many lines, and I’d practiced them a hundred times. Plus, I was a part of something quite unlike anything I’d been a part of before. I breathed in, I smiled, and I started to speak…
There are many things I’ve never considered myself to be. A performer is one. And until recently, an activist was another. Maybe because I didn’t understand activism, or maybe because I was misguided into believing that I was too busy for that, I just didn’t think I was an activist. I didn’t think I could be. So when I had to participate in an activist project for a class, I’ll admit I was annoyed. I didn’t want to commit to a project like that for a grade, and resented having to. I didn’t have any original ideas like the other students, who seemed to be overflowing with excitement. I looked over the list of provided projects I could “assist” with. A performance of “The Vagina Monologues” seemed innocent enough. I didn’t even have to perform; I could help plan, and planning was something I could do.
Of course, almost instantly I realized that, though I’d heard of TVM, I didn’t really know what it was. So, I researched it. I learned that it’s a series of monologues about, well, vaginas. But it was also a lot more than that. It was a performance, it was a book, and it had become part of a very big movement. The author of TVM, who collected and assembled this assortment of monologues, wanted to raise awareness about sexual violence and rape. She started an organization called V-Day, whose mission is to raise awareness and funds to help bring an end to sexual assault and violence against women. The performances of TVM, which take place during February, March and April, raise awareness about the issue, and the donations that organizations, like my school’s women’s group WILL (Women Involved in Learning and Leadership), raised went to shelters and rape crisis centers. Suddenly I found myself a part of a campaign that was raising awareness about an issue I actually cared deeply about. I felt a lot less passive about my involvement.
UMBC’s presentation was organized by one student, who had already registered our school and acquired the script. I offered my help to her, but I also volunteered to perform. It wasn’t something I necessarily felt comfortable with, but I wanted to feel involved. When WILL made buttons for TVM, I went and helped assemble. I actually had a lot of fun, and I found myself getting to know students who also cared about TVM and the campaign behind it. I felt involved. I was starting to feel like an activist.
When the day of the performance came around, I was anxious. I had a part in the introduction with two other girls, and I was introducing another piece later in the show. Shortly before the performance we learned that a few students had dropped out, leaving roles that needed to be filled. I stepped up to the plate, agreeing to take on another performance. I was excited and nervous all at the same time. Our project manager had gotten the room and it was already assembled when I arrived. There were student volunteers handing out vagina cupcakes and collecting donations for our beneficiary, the Tahirih Justice Center, which works to protect immigrant women and girls seeking justice from gender-based violence. The performers were excited and the room was filling up fast. Before I knew it, we were lining up to perform. I was terrified, but also excited and proud to be a part of something big.
Overall, the performance was a success. The performers all did an amazing job, the audience was packed and completely moved, and we raised money for the Tahirih Justice Center. Along the way there were some hiccups: we didn’t manage to get flyers out until just before the performance, so we weren’t as well advertised as we’d hoped. Despite this, more than 200 people showed up for the show! Having students drop out of the performance was disappointing and challenging, but the performers involved stepped up and the audience never knew there was a problem. I had also heard that there was some upset about the production as a whole; because performers are limited to women, the show has some limitations for transgender men and women that may wish to be included and/or represented. I understand this frustration; violence against women isn’t limited to women who were born female and identify as women, but rather unfortunately occurs across the spectrum of females who identify as male and males who identify as female as well. However, because the performance comes with clear instructions that the cast must be women only, there’s very little flexibility to correct this oversight. In the future, the school could consider another performance that can be more inclusive, but unless Eve Ensler changes her rules for “The Vagina Monologues”, the performances will remain women-cast only. I heard from students that attended the performance that it was well done and that it had sparked a lot of conversations about violence against women and the V-Day campaign.
For me, the experience was incredibly successful. Not only did the performance go well (and some performers were downright incredible) but our school was part of an important campaign that raised awareness about an important issue. Violence against women is disturbingly prevalent in the US, and the statistics for sexual assault and rape among women are appalling. But one statistic is reassuring, a glimmer of hope that this project, and others like it, remains a vital part in stopping violence against women: Sexual assault has fallen by more than 60% in recent years. By raising awareness and funding organizations that help prevent, treat and stop sexual assault, we’re bringing the numbers down even more. But until violence against women ends, there’s still work to be done. With this understanding and a new-found pride in my status as an activist, I decided I wanted to do more. So I joined WILL, and I agreed to co-lead for the 2013-2014 school year. And best of all, I took on project manager for next year’s production of TVM. I know we were successful this year, and I know we’ll be successful next year. Having been a part of the performance, I’m excited to bring it together next year and hopefully remedy some of the snags from this year, like starting the project earlier to gain more student interest and advertising a little sooner. Perhaps the biggest success of this story was how I felt about it, and how I changed. I went from thinking activism was beyond my capabilities to understanding how I could be involved, and why I should be. I braved the unknown and performed for a crowd, and I wasn’t so bad either. And I found in me an untapped desire to lead and participate in movements, projects and campaigns that will make both my campus and my world a better place. And I’d say that’s pretty freaking successful.
They actually cheered for me. The audience responded to what I’d said and were praising my performance. The stairs seemed sturdier when I climbed down and as I took my seat to watch the other performers, I felt lighter than I had in a long time. I was filled with pride and a self-acceptance I didn’t know I was missing. I had done something important, and however small, I knew this part of my world would be a better place for it.