Portrait of an Activist: Who, Me?

I have never identified as an activist. Sure, I subscribe to the Sierra Club; I sign HRC and Colorlines petitions; I even performed in the Vagina Monologues once. But the word “activist” carries with it such responsibility, such a sense of clarity and commitment. How could the girl who couldn’t even convince her friends of the relevance of feminism possibly be an activist? Of course, I have been interested in activism practically since I was born. Raised by a nontraditional mother in single-parent household, I was brought up on feminist ideologies, with a healthy side of social justice. I was surrounded by strong and passionate women for my entire childhood. My paternal grandmother joined the marines during WWII in a period of rampant sexism within the military, and my maternal grandmother was disowned by her family for marrying a man who was not considered “blue blood” enough for her. My mother raised six children on her own; one helped found a radical annual social work conference to address issues of racism within the profession, and another shaved her head at 16 and threw out all her makeup to prove she didn’t have to subscribe to traditional standards of beauty.

To me, activism had to be dramatic; it had to be costly, and it had to be, well, active. My forms of resistance have felt remarkably passive: I have rallied for reproductive rights, but all I did was hold up a sign; I do not eat meat, but nor do I crusade for animal rights. That is why the activist handbook Grassroots, with its assertion that activism can simply be part of your every day life, has resonated so much with me. I have become paralyzed by the idea that activists must be irreproachable—paralyzed by the thought of having to “pick an issue” and commit myself body and soul to it. But Grassroots, which defines activism as “consistently expressing one’s values with the goal of making the world more just,” has reframed this daunting word for me (xix). I still don’t feel comfortable calling myself an activist, but I am no longer paralyzed, and I am hoping that I’ll soon be able to lay claim to a word that has had such power over me for so long.

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