Excerpts from Everything: The Pieces I’m Most Proud of From the 2010s

This post is of course modified from a Twitter thread, because this time my resolution is to be even more Online.

I came out in 2010, so this new year has particular resonance for me: It’s the span of time housing my entire queer, feminist career. These are things that I wrote that I am most proud of from the last ten years.

First up: This fucking essay for Autostraddle. This essay that was so scary to write. This essay that is now something I read to myself often. This essay that my mother read when we finally could talk again. This essay is everything.

I’m Not Broke As F*ck Anymore, Does This Mean I Made It (Autostraddle)

I spent the summer of 2010, 2011, and 2012 living on ten dollars a week and nothing more. I didn’t leave the house a lot, and I made up for it by living with people I loved. Everyone was always marveling over how I was able to handle it, able to cope with the stress of it, able to enjoy it. Nothing about it felt different than any other chapter in my life.

I went on to do so much with Autostraddle—claiming a variety of beats, but most importantly the Eileen Myles beat. It has been ten years of dykedom. I have never regretted being an Eileen Myles type, not once the entire time.

Idol Worship: Ten(ish) Questions with Eileen Myles (Autostraddle)

Do you still write yourself in for President? You should run again so I can.

I don’t. But it was an unparalleled writing experience to see that white space on the ballot and put in your own name. I’d advise anyone to try it and then think about what it means. To the extent that people joke about my campaign and about lesbians in general I think an enormous amount of repression is surrounding what a woman might want.

I often think about what my girlfriend said (which is on a napkin on my bulletin board over my desk) when she wondered “how palatable will women have to make themselves as artists in this depression.”

It’s a depression the size of the world and we fill it by thinking about it I believe.

And of course, while at Autostraddle I also claimed the feminism beat—and became the feminism editor. This essay unfortunately never stops being salient, but that’s okay because I never get tired of sharing it.

Our “False Rape” Hysteria is Bullsh*t (Autostraddle)

I need to repeat this one more time, with feeling, to get everyone to understand what I’m saying. 20 percent of women are raped in their lifetime, but we’re actually concerned with less than one percent of the population, most of whom could still function with impunity through a trial and probably never face time in our current legal system for sexually violating someone else, being falsely accused of a crime which, most of the time, nobody is even actually falsely accused of. We, as a society, are more concerned about men being falsely accused of rape – something they are more likely to win the lottery than ever experience – than we are with women being raped every day.

One of my other beats at Autostraddle was “coming out feelings.” I had so many! I most eloquently wrote them down the year i didn’t come out for thanksgiving.

You Don’t Have To Come Out On Thanksgiving: On Going Home and Being Quiet (Autostraddle)

I still want my big coming out at the dinner table, right from my own chair where I’ve sat since I was promoted from The Kid’s Table. I want to be sitting next to Brittany and I imagine that when it happens I’ll be fearless, looming above the turkey and grinning like a dipshit. I imagine, too, that it will be a turning point and we will finally be able to talk to one another again over gravy and biscuits.

I don’t know when I’ll be ready for that to happen. But I know I will love everyone at the table more in that moment than I ever have before.

All of those post-mortems paved the way for the BuzzFeed essay I wrote on coming out—or really, waking up. I remember being so excited to be part of the pantheon of BF contributors, and so overwhelmed by the response to this piece.

I Didn’t Always Know I Was Gay (BuzzFeed LGBT)

The year I turned 20 was the year I became the sum of a thousand small brown boxes and sleek gray envelopes. Neat, tiny packages of boyshorts in every color with athletic waistbands arrived at my door. A vintage brown leather jacket made its way to me from the 1980s, so authentic I had to cut the shoulder pads out. The used brown leather lace-up boots I would wear for the next three years before they fell apart again and again and again arrived last, in a small box at the end of winter. They were a perfect fit.

The shopping was a ritual. Each time, it went the same way: I ripped open boxes and plastic shipping envelopes and peeled back stickers and seals and marveled at things that felt like the limbs I didn’t realize I’d lost in the war. I tried them on alone and then put them away, pristine and almost untouched, tiny reminders of who I might be — if I could ever decide who that was.

Once I was done with the coming out feelings, I got to move on to the relationship feelings. Cue: The essay I wrote about being in a long-distance relationship, and the exhilarating experience of running away and being someone new.

My Long-Distance Relationship is My Favorite Adventure (Autostraddle)

When Geneva and I were driving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in a rented convertible, I saw an entire cloud floating next to the highway in the sky over the desert. I could see it spanning what looked like the whole of the sky to the right of us, almost touching my shoulder. I watched it graze the universe on top and I saw rain pouring out of it in the distance and somewhere in the middle, there was a lightning bolt like a heartbeat.

I could have fit my entire life in that cloud. My entire fucked-up, tiny, timid life. It only took us five minutes to drive past it.

Wild Child West—the live documentation of the road trip that changed my life—helped me come home to myself years later. I don’t regret being so cheesy and sincere, not for a second. Los Angeles deserves that. (And stay tuned: more like this is yet to come.)

Wild Child West: I Am Gonna Do This (Autostraddle)

I told myself I would do what any rational human being does. I told myself I would look for a sign. And suddenly, they were everywhere.

So I made a checklist:

1. Save money
2. Learn to drive
3. Develop faith in the universe

If you like reading my journal entries, you’ll also like reading excerpts from my secret tumblr. (This selection also appears in We Spoke, the book based on a marathon reading I did in Los Angeles.)

22 Excerpts from Carmen’s Secret Tumblr, 2012 – 2015 (Autostraddle)

i didn’t really have any expectations for this place when i moved here, only expectations for me, which might explain why i have trouble deciding whether or not it’s working out so far. all i have now are my new life resolutions: learn how to do yoga, take eli to the park every morning at 7AM, drive on the freeway alone, write more, cook new things, figure it out. i called my mom when i got back from canada and told her i was alone, really alone, and it feels weird, y’know, to wake up by myself and walk eli by myself and be bored by myself, and all she said was “that’s what you wanted,” and she’s right. this is the hard part i was dreaming about before i actually had to look it in the face. this is the part where i change.

The pursuit of freedom is the thruline—and Everyday Feminism gave me space to vocalize how badly I wanted all of us to be free. I’d forgotten about this piece until someone quoted it back to me. Hearing it reminded me that my words (and work) had meaning.

A Reclamation of Our Personal Rights as Working-Class Queer Women (Everyday Feminism)

You have the right to survive. To live without fear. To live without an extra burden. To find relief and salvation. To feel entitled to relief and salvation.

This world will tell you, over and over and over again, that your survival is secondary. That in exchange for your hustle, for your strife, for your struggle, you’ve won no right to truly live. That what you are is not enough to be worthy of thriving. That who you are disaqualifies you from the fullness of life and the richness this world has to offer. That no matter how hard you work to define yourself, you will always be a trope, or a token, or an outlier.

The world will always be wrong about this.

All of that was prep for 2016: the year in which I churned out Hillary Clinton content like a lean, mean, childhood-dreams-being-fulfilled-in-real-time machine. I still want it for Hillary. I still wish it had happened for all of us.

I Want This For Hillary / I Want This For All Of Us (Argot)

I didn’t think she would do it, despite the incessant purporting that Hillary would somehow crawl out of her grave to run again if she had to. Surely she was too defeated. Surely she was too bruised. Surely a woman who had suffered through what she had suffered through would never sit down and decide to do it again.

I have long admired Hillary Clinton for her tenacity. Perhaps the reason I’ve wanted this for her for so long is because it’s evident how much she wants it. Not because she is an evil witch running wild with the fever of her own ambition. Not because she is a manipulative insider hellbent on ascertaining power. Hillary wants to be president because she believes in her work. Because she believes in her vision. Because she believes in herself.

I never want Hillary Clinton to smile graciously in the face of defeat again. I want her to rise. I want her to overcome. I want her to win, and I want her to rub it in our faces even though she never will. I want her to talk to God. I want her to cut the ribbon when they put her pantsuit up in that museum. I want her to prove my mother wrong.

I want that fire in my chest to burn even brighter. I want it this time to be lit not with the need to prove everyone wrong, but instead with the righteous indignation of all the women who finally have.

when i wasn’t writing about hillary, i was telling men not to run for office—in one case, with the support of a men’s magazine.

The White Guy Asking White Guys Not to Run for President (MEL Magazine)

White men in America make up a much larger share of the political world than they do the population, which means that their overrepresentation is directly connected to the underrepresentation of everyone else. Women are less than 24 percent of state legislators and less than 20 percent of Congressional seats; African Americans are only 8.1 percent of state legislators, and though the 114th Congress is the most diverse ever, that body is still only 17 percent non-white.

This is where the Can You Not PAC (CYNP) comes in. 

2016 was also the year I turned my biweekly “Rebel Girls” column for Autostraddle into a feminist political history marathon—and watched every campaign ad in television history for one longread I published with them.

Rebel Girls: The 5 Kinds of Women (and Girls) in Presidential Campaign Ads (Autostraddle)

Many say that JFK won the presidential election in 1960 at least in part because he looked way better in the first-ever televised presidential debate than his sparring partner, Republican candidate Richard Nixon, who was sweating profusely and didn’t have the media training under his belt to urge him to look the camera deep in the eyes and make sweet love to it. (The televised debate has now become the bread-and-butter of elections.) And although AM and FM stations certainly captivated us all before video killed the radio star, presidential campaigns embraced television in 1952 and never looked back.

And thus, the “living room candidate” was born.

Being able to communicate with voters in the comfort of their own homes was invaluable in elections moving forward, especially as television became even more central to the daily lives of people across the country. And although campaign ads have evolved — from lengthy, black-and-white monologues to quick, dynamic spots in full color; from endorsements to attack ads; from common sense to fearmongering — there’s been a consistent flow of ads centered around or openly targeting women voters ever since.

Those ads utilize women as judges of character, symbols of peace and innocence, advocates for men, and the voices of families and authorities on the home. But only rarely do the ads featuring women’s voices and faces since the dawn of the televised presidential campaign actually address what we’d flat-out call “women’s issues” — things like reproductive rights, an end to sex discrimination and violence against women, closing the pay gap and more. Instead, ads featuring women have often served the opposite purpose: reinforcing gender roles and showcasing the sexism of the day.

I flew home for my grandmother’s funeral the day after the 2016 election, and i wrote a letter to Hillary on the plane, and the woman next to me looked to her left and started to cry. And then Argot published it in print.

Dearest Hillary (Argot)

My grandmother died imagining two things, things I juxtapose against reality now multiple times a day: She imagined you becoming President, walking out on stage in a white suit and changing everything. She imagined me looking on in awe, eyes welling with tears, finally watching my longest-held dream come true. She hurried her two daughters out of the hospital room on the day she died with one final instruction: “Vote.” They did. You won New Jersey, the state where I grew up, where she raised me. I called my grandmother’s home number to ask her how it felt to know that soon we would have our first woman president. My aunt answered on the third ring, kept telling me my grandmother couldn’t come to the phone right now, promised me she had voted. I imagined my grandmother walking into that booth and voting for you. It was a vision that left me in awe of our nation’s ability to grow and expand and progress.

That was all a dream. This was all a dream. The greatest dream there ever was, I think.

When Signs Journal asked me to reflect on Hillary’s loss, and Susan Bordo’s analysis of it, I leapt at the opportunity—because Hillary, and also because did I mention it was *the* Signs Journal, y’all. (Ignore everyone. Major in women’s studies.)

Taking the Bait: Our Furious and Frustrating Existence (Signs Journal)

In Trump’s America, I find myself often wondering how we got here. I know why, though it seems unfathomable. All this because when confronted with an honest and accomplished woman, too many of us still react with scorn and disbelief. All this because when men reduce women to stereotypes, we hardly blink.

We all knew the first woman president would have to walk through hell to get there. More unimaginable is that if we refuse to see the factors that turned Clinton from a beloved public servant into a fictional monster, countless others won’t safely make it through.

All of that leads to Ms., where I started in advance of the 2016 election and have since been editing in its wake. I’m proud that before the mainstream media thought it mattered, we were exposing trump’s damage and demagoguery.

A Week in Donald Trump’s America (Ms.)

The violence is not temporary. The terror is not temporary. The emboldening of right-wing extremism is not temporary.

Donald Trump, after five days, said only two words about the widespread acts of violence and harassment happening in his name across the country he intends to “unify.” Those two words? “Stop it.” Needless to say, the statement is too little, too late.

This is Donald Trump’s America. He created it. It is true that he was aided in doing so by traditions which date back centuries—racism, sexism, ableism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia—but this is Donald Trump’s America.

Our President-Elect has spent the better part of the last two years inciting hate and condoning violence against marginalized communities he scapegoated for the very real challenges our nation is facing. The end result is hate and violence.

This is Donald Trump’s America. Nothing he says will stop him from being accountable for it. Now we must fight like hell to take it back.

While Trump insisted there were two sides to every story and every struggle—in Charlottesville or elsewhere—I was proud to know better, and to work somewhere where I could say as much.

There is Only One Side (Ms.)

“There are not many sides to Charlottesville,” journalist Sarah Kendzior wrote in the Globe and Mail. “There is the anti-racist activist who was killed, and the white supremacist who killed her. There is the mob chanting the Nazi cry of ‘blood and soil,’ and the citizens demanding equality and respect. There is the confederacy, and there is the United States. There are the torches of neo-Nazis and the torch of the Statue of Liberty. There is Donald Trump and there is patriotism. There is one right side, and the President is not on it.”

This is not a situation with many sides. As a nation, we must decide where we will stand: on the side of hate and violence or the side of love and equality. If the Trump administration cannot decide which they choose, we will just have to dig in our heels as we fight for ours.

I was also incredibly proud to write the generation-defining “Which Trump Are You?” quiz for THE BOSSY SHOW, which I co-hosted and co-produced with Jill Gutowitz during Trump’s first year. (Spoiler Alert: I was proud of every episode of THE BOSSY SHOW.)

And yes, I did marathon season one of The Handmaid’s Tale; and yes, it did give me a reason to get out of bed; and yes, I did write an entire piece about the urgency of its message. But I stand by what I said. I will not go to fucking Gilead.

We Will Not Go to Gilead (Ms.)

“Now I’m awake to the world,” Offred, the narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale, explains. “I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen. When they slaughtered Congress, we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Constitution, we didn’t wake up then, either. Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”

The parallels between Atwood’s dystopia and our own reality have become crystal clear. And women are awake to them—and ready to stop them.

We will not go back. We will not go to Gilead. We will instead heed Atwood’s warning—to speak up before it is too late, and to fight no matter how powerless we are made to feel.

But also: tThis was a lot to handle! And I burned out! And so, one of the first episodes of POPAGANDA that I wrote (and produced! and hosted!) for BITCH explored feminist visions for a different world of doing good work.

Popaganda: Feminism Beyond Burnout (Bitch)

The World Health Organization brought the buzz over burnout to a fever pitch this May when they included it in their 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases, calling burnout an “occupational phenomenon” and defining it as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress.” They identified three major dimensions of burnout: depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from a job, and growing feelings of cynicism at work, as well as reduced professional effectiveness.  

Months earlier, Anne Helen Peterson set that buzz into motion with her viral BuzzFeed essay on millennial burnout, coming to a different conclusion than the WHO, which cautioned that burnout shouldn’t be used to apply to conditions outside of work. “Burnout and the behaviors and weight that accompany it,” she asserted, “aren’t, in fact, something we can cure by going on vacation. It’s not limited to workers in acutely high-stress environments. And it’s not a temporary affliction.” According to Anne, it’s the “millennial condition…our base temperature… our background music… the way things are… our lives.” 

But for feminists around the world, these conditions are hardly new, and there are no neat lines around them. To be a feminist is to constantly be inundated with passion and anger, with urgency and with exhaustion. To be a feminist, in too many ways, is to get fired up until you fizzle out. 

After a decade of feminist work, I also sought solace and inspiration from Barbara Smith, Cherríe Moraga, Karla Jay, Carol Leigh, Sarah Eagle Heart, Charlene Carruthers, Daisy Hernandez and Julia Serano—and talked to them about how all of us can blaze trails for the podcast. That episode was also kind of a homecoming: I’ve been reflecting on how we can build a bigger, better feminist movement since I first fell into it.

4 Things We Can Do to Make Feminist Organizing More Inclusive and Empowering for All of Us (Everyday Feminism)

When I was a senior in college, I became director of my campus’ high-powered feminist organization. I’d wanted the position since I started at my university, but a lot had changed for me by the time I got it.

I had come out as queer, come into my identity as a Latina, and come to embrace a lot of the parts of my life I’d been ashamed of. I’d learned to live in opposition to society’s ideals, rather than allow myself to be weighted down by them. My feminism and how I went about pushing for progress shifted in a similar direction.

I was one of the first women of color and queer women – and likely, one of the first from a working-class background – to take charge of that group. I came armed with ideas and visions, scheming up how to massively grow our membership while also increasing successes across the board from previous years. I also came into a role that forced me to examine our flaws and our challenges.

One of those challenges was getting more people who looked, identified, and felt like me involved.

And speaking of freedom roads: Moraga and Sarah M. Broom’s books helped me chart my own course toward one this year. I was so proud to write about Native Country of the Heart and The Yellow House and my own working-class childhood for City Lab in August.

A Yellow House, a Native Heart: Life in New Orleans and Los Angeles (CityLab)

Until recently, I never knew where to take my friends when they come to Los Angeles. It isn’t that my life never collides with the myth of Los Angeles—I’ve brunched next to celebrities, walked Rodeo Drive and insisted on going inside a Chanel boutique, stood on both sides of a step-and-repeat. But those moments were aspirational, not comfortable. Those moments were about squeezing myself into a proscribed narrative. Those moments were tiny glimpses into massive myths.

Since I arrived, I’ve been hungry to unearth another version of the city—one obscured by the tourist guides to LA’s historic steps or maps of Charles Bukowski’s favorite bars. I looked endlessly for books about women of color in Los Angeles; books about queer, working-class people in Los Angeles; books about anyone who looked like me, felt like me, loved like me, longed like me, in Los Angeles.

Then I read Native Country of the Heart.


MS. MAGAZINE: Q&A with Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Patrisse Cullors

This piece was published by Ms. magazine.

“Criminal justice is the biggest human rights issue in the U.S.,” Carroll Bogert, president of the non-profit criminal justice news platform The Marshall Project, declared from the stage Friday at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation’s Humanitarian Symposium. “Why do we think civil rights happened here, and human rights happen somewhere else?”

That was the question at the center of a wide-ranging conversation between Bogert and E. Tendayi Achiume, assistant professor of law at UCLA Law School and the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, and Patrisse Cullors, the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network.

Los Angeles is a City for CEDAW, even though the U.S. has yet to ratify the treaty calling for worldwide gender equality. “That can be applied to criminal justice reform,” Achiume noted, “and that is a global issue where the U.S. is far behind.” Building criminal justice reform efforts around a “shared language” of human rights, she added, can help “race activists connect with the movement outside.”

That’s the language Cullors speaks with her organizing efforts. “When we started Black Lives Matter, we were very clear that we wanted an international frame,” she explained, adding that the BLM Global Network now extends to places like Brazil and the United Kingdom. “Black Lives Matter wasn’t go to be African American Lives Matter.”

Cullors is also founder and chairperson of the Reform LA Jails movement, which has seen recent success in a city where, according to the activist leader, 17,000 people are in prison daily because they can’t afford to post cash bail. The coalition fought the construction of new jails in Los Angeles County for 15 years—and officially, just this year, put a halt to a $35B jail expansion plan.

But the campaign to stop cash from flowing into the construction of new prisons in LA was “never about jail facilities,” Cullors explained. Instead, it was “always about the investment.” Halting budget expansions for prisons, she noted, is one way of “reversing the [city’s] divestment from people of color.” That’s why the big fight now ahead of the Reform coalition is a ballot measure campaign moving money away from jails and passing it on, instead, to mental health care services.

“Someone imagined a jail cell,” Cullors reminded the room. “Someone imagine a siren. And then they came to be, and we came to think that they had always existed.”

Cullors, of course, is interested in imagining a new way forward that looks entirely different—and she talked to Ms. after walking off the stage Friday about what comes next in the work of making it possible.

We’re coming up on 2020, and there’s all these conversations right now about what’s a political agenda that serves people in the right way. What’s a local agenda? What do you think a political framework that does center black lives and black liberation would look like in this current moment?

Well, I think, you know, this conversation around abolition and reparations is critical for how we are talking about what’s needed for black liberation. You know, Black Lives Matter Global Network launched a campaign called What Matters in 2020—really calling on, I would say, not just the presidential candidates, but also, you know, elected officials, appointed officials across the country to really look at, um, what it would take to consider a black agenda. In 2016, when Black Lives Matter really took, you know, an a aggressive approach to challenging the presidential candidates about discussing Black Lives Matter; this is sort of the evolution of that.

We’ve really identified, you know, what are some key issues that black people are thinking about? Obviously police brutality, criminal justice reform, issues around maternal mortality and morbidity, economic justice, queer and trans rights is the kind of the center of what black people are thinking about around how we get free. It’s not, I don’t think, hyperbolic to say what you’ve been saying for the last six years—which is, when black people get free, everybody else gets free. The work of changing the very fabric of this country is going to take really looking at the history of the oppression of black people and the divestment from black communities and what it would look like to reinvest into these communities.

I also really loved the idea of applying a human rights framework here and also even at that local level, like in our communities. From your experience, having done all this organizing that you’ve done, what does it look like in practice to have that human rights framework at the center of an organization or a campaign that might be really hyper-locally focused or you know, a county campaign, or absolutely presidential campaign?

I think for us here in Los Angeles, as we’re leading a much of the work around changing the criminal justice system—is being brave enough to have a conversation about what does it mean that our system here in Los Angeles is the largest jailer in the world, that it has really been the blueprint and a lot of ways for other jail facilities across the country, that our Sheriff’s department, you know, is a Sheriff’s department that is riddled with corruption and a culture of violence. And that isn’t an anomaly, right? That is the culture at most law enforcement agencies.

It really begs a question around the use of jailing and the use of policing if these sort of two apparatuses weren’t really created, you know, to rehabilitate—which we know they weren’t, jails and prisons were created after the emancipation of slavery and police were created during slavery to patrol black people—and so we have to have a historical conversation. I think when we have that historical conversation, both at the local level, it gives us an opportunity to talk about what’s happening across the country, and also what’s happening across the globe.

I think a lot of people are talking about disruption and disrupting systems and, you know, you talked a lot, too, about imagining new systems. What does a political system look like that would serve people?

Well, I think it’s twofold. You have to think about infrastructure and institutions as what creates systems, but the infrastructure institution also creates culture. So we got rid of Jim Crow, but we didn’t get rid of Jim Crow hate, right? We got rid of slavery, but we didn’t get rid of the idea that black people shouldn’t be still be subjugated, still be in chains, still be controlled.

We have to change the culture—and as we create every new system, we should be created in a way that is based off of the dignity and the humanity of individuals, and the collectives and the people they come from. When we’re thinking about institutions: the institution of imprisonment is not an institution that is about dignity, not an institution that is about freedom. It is literally about control and subjugation and punishment. We need to imagine a new system, one that is about healing and that it’s about dignity, but it’s about reconnection. It’s not going to come inside of caging a human being.

Much of what we talked about on the panel is like there’s other places that are doing it. We can learn from those other places. There was a time when this country wasn’t inhabited by white colonizers. There was a time when the idea of policing or caging human being was not on the table. They’re there. We have context for being able to change what we have right now in the U.S. and in LA in particular, but we also have present context. We have places and countries and people that are doing it.

As you’ve built Black Lives Matter into this global network, what would you say are some of the greatest takeaways about how to build transnational movements? How can folks in one place support folks at another and how do they come together?

I think every time we’re doing local work, it has to have an international implications. The local work that I’m doing, I’m never thinking—oh, this is just going to help the people of Los Angeles. I know that the people of Los Angeles are from around the world, so it’s going to help people from around the world. I know that what Los Angeles does has national and international implications.

The work we’re doing here—and I’m going to use this term that I’ve talked about, I didn’t coin it, but I’ve talked about in a lot of my writings—is we have to create a non-reformist reformance. We are reform movement until revolution, but a non-reformance reform is the idea that you are going to reform an institution by not making it stronger. Non-reformance reform is something like, you know, take a half of the police budget and give it towards schools—not reform that would actually enhance the police. It’s like body cameras, right?

We’re not interested in giving more money to law enforcement to do a job that is about harming and violated communities. We’re interested in taking away that power so that we can put power into places that will empower our communities.


MS. MAGAZINE: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Warning for Humanitarians

This piece was published by Ms. magazine.

“To give people the opportunity to tell their stories in their own language,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie told the crowd Friday at the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Symposium and Prize Ceremony, “is to give them their dignity.”

The award-winning author of Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, The Thing Around Your Neck, Americanah, We Should All Be Feminists and Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions spoke at the Hilton Foundation’s annual event in Los Angeles about the topic of her viral TED Talk: the danger of a single story.

Adichie is familiar with many of them as the Nigerian-born daughter of refugees—someone who, as a young girl, remembers sitting in the car while it drove past neighborhoods and feeling a distinct “ache” for all of the stories she could never tell.

In one that she recounted for the audience, an American professor told her that her work wasn’t “authentically African” because she depicted middle-class life in Africa. “This is how to create a single story,” she explained from the stage. “Show people as just one thing, over and over again, until they become that thing.”

In another, her well-intentioned male friend boasted about giving Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, to his female friends—but resisted the notion of reading it himself. “We know statistically that men read men and women read men and women,” Adichie reminded the room. “It is time to change that and move to higher ground.”

Adichie was a fitting speaker for the afternoon, in which the Greek refugee services organization METAdrasi—Action for Migration and Development, founded in 2009 by Lora Poppa to help provide basic humanitarian services to the estimated 80,000 refugees and migrants currently living on the shores of Greece, received the 2019 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize.

“Nobody is ever just a refugee,” Adichie told the symposium attendees. “Nobody is ever just anything. Nobody has a single story.” No movement does, either, which Adichie opened up to Ms. about backstage after her address.

“I was talking to a young woman who said to me that she doesn’t like to participate in Twitter debates about feminism,” Adichie remembered, “because she feels that she might say the wrong thing and she’s afraid to be ostracized—and it just broke my heart because she’s, you know, she’s young, early twenties, she’s sort of trying to figure things out and she feels like she can’t talk.”

That conversation with a young Nigerian woman, who was living in the UK at the time, brought to the fore some of the disconnects Adichie has felt in the feminist movement herself. “I think maybe it’s just a question of hearing one another,” Adichie observed. “We don’t really hear one another. I sometimes feel a little alienated from a certain kind of modern ‘woke’ feminism, because I think a it’s almost become a ‘gotcha’ feminism, and I feel like we don’t really hear one another. I feel that there is a lot about the movement that has become, I don’t know, that almost lacks compassion.”

Adichie also called for even more #MeToo stories, especially from working-class women. “I’d like to see more stories of working class women and sexual harassment,” she declared backstage, “because it’s rampant, and it happens, but I feel as though it’s not yet taken the position that it needs to in the #MeToo movement. But it’s not to say that the stories of middle class and upper middle class women don’t matter, because they do. It’s simply to say that I think we need to broaden it out more, particularly in terms of class. I just really think that we need to hear the #MeToo stories of women who are not privileged.”

To make that possible, Adichie called on feminists organizing events around #MeToo and issues of workplace harassment and discrimination to specifically encourage working-class women to tell their stories—and to put them at the center of organizing efforts. “If there’s a panel on #MeToo,” she said, “whoever is organizing that panel, I think there is a moral responsibility to not only find the sort of usual suspects, but to find the less predictable.”

Of course, encouraging the most vulnerable women to speak up also means encouraging women to break free from the cultural baggage that has silenced their stories for centuries. Adichie offered up a succinct explanation of her own courageous acts of speaking out to speed along the process: “As you get older,” she assured, “you’re looking at your bag of fucks to give, and it’s empty, so you just say what she would say.”

Adichie, who grew up climbing trees with her brother, remembers vividly that when she began developing and got her period, at just age 11, her socialization as a girl was presented as a series of limitations. “Everything changed,” she confessed. “Suddenly I couldn’t, you know, I was ashamed of myself, I didn’t know what this whole thing was about, and then I got my period, and my mother was like, you’re now a woman. I was 11. I didn’t even know what that means. Everything that was fun was no longer allowed. And this is also what I was being told: You need to go to the kitchen and be there when the cooking is done so you can learn to cook because you’re going to cook for your husband.”

Those moments set Adichie’s own feminism into motion. “I did experience femaleness very early on as as just limitations,” she remembered, “and all the things that you were told you could not do.” But she also has come now to a new place—one in which she is defying norms for herself and as an act of service to other women around the world. Adichie is resisting the notion of a single story by telling her own as loudly as possible.

“I’m 42, and I do think it gets easier for women as we get older,” she said, thinking back on her bag of fucks. “That’s for me. That’s been my discovery, that you become more comfortable in your own skin and you just didn’t have it. Your story more, you genuinely really, that bag is empty, you do not have any more fucks to give—but when you’re in your early twenties, it’s harder. You’re trying to figure things out. People’s opinions matter more to you. It’s harder. I do worry about the emotional health of young women, the mental and emotional health of young women. But I’m at a place where I can take it.”


MS. MAGAZINE: Meet the #MeTooVoter

This piece was published by Ms. magazine.

Today marks the second anniversary of the viral explosion of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement—and she marked the occasion by launching the #MeTooVoter online campaign calling on political leaders to address sexual harassment and design solutions for safer workplaces.

“It’s imperative that all of the presidential candidates and others in public service realize that survivors are constituents who work, pay taxes and contribute to society every single day so the issues that impact us should be taken seriously,” Burke said in a statement announcing the campaign. “We’re calling on candidates to lay out their specific plans to address sexual violence and to take action on the pending policy proposals that would also support survivors.” Burke today tweeted a call for questions about #MeToo to be included in tonight’s debate, which will feature 12 Democratic candidates and all of the current front-runners.

“Political leaders and candidates must treat this issue as one of the most pressing social, health, economic and safety issues of all time,” Monica Ramírez, President of Justice for Migrant Women and Gender Justice Campaigns Director for National Domestic Workers Alliance, said in the statement. “Survivors are powerful and demand action. Through #MeTooVoter, we are calling on survivors and allies to use our collective power to hold political leaders and candidates accountable at the ballot box.”

Ramírez, alongside Fatima Goss Graves of the National Women’s Law Center and Aijen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, joined Burke today in announcing the new effort, which will “push elected leaders and candidates to develop solid policy proposals that will support survivors’ healing, provide necessary services and benefits, invest in prevention and reform legal protections to ensure that they cover all survivors, regardless of the kind of sexual violence or harassment they experienced or where they experienced it.”

The campaign is meant to span mediums—raising questions and sparking conversations around sexual harassment and violence online and on the ground in communities across the country.

“We’re in the midst of an unprecedented cultural conversation about sexual violence and harassment, and about gender and power,” Goss Graves said in the statement.  “When #MeToo went viral, hundreds of thousands of people courageously spoke out about the ways in which they had been harmed and the ways institutions had let them down. Their experiences demand systemic solutions, and now is the time for voters to come together and tell our lawmakers that we are waiting to hear how they will answer this call.” 

According to a recent survey by the National Women’s Law Center, and as part of the Supermajority’s Majority Rules campaign in 2020, a majority of voters want lawmakers to better address and prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

“Leaders who want to represent us should consistently address our concerns and reflect our values,” said Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and co-founder of Supermajority. “#MeTooVoter is a call to all political leaders to recognize the power of survivors as constituents and their responsibility to prioritize ending sexual violence.”


MS. MAGAZINE: Keeping Track of the Gender Gap on Impeachment

This piece was published by Ms. magazine.

New polling data from The Washington Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University shows that the gender gap is shaping the unfolding impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump in even larger numbers than Ms. reported just last week.

According to the national sample of 1,007 adults contacted by phone in the first week of October, a stunning 58 percent of Americans support the House inquiry, and 49 percent said the House should move forward to impeach the President and call for his removal from office. These were the highest recorded levels of support for such actions yet—and large gaps in responses between women and men drove the spike.

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Both men and women agree that House lawmakers were right to open the impeachment inquiry—but a 14-point gender gap divided the 51 percent of men who said as much to The Post and the whopping 65 percent of women who responded with the same. Of those who support the inquiry, a 10-point gap emerged between men and women on the question of whether the House should ramp up their efforts—with 54 percent of women saying that lawmakers should impeach Trump and remove him from office, but only 44 percent of men saying the same.

A majority of women and men, 58 percent, also agreed that Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president asking him to dig up dirt on Democratic presidential contender and former Vice President Joe Biden was inappropriate—but a nine-point difference emerged in the responses by gender. In total, 66 percent of women agreed that Trump’s call was inappropriate, compared to 57 percent of men.

Women also narrowly drove the majority opinion, held by 53 percent of all respondents, that lawmakers investigating Trump’s actions are upholding their constitutional duty: 56 percent of women and 51 percent of men agree. Even larger gaps emerge on the question of whether they are taking a necessary stand—with 67 percent of women, compared to 55 percent of men, saying yes. To the question of whether the impeachment was a “distraction” from “more important issues,” 51 percent of women said no, compared to 40 percent of men.

Gaps by age also shaped the results of the poll: 66 percent of respondents between 18 and 39 said lawmakers were right to open the inquiry, and 56 percent called for impeachment and Trump’s removal from office, compared to 49 and 40 percent of respondents over 65 who said the same—resulting in a 17-point gap. Whereas 58 percent of those younger respondents believe these inquiries are part of Congress’ constitutional duties, only 51 percent of their older counterparts agreed; while 65 percent of younger voices declared that the impeachment process was necessary, 57 percent of those over 65 and 58 percent of those between 40 and 64 responded in kind.

These differences may be what led to a massive difference of 12 points dividing the 51 percent of 18 to 39 year-old respondents and the 39 percent of those 65 and up who said the impeachment wasn’t a “distraction.”

What these numbers confirm is what Ms. has been observing throughout the nascent impeachment process taking shape now on Capitol Hill: Women, whether lawmakers or voters, are leading the charge to hold Trump accountable—and, together with young people, they’re forming the frontline in the fight to save our democracy.

Click here to find all the Post poll cross-tabs.


MS. MAGAZINE: Q&A with Take the Lead Founder and Author Gloria Feldt

This piece was published by Ms. magazine.

Gloria Feldt’s vision for the future is clear: more women in power, period.

It’s the mission defines Feldt’s career as the bestselling author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, professor of “Women, Power and Leadership” at Arizona State University and cofounder and president of Take The Lead—an organization intent on preparing, developing, inspiring and otherwise propelling women to take their fair and equal share of leadership positions across all sectors by 2025.

Feldt been named one of “America’s Top 200 Women Leaders, Legends and Trailblazers” by Vanity Fair and was once Glamour’s “Woman of the Year,” but her own journey to power—and empowerment—had unexpected beginnings.

Feldt grew up in a small town in rural Texas; she was a teen mom and a high school dropout. But her own journey has made her certain that all women can claim their own seat at the table—once they surrender their learned resistance to embracing their own power.

That’s where Take The Lead’s 50 Women Can program comes in. The new initiative cultivates community among women leaders in difference sectors, bringing together cohorts of fearless and powerful women to help them forge pathways to parity together. 

Feldt talked to Ms. via email about the 50 Women Can program and the results she’s already seeing—and even handed down some advice for activists looking to leverage their voices to accelerate change.

Tell me about the 50 Women Can program you wrapped earlier this year for female journalists. What led you to launch the program, and what was it like in the rooms where it happened? Would love a glimpse into the experiences of these female journalists who participated.

Take The Lead’s 50 Women Can Change the World provides women with the intention and skills to achieve greater leadership roles and embrace their power to lead change in the culture of their professions. We’ve had programs or are planning programs for cohorts in journalism, finance, healthcare, nonprofit, media and entertainment and human resources. 

Take The Lead’s mission is to prepare, develop, inspire and propel women to take their fair and equal share of leadership positions across all sectors by 2025. That’s a tall order—and 70 to 150 years sooner than current projections. We developed the 50 Women Can Change the World program to fast-track cohorts of emerging leaders and women already in executive leadership roles to accelerate gender parity in leadership. 

Our 50 Women Can Change the World in Journalism program was an incredible experience. Many of these super-talented and ambitious women have felt isolated and seen opportunities in the field of traditional journalism contract. Women now make up almost two-thirds of journalism graduates, but they remain at one-third of newsroom leadership roles. 

The women benefited from virtual and in-person sessions, along with individualized coaching. The program’s curriculum, which I developed, focused on enabling them to elevate their career intentions, provided them with immediately usable tools and skills and required them to create individual and cohort Strategic Leadership Action Plans to activate what they learned.

Here are a few voices of women in the room.

Eva Pearlman, co-founder of Spaceship Media: “I just feel this incredible sense of gratitude for this program, for the structure of it, for the ways you’ve gotten us thinking, because there’s so much beauty and so much power and so much talent and so many ways to go about working on the problems in journalism…so I’m very thankful.”

Antonia Hylton, correspondent and producer at Vice News Tonight: “Now I have new words and dreams, and things that I’ve put on paper, I have an actual 10-step plan, of everything that’s in my grasp, resources I realized I already have at my disposal, and while I’ve been in this space of rethinking, what a blessing that has been, to know there are things I can do, people I can call now, many of them in this room, to take my career to its next phase.”

Claritza Jimenez, senior producer of Politico Live: “It’s been really reaffirming to see women still dreaming big, no matter what stage of their life they’re in and knowing they can always reinvent themselves and reinvent themselves and I think that’s so important.”

Jayati Vora, managing editor of The Investigative Fund: “It’s really rare to be able to step out and re-examine your life …to just take stock, to take that space for yourself is really rare, so thank you for making me do it.”

Tell me, too, about the 50 Women Can campaigns and programs you’re launching across sectors more broadly. What unites all of them? What makes them special and unique?

Many women’s leadership programs measure success by numbers reached. We’re different. We measure success by impact.

You can go to a big conference every day, get inspired, maybe learn one new thing. But that hasn’t been moving the dial toward parity for women fast enough for any of us to see it in our lifetimes. In fact, I think women spend way too much time and money going to puffy fluffy conferences that are like cotton candy—pretty but lacking in nutrition.

I realized that we can have a greater effect—go farther faster—by creating mutually supportive cohorts of women who are emerging leaders within an industry, providing high impact, immersive training and coaching. Each highly accomplished group practices the nine Leadership Power Tools—which hone leadership skills—and creates Strategic Leadership Action Plans with high intention goals. All that we provide and enable is unique and uniquely effective. And we don’t stop there. Once the program is complete, we measure progress in three- and six-month intervals. 

The power of the cohort is also inestimable. I see the women continuing to support, sponsor and elevate each other years after the program. Together, these highly intentional women can drive progress for all women in their sector. It’s really movement-building on a personal and organizational level to create sustainable change.

What’s really fun right now is that the various cohorts want to know the other cohorts. So, we’re experimenting with ways to enable them to communicate and share strategies to leverage the impact exponentially.

You’re a former Planned Parenthood CEO, advisor to the ERA coalition and a prolific writer and author on myriad feminist causes. Why did you kick off these 50 Women Can programs with media, entertainment and journalism focuses? How do you think media parity, and trainings and programs like this, connect to the larger fight for women’s equality and gender parity?

Everything I have ever done has sprung from my passion for social justice. And I am a very practical person. I don’t just want to talk about gender parity and social justice—I want to foster real results.

I realized that as important as reproductive rights are, if women don’t get equality in power, leadership positions and pay, we’ll keep fighting the same old battles over and over. I think achieving gender equality in leadership is today’s most important women’s movement.

The first 50 Women program was for emerging female leaders in nonprofits and we have done three of those cohorts now. We’ve also done one for women in healthcare and have two more on the drawing board. Those are two fields where women are 75 to 80 percent of the employees and 20 to 30 percent of the top leadership positions, especially of the larger organizations in their sector. In planning stages are finance, law and tech. We’re determined to change that.

Every sector is important. The curriculum applies to and can be customized to any sector. That said, the reason for focusing on media, entertainment and journalism is that whoever decides what stories will be told, who will tell them and through whose lens shapes the entire culture. Therefore, we believe that achieving gender parity in these fields will have outsized positive influence on how people think and act on the social and economic issues that are especially relevant to women.

What have some of the participants in 50 Women Can gone on to do? What do the reverberations of the program show us about the power of this kind of model?

Many of the women in the 50 Women Can Change the World program have been inspired to pursue promotions or raises, think more strategically about their careers and put their names out there, and have forged deep, lasting connections with other cohort members.

The power and impact of individual learning and the cohort are very clear. For example, one participant reported that she used the 50 Women Can planning process and coaching to create a pitch for a leadership position – an important first step in her career growth. Another shared an exciting new role at a major broadcast network. And yet another made sure her team got credit for the work they did for network news coverage of Hurricane Florence by speaking to HR management. 

There are many more stories like this. Overall, the women have shared how enthusiastic they are about all they took away from the program, how they’re already putting it into action and their victories.

The program has made a difference in women’s professional lives. For example, Valerie Brown Grant, who attended one of my first workshops, said: “A year ago at your workshop I set my personal action plan goal to become a vice president at my firm. I used the Use What You’ve Got Power Tool to differentiate myself and demonstrate my value to the company. Today, I was informed I am being promoted to vice president.” 

And Anne Parmley, SVP at Pearson and a Take The Lead executive leadership program graduate, said: “The Take The Lead programs provide a safe and supportive environment for women climbing in their careers to have thoughtful and productive conversations about where they are and where they are going in their leadership journeys. You walk away with a plan and intent to take yourself to the next level, professionally and personally.” 

These are such natural extensions of your work around women’s leadership—you’re the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, and you teach “Women, Power and Leadership” at ASU. And it comes at a time when women’s voices seem as powerful as ever—in the midst of #MeToo and the powerful Women’s March movement.

What can the feminists reading this do right now to start stepping into their own power, and leveraging it to advance equality?

This is the moment we have been building to for centuries, you could say, but certainly for the last two centuries. I want everyone reading this to know you have the power in your hands right this minute to achieve gender parity in position and pay, in law and in daily life. For good: our own good, the good of the world and forever.

This is a rare strategic inflection moment when the justice case and the business case converge. But such moments pass quickly if we fail to take them “at the flood” as Shakespeare or perhaps his sister said. Power unused is power useless.

This is not a time to congratulate ourselves. It is the time to press forward with eyes on the overarching goal of full equality for all women. All humans, for that matter.

Go win elections. Give money or time to candidates you support or run yourself. Start companies that build wealth at the Apple level or run them. Raise feminist kids. Give to social justice causes. Invest in women-led businesses and buy from companies with female-friendly policies. Find the cure for cancer, solve climate change. Do one small thing every day to help another woman succeed. Use your power to lead men and women together to a healthier, more just world. Nobody has to do everything, but everybody can do something.

And know that when you go forth to change the world, some people won’t like you. There will be pushback, sometimes violent. Don’t let it deter you. Listen to your own clarion call. Ignore the naysayers. You are doing the most important work for the future of humanity. That to me is what feminism is all about.


MS. MAGAZINE: Q&A with Documentary Filmmaker Ursula Macfarlane

This piece was published by Ms. magazine.

Ursula Macfarlane is a UK-based filmmaker whose candid documentaries have gained multiple wins and nominations for the BAFTA, Grierson and Royal Television Society Awards—including One Deadly Weekend in America, a feature documentary tracking gun violence over one July weekend; Captive, for Netflix, Charlie Hebdo: Three Days That Shook Paris; and Breaking Up With The Joneses, a feature documentary about a couple going through a divorce.

Macfarlane’s latest is a documentary that rewinds the clock on the #MeToo movement’s viral explosion—exposing the institutions and individuals who enabled Harvey Weinstein’s career of sexual misconduct, and mapping its impact on women’s lives.

Untouchable: The Inside Story of the Harvey Weinstein Scandal, now streaming on Hulu, weaves the harrowing stories of Weinstein’s victims into a larger narrative about corruption, misogyny and the women who toppled one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. Macfarlane talked to Ms. about what it took to tell this urgent story—and what she learned as a filmmaker and a feminist in the process.

Where does Untouchable begin? Where does the process of making this film start, and how did it take shape from there?

As soon as the Weinstein expose appeared in the New York Times and New Yorker, it ignited a conversation between me and my friends. Not a single one of us hadn’t experienced a #MeToo encounter, some more traumatic than others. So the story felt very personal to me, and as the avalanche of accusations continued, it felt to me that this was a story of our times that had to be documented. So when producer Simon Chinn—Searching For Sugar ManMan On Wire–called me to ask if I would collaborate with him on a feature documentary, I immediately said yes. How could I not?  

It felt like such a privilege to be able to tell the story, which was still in its infancy, the ending not yet written. Was it a watershed marking huge cultural change?  A reckoning? What was the extent of the collateral damage wrought on women by these allegations? How did he get away with it for so long? And what was the culture of complicity that allowed him to hide in plain sight for so many decades?

We wanted to make a timeless, universal film, widely viewed even by people who don’t know or particularly care who Harvey Weinstein is, but who care deeply about the prevalence of abuse in our culture. So we decided to put the accusations of abuse in the context of a man’s rise to power, his fatal flaw and his spectacular fall—almost like a Greek tragedy.

In the end, this is a film about the abuse of power, a story as old as time, abuse which reverberates through all cultures, industries and communities.

After the high-profile accusations against Weinstein came to light, the firestorm that followed was chased by a widespread call for an inclusive fight—for a culture that values all survivors, and that refuses to privilege famous or notable survivors over other victims.

This documentary was lauded for giving equitable screen time to some of Weinstein’s most prominent accusers, as well as some of the lesser-known women who have come forward. Why did that decision matter for you as a filmmaker, and what other intentions did you bring to this process as a storyteller? 

It was very important to us to tell a wide of stories which demonstrated Weinstein’s modus operandi amongst both the famous and the unknown. We were thrilled when Rosanna Arquette and Paz De La Huerta agreed to take part, but we treated their interviews and stories in exactly the same way as the other women’s. That is to say, spending time before the interviews to gain their trust, and giving them plenty of time to recount their experiences. We wove the stories together in such a way that, I hope, the audience doesn’t really notice who’s telling the story—it’s the content of the story that matters. Clearly, all the women have subtly different experiences throughout the decades, but a pattern emerges which binds them all together.

The accusations against Weinstein, and the sheer volume of how many there were, cracked something open—not just in Hollywood, but across sectors and around the world. The #MeToo movement’s viral explosion that followed the New York Times exposé on Weinstein has launched a renewed fight against rape culture. What did examining the “conspiracy” of Harvey Weinstein show you about what it will take for us to win that fight? 

I feel that rape and sexual violence is so embedded in our culture that it will take much more than the expose of a Weinstein to begin the process of stamping it out.  We know that the percentage of convictions for rape and sexual assault is very low.  The complicity of the Hollywood community, which allowed Weinstein to act with impunity, is echoed throughout our culture: look at the Catholic Church, sports and many other industries.  So until we can start to call out and dismantle complicity, predators will continue to stalk their victims.  Speaking out is the first step, but it will take a long time.  

You’re an accomplished documentary filmmaker, and you’ve watched the reverberations that storytelling can have unfold. What impact do you hope this film has—on viewers, on the culture-at-large, for survivors—now that it’s widely available?

My hope is that everyone watching this film is inspired to speak out—either about their own trauma, or on behalf of other survivors. Speaking out, being listened to and most importantly, being believed, is the first step to outing predators and making them pariahs. I know that people watching the film are very moved, if not devastated, by the testimonies, and I hope that will act as a call to arms.

Watch it, be shocked, but also be inspired by their courage. And adopt their bravery into our own lives.  

For you personally, what was the impact of making Untouchable? Was there a shift for you—as a filmmaker, as a feminist—that came from directing the doc?

I was humbled every time I sat in that chair and interviewed a new survivor.  To be honest, I and other crew members were often brought to tears, hearing about what the women had suffered.  One of the press reviews in the UK described the film as “quietly furious,” and I think that’s a good appraisal. I’m not a particularly loud person, and my films convey their ideas and emotions in a subtle way, but this has taught me the power of personally speaking out, loud and clear.

In a way, I think I’ve found my voice too.


MS. MAGAZINE: Q&A with “Roll Red Roll” Filmmaker Nancy Schwartzman

You can view the original version of this post on the Ms. website.

I first met Nancy Schwartzman in 2009, when she was designing the impact campaign around her short film “Where Is Your Line.” That documentary leveraged her own experience as a survivor to spark conversation around consent and sexual boundaries back in the era of Yes Means Yes, and a groundswell of new activism that demanded a sex-positive movement to end violence.

Ten years later, Schwartzman’s groundbreaking anti-violence work is back on bigger screens. Roll Red Roll, her feature-length true-crime documentary thriller, takes viewers to the frontline of the infamous Steubenville rape case, in which heinous accusations of rape against football players in a small town made national headlines—and put rape culture on the map.

Schwartzman’s film is now on Netflix following theatrical releases across the country and a debut TV release with PBS’ POV series. Before the 2019 National Sexual Assault Conference, where Roll Red Roll will screen and be followed by a discussion, she talked to Ms. about what that case—just as disturbing, jarring and shocking all these years later—can teach us about the roots of rape culture and what it will take to shift it.

Tell me about the moment you realized you were going to make this documentary. What led you to Steubenville, and what kept you there?

I’ve been an activist in the anti-violence movement for many years, leveraging film and interactive media and tech to do this work—I made a short film, “Where Is Your Line,” that explored consent, and developed the White House 2011 Apps Against Abuse Winner Circle of 6. When the Steubenville story broke, people started sending me information and urging me to do something.

I first heard about the story when it broke in the New York Times. But blogger Alexandria Goddard already captured social media, found deleted evidence and kicked it up to a larger audience. Rachel Dissell, an investigative reporter at the Plain Dealer had been reporting on it, too. Then Anonymous came in, after Alex was sued by a local family trying to silence her blogging about the case, and blew it onto the New York Times home page.  

Ultimately, it was the public nature of the crime, the social media documentation and the rare ability to tell a story about rape that focused on the perpetrators and the larger culture that drew me to the story. 

When we were in conversation at the Laemmle Theater in L.A. you said something that stuck with me—that you wanted to make a rape documentary where the survivor’s story was not at the center. Where, instead, cultural forces and circumstances were under the spotlight. Can you talk a little bit about that decision, and how it shaped your process as a filmmaker?

What made this story different were the elements that were not explored in film before—rape culture laid bare, published in hundreds of social media posts, hackers, an amateur crime blogger, the ability to look into perpetrator behavior and the context that enabled it. Without scrutinizing the victim, we can look at the language these boys are using, the seeming acceptance of folks in town.

Which begged the larger questions: Why did no one stop it? What was happening in that community that made it “ok” to joke so publicly about rape? 

We crafted the film to engage men and boys—we worked in the true crime genre, a popular genre that usually fetishizes victimhood, flipped that trope, and put the spotlight on the behavior; we used football imagery, football energy and music to echo the energy of the young men during the night of the assault and afterwards. But set in this context and laid bare, the “excitement” or celebration is horrifying.

Context is everything. I wanted to make a film that no one could watch and still minimize what occurred or blame the victim.

I remember Steubenville not only because it was such a defining moment in my own activism, but because I was convinced, I think, on some level, that it was an outlier, and I was wrong. In what ways is Steubenville—and when I say that word I mean the town, and also the crime that’s come to define it—a lasting case study in rape culture? 

To quote Jimmie Briggs: “Rape culture is American culture.” We live in a culture that dehumanizes women and queer people – that objectifies and shames, and ultimately laughs at and makes light of sexual violence. In many ways, Steubenville was the horror story that brought the term “rape culture” into mainstream conversation. And in the process, Steubenville has become synonymous with the ugly realities of that culture. 

I’m wondering if you had “a-ha” moments while you were making the film. What lessons can advocates and activists take away from this film? What did you learn making it?

I traveled back and forth to town quite a bit, and got to know folks from all corners. What I learned was that everybody was impacted by the rape, the effects were so far reaching, everyone felt close to it and hurt by it. It really solidified my understanding that rape is not just a crime between victim and perpetrator, it reaches and ripples out to en entire community. 

But we are truly in a transformational moment. Finally people are listening, are enraged. We are seeing more men stepping up as allies, calling out the behavior as unacceptable. Can we harness that for change?

The epidemic of sexual violence needs multiple solutions, strategies and stories. It can be tempting to see legal and policy changes as a “fix,” but these are left vulnerable and unsustainable without long-term cultural engagement. We want to stress the importance of the anecdotal feedback we have received from our audiences about how Roll Red Roll has changed the way they think about sexual violence and has inspired them to be a part of positive change. These attitude shifts lay important groundwork for sustainable cultural impact.

In the midst of #MeToo, what happened in Steubenville also doesn’t feel like it was nearly a decade ago, not anymore—yet it was a groundbreaking moment for digital activism, for anti-rape activism, for survivors speaking out. What conversation are you trying to spark with Roll Red Roll—and what impact are you hoping to make with this story in the current moment?

I hope we are creating pathways for men to challenge toxic masculinity and harmful tropes that create the context for gender-based violence and harassment. I think we’ve deepened audiences understanding of rape culture, from the subtle to the extreme.

I also know the work doesn’t end here, and it hasn’t for you, either. You’ve already released a short film follow-up with The Guardian. What are your next steps—as an activist, as a filmmaker, as a feminist?

Roll Red Roll just went live on Netflix in 138 countries, so we are connecting with a global audience with tweets pouring in—in Spanish, French, Norwegian—and our impact team is really working hard to meet the demands for resources. We are continuing to bring the film and our impact campaign to communities around the world, including implementing the free and available Roll Red Roll interdisciplinary high school lesson plan in schools around the U.S.

I am also developing new film projects continuing to explore the intersections of gender and technology, and I’ve joined the APB Speaker’s Bureau—so I’ll hopefully come chat in more schools and communities moving forward, too!


MS. MAGAZINE: Inside the Jane Club’s New Orleans Essence Festival Pop-Up

This piece was published by Ms. magazine.

Earlier this month, the Essence Festival made space for a whole lot of Black Girl Magic in New Orleans—and the Los Angeles-based Jane Club set up shop in the city to offer VIPs and distinguished guests space where they could be in community, in conversation and at home.

The “mother of all member clubs” set up a pop-up location on Esplanade, a historical location where free women of color owned businesses in the early 20th century. They offered their standard amenities—on-site childcare, a woman-centered workspace, community programming and opportunities to take action—with an Essence Festival twist.

The Jane Club was invited to participate in Essence Festival at SXSW, in Austin, where they had organized a similar on-site pop-up. “We didn’t need to be asked twice!” Zaino exclaimed. The space jumped at the chance to be part of the annual celebration, where around half-a-million women, and especially Black women, would be at the center of the festivities.

To honor the opportunity, Zaino and her crew “kept it New Orleans.” The Club opened its doors with a panel discussion featuring local female artists, and an art exhibition called King Woman curated by Mashonda Tifrere of ArtLeadHer. It closed with a Family Festival in partnership with NYDJ denim. Each day, brunch opportunities abounded—and feminist celebrities, creatives and public figures collided.

“We played the drums with the Ashe Cultural Center,” Zaino remembered, “and enjoyed local music from the Andrews Family Brass Band, street violinist and busker Tanya Huang, local artist Caren Green and the legendary Zion Harmonizers, who launched jazz fest over 80 years ago.”

Over the course of the weekend, live tapings of podcasts like Demetria L. Lucas’ Ratchet and Respectable were set up as part of a SEE JANE LIVE conversation series, presented in partnership with Planned Parenthood. Children were ushered into The Nest, the Jane Club’s signature childcare space, while women like Latoya Cantrell, the first female Mayor of New Orleans, sounded off on issues like black maternal health and celebrated advocates like Cleopatra Singleton. 

“It was absolutely incredible to see the full team and village we built out in action,” Jane Club co-founder Jess Zaino told Ms. “Everyone and everything was buzzing. The brands and people and Janes and NOLA Janes together is an image held in my heart and soul forever. It was transcendent to be with my Jane family in NOLA as we swam, supped and sistered together.” 

Zaino couldn’t pick a favorite moment. “Our NYDJ family festival queen Retta is hilarious to spend time with,” she recalled. “Chef and author Carla Hall, who I know personally from my years as a producer on ABC’s The chew, baked biscuits in her hotel room throughout the weekend with strangers she would meet on the street. Having Tina Knowles-Lawson and Iman join us for dinner and show up for the Jane mission and vision was a dream come true. To work with Mayor Latoya Cantrell, Action New Orleans, NYDJ and Planned Parenthood to amplify issues important to black women and motherhood was something I will never forget.”

The Jane Club’s mission—to “create the village” that it takes to raise children and to foster women’s success—took on new meaning in executing the experience. “We were grateful to create something that represented and supported our New Orleans Janes,” Zaino told Ms., “and it truly took a village of Janes to get our NOLA pop up off the ground—from our title sponsors NYDJ, to Planned Parenthood, Ciroc, Evolve Footwear and Swivel Beauty, to the full Jane team on the ground, we worked tirelessly to create the most impactful experience possible.”

Zaino was one of the lead architects, but her co-conspirators also brought the space to life. “Jenny Billard executes the vision,” she explained. “Chudney Ross builds out a safe, nurturing and fun nest for the kids who visit. Shawnta Valdes holds our community hearts in light and Hailey Porter translates our IRL experience into something that all can enjoy on social media. McKensie Kirchner held down the fort throughout the weekend and Claire O. Bivens greeted guests with a southern smile and grace. Rickey Lee of Urban Earth created the magical space and Barrie Schwartz and Danielle Lee of My House Social ran the f and b like nobody’s business.We also had several Janes join us in NOLA—Aryn Drake-Lee and Trian Long-Smith recorded their podcast, bbs are trash, as part of our See Jane Live, and Hannah Diop, founder of Sienna Naturals, was representing Jane in our beauty lounge.”

Ross reveled in the opportunity to re-create The Nest in a new city and take the experience it offers on the road. “I was so happy to be in New Orleans to recreate that experience,” she told Ms., “for Janes traveling to Essence Fest with kids and local Janes who joined in on programming with their children.” The Chief Kid Officer is also the owner of Books and Cookies, a mobile, interactive literacy program, and she brought some of that programming to New Orleans as well with two music storytimes for the littlest Janes. “Our programs not only entertain children,” she explained, “but also develop vocabulary, improve the ability to learn to read and, perhaps most important, foster a lifelong love of books, reading and learning—which is important no matter where you travel!”

And once the space was constructed, a mighty village also filled its walls. Tai Beauchamp—Zaino’s longtime friend, and “one of the most impressive connectors” she’s ever known—was brought on to executive produce the weekend, and secured artist Estelle, now an honorary Jane; venture capitalist Arlan Hamilton; and the global head of community inclusion at Google, Valeisha Butterfield Jones to form the space’s host committee. “Even previous to the weekend,” Zaino explained, “we had women on the ground in NOLA who supported our mission and vision—notably, artist Mallory Page, Ariel Wilson of the Orchid Society and Andrea Stricker of the McKenna Museum of Free People of Color.  Of course, all the while, our LA Janes supported us from the Homefront.”

Diop described the Jane Club pop-up as transforming Essence Festival into a homecoming twice over. “I love being at Essence Festival, because it is a celebration of our beauty and sisterhood,” she told Ms., “[…and] I loved being in community at the Jane Club—connecting with powerful women, sharing our stories, ambitions and goals for our community.”

“We loved meeting all of the New Orleans Janes,” Zaino confided. “The women who came through the house over the weekend, and stayed and then came back the next day—always ready to connect, show up, honor and enjoy each other—is a true testament to the power of The Jane Club community. Wherever you go, women are the same in our needs. We need the same support, love and village. Our NOLA pop-up was further proof that we need more Jane Clubs.”


MS. MAGAZINE: Stories from the What Women Want Campaign

This piece was published by Ms. magazine online and in the Summer 2019 print edition.

When mobilizers in Uganda from the What Women Want campaign asked Kansiime Prossy to declare her top demand for improving women’s reproductive health, she offered a simple request: “Good quality health services near to women’s homes.”

Years earlier, Prossy had delivered her child outdoors at night in the middle of Queen Elizabeth National Park, surrounded by hungry hyenas.

Prossy knew the way to the maternity center: She had walked the 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) through the park for prenatal care throughout her pregnancy, but when she went into labor at 11 p.m., the journey was much more challenging. She rode by bicycle to the center with her husband, sitting behind him on the saddle while he stood to pedal. Six kilometers (almost 4 miles) from their goal, they could continue no farther and she gave birth in the dead of night in the unforgiving wilderness. When Prossy and her husband saw hyenas closing in on them, they shouted for help—and were relieved to see headlights. The National Park patrol vehicle that found them at the last second saved their lives just as surely as the health workers who stopped Prossy’s bleeding and removed her retained placenta after the rangers delivered her to the maternity center.

Prossy is one of 1.2 million women and girls from 114 countries who participated in the What Women Want campaign created by the White Ribbon Alliance (WRA). Her story exemplifies the urgency behind their mission.

“The origins of this campaign,” WRA deputy executive director Kristy Kade told Ms., “are as grassroots as grassroots can possibly be.” In 2016 in West Bengal, India, a local WRA chapter recognized, through face-to-face conversations with local women about their needs and experiences, that lawmakers advocating for them were missing the mark.

“There was such a missing voice from the planning that was going on in terms of India’s care, and the rollout of their new guidelines about improving maternal health services for women,” Kade explains. “It was being done in a vacuum, without ever really talking about the experiences of women.” The WRA team in West Bengal came together with more than a hundred allied organizations to expand the effort nationally and launch a campaign they called Hamara Swasthya, Hamari Awaz—“Our Health, Our Voices”—that eventually gave women unprecedented influence over the agenda setting that shapes their own lives.

“It caught on like wildfire,” Kade recalls, describing the effort mounted by volunteers to ask women across the country what they needed and wanted to see change in terms of reproductive and maternal health care in their communities. “When they started, they thought they might get 10,000 responses. By the end—they did this for three months—they got 150,000.”

Those responses became powerful leverage for advocates. The collective power of women’s voices in West Bengal had created enough political pressure to grant them a seat at the table. The results of the campaign were shared with local leaders, who were persuaded to pay more attention to critical health care issues facing women. When those local leaders passed the results upward to ministers and parliamentarians, the campaign became fodder for national news coverage—and forced lawmakers to respond by shifting the focus of their health care policies.

A table covered in survey responses. (Copyright White Ribbon Alliance, photo courtesy of WRA India)

In 2017, during her first week working with WRA, Kade and her team began building out the model on a global scale. Despite the necessary customizations and adaptations for the campaign which allow each to flourish in their own cultural context, the mobilizers worldwide were unified by a singular mission, as Kade summarizes: “putting our mouths and our minds behind the idea that we need to ask women, they should be heard, they should be listened [to], they do know best about their own health care needs. They’re the real experts.”

Radically restructuring the model of health care advocacy, and putting power back in the hands of women patients, marks a revolutionary shift in and of itself—especially during a moment in which the Trump administration’s expanded Global Gag Rule is attempting to restrict women’s choices by cutting U.S. funding for any foreign organization that promotes or provides abortions worldwide.

The transformative power of the campaign began with the question at its core. Asking women what they want, the WRA team realized, was revelatory.

“It shouldn’t be radical,” Kade observes, “but it was.” For many women, it was one question they’d never been asked before. “There was sometimes a lot of: Why are you asking me this? Why do you care? Why would anyone care?” she explains. “Convincing them that their voice had power and significance and resonance was the transcending moment… That invitation to speak is what so many women have been waiting for.”

The campaign’s mobilizers, some of whom collected responses on social media and others who trekked through regions on foot to give women space to speak, bore witness to the impact of that invitation.

“It has been an amazing journey,” Talha Rasheed, a journalist in Karachi, Pakistan, told WRA. “I met with young girls, teenagers and women from all walks of life. Some were pessimistic; others were optimistic; all were victims of different levels of abuse. However, What Women Want gave them a platform to speak their hearts and make our voices heard by government. It gave wings to the women of Pakistan.”

“People needed to speak,” Kade declares. “What we really were interested in is what everyone individually wants, and that has power… It’s seeing not the doer or the done to, but [that] we all have needs, we all have interests, we’re all experiencing health care in a complicated way, and we need to express that. That’s where the real power comes from.”