Ex-Activist Guilt

That’s me now, I’m afraid. An ex-activist.

Calling myself that implies that my activist days are over. That’ll never be completely true, not while I still have breath. Like everyone else who, in the words of Jesus of Nazareth, “hungers and thirsts for righteousness,” I care too much to withdraw from words and works of advocacy.

International Women’s Day March in Times Square, 3/8/2015.

But realism and idealism often do not walk the same path together, and that’s been an apt description of my vocational journey. Almost exactly two years ago, I finished an interim contract at the University of California, Irvine, working with the amazing folks in the Campus Assault Resources and Education office. Since then, while I’ve been delighted to speak at several conferences across the country, I haven’t been able to secure employment in two of my areas of greatest passion: women’s rights advocacy and relationship and sexual violence prevention.

With my brothers-in-arms of Man Up Campaign at our event in Harlem, also on 3/8/2015. Special guests that night included Harlem’s honorary mayor, Queen Mother Delois Blakely (holding tote bag); Gossip Girl and You star Penn Badgley (ducking down), one of our speakers; and activist extraordinnaire Shelby Knox (right), also one of our speakers.

It’s nobody else’s fault; it’s my responsibility. At least I know I’ve done my absolute best to get a job in the field, even getting trained and state-certified as a sexual assault victim advocate last year. But the folks who are getting hired for the positions I’ve sought have more directly relevant education and experience than I do, like a master’s degree in social work or years working for terrific orgs like the YWCA. And at this point, my getting more education is not a viable option.

So 2019 was a lot, for me, about starting to turn the page, especially if a job in women’s rights or violence prevention continued to elude me. I dusted off my secondary school teaching credentials in mathematics and social studies, which I hadn’t used in more than two decades. I worked as a substitute teacher at the elementary, junior high, and especially high school levels, even teaching summer school Algebra 2. Right now, I’m in the middle of teaching geometry-honors and Algebra 2-honors as a semester-long sub. It’s what has to be done. And I feel like, overall, I’ve been doing a good job of it. I know that I’ve truly enjoyed it.

On the Faith and #MeToo panel for Southern California Public Radio-KPCC, with (L to R): moderator Josie Huang of KPCC, Muslim faith leader Edina Leković, Jewish faith leader Brie Loskota of USC, Rev. Dr. Najuma Smith Pollard, and some guy.

But I feel quite guilty about not being more involved in the ongoing struggle for women’s rights and relationship and sexual violence prevention. I continue to believe quite strongly that there is no issue more critical in our country than gender-based violence. As some of you, including my current high school students, have heard me say, 19 percent of American women will experience rape at some time in their lifetimes; 44 percent experience some other form of sexual violence, sometimes in addition to rape (stats from the CDC). Given this crisis, how can I take a step back from being engaged in the fight?

But the reality is that I have very little time or energy left over after all the work that teaching involves. It has actually gotten busier in this time of quarantine. And my daughters have been saying they wish I could spend more time with them. What good is any advocacy for women’s rights if I don’t give the soon-to-be young women in my home what they need from me?

I can still add my voice, like here in the New York Times, supporting Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.

I won’t ever completely withdraw from the struggle. I can’t. Women’s rights and violence prevention are a sacred calling for me. So I’ll speak out and help out when I can.

And I will bring an activist’s awareness to my teaching. When I introduce myself to new classes of students, I explain why I call myself a feminist. I talk briefly about why women’s rights means a lot to me. An additional thing I’ve done this year is to give extra credit when students create brief, one-slide biographies of significant mathematicians of the past. I’ve especially encouraged them to report on female mathematicians – sheroes like Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, and Katherine Johnson.

And like I’m doing here for my friends Diane Phelan‘s and Alex Chester‘s #RacismIsAVirus campaign.

About a week into my current long-term sub assignment, a part-time coach at my high school was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting a minor student. Our teachers talked about the situation with the students in our classes; it was already public knowledge because local news outlets had reported it. I feel like I was able to bring a unique perspective to my classes’ discussions because of my training.

I still feel guilty, though. Can any other ex-activists relate?

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