Activism Is the New Girl Gang

Sisters are, indeed, doing it for themselves.

It makes sense that Alexandra Brodsky has just graduated from Yale’s law school and will be spending this summer studying for the bar exam, because she seems to have a keen eye for the law. When she was a junior in undergrad (also at Yale) she, and 15 other students, filed an official Title IX complaint with the Department of Education against the university for its mishandling of sexual assault cases on campus. What’s even more impressive? It worked. In March 2011 the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights announced that it would be launching an investigation to review the University’s policies for dealing sexual harassment and assault.

One year later and less than two hours away at Amherst College, Dana Bolger was also making sure that sexual assault at her campus did not go ignored. Putting her editorial chops to work, she and a few other students started It Happens Here, an online magazine on sexual assault at the college. One post that was widely received was a photo essay that captured community members’ responses to 11 sexual assault survivors on the campus. The quotes captured the disturbing realities of rape culture and how isolating and demoralizing it can be for survivors on college campuses.

Brodsky and Bolger would eventually meet through a mutual friend to talk about their shared experiences, and they combined their powers to launch one of today’s most effective campus sexual assault campaigns. The duo recognized pretty early on that there are two major issues affecting how sexual assault is being dealt with on college campuses: colleges and universities are doing a shitty job at respecting survivors and responding to sexual assault allegations, and students don’t know that treating sexual assault allegations shittily is against the law.

When speaking about collaborating with Brodsky, Bolger told me, “We found commonality in our shared experiences of violence, and in our schools’ responses to it. And through talking to students all over the country, we realized that one of the single biggest barriers keeping survivors from getting the support they needed from their schools was their lack of knowledge that they were legally entitled to that support to begin with. So we decided to do something about it.” And do something they did. The two, who are also editors at Feministing, raised $11,000, created a website, and curated content from their organizer friends to launch Know Your IX, the national campaign which aims to educate all students in the country on their rights under Title IX.

What are these rights? One of them is access to education that is not impeded by violence or harassment. In other words, schools have to ensure that their students are safe from violence and when measures to do so fail, they have to provide them fair procedures to air grievances in addition to other accommodations. So if your school is all “whatever” when students report rape or harassment, they might be in big trouble.

To date, the work of Know Your IX has reached over 200 schools, the work of their survivor activist network was credited for the creation of the White House 2014 Task Force on Campus Sexual Assault, and even though they were probably a pain in his ass, the U.S. Secretary of Education thanked them.

Two girls decided that they were going to change the world around them for the better and started a nationally recognized movement. But this isn’t necessarily an exceptional narrative. Across the country, girls are ganging up and making movements in the most organic and personal ways. Many people recognize that the international Black Lives Matter movement was started by three black women organizers — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi — after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin. The three of them have been credited as some of the world’s greatest leaders. But what many people don’t know is that they were also friends. From the bonds of that friendship, they are mobilizing the masses to organize around the validity of black life on a global level.

At the local level, Assata’s Daughters is a “a grassroots, intergenerational collective of radical black women located in the city of Chicago who love and support each other.” Not only do they provide weekly programming and spaces to serve black girls under the age of 18, they participate and connect their members to the broader Black Lives Matter movement. The organization played a crucial role in getting former Cook County prosecutor, Anita Alvarez removed from her post because of the role she played in helping police avoid accountability for their crimes, including murder. A representative from the organization also explained that in addition to rapid response actions against injustices in their city, Assata’s Daughters is “trying to explore, stretch, shatter, rebuild, reimagine and celebrate Black girlhood and womanhood with an expansive understanding of what womanhood and girlhood encompasses.” The organization has built itself on a foundation that is multifaceted and unhindered by the need to focus on single issues.

And here in New York Corrine Werder, a volunteer at the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN) Speakers Bureau, was overwhelmed by the feeling that her own story as a survivor was being used to define her. She wanted to take back ownership of her body in a public way and had previously found that “healing in community with powerful activists and fellow survivors has been really cathartic.” So she reached out to a photographer friend and some other folks on Facebook to create My Body; Not for Consumption, a photographic project on Tumblr that included survivors painting their topless bodies with empowering messages on the very public Brooklyn Bridge.

Participant Sequaña Williams was one of those who responded to Corrine’s call, and got involved after she saw this as an opportunity to heal from past experiences and be vulnerable in a self expressive way. She identifies as a Black femme and received the most backlash on social media for her part in the project. Hers were the only photographs to be flagged and removed from Facebook and Instagram. She considered how anti-blackness and fatphobia played a part in her being targeted and was relieved to have Corrine’s, who’s white, support in addressing these injustices. This leveraging of privilege in the service of what’s right was a transformative moment that completely pushed the originally intended boundaries of a campaign that was focused solely on rape culture.

What all of these individuals and collectives show us is that young women are forgoing fancy organizer trainings, bureaucracies, and frameworks that so many find necessary for social justice strategy. Instead, using nothing more than personal and community relationships, these women are building platforms for themselves and giving new life to the term girl gang.