Sunday, 14 August 2011

Brave enough to mobilise, too shy to socialise: reflections on UK Feminista's Summer School 2011

Although I’ve self-defined as a feminist for as long as I can remember, it’s only in the last four years or so that I’ve started taking my feminism seriously and made it central to my life – and only in about the last year I’ve done anything that I consider “activism”. I had never volunteered for any kind of feminist cause before October 2010; I had never tried to create anything that would benefit women until We’re Telling in December 2010; the first time I took to the streets over a feminist issue was mere months ago at the London Slutwalk. The way I see it, even if I’ve always been a feminist, I was a pretty crappy feminist until relatively recently (or, to put it the way I did yesterday, I’ve been radicalised by the Tories).

The UK Feminista Summer School of 2011 marks the first time I have attended any sort of large scale feminist event other than a protest, so it was interesting for me on a number of levels: firstly, and obviously, to see what went on, what kind of debates took place, what everyone was like; and secondly, to see how I would behave in that kind of environment, when I’m more accustomed to being the only feminist in the room.

I’ll talk about the Summer School first. Overall, it was great. I came away from most sessions feeling energised and motivated to go out into the world and act, which is presumably kind of the point. There were some pretty glaring issues around diversity – while the programme contained a high proportion of workshops around the intersectionality of gender and race, the event hadn’t actually attracted that many BME women. Other intersections were essentially ignored – most conspicuous in its absence was anything around sexuality or gender identity, but it would also have been good to see something that dealt with disability, mental health, size privilege, etc. Hopefully the event organisers will take this criticism on board for next year, as it’s one I’ve heard coming from all corners.

I’ll just talk about one workshop – one of the most insightful and thought-provoking ones I attended, Engaging Women in Collective Action: insights from social psychology. Essentially this covered the science of why people get involved in activism, and one of the biggest things I took away was to do with what kind of activism engages people better: promotion (i.e. we are trying to achieve [x] positive thing!) or prevention (i.e. [x] negative thing will happen if we don’t act!). Turns out framing things in terms of prevention has been shown time and again to be more successful than promotion. This was a bit of a surprise to me at first: aren’t we, after all, trying to make the world a better place? In short, no we’re not: we’re trying to prevent the world becoming a shittier place or remaining as shitty a place as it already is. Over the next day and a half it started to sink in that this was absolutely right. One of the big campaigns that saw a lot of attention over the weekend was No Women, No Peace – prevention. One of the other talks touched on the No Recourse, No Safety campaign – prevention. What was Slutwalk about? Rejecting victim-blaming – prevention. Why did I attend a Pro-Choice Demo recently? Because there’s an attack on our reproductive rights – prevention.  So that kind of blew my mind.

As far as what the Summer School was like for me, unfortunately I have to say I was largely disappointed in myself.  I didn’t dare to go up to any of the speakers or workshop facilitators I found inspirational and tell them so. I did speak to the people around me, but only once gave out any kind of contact details. I was ultimately too anxious to attend the social event arranged for Saturday night and instead shut myself off, hermit-like, in my Birmingham University student accommodation (I did, however, get an amazing night’s sleep for the first time in a long time). I do regret not using this weekend as an opportunity to network and promote my own work and connect with women who could help me to achieve the things I want to achieve. I keep asking myself, why am I confident enough to go out in public wielding a sign that says “HEY, DORRIES! IF I’M A SLUT, YOU’RE ONE TOO” but not confident enough to go up to someone and tell them they’re awesome? I don’t know – but I know I have to work on that. Maybe next year I’ll be braver.

On the other hand, participating in the workshops, I was in my element whenever a topic was opened up to discussion. It felt just like being in a university seminar, an environment where I’ve never had trouble speaking my mind. In fact, the whole experience made me think about my own struggle over academic feminism a lot. But that’s a story for another blog post...

When the Summer School feedback form asked me what I liked most about the event, my answer was this: being in a community of feminists and amazing, inspirational women. There was so much talk of the power of women this weekend and I honestly feel strengthened by the experience. I intend to make a much bigger effort to go to local feminist groups and events, because if it is possible to feel like I feel right now more often, then why the hell would I pass up that opportunity?

To round up, for anyone reading this who kind of wishes they had been there: go to Go Feminist or Fem 11, two big feminist events coming up! I’ll probably go to at least one of them so let me know if you want to join me. And if you were at the Summer School, please follow me on Twitter and don’t hold it against me that I was a bit too shy and nervous to talk to you more! This is kind of what I look like, except normally without the wreath of flowers, in case anyone remembers me. Peace out yo!