Activism has always come to me naturally. Whether it was the copious amounts of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan I was exposed to as a young, impressionable child, my growing dissatisfaction with witnessing injustices and inequality throughout the world or my naturally rebellious nature, somehow I think I was destined to become an organizer in the world of peace and social justice.
And indeed, whether I am helping to organize an event with the Edmonton Coalition Against War and Racism (ECAWAR), performing music at a rally or festival or using my camera to document countless events, I proudly embrace the stereotype of the granola-eating, tree-hugging, left-wing, modern-day hippy.
Like anywhere, being a woman has its own special set of challenges. I’ve noticed that when it comes to volunteering for pretty much anything, women tend to stand forward at a ratio disproportionate to their male counterparts. The male to female ration at planning meetings and such tends to be equal, but we end up doing a lot of the work. However, I’m glad to say that in recent years, I’ve seen more and more young (and not so young) men putting themselves out there as well.
Like any situation where men and women are mingling frequently, things can happen. Sometimes they’re good things like meeting your future partner. Activist couples aren’t uncommon, as we tend to date those we meet in day to day life with common values. But the activist community can also be predatory. It’s an ideal setting for older men to prey upon much younger women. Even without an age gap, there are some guys who like to ‘work the crowd’ so to speak. After all, we’re liberal and unconventional women – which, to some, might translate as ‘easy.’ Well, if people want to be getting together to have casual sex, that’s fine as long as everyone involved is consenting. Leading someone on that a relationship is more than it is just to get that person in bed, however, is not cool. I’m assuming similar behaviours might go on with people in the activist community who are LGBTQ, but I can’t speak to that first-hand.
Although I’m not a mother, I know that childcare can be an issue at events, even though most of the marches and rallies I attend are usually family friendly. It’s great to see families with young children marching together, but at the same time, it often seems like there is a dearth of younger women getting involved in the activist scene. When I first got involved with ECAWAR, I was the young woman of the group – and I was already in my early 30s. I remained the youngest woman organizer for almost 10 years, until another woman came along who was around the same age I was when I first became involved.
One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned as an activist is one that isn’t actually gender specific and could be experienced by anyone: We often tend to assume that just because someone shares our political ideals that they automatically make good friends and we can trust them. Indeed, I have forged many close friendships, which is one of the best side benefits of being an activist. However, I have also been burned very badly by people I considered not only allies but personal friends who I trusted. In one particular case, I shared intimate details about myself, only to have it thrown back into my face when this person became upset with me. Truth be told, I trusted too much and too soon, and that responsibility rests with me and me alone. I just assumed that this person cared equally about me because we were both part of the activist community.
The point is that we’re all human. Activists, like any other group, represent a slice of life complete with flaws. We can have a common political bond and not necessarily like each other as individuals. What we have to learn is to treat each other with respect and healthy boundaries and not just assume that we’re all wonderful and perfect because we’re trying to fight the good fight.
Activist communities can only be enhanced by the presence of more young women, so if you’re passionate about a social cause, get involved! Find out what organizations in your area are doing things that interest you. Attend rallies and marches – they can be exciting and great ways to meet new people. Expanding my life in the local activist community has been a mostly positive experience. It has helped me grow as a person and given me the hope that somehow I am making a difference in the world that will continue to perpetuate into the future.
Paula E. Kirman is a freelance writer, photographer, videographer and musician in Edmonton. She documents her local activist scene at RadicalCitizenMedia.com. In 2012, she was the recipient of the Salvos Prelorentzos Peace Award from Project Ploughshares for her contributions to Edmonton’s peace community. In 2014, she was named a Daughter of the Year at the annual Daughters Day event in Edmonton, for being a role model in activism to other women.