Closing Plenary: The Future of Online Feminism

Moderator: Jamia Wilson, YTH Executive Director and member, #femfuture

The feminist movement has frequently been declared dead by mainstream media. “Where’s the young feminists?” Online feminism uses the power of social media and the internet to uplift young women. #femfuture is an experiment in movement building that builds sustainability and impact for the 21st century online.  The panelists are involved in making feminism more youth-led, innovative, responsive, digital, and aware.

Twitter prompt: “What’s your vision for the future of online feminism?” #YTHLive #femfuture

Courtney Martin, Blogger and Author, Femfuture and Solutions Journalism Network, editor emeritus Feministing.

I think the future of online feminism is how we articulate what we are for, not just what we are against.  Shelby’s incredible work has helped us create a cost for sexism first. But I don’t think that we have grown into this movement in a way that after we burn things down we build something in this place.  I’m the mother of a 4.5 year old daughter and I believe the personal is the political.

Shelby Knox, Feminist Revolutionary, (senior organizer), and SPARK (feminist collective) –

Feminism to me is hearing your pain and your struggle in another woman’s voice and realizing there is nothing wrong with you and nothing wrong with them but something wrong with the world.  Online feminism is helping us make those connections faster and more globally.

Julianna Britto Schwarz, Blogger, Feministing Contributor and Latina Feminista Founder

Most of my work focuses on bringing Latina feminists into the feminist conversation; the future of online feminism for me has to do with breaking down national and cultural borders and everything that stops us from seeing the similarities and continuities between women across the world.

Emily May, Harassment Avenger, Executive Director and Co-Founder, Hollaback!, YTH Board Member

Hollaback is a global movement to end street harassment that pairs online activism with on-the ground activism.  I think that online feminism is really allowing us to realize opportunities that we really haven’t had access to – when it came to who had access to the media, it was powerful elites, but now everyone has access to revolution in online media.

Shanelle Matthews, Echoing IDA, ACLU-Northern California

I am tasked with creating visibility for the programmatic and legal work happening on the ground with the ACLU.  I am excited by how online feminism brings together activists who don’t already know each other like the women on this panel.  As a civil libertarianism, I think online feminism helps sustain rights for women & girls and expand our committment to ensuring democracy – how do we make sure girls can participate in government?

Carol McDonald, Director of Strategic Partnerships, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood Action Fund

For the past three years my job has been to do cross-movement work with Planned Parenthood – which is really hard, because PP is such a large and old organization. But we have to think about what the world looks like in 10 years. I am a mom and today is my daughter’s fourth birthday.  When I think about the future of online feminism, I just look into her eyes and I think about how I want her to move in that world.  Feminism is liberation from oppression and the online tools we have now to get there can literally be the road to freedom.

What’s the next frontier for online feminist activism? What’s your vision for the long-term future of the movement?

Carol: I think it has to do with creating spaces to share our stories. I think the kinds of stories that are in the movement are important, critical. I think they shape our liberation.  I think black women have just owned feminism in the past year and have held mainstream white feminism accountable to some of its shortfalls and some of the ways that feminism has not been inclusive, and I just look forward to more of that.

Shelby: I think the future of feminism is rebuilding. I think it is tearing down the assumptions of this movement. I think it is understanding why people who do not have the privileges I have do not think feminism is a safe or useful words.  I think we have to tear it down to rebuild. I think we have to say that this movement has done bad things to people and really own that, because otherwise we’re just going to keep doing those things.  I actually think the future of online feminism is using these spaces to actually do offline organizing in our communities so we can work online and offline at the same time.

What are the biggest things holding us back from equality and how can we use technology to change it?

Courtney: I think the biggest obstacle is oppression, obviously. But I’m excited about talking about some of the wonkier online obstacles. How do we use online tools to lengthen the arc of engagement? One organization builds a cost for sexism, they do awesome work … and then in the next news cycle another organization gets the news.  I think we’re not building the movement in the way we could when we are so dependent on the news cycle.  Once we get people on board, how do we get them to do multiple actions on similar issues and create a bigger and bigger cohort? We’ve learned how to do this one time action really well but how do we figure out what it means to both do this stuff on a longer basis and really work together?  Part of what #femfuture was trying to do was to build a bridge between the allies who have money and the young people doing amazing grassroots work with brilliant thinking and energy – how do we get these people to meet each other and share resources?

Shanelle: I think understanding the construct of power is really important; we don’t own online spaces and we are often doing unpaid work, “women’s work,” in those spaces.  There are a lot of external barriers, but there are internal barriers – we often don’t think through the fact that our feminism is not intersectional.  For instance, we are thinking about privacy, but when we’re talking about abortion, we are not understanding that trans-vaginal ultrasounds are really a privacy issue.  I think the callout culture of the internet is a big problem; we don’t have the opportunity to have a nuanced conversation in 140 characters.  For example, the stepping down of Brendan Eich – there was a lot of confusion about what the issue actually was.  What happens when you live in a society where you are mercilessly & publicly held accountable for your beliefs?  We need to have nuanced conversations, not shut people down.  We need to think about the external and the internal together.

Jamia: Courtney and I were part of a retreat with Parker Palmer that talked about not living divided lives.

Let’s talk about the shift from online feminism being focused primarily on blogging to #hashtagactivism. What are the challenges and opportunities?

Julianna: I think hashtag activism is a really powerful tool for connecting with feminists around the world ad I’m excited about it. That said, we need to understand the difference between what’s making a difference in the world and on the streets and catalyzing work offline, and what’s just things that make us feel good online.

Emily: A lot of hashtag activism like #solidarityisforwhitewomen #notyourasiansidekick has really opened my eyes to issues that I didn’t know about.  Hashtag activism for me has been like a modern-day consciousness-raising groups.  A lot of hashtag activism is people getting together and sharing their stories and experiences and literally creating cultural change, changing hearts and minds.  You want to change the world, you have to shift the framework.  You have to help people understand that maybe that thing they said was a little racist, or maybe that harassment wasn’t okay.  When people reframe their understanding then you open up this whole other universe of space – “I’m not going to do that thing again because it was a little racist” “I’m gonna tell my dad about the harassment.”  I think that hashtag activism does an amazing job of addressing microaggressions and day to day discrimination.  I think our parents’ feminism did a good job of addressing big structural and legal issues – and it is our charge to address day to day discrimination.

Carol: I brought #solidarityisforwhitewomen to our senior Planned Parenthood leadership, and now we’re using it literally to change the way we make decisions internally. Jamia: To have that strategy to be adopted is a great example of how we can be more inclusive and how even large organizations can change.

I know that every single woman on this panel has experienced trolling, cyberbullying, and possibly even rape threats and death threats just for being a vocal woman on the internet.  It’s hard enough when it comes from people who are not our friends – but when it comes from people inside our community, from callout culture, it’s way harder.  How do we move beyond callout culture and create more of a culture of care?

Julianna: A big question for me right now is how do we find a balance between being kind to each other and holding each other accountable?  How do we make sure we don’t lose people?  I have a friend who recently was attacked for doing something on Twitter and she came to me and said “I don’t really have the vocabulary or strategies to respond to this.”  She closed down her twitter account and I’m worried we’re going to lose her voice.  This is a third shift for so many of us, this is unpaid activism.

Courtney: This came up for me recently, and I decided I was going to pick up the phone and call the person and leave a voice message and use I statements about my hurt feelings and systemic injustice.  And, she did not call me back, she said in email she did not feel like she was able to have this conversation, and that was painful for me.  And the thing is that it is about systemic injustice … but at the root it’s also about hurt feelings.  I want to be committed to anything I can to help really invest in people, to grow my muscle, creating any spaces I can for us to get better at that, because I think it’s so important.  A young talented woman of color recently wrote me “I’ve never quite identified as a feminist – and after this encounter I never will because this was just so toxic.”

Shanelle: I think we will do ourselves a disservice if we get rid of in-person spaces.  What does it mean to actually look at someone and say something, how is that different from the way that we sometimes absolve things, elide identities on the internet? I am a black woman and you are a queer woman and in in-person spaces we are not anonymous, we can’t forget that – how do we hold ourselves accountable for that on the internet.

Emily: We have definitely lost Hollaback site leaders to online drama.  But – I encourage people to make promises to themselves “I am going to run three campaigns against jerks before I run one campaign against another feminist.”  I do not think taking down other feminists is a form of activism, I think it sucks.  I understand why it happens – we have this click moment where we see all the problems in the world and we call them out and it’s sexism! racism! homophobia! everywhere.  I just want to build stuff and I know that if I engage in this online anger stuff a lot I will not want to build stuff.  And we need to build so much stuff to take down this big evil oppression machine.  Let’s not torture each other.

Audience Question: Jenny from ICAH – Could you speak about how you see youth being part of the future of online feminism?

Julianna:  I think I’m probably the youngest person on this panel.  I’ve been really lucky to have incredible mentorship and never feel patronized and have spaces to grow and learn.  I think that spaces are definitely being made and there’s a lot of wonderful room for mentorship and people have raised my voice above theirs and I’m really grateful for that.

Shelby: I feel like I’ve been in the feminist movement forever, like since I was 15 and now I’m 26.  And I think it’s important to build the conversations you want to see and relationships.  And the SPARK girls I mentor, they’re having their own conversations in different spaces, like tumblr, which I think is fantastically generative.  And I think the key for them is that all our movements are the same – all issues are feminist issues, you have to fight homophobia and racism and transphobia, and I’m so excited about that.

Shanelle: If young people want something I encourage them to ask for it. If you want to intern, ask for it.  And nobody ever asks.  I think there’s some fear of asking on the internet and I encourage you to learn to ask for what you need and what you want.

Jamia: I get the privilege of getting to know writers at Rookie from 13-50, and the boss, Tavi Gevinson, is 17 and she’s so thoughtful and definitive and I think she’s one of the best bosses.  I think it’s really amazing to look at examples of young people who decide to do it their own way.  I too learned to ask for permission and I’m just starting to learn more about how asking for permission isn’t helping me.  A lot of times people like the representational approach of my black body, but I want people to also trust my ideas.  And I think being clear and not asking for permission is helping.

Audience question: What advice do you give to someone trying to figure out how to be in or out of the corporate environment and what do you do when you’re in?

Carol: I’ve been at Planned Parenthood for 10 years.  And I was told by a leader in the womanist movement – “eventually you will get tired of those white folks and when you do come talk to me.”  And I found that patronizing, because I’ve chosen the path to make change from the inside and I am sure that is my path.  And I’ve felt sometimes that even people who are allegedly on my side are not supporting us in that decision.  In our DC office I was the only woman of color doing programmatic work at one point – and that was messed up.  But changing from within, growing as a person, is the path I chose.

Courtney: I think the future of work is breaking apart and we need to not talk about these things as dichotomies.  By 2025 50% of our workforce will be freelancers. I already am, and I go in and out, I have to constantly be codeswitching and strategizing and figure out where our energy is best used.  And for more of us that hybrid model is going to be a thing.

Shanelle: Start with your goals, think about your objectives, and THEN think about tactics.  We often jump to tactics because we are workers.  How am I going to put this on paper and develop a life plan for myself? And then, how do I figure out where to go.

Jamia: So one of the pieces of advice we were talking about from Gloria Steinem – she doesn’t even like the word mentor, she wants to be partners.  And when I said I was leaving the WMC to go to TED, and I was worried about leaving the feminist cocoon – she said that she was sad to lose me, but it was strategically even more important to have people like me in these non-feminist organizations representing for feminists.  A woman of color said to me “Thanks for opting in” and I thought that was fantastic.  You can show up as you in a corporate environment and even though that can be really scary and you can feel invalidated, you showing up as you creates a paradigm shift.

Audience Question: Rocio Cordova, Ford Foundation – I have a question about sustainability. You keep mentioning the need for support. How do you avoid that third shift? How can allies with resources, not just money but also emotional resources, really help support you?

Courtney: We created a paper that got kind of lost in the shuffle to actually address these questions.  One of the things we came up with was pitch sessions (like Kickstarter in person, people with ideas can come in front of people with money or skills).  I think the biggest obstacles are really classism, race segregation, age segregation, limited cross-pollinating, people just not getting in front of each other.  The other thing is just helping online feminists understand more about the different sorts of structures you can use for your organization – what would it look like to make profit? what if you don’t want to be a nonprofit?

Emily: I’m gonna chime in and I have a lot of feelings about this question because I’m an ED of a young online organization.  Real talk – Hollaback is in 71 countries and we have 3 paid staff and a budget of $300K, and about $300K of in-kind love from law firms, communication firms, and other pro-bono work, and we are mostly funded by young people donating $5 & $10, and we have 400 unpaid site leaders – which just isn’t cool or okay.  And there is nothing that is going to fix that.  Maybe someday these people will be adults and then we will be loaded.  But there is no portfolio on online feminism, social entrepreneurship, online activism.  How do we advocate for change within funding systems and change those power dynamics?

Shenelle: We have to foster a culture of collaboration.  It’s about checking our egos and working together to reach our goals, instead of each having to start our own thing.  I think people with resources should encourage people to collaborate together.  We have to leverage ourselves to understand what the gaps in the movement are and figure out how to address those gaps, and that work will create resources and expand capacity.  And people with resources have to figure out how to help sustain it.

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