Ally Alert is a monthly series that highlights organizations, people, and campaigns who stand with women and girls of color, particularly around sexual/reproductive health, social justice, and overall wellness; working to advance equality for women and girls (especially women and girls of color), and also showing how they navigate their role as ally and what being an ally means for them.
Meet Shelby Knox. Shelby is nationally known as the subject of The Education of Shelby Knox, a Sundance award-winning film that chronicled her high school activism for comprehensive sex education & the establishment of a Gay Straight Alliance in her conservative hometown. Feminist organizer, speaker and writer, Shelby runs women’s rights campaigns for Change.org and “tweets way too much” on Twitter at @ShelbyKnox.
I first met Shelby in 2006 when we became members of the Young Women’s Leadership Council with the Pro-Choice Public Education Project . One key commonality that Shelby and I share is that of being southern girls, spending our childhoods in the south (Shelby in Texas, and myself in Georgia) and venturing north to New York City. Shelby and I once had a conversation about wondering where my activism is most needed:here in New York, where it’s pretty liberal, or going back home to the south, where some of the worst policies against women’s reproductive rights are upheld.
Throughout the years, I’ve admired Shelby for her resiliency, fierce attitude, passion, and drive. I’m completely excited that Shelby agreed to be a part of the Ally Alert series, as it is an honor to call her an ally and a friend. Read more about Shelby, her work as an organizer and feminist, and how she navigates her role as an ally to women and girls of color.
What was a defining moment that guided you onto the career path you’re on now?
When I was 17 the film that chronicled my activism for comprehensive sex education in high school, The Education of Shelby Knox, premiered at Sundance and on PBS. I began to be asked to travel across the country to speak at colleges, conferences, and social justice non-profits. Before that, I’d never understood my activism as part of a vibrant, diverse, and committed social justice movement. For the first time, I met people, organizers, who waged campaigns as a job, or a second job, but more importantly as a way of life. Once I saw it – and connected it with a long history of feminists who made the gains I now enjoy – not only could I be it, I couldn’t imagine being anything else.
Most of us in the activism world were initially introduced to you as the 15-year-old high school student from Lubbock, Texas in The Education of Shelby Knox, a documentary of your high school years that navigated your life as a Southern Baptist and activist for gay rights and comprehensive sex education within the Lubbock, Texas school system. Can you share how the documentary came to be, your initial reactions to the documentary, and how it has affected you today?
The film that became The Education of Shelby Knox began when one of the filmmaker’s kids came home from school and told his mom what he learned in his abstinence-only class. That filmmaker, Marion Lipschutz, and her partner Rose Rosenblatt, set about making a film on this government funded program that was failing across the nation. They came to Lubbock, Texas to cover our fight against abstinence-only in our high school and chose to focus on my evolution as an increasingly progressive Christian and feminist activist. When I first saw the finished film, I had all of the teenage preoccupations with my hair and body as it was in the film but I also saw it as a thoughtful and accurate portrayal of my experiences. It wasn’t until later, as I began to travel with the film, that I realized that my story could and was being used to represent the broader experience of evolving teenage political consciousness and the nuances within political discourse. Basically, I discovered that the personal is political and an individual story can empower and awaken desires and righteous anger in others. Obviously, the film has given me a tremendous platform upon which to launch a career as a speaker and feminist organizer. But more importantly, I think it made me conscious at an early age of the power the personal experience, when shared, to make change.
In some of your writings and public speaking, you’ve discusses your experiences with privilege. Can you share more on your experiences with recognizing your own privilege, as well as your ideas on how we can help others to become more aware of how privilege (race, gender, economic status, sexual orientation, etc.) affects us?
When I was a teen activist, I did my organizing the way many white feminists have – fighting for the rights women who look like me and doing it in a way that put the eradication of oppression for everyone who doesn’t have my privilege set as a lower priority. It wasn’t until I became part of the Pro-Choice Public Education Project and began to discover the reproductive justice framework that I started to think about how the intersections of identity impact how each individual accesses rights and resources. I had a lot of wonderful friends who called me out when I messed up, gave me things to read, and told me when to back off and shut up. I eventually realized I have a responsibility to learn on my own the histories, works, and collective and individual experiences of people who don’t share my privilege set. As for teaching others about privilege, I think that, for instance, white people have to take it on as a responsibility to educate other white people about their privilege and about anti-racism. We have to teach histories of social justice that not only don’t erase but center the work of people of color to eradicate oppression. And we have to have the hard conversation with anyone we can about how privilege doesn’t mean you’re a bad person but that denying it makes you a bad, and harmful, activist.
Along with traveling the country doing speaking engagements and workshops on feminism, youth organizing, and raising awareness on reproductive justice, you also run women’s rights campaigns at Change.org. Can you tell us more about your daily responsibilities with Change.org, and vision for what kind of impact you want this division of Change.org to have on raising awareness on issues that affect women?
One of my biggest issues with “big girl” feminist organizations is that they identify a problem from the top down and then implement top down solutions. My continued excitement about working for change.org lies in a model where anyone who can log on the site – which is still a barrier to access but a lower one than in the case of other orgs – can start their own campaigns about the issues impacting their lives. So, every day I mine the new petitions for women’s rights issues and then go about supporting those individuals with tools to put pressure on whoever can grant the final outcome. Sometimes that means writing press releases and pitching stories to reporters or helping people organize petition deliveries or meetings with targets. I think that the what we know as the organized feminist movement – the big girls organizations that get the most money and the most attention – are behind the curve in utilizing online organizing tools and the online organizing skills of my generation to win gains for gender justice. I aim for my work to contribute to a growing and sustainable commitment to online organizing, bottom up style, in feminist movements.
What does being an ally mean to you?
Being an ally is first knowing how your privilege colors everything that you do and working to make sure you don’t use it to do even unintentional harm. Then, being an ally is listening to what those to whom you want to be an ally when they tell you how you can help, when to speak up, and when to step back. Finally, being an ally isn’t about denying your privilege but about using it to uplift the lives, experiences, and work of others.
How do you navigate your role as an ally for women and girls of color? What are some key ways in which someone can be an effective ally for women, particularly women and girls of color?
I think the most important part of being an ally is knowing when to stand up, when to stand by with backup, and when to take a damn seat. As a white, cisgender, middle class, documented woman with experiences inside what bell hooks calls the “bubble of power feminism,” I can and must use my position to advocate anti-racism within spaces where others are not or cannot. I can and must insist on never speaking on all white panels and recommend women of color as resources to journalists and those looking for speakers. But allies also have to know when to shut up and listen and/or play a way, way in the background role. There isn’t a handbook for being a good ally and I mess up often. It takes practice, it takes listening to people when they tell me I’ve said/done/written something oppressive, examining what privilege manifested that, and changing my behavior. But the privileges I have allow me to stop doing that work and that is one thing I can not and must not ever do.
Have you ever had any experiences in which your role as an ally for women and girls of color was challenged?
I’ve had experiences in my life, in large part due to my own privilege, that have allowed me to be friends with some of the big names of white feminism. I’m a fiercely loyal and protective person by nature and there have been times when I’ve spoken out to try to protect people I know and admire without separating the harm some of their words and actions have done to marginalized people and my experience of them as, like all of us, flawed human beings. When I do this, I’m untrustworthy as an ally – it’s easy to see how people would wonder, when it comes right down to it, where I stand. I’m working on this every day, trying to call out friends when they need to be called out and not defend oppression no matter the source. I wish I could say that I have this in check and I don’t mess up anymore but that’s simply not true; I do it often. That I’m trying isn’t good enough but right now it’s what I’ve got and I’m committed to keep trying until I get it right.
If you were not on the career path you’re currently in, what would you be doing?
I thought for much of my early life that I would be a professional singer. It gives me such joy to this day to sing and if I weren’t an organizer, I would probably be fronting a really hippie feminist folk group. Ah, I can see it now – a cross between Ani DiFranco and Holly Near, swishing across the stage in a tie-dye skirt, crooning about vaginas. Luckily for the world, life had other plans!
Given your schedule, how do you prioritize self-care (the practice of taking care of your physical/mental health to preventing burn-out) into your life?
I’ve always struggled with self-care. In fact, I used to idolize Inez Milholland, a suffragist who began speaking for the cause in her teens and died from exhaustion giving a rousing speech at the age of thirty. But, as I creep ever closer to that age, I find myself wanting to make sure I can do this thing I love for decades to come. My most important part of self-care is a group of sisters with whom I laugh, drink, cry, plot and plan. We keep each other grounded, pissed off, and accountable. I’ve also started walking every single morning, without an iPod, and trying to mindfully take in all the wonder New York City has to offer. When I get to my computer to work each day, my mind is much clearer than it was when I only fed it a cup of coffee!
What advice would you give to individuals who want to become allies for women and girls of color, but are not sure of what steps to take?
I’d first say that the title of ‘ally’ isn’t one you can give yourself, it doesn’t make you immune from criticism or from messing up, and being an ally to one group of marginalized folks doesn’t make you an automatic ally to others. If you want to be an ally to women and girls of color, you have to ask yourself why. If it’s because you don’t want to be called out on Twitter or because there’s a funding stream that can be gained by working with them, you’ve got more self work to do – go and read Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Alice Walker, and the works of the great bloggers at Racialicious and the Crunk Feminist Collective. Go and think about what privileges you have and those you do not and how they impact how you move in the world. Unanalyzed privilege is like walking around with a vest of grenades on – you’re only going to hurt yourself and a lot of others each time you accidentally bump out the pins. Being an ally is about understanding that our oppression is all tied up together and that there is never any lasting gain for anyone that comes from ranking oppression and/or getting justice for one group of humans while another suffers.
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