"[Being an ally] means listening. It means checking my privilege. It means recognizing constantly that my experience is not THE experience. It means always trying to be as inclusive as possible. It means apologizing when I fail to do any of these things. It means learning and doing better as I go." ~ Jessica
Ally Alert is a monthly series that highlights people, organizations and campaigns who work in solidarity with women and girls of color, particularly around sexual/reproductive health, social justice, and overall wellness, who help to advance equality for women and girls of color, while also sharing what being an ally means for them.
Meet Jessica Luther, my Ally Alert spotlight for March 2013. Jessica is a freelance writer, reproductive justice activist, historian, Texan, romance novel reader and reviewer, tennis fan, and social media maven. When Jessica isn’t sharing her views on her blog Speaker’s Corner in the ATX (Austin, Texas) or writing about reproductive justice, she is working on her doctoral dissertation, and she serves as the creator and editor of Flyover Feminism, a space for feminists, womanists, and activist whose voices are often left out of mainstream’s conversation on important issues.
I’ve been following Jessica on Twitter for a while now. For a lot of women and girls of color, it often feels isolating and discouraging when we fight to have our voices heard. It also is very tiring to always be on the defensive by explaining why we are raising our voices about something to the mainstream (aka our white counterparts). So, it’s not only refreshing and encouraging to see allies like Jessica who are not afraid to stand in solidarity when women and girls of color are under attack, but who are also transparent on their own need to listen and understand more (rather than speak for) in order to become a better ally.
Read more about Jessica, her career and activism, and how she navigates her role as an ally for women and girls of color.
What was a defining moment that guided you onto the career path you’re on now?
This is an interesting and difficult question for me to answer because I am not sure what my career path is at this point. I am finishing my dissertation in history but no longer see myself as an academic. I am beginning to do some freelance writing but am unsure if I can make a living doing that. And I am deeply invested in my community and the local politics here and often imagine myself doing a job that will make my town/county/state a better place. Perhaps this is the best answer: I can trace the beginning of my move away from academia toward a life that includes writing about culture, feminism, and justice on a popular level and that includes much more attention to the political landscape of Texas to early 2010 when I first found the feminist blogosphere. I was so inspired that I decided to start my own blog that summer and I haven’t looked back since.
As the founder and editor of Flyover Feminism, you and a great team of women are making the voices of feminists and womanists heard in areas that historically have been overlooked within national dialogue on women’s rights and reproductive justice due to the belief that change is not possible in these areas. Can you share more about the goals of Flyover Feminism, the name itself, and how you see Flyover Feminism influencing feminism/womanism?
Flyover Feminism is about providing a platform for voices that have been overlooked for whatever reason in Feminist Media. We originally conceived the idea as a geographically-oriented idea: much of Feminist Media is centered in NYC, DC, and the San Francisco area. For those of us living, working, and doing activism in much more conservative places, our experiences are rarely represented. This can be frustrating as the activism that works in more progressive places often does not work here. And what works here may not work in Florida, or Idaho, or outside of the US. We wanted to see if we could start a broader conversation that allowed for more people in a variety of places to be included. Almost immediately upon starting the site, we decided to be even more broad in our inclusion because it is not just specific geographical spaces that are left out of the conversation, there are often specific groups of people, despite where they are located, who are not included in the Feminist conversation: women of color, trans* people, queer and non-binary people, international feminists of all kinds, etc. The name of the site refers to the places that airplanes fly over when they are on their way to their big city destinations. The central part of the US has been called flyover country for this reason. So, we adopted the term to refer to the feminism and activism taking place in those locations. As for the influence of the site, my hope is that we help people in places that may feel disconnected from a larger conversation feel like they have a voice, too. And that we constantly remind people who live in the places that make the most media that there are a lot of us doing amazing work that just happen to live somewhere that doesn’t get covered very often.
Additionally, you run the blog Keep Your BS Out of My Uterus, a blog that focuses on reproductive rights news and policy updates. What are some of the ways that you keep up to date on reproductive rights news, and can you share your favorite resources?
The number one way that I keep up on everything is via Twitter. I was for a while trying to keep up with topics with Google alerts or Google Reader but I have found that Twitter is the absolute best way to stay on top of what is happening, especially as it is happening. It took me a while to figure out who exactly I wanted to follow and who would provide me with the kind of information I am looking for but over time, I have found some very solid, informative people and organizations who are on top of these issues. I also use Tumblr, which is where KYBOOMU is located. There is an amazing group of people there who I follow and read. But you can also easily search terms (like “reproductive rights”) to see what things people are writing about. The format of re-blogging on Tumblr also allows people to have conversations in a way that Twitter just cannot.
You’re also a PhD candidate at The University of Texas, studying the Atlantic slave trade, focusing on the colony of Barbados in the seventeenth century. Can you share more about your dissertation and how you decided on your dissertation topic?
My dissertation, in short, is about the Caribbean island of Barbados, which the English settled in 1628. I focus on the 17th century. Barbados was the first colony where enslaved Africans became the dominant demographic (it hit 75% by 1680) and so it was the first place where Englishmen had to learn to live with, control, and exploit a huge population of black people and then they exported that knowledge to other English colonies. I study how people in this space and while dealing with the newness and forced intimacy of this horrific labor system created ideas about difference and how they maintained them. I came to this topic in an extremely roundabout way. I have always been interested in the history of the body so I knew I would be doing something on that. I had a professor very pragmatically say to me that the Caribbean would be hot soon (like, people who study it would have a good chance of getting a job) and that I should consider centering my dissertation there. I knew I liked the 17th century best, I knew the English empire best, and so I picked Barbados. The more I learned about the island the more questions I had about how people there made sense of everything and I kept asking questions in that vein until I arrived at my topic.
What does being an ally mean to you?
It means listening. It means checking my privilege. It means recognizing constantly that my experience is not THE experience. It means always trying to be as inclusive as possible. It means apologizing when I fail to do any of these things. It means learning and doing better as I go. @FeministGriote says often that being an ally is not an identity, it is a process. And that has affected me deeply. I try to remember that it is not something I can claim but rather something I can live through my choices and actions.
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 can’t say this enough: I listen a lot. I listen and trust what I am hearing from women and girls of color. I have found that there is no set rule for when you, as an ally, enter a conversation. Sometimes you need to be there from the beginning, being vocal about the issue. Sometimes you need to hear what people are already saying and figure out if you can add to it. Sometimes there just isn’t a real space for your voice in that particular conversation and you have to be okay with that. I believe that in order to navigate your role as an ally, you have to be aware that each situation calls for a response that is built not on what *you* think is best but rather what is helpful to those you are actually trying to help. And the only real way to know if you can be helpful and how is to listen before speaking. Don’t speak over a woman of color. Don’t repeat what a woman of color has said without giving credit. Don’t assume that what makes the most sense for you in your world and your daily experience will be universal. And I’ve found much of this can be accomplished by being willing to listen.
Have you ever had any experiences in which your role as an ally for women and girls of color was challenged?
Sure. I think that if you are participating in the process of being an ally, you have to accept that you will mess up. And that the only way to respond is to apologize and then do better. When we launched Flyover, we were three white editors saying we wanted to be inclusive. We were challenged immediately, which led us to do a call for editors and we added two women of color to the editorial family (and we’ve even recently added another). I know in the fast-paced world of social media, I have said things on Twitter and Tumblr that were not okay and I was, rightly, called out for it. And while I find each of these moments to be difficult, I am learning to be less defensive, more open to criticism, and more willing to change my behavior. But it’s a process.
If you were not on the career path you’re currently in, what would you be doing?
Right now, looking at where I’d like to go, I would say that if I could make a living either being a freelance writer or doing something in the field of reproductive justice in Texas (or both), I would do that in a heartbeat.
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?
My great struggle. I see a therapist. I take medication when I need it to help with depression and anxiety. I get off the internet. I read romance novels. I hang out with my kid and do art projects with construction paper. I go run/walking with a good friend. I get a drink at a local bar. I watch a little TV. I often don’t prioritize self-care until it is long overdue. But since my most recent bout and recovery from depression, I am trying to be better about recognizing the signs of burn-out sooner and really acknowledging them, not pushing them aside.
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 would say the first, best thing you could do is get on whatever social media platform you like the best (I suggest Twitter and Tumblr) and find the women of color who are working on the issues that you care about, be it environmentalism, reproductive rights, urban planning, whatever. It will take time but if you put some time into you, you will find that community. Then follow them. Read about what issues they care about, see what conversations they are having. Listen to their concerns and trust them. If you do this, it will lead you to a whole lot of resources and voices that you probably did not even know existed.
RAISE YOUR VOICE: Inspired by Jessica’s story? Leave a comment below!
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