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Revolution 101: Feminist solutions to gender-based violence

| June 2, 2014
Revolution 101

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With the tragic Santa Barbara massacre that left six college students dead still reverberating across the country, there's no denying the importance of fighting back against gender-based violence and misogyny. #YesAllWomen has sparked a passionate outcry on social media, challenging the dominant understanding of gender-based violence as an isolated event that happens only to some women. But organizing to end gender-based violence takes more than one concentrated campaign.

The issue of gender violence touches all aspects of life. Women face street harassment daily, deal with threats of violence if they organize publicly and walk home at the end of it all with their keys between their knuckles (just in case).

Much of the incredible success of feminist organizing (from survivor-led crisis centres, to discussions of rape culture finally breaking into the mainstream media) is limited by the federal government's refusal to create a national strategy or provide appropriate funding to address the violence and provide institutional, lasting change.

Collectively organizing against gender-based violence is a massive challenge -- but folks from the grassroots are affecting change in their communities, in policies and in the mainstream media. Here are some ideas for strengthening the efforts of feminist activists.

Don't try to re-invent the wheel

Look for ways to contribute to one (or many) of the movement's existing efforts, rather than attempting to "join" the fight against gender-based violence by starting your own grassroots initiative. Remember there are a lot of plans already in motion. It's a waste of energy to begin anew when there are opportunities to support current feminist activist work in the community. 

"I think the biggest mistake people make is thinking you're the only person that's riled up about this issue, and therefore if you're not seeing the work it's not happening," says Julie Lalonde, a feminist activist and Ottawa-based community leader. "To be a good activist, you've got to connect with the people in your community already doing that work."

Kate McInturff is a leader dedicated to doing this work. She says part of making these connections with other activists is finding the best place to devote your particular talents and energy.

"People need to do the work they are best at. For some people that's the frontline work, volunteering at a crisis line, providing support to a sexual assault support centre. For some people they're really good communicators, so they can provide support through public education," she says. "For some, like myself, they're number crunchers and they can provide support in terms of research. A lot of service providers don't have the time to track data around what they're doing."

Putting your time towards existing campaigns can help to buoy programs struggling with a lack of resources, and also helps to build a strong sense of community. Going out on your own and duplicating efforts doesn't help the movement -- it actually hurts it.

"For seasoned activists, people who've been in the trenches for years, it's offensive to erase their work. You're not building allies, you're burning bridges," Lalonde says. "Even do a simple Google search or a call-out on your Facebook, and say 'this is something I'm interested in.' Connect with people already doing that work, and if there isn't anybody, that's your opportunity to start something up."

But don't be afraid to fill an unmet need in the movement

Progress, creation and inspiration for social change come from activists who push the boundaries. While it's inefficient for individual activists to consistently start new projects, it's still essential to find people who are dedicated enough to blaze the trail and patch up a hole in the current movement.

"What I've found in my work is that moment of 'someone should really do something about this' and as soon as I would say OK, I'll do it, people will come out of the woodwork and say 'I was just waiting for someone to start it,'" says Lalonde.

That's exactly what the co-founders of femifesto.ca -- Shannon Giannitsopoulou, Farrah Khan and Sasha Elford -- decided to do about problematic media coverage of sexual assault.

They wanted to create a toolkit to help reporters cover sexual assault in a way that would supports consent culture rather than rape culture. Hoping to eliminate victim-blaming, problematic language and foster a better understanding of the trauma survivors face during a court process, femifesto produced a guide to reporting on sexual violence.

"It's been really great because we can see people interact online with us on Twitter, for example, and picking up the toolkit that we have produced for media, and actually calling out articles they think are problematic and reporting on sexual violence and linking to our article," says femifesto co-founder Sasha Elford.

Organize in new ways

The Harper government's decision to cut funding for research and advocacy of women's issues left many national organizations to wither away or struggle to sustain themselves on volunteer power. That's why it’s essential for activists to share their viewpoints in creative ways and focus on being visible.

"It's more important than ever that the media, communities, politicians hear from the public that there is a constituency for this issues, that this issue is something people care about, and that it’s something a lot of people care passionately about," says McInturff.

"Creative resistance is something I feel really, really passionately about," says Lalonde. "It can re-invigorate the movement, so it gets people who were burnt out excited about the work again, because it's different and it's new. You're going to break through the noise and capture some mainstream attention."

Lalonde also touches on an added benefit of creative organizing: low cost. Shooting video with an iPhone can share scenes with the entire world in a matter of seconds.

"It's about using your underdog status to your advantage," Lalonde says. "As a group with nothing to lose, you have everything to gain by working outside of the box."

That being said, visibility doesn't have to come from a protest on the lawns of legislature.

Online activism is a fabulous way to keep feminist movements accessible to a variety of folks. Whether you work back-to-back shifts or face physical accessibility issues, Twitter conversations, viral campaign materials and online activist circles are just a few clicks away.

Consider both physical accessibility -- Lalonde recommends thinking of rural folks and childcare restraints with regard to meeting locations -- and other lifestyle limitations that may impact an activist's work.

Find solidarity with other feminists

There are as many different kinds of feminisms as there are feminists. Organizing and working in solidarity with as many diverse groups as possible is pivotal to the success of any movement. Acknowledging the role of racism, classism and heterosexism within gender issues is vital to an effective movement.

This type of interlocking awareness is important to femifesto founders.

"We want to speak with communities, not for them," explains Giannitsopoulou, adding that's why the femifesto kit is up for public review. Anyone is invited to share their thoughts and concerns before the toolkit undergoes revision this November.

The danger of well-meaning organizing not grounded in solidarity politics can be a few speaking on behalf of many.  

"There is a lot of feminist organizing happening, it seems like, in silos," says Farrah Khan, another femifesto founder. "I love the terminology that's been coming out lately from activist circles about 'calling in' not 'calling out.' So if there's something we want to challenge, we can build on the work we’re doing, rather than always calling each other out."

"It's exciting for me to learn from my elders and at the same time also learn from young people who are growing up and asking questions I wouldn't have even thought to ask."

Respect the healing process

Building a movement with emphasis on collaborative healing and support for survivors of sexual assault and gender-based violence is one of the founders' goals.

"That's a big part of ending rape culture, getting support for ourselves and our communities and the people we care about. Not diminishing that and thinking that healing isn't important, because healing is activism," says Khan.

Giannitsopoulou also advocates for activism focused on support. Understanding the nuances associated with offering support and healing from sexual violence is another way to emphasize consent culture and overcome rape culture.

"Even looking at 'what are some things you can say to someone who discloses sexual violence?' Participating in allyship for survivors is another way we can support each other and promote consent culture," she says.

Fostering collaboration builds a more effective movement. It allows feminist activists to use a collective body of knowledge in creating useful resources for survivors and organizations.

This approach also highlights the importance of listening, says Elford. "We all have lots to learn from people in different communities." Building an intersectional approach is key to a strong, inclusive movement.

Involve other genders in the fight

There's a huge role for men and bystanders of any gender or identity to shut down the language of rape culture, and to promote the tools and understanding of a consent culture.

"Everyone has a place in this conversation, because rape culture affects everyone," says Giannitsopoulou.

At the same time, the involvement of aggressive anti-feminist campaigns is holding back the movement.

"We're seeing a lot of fear within the feminist community because of men's rights activists (MRAs). A lot of feminists are afraid to be labelled as a feminist leader in their community or campus because of horrific, violent backlash from MRAs," Lalonde explains. "Within the movement right now, we're really struggling with how to respond."

"You have people -- rightly so -- terrified that if they speak a little too loudly, or take up too much space, they'll be targeted by men's rights groups."

More moderate men have a role in this fight. From educating friends and peers about the impact of normalizing sexual violence via "locker room talk," to learning about consent culture, there are a myriad of really valuable ways for males to strengthen the movement.

"We need men in this country to lead the fight against MRAs. Full stop. I want to see men using their privilege to call out MRAs, and using their privilege to address the way we talk about masculinity," Lalonde says.

Lalonde points out that MRAs and a normalization of sexually violent language is offensive to men. Without men joining the fight and standing up against the agendas of MRAs, only perpetrators of violence and rape culture deniers are left to speak for the male population.

For Khan, it makes the most sense to stop framing the debate as a battle of women versus men.

"We don't live in a gender binary and not everyone identifies as either or [man or woman]."

It’s about working together as people and dropping the labels. All people, regardless of their gender identity, should be concerned about gender-based violence in this country. And building a strong, strategic movement is the best way to harness the impact of social change.

Megan Stacey is a former Activist Toolkit intern and journalist.

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