Home Columns How to manage intersectionality and still make a difference

“Intersectionality holds that the classical conceptualizations of oppression within society—such as racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and belief-based bigotry—do not act independently of each other. Instead, these forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system of oppression that reflects the “intersection” of multiple forms of discrimination.”  (Knudsen, Susanne V. (2006), “Intersectionality – a theoretical inspiration in the analysis of minority cultures and identities in textbooks”) ~ Wikipedia.

I recently attended a talk by Jacqueline Patterson of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program. She spoke on intersectionality and gave examples of the compounding effects of environment injustice such as the Flint, MI water crisis and briefly touched upon factory farming. Note that while speciesism is not included in the Wikipedia definition of intersectionality (above), it certainly should be included. That’s a discussion well underway.

Ms. Patterson made the case for intersectionality in activism, showing in detail how oppression in one area of people’s lives compounds oppression in other areas, and therefore these issues must be addressed holistically.  To learn more about Ms. Patterson’s work, see the NAACP page here.

On a busy Wednesday night, with so much to learn from Ms. Patterson, we didn’t have much time for group discussion.  Well over 100 people attended, and just covering ‘why all social justice issues effect all other social justice issues’ quickly filled the evening.  I walked away saying, “now what?” How do I fight for water rights in Flint, MI and access to education for girls in South Africa and public transit in Seattle?

At the surface, the case for intersectionality in activism would seem to indicate a need for all people to take an active part in all issues.  Unfortunately, being heavily active in all issues is not only impossible, it also stands starkly in contract to one of my deeply held beliefs: “success takes focus.”

“Success takes focus” was a statement shared with me by a leader in the farm animal protection movement who worked to establish animal protection policies at corporations.  As a mechanical engineer, “success takes focus” resonated with me since few engineers work alone.  It takes thousands of engineers to achieve the aerospace projects I’ve worked in my career, and each engineer must work a specific focus area. Activism is no different. One person can be organizing a mailing list and another can be talking with donors – neither of these tasks would be done as well if everyone did them.   Trying to focus on too many issues inevitably makes us less effective at reaching our goals.

So, how do we maintain focus and address intersectionality in activism?  Are these ideas mutually exclusive or mutually beneficial?  I would argue for the latter.

Yet, I spend nearly 95% of my activism time on just two issues: animal rights and women’s access to healthcare, including abortion. I have deeply personal and tragic reasons for making these issues my focus areas. Nevertheless, I let my inbox fill up every week with emails from groups fighting for the environment, net neutrality, financial equality, utility rights, freedom of speech, domestic violence awareness, racism, workers’ rights, disability rights, and much more.

Here is how I manage to include diverse issues into my activism, while maintaining focus:

  • Choose your focus areas wisely, and get involved in a meaningful and reliable way. Also, review your focus regularly to ensure your time is being spent to create the most impact with the time you have.
  • For intersectional issues, depend on activism groups to keep you informed, and if you can, support them financially. You can’t be in 10 places at once, but your money can.  You can’t be thinking about 10 different issues at once, but your email can.  I simply sign up for “Send me action alerts” from organizations I trust. I may not be able to read all their emails, but I can certainly sign petitions.
  • Depend on technology to keep you updated without making you crazy. After a lot of trial and error, I depend on two sources of information for my calls to action (but not my news. Please obtain your news from a quality news source!)  First, I check Facebook for petitions my friends wish me to sign, and I set aside 15 minutes a week to sign them all.  Then, I allow just one or two petition sites to send petitions, and I sign those all at once. I use Care2 primarily.
  • Depend on friends and organizations to advise you of “all-hands-on-deck” events, and do the same for them. If a friend asks me to attend an event on coal trains because we don’t have much time to stop new trains, I try to make it.  Likewise, when wildlife are under attack by new laws from Congress, I notify everyone in my network and ask them to take 2-minutes for action. This way, I don’t have to monitor every issue, but my community has eyes on all the issues.
  • Keep your legislators phone numbers in your phone, so you can call at any time for any reason. Not all action alerts can wait till Sunday morning because legislation can happen at any time.  I keep my phone ready to call my city councilors, state legislators, and federal representatives. – day or night.  Don’t worry, you can always leave a message.
  • Live your intersectionalism. When you learn of new issues, such as products made in a sweat shop or that were tested on animals, make an effort to find cruelty-free choices. Simply put: let your dollars be your activism.
  • Don’t forget to eat healthy, vegan food. Funny thing about intersectionality is that it acts on you too.  If you eat meat, dairy, and eggs or other junk food, you are putting yourself at risk for cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and so much moreYet, we, as a community, need you to be healthy and active for a long time to come.  Make sure you don’t undermine your own ability to address intersectionality by risking your own health.
  • Be a good leader and a good follower. Both are needed, and both are important.

Finally, as mentioned earlier, maintaining focus and addressing intersectionality are mutually beneficial.  I may not be able to be an expert on all intersectional issues, but I can be a better activist by learning from those issues and how our community addresses them.  My focus areas, animal rights and women’s healthcare, are amplified by learning from the political outreach of the civil rights movement, from the community organizing of the environmental movement, and from the protest marches of women’s liberation.  Intersectionality allows us to share strategy, both of what works and what doesn’t, to amplify the issues near and dear to our hearts.

Leave a Reply