Centering Gender Justice in 2017: Nuggets of Wisdom from Audacious Activists

As 45 and his minions attempt to divide and conquer, women of color, nonbinary conforming folk, LGBTQ people, immigrants, and every other vulnerable group are uniting and drawing on their collective strengths and experiences to fight back. They are knitting together a resilient, transformative movement for justice led by the most impacted, rooted in love, and open to all.

That was the overarching theme in a conversation at NYU on March 23, 2017 between Rosie Perez, Janet Mock, Wade Davis, and Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas moderated by Jodie Patterson at the NYU Skirball Center. The evening kicked off with a short film on the wisdom of Audre Lorde, a talk by NYU Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Diversity Initiatives Monroe France, and a performance by NYU student Patience Carter, “The Revolution Will Not Be Posted.”

L-R Jodie Patterson, Rosie Perez, Wade Davis, Jessica Gonzalez Rojas, and Janet Mock discuss gender justice and intersectionality at NYU on March 23, 2017.

Theme one: We need education to become critical thinkers

Janet Mock spoke of her experience attending under resourced public schools in communities of color and called on Secretary of Education Betsy Devos to do her job and protect America’s most vulnerable students. Rosie Perez described how children form their identities at school, learn what gender is, and that culturally competent education that builds the confidence and critical thinking skills of all children is the civil rights battle of our time. Wade Davis talked about his work to educate athletes to use their platforms to become change agents.

Theme two: Access to reproductive health care is a human right

Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas spoke about the struggles the Latinx community faces in accessing reproductive care and asserted that those most directly impacted are the most effective change agents. She talked about the origin of the reproductive justice movement among women of color because “pro choice doesn’t exist for people who don’t have the means to access choices.”

Theme three: the idea that some of us are subhuman is intentionally propagated by the elite so the rest of us are more easily exploitable

Jodie Patterson asked why are people demonized. Rosie Perez instructed us to follow the money, that economic exploitation of others by the elite is the origin of all divides in our country. Janet Mock talked about how to bathroom issue is being used as a wedge to distract people, encourage fear and intolerance, and push transfolk out of school, making them increasingly vulnerable. She connected the dots between the virulent transphobia of 45’s administration and the uptick in violence against trans women of color. Wade Davis spoke about the need to bridge communities, and the importance of relatable messengers.

Theme four: we can’t pick and choose, we must be activists against all injustice

When we become activists, we have to be prepared to lose friends, because we cannot be outspoken in our support of certain identities and sit silent when we hear our friends disparage other groups, counseled Wade Davis. We also must “own our shit,” ie, reflect on how we oppress others, and work on ourselves by recognizing and overcoming our biases. “Silence is a form of being complicit,” he said. Jodie Patterson agreed and shared how her daughter had confronted her about some outdated language and attitudes she carried. Her daughter wisely counseled her that “if you don’t get it, you will be perceived as old and weird.”

Theme four: women of color are leading us out of the mess we are in

Jessica Gonzalez Rojas spoke about how 45 has galvanized the Latino community, particularly undocumented women, to speak out and lead. Rosie Perez talked about coming of age during the early AIDS crisis activism and how effective activists had been at not only protesting, but showing up before governmental bodies and testifying and getting policies made. She cited NYC Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito and Representative Nydia Velazquez as two examples of women who inspire her, and commended NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for suing Donald Trump for fraud committed by Trump University. Janet Mock spoke about how Black trans activists inspire her, including Miss Major Griffin-Gracy and Janetta Johnson, who have fought for Black Trans safety for decades, and the cofounders of Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors. She also loves the wisdom and humor of Black twitter, particularly Johnetta Elzie. Jessica Gonzalez Rojas cited Audre Lorde:

When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.- Audre Lorde

Theme five: we must connect with one another and with ourselves

Janet Mock spoke about the need to turn off the TV, silence the noise, and sit in community and listen to each other’s authentic stories. We are all called upon to learn how to be better partners in the struggle for all of our liberation. “Listening and learning are among the most revolutionary acts we can do today,” she advised. She also said that we should avoid using complicated terms like “intersectionality” and just speak our truth, because when we use big words it can make some people feel left out of the conversation, and ALL voices need to be heard. Jessica Gonzalez Rojas urged us to remain rooted in love, and most importantly to love ourselves first. The most important people in our lives are ourselves and if we are not taking care of ourselves, we cannot take care of others nor successfully struggle for justice.

Although I was disappointed that there was no time for Q and A, I left the conversation super inspired and reflecting on the connections between what I had heard and an event I organized last week in San Francisco to discuss similar themes. When we come together and listen to each other stories, we find all we have in common and solutions to the struggles we all face. When we stand side by side and fight all our battles together, our power is limitless. As today’s defeat of Trumpcare demonstrates, momentum is on our side.

Let’s keep up the solidarity, sisters!

Karen Fleshman is a Racial Equity Trainer and Government Accountability Advocate. Her mission is to build and support a community of people committed to love, learning, accountability, and action on race in America. She facilitates events and offers online courses, webinars, talks and workshops at companies, universities, nonprofits, and government agencies and blogs on Huffington Post and Medium. Karen is deeply engaged in the struggle for police accountability in San Francisco. She is a co-founder of San Franciscans for Police Accountability and often testifies to the San Francisco Police Commission and Board of Supervisors. www.karenfleshman.com @fleshmankaren