Because of recent rightward shifts in political power, both federally and in my home state of Texas, staying up to date on women’s stuff in the news has become increasingly distressing. More than once, I have found myself deleting the entire blog feed from RH Reality Check in my Google Reader after looking at a single headline. As a feminist who cares a lot about access to birth control and safe, legal abortion, I feel stressed out that most of the people who govern me don’t understand women’s bodies, think we can’t make our own decisions, and feel they deserve to have a say in something that is a legal and private medical procedure.
So I stopped reading the news for a while. But I couldn’t stop seeing this billboard every day on my commute:
[Billboard reads, “The most dangerous place for some children is in the womb.”]
At first, I thought this smiling African-American boy was warning pregnant ladies not to forget their pre-natal vitamins or something. Then I learned that his image is part of a nationwide anti-abortion media campaign which began last year with similar ads in Atlanta. It is hard to summarize all the ways in which this campaign is completely messed up, so I’ll just quote from SisterSong’s October 2010 policy report on race, gender and abortion:
These stunning billboards attempted to use the history of medical mistrust in the African American community to accuse abortion providers of racism and genocide in a bizarre conspiracy theory. Not so coincidentally, they launched a misogynistic attack to shame-and-blame black women who choose abortion, alleging that we endanger the future of our children.
[For an excellent discussion of this issue, click through to Miriam Zoila Pérez’s article.]
Seeing this billboard always makes me mad, and last week I was already in a bad mood while driving downtown. When I saw it this time, I reflexively threw up my middle finger and waved it around, swearing.
I immediately felt like an idiot for getting mad at a picture and hoped no one had seen me. But then I thought, what if the woman in the next car did just see me giving the finger to a billboard? Maybe she’ll wonder what the billboard is all about. Maybe she’ll get mad too!
I realized that if other people could see me getting mad, they might join me in protest. I decided to call the billboard company to complain and to pass along what I learned to my friends. The next time I drove by, I took down the advertising company’s phone number listed on the billboard frame.
I called them and said I found their billboard racially offensive and insulting to women. I asked them to log my complaint in their company’s records. And I asked them whether they planned to take the billboard down any time soon.
Then I went online to tell other people how they could do what I did. I created a petition at change.org explaining why I think the billboard should come down. My petition includes a phone script and contact information for Dinosaur Outdoor Advertising, the company that owns the billboard space. It also includes contact information for Heroic Media, the Austin-based “pro-motherhood” (read: anti-choice) organization behind the billboards. I sent out an email telling about 20 friends about my petition and inviting them to call Dinosaur Outdoor. Several of them did, and then they emailed, facebooked and tweeted about it, using Change.org’s helpful widgets. My petition got 100 signatures in just over 24 hours.
Seeing signatures come in from all over reminded me that so many people do support women and abortion rights. It also made me feel like people aren’t giving up on Texas as some black hole of anti-feminism – like they weren’t saying to themselves Why should I even click on this because how will the internet ever change anything about that terrible, backwards place. Complaining – and seeing that others agreed with me – made me feel a lot better about things.
It also had an impact. When I first called Dinosaur Outdoor, they told me there was no timeframe for the removal of the billboard. When my friend called one day later, they said staff would be meeting to discuss the billboard and they’d make a decision in a few days. (If you want to check in with them and suggest they decide against the billboard, you can call Dinosaur at 512-272-8887.)
In light of this experience, here are my suggestions on how you can make change in your community:
Speak out. If something sucks in your community, find out who has the power to change it and speak to him/her. If you’re contacting a business or an elected official, find out how they log complaints and make sure yours gets counted. And think strategically about how you can get what you want – people may not care deeply about feminism, but they care about profits/reputation/reelection. Point out to them how they will lose money, standing in the community or votes if they continue to be anti-woman jerks.
Coordinate. Tell your friends what it was like to contact that business owner or elected official so they’ll know what to expect. Give people a script and contact information. Tweet, post on Facebook, blog, email your friends, make a video. You can also create an online petition like I did. This article at Socialbrite discusses pros and cons of nine different petition websites – you should be able to find something that works for you here.
Connect with local groups and organizations. You’re probably not the first person to get mad about this issue. Figure out who else is doing something about it and work together. When I emailed friends about my petition, I learned that NARAL Pro-Choice Texas is working to track locations of Heroic Media’s billboards across Texas using Google Maps. Kailey Vollinger, an intern at NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, told me that allies in several states have rallied against these billboards. She says, “we hope to assist fellow Texans and advocates for choice in the same type of campaign. We are currently updating our website with information about where these billboards are located – as well as how you can help defeat this racist anti-choice messaging campaign.”
Smart organizations like NARAL in Texas are increasingly crowdsourcing information and ideas through grassroots contacts. Organizations can list crowdsourcing and other virtual volunteering opportunities through Sparked, a website where nonprofits post their “challenges” to an online volunteer community. (Hint: even though they don’t show up on Sparked’s front page, you can search for “women’s issues” volunteer opportunities. You just have to log in first. However, at this time there are not a lot of feminist challenges listed.)
If you find a really great organization working on your issue, you can start your own fundraiser to benefit them. If you want to manage your fund-raising online, I recommend checking out websites like FirstGiving. They’ll allow you to list information about your fundraiser, post pictures and videos, collect donations and communicate with supporters.
Lastly, consider attending a conference. It’s energizing to meet new people who care about your issue and learn about how things are done in other places. I’m looking forward to attending the National Network of Abortion Funds’ National Organizing Summit this summer, and would love to make it to the annual Reproductive Justice Conference at Hampshire College sometime.
Are there any great grassroots opportunities where you live? Are you mad about something but don’t know what to do about it? Have you made a feminist improvement in your community? Tell me in the comments. Let’s make this a conversation.