Tag Archives: Feminism

World Day of Social Justice: In Conversation with a Grassroots Social Justice Activist

20 Feb

In 2007, the United Nations’ General Assembly declared February 20th as the World Day of Social Justice. On this day, each member state celebrates activities promoting gender equality, promoting the rights of indigenous people and migrants and removing barriers and challenging discrimination people face.

On a day committed to encouraging and celebrating social justice action, I was able to speak to a womyn who has devoted much of her life committed to grassroots social justice and making noise. Daniela Mergarten is part of the speaker’s bureau Voices from the Street, which involves people with direct experience as leaders in public education, advocating for social change and breaking down stigma.

On what Social Justice Work Means:

I came from an abusive background and there was limited support and information available at the time. I lost my whole family to violence and had to leave home at the age of 16. I always felt appreciative of the simple kindnesses people gave me along the way. As soon as I got healthier, I knew I wanted to give back.  Due to my experience, I have always felt connected and committed to speaking out on violence against womyn, poverty, homelessness and mental health.

On when she first became involved with Social Justice Work:

I didn’t know about feminism back then, and I started to notice and get involved in the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. That was back when they were sending buses of womyn up to Ottawa. It was the first time I saw womyn in unity and the power of womyn. It was womyn working together for a common cause.

women's rights mural

On a highlight from doing Social Justice Work:

One of my biggest moments was when I got to go to the “World’s Urban Forum” in Vancouver. During the forum I presented a report that I had worked on about poverty and homelessness. It was really important to present womyn’s voices as they were. I was also able to see womyn from countries all over the world, and I noticed our problems here aren’t just our problems. They are world-wide. I was inspired by seeing the difference womyn were making in their own communities all over.

On what inspires her Social Justice Work:

Being a part of Voices from the Street has given me hope. Hope we can change and hope we can connect. The more I go out, the more I see youth out doing social justice work. We are not leaving youth with much, and I think it is important to validate the work that youth are doing.  Youth will kick some but and I will be right there behind them.

On World Social Justice Day, Nellie’s celebrates the grassroots work womyn, such as Daniela, do in the community to promote social justice and challenge barriers. Nellie’s is committed to social justice work that is informed by the experiences of womyn and children.  The Social Justice Committee is committed to developing policies in areas of violence, poverty and oppression, speak on and participate in broader social justice issues and work through community partnerships and coalitions to achieve social justice for all womyn and children. The Social Justice Committee is one way people can get involved in social justice work, which recruits in July of every year.

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Interview with SlutWalk Organizer Colleen Westendorf.

24 May

This week we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to speak with Colleen Westendorf, one of the organizers of SlutWalk.  As most of us know, SlutWalk began in 2011 in response to the following comment from a Toronto Police Officer: “I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”

In just over a year SlutWalk has become a global phenomenon with women and men all around the world speaking up to say that those who experiene sexual assault are not the ones at fault, the perpetrators are!  SlutWalk 2012 takes place tomorrow, Friday May 25th.  Here is our interview with Colleen:

Nellie’s:  People often say the current wave of feminism lacks a leader or a common cause. How has SlutWalk changed the landscape of Canadian feminism over the last year?

Colleen: Whatever shifts SlutWalk has been able to precipitate are very much indebted to previous feminists and activists, and other movements to fight sexual violence that came before us and are still going. I think it’s fair to say that SlutWalk has sparked a significant amount of debate and conversation about rape culture, use of language, privilege, and offered a supportive space for victims of sexual violence that wasn’t really there before.

Nellie’s: Why do you think the national and worldwide response to SlutWalk has been so huge?

Colleen: While there have been many initiatives, campaigns and individuals who have been fighting sexual violence, SlutWalk is the first endeavor (at least in my memory) to specifically focus on victim-blaming, and to have been a reactionary response to a a really clear incident of slut-shaming. Unfortunately, we kind of had a built-in audience. It would appear that victim-blaming is a really common factor in how survivors of sexual violence experience the aftermath. I would like to think that the major international response has gone some way to furthering the understanding that sexual violence is a lot more common that many people think, and should be everyone’s concern.

Nellie’s: How do you think Social Media contributed to the worldwide explosion of SlutWalk?

Colleen: Given the initial event was advertised online only 6 weeks from the beginning through Facebook and Twitter, social media definitely facilitated the quick spread of the first SlutWalk and the 4,000-strong audience that showed up last year. Within days of SlutWalk Toronto 2011, we were already hearing about other cities that wanted to hold their own – news would not have travelled this quickly through mainstream conduits, and the coverage and impression of the event – what is was, what people wore, was not nearly as accurate on network channels and big newspapers as what account people could find online from actual attendees at SWTO2011. That makes a huge difference.

(Image from torontosun.com)

Nellie’s:  How do you respond to allegations that Slutwalk is a white woman’s movement and does not include women of colour?

Colleen: There’s no simple answer to this – it is a complex issue. We feel it’s incredibly important to recognize the ways that different communities and identities experience sexual violence, and are working on an ongoing basis to organize in a way that de-centers privilege , and increases our understanding of who we may be leaving out, and what we need to do to change that. We’re also doing a lot of community outreach and connecting with organizations in our city to solicit feedback and criticisms and base our organizing in our communities in Toronto. I think we’ll see more with regards to where some of these criticisms sit in the not-too-far future; now that SlutWalk has become so global and has had so much uptake in many places like India, Central and South America, Singapore, etc. the global context is a reminder that this isn’t just a North American thing anymore. We’ve also shifted our approach from re-appropriation to challenging language, hence our tagline this year: My Body is Not An Insult. (See event page for details.) Some of our speakers will be discussing these criticisms this year; and we’re really looking forward to further dialogue.

Nellie’s: Where do you see SlutWalk in a year, 5 years? Does SlutWalk have plans for the future?

Colleen: We are looking at what we can do to make this work sustainable. Victim-blaming is still a problem, and one that we would like to continue to play a part in chipping away at. This may include changing our name if it remains problematic and divisive, as many have said, and we definitely want to develop an advisory committee to help us with bigger decisions moving forward.  I think our focus in the future will be less on a ‘walk’ and more on some of the things we’ve been getting up to in the last year, like speaking engagements, workshops, connecting at conferences, etc. Whatever we can do to further conversation and understanding that the victim of sexual violence is never at fault – we’re there.

Nellie’s: What has been your most memorable SlutWalk moment?

Colleen: There have been so many. Meeting Gloria Steinem,  having the University of Connecticut invite us down to be a part of their SlutWalk on-campus and to witness a SlutWalk in a much more intimate, local context.  But also, for me it’s those moments sometimes when we’ll be explaining to someone on our facebook page about victim-blaming, and a conversation that began with hostility on their part will come around to them saying they want to support SlutWalk and join us in the streets, or a speaking event, like at the University of Connecticut, where a young man stood up to tell the crowd that he had no idea sexual violence was such a prevalent issue, and pledged to not laugh at rape jokes anymore and call his friends on it, or when someone reaches out to us because they feel they have a safer space to share; those are the moments that make it all feel worthwhile.