“Women could do awesome shit”

July 27, 2013 § 1 Comment

Three photos of riot grrls in the 90s in NYC.

Last night I had a wonderful opportunity to speak at one of Colectivo Mujer’s Through Our Eyes film screenings. They showed ‘Grrrl Love and the Revolution’, a film by Abby Moser about riot grrrl culture in New York in the 90s. Here is the trailer:

Here’s a rough version of what I had to say about the film and about how riot grrrl relates to my experience of ‘do it yourself’ (DIY) feminism:

First I want to acknowledge that I’m sitting on Aboriginal land, pay my respects to the elders, and extend that respect to any Aboriginal people here tonight.

Thanks to Rosarela and Colectivo Mujer for inviting me, it’s good to be amongst feminists and friends.

I’m going to talk about the film a little bit and relate it to some of my experiences in Sydney and some things I’m often thinking about: feminism and creativity.

Would any one here ID as an artist/ creative of some sort? Me too.

In many ways the culture represented in the film is unfamiliar to me. I’m not a punk rocker and some of you who know me might find the idea of me as a riot grrrl fairly ironic (I’m pretty mild-mannered). So let’s establish some familiar territory:

Many of us are feminists because of sexism in our communities, at work, because of sexual assault (often at home), narrow gender roles, slut shaming – these things might make us feminists, and these things made riot grrrls feminists.

Some more familiar territory is that these women thought – and felt – that they could change things.

Has anyone here ever been part of a feminist movement where you felt you could change some stuff? I have too.

I come from a tradition of organising, mostly student and trade union organising, that really focuses on capital C change – legislation, government – in my state, country, occasionally someone else’s country, then there’s political parties, school or church or organisation’s policy etc. And there’s definitely value in that and I want that activism to keep happening – at the moment for example I’m working on a campaign about cuts to the single parent pension. But I’ve also certainly felt over the years that this was sometimes a really OVERWHELMING task, and if there wasn’t an obvious target, then this sort of activism would stall.

On the street, for folks who care but aren’t necessarily activists, I reckon people often also feel like its really hard to make change.

Last year when I was feeling a bit overwhelmed with capital C change, I was lucky enough to go overseas for a while. I was in Spain and Germany to be precise, and I saw all this street art culture everywhere. This really made me want to do activism through street art, even though I felt I lacked the skills. So when I got home, my feminist buddy Corina and I started a practice of feminist street art, and the thing was that we had inspiration to draw on because feminists had done this riot grrl DIY stuff before us.

Our art was definitely part of campaigning – some of it was about Bankstown being targeted in changes to Centrelink, for example – but some of it was also about making beautiful things that made us feel good and feel like feminist bad asses and so on. Hopefully it also made other people feel good when they saw it. In some ways this is the super accessible feminism of my dreams.

Like the girl in the film said, riot grrrl is about doing stuff, direct action, and that was what I wanted for my feminism at that time.

A question I’ve seen asked a bit is whether riot grrrl tactics, zines and so on, are defunct due to the internet. After all a lot of their ideas, such as actual snail-mailing lists, came about without the Internet. DIY is not taken out of action by social media, though. Zines are still happening, and music, and art. But the internet changes it, and changes the distribution patterns. It’s a lot of work, too. Not only do I have to make my art but I also feel obliged to document it online, to put it on my blog, etc etc. What this says to me is that we need more people than ever involved and doing stuff, sharing the work and the action.

On the flip side, DIY can make production easy again too. I can’t make a glossy graphic poster for example, at least not yet. I can make a pretty great poster with scissors and glue though, and I can draw, so there’s always a way if I am willing to consider these options when I am organising.

As one Colombian riot grrrl said, “I learned that we have the strength needed to make our dreams come true.” I would add, and the resources.

I think this is for me the insight and power of Riot Grrl – the sense that change and possibility can happen right here, right now. I think that what riot grrl does is present a whole bunch of possible new realities. You could learn guitar and start a punk band, you could write your own mag, you could take this fat texta in my bag and write about how awesome you and your best feminist friends are on that wall over near Erko train station, you could make art and hang it on the canvas that is the street.

I guess the question of what sort of change music and art and zines can make is a big one that I think we should ‘post it’ for discussion later tonight.

Which kind of brings me to what I see as some of the values of riot grrl, because there is political analysis there, even if it’s pretty disparate – there’s commentary on class and access to education in terms of sharing what we know, for example.

I guess what I see as the other main ethic of riot grrl is that it saw/ sees women as artists with total, full potential as human beings. Women could do awesome shit and lead crazy amazing lives and make art and music. These were and are people who deeply value self-expression/ creation. Riot grrls are saying that they/ you/ we can be artists and conversely that their/ your/ our self-expression is valid. My question here is who is and isn’t represented in this “they/ you/ we”? What special codes & language do you have to know to be read as a person of value in riot grrl culture? In a culture so informally organised, where doing stuff really depends on friendship, who is in or out? [Mimi Thi Nyugen has an awesome article on riot grrrl and race that I’ll embed here – it’s academic but worth wading through. Link is to PDF]

I want to finish up with two examples of DIY culture that aren’t necessarily riot grrrl but are part of the DIY feminism tradition. They’ve both inspired me recently:

Femme Shark Manifesto (last night I mistakenly said Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarsinha was of Latina heritage, whereas she is actually of Sri-Lankan & Ukranian & Irish background, apologies! Again link is to PDF).

Poor Lass Zine.

With thanks to Rosarela, Corina and Rosa, whose thoughts and deeds inspire and sustain me.


IWD picnic in photos; reflections on community activism

March 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

F and friends baked up a storm. Photo by Christine.

I just posted a short photo essay at the F Collective site with some of the highlights of the IWD event yesterday. It was an incredible day. This was in large part due to the excellent speakers and performers, all of whom did a stellar job. I was so proud to be associated with the event this year.

Charity Danquah and I were MCs at the event. I loved having this job and was very honoured to be nominated by the F Collective to do it with Charity, who constantly inspires me. MCing was a new challenge, after speaking last year.

One of the wonderful things about community organising is that it gives the people involved a chance to develop skills they might not otherwise learn. Things like MCing events, running blogs, troubleshooting and dealing with conflict. We might learn those skills in a rough and ready, all hands on deck kind of way, but they are valuable skills. I think this is especially important for women and minority groups as often we aren’t socialised into those skills, aren’t seen as ‘natural leaders’ or might not have the forums for skill development in other parts of our lives. This is a generalisation of course.

In the process of creating community organisations and collectives, we challenge perceptions of what leaders look like. At the same time we start to re-create ourselves and our communities to be closer to the image we want to see – resilient and inclusive, amongst other things. Perhaps this is Foucault’s micro-politics of the self in action? Sometimes things we don’t want to recreate remain in the picture. Feminism hasn’t erased racism or even gender inequality, for a start. As I write this I remember there were no trans women on the stage yesterday. I’d like to work with others to try to change that next year.

Despite these problems, I’m not for a second convinced that we should stop our activism. I want to do it better. I want more people to be active with me.

With all its flaws, this process of re-creation and re-signification is one the reasons activist feminism is so important to me.

Please enjoy the photo essay.

International Women’s Day 2011, or, a speech I’ll remember

March 13, 2011 § 1 Comment

It had been some time since I had spoken at a rally or to a big crowd. Yesterday, Jane Bullen and I spoke at International Women’s Day in Sydney, on behalf of the organising collective, and as F collective members.

Here are my words:

So we’re all here today to demand equal pay, big changes not small change.

When I joined the F collective toward the end of last year, after being inspired by their recent conference, I discovered that a lot of the members were involved in organising for the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. I was keen to join them, and I felt strongly, as we all did, that the theme of IWD this year should be equal pay and in particular the current community workers’ case.

I am proud to be here in Martin Place this year, fighting for change with all of you. As Jane has said so well, IWD is about the myriad of injustices and issues that affect women internationally, and the history of the day lends it us a sense of solidarity with women around the world. Here at home, despite the fact that equal pay was supposedly ‘won’ in Australia 13 years before I was born, for me it is issues of economic justice and the way we value work that are often at the heart of gender inequality and are worth highlighting on the Centenary.

I think equal pay is sometimes regarded as a second wave issue, won in the seventies and a tired debate. ‘Why won’t the feminists move on?!’ our opponents, and some of our friends cry, every time we femmos bring it up. At 26, I’m sometimes asked why I bother with this issue, and the answer is that it affects us all, women and men, my friends and family who work in the community sector, others who want to access services. And that means footing the bill. While I don’t doubt that we are all damned tired of having the debate about pay in feminised industries, this debate is not outmoded because we haven’t yet won. As much as I would love to stand here and talk about something else, to ‘move on’ to other debates, it would be remiss of us, as community activists, not to stand with the Union movement and highlight this hugely important fight, because care industries are still undervalued and underpaid.

I grew up as the daughter of a disability care worker who raised me on her own. I am so proud of my mum (and will boast about her to anyone who would care to listen, just grab me later). Yet despite the fact that she is, actually, wonder woman cleverly disguised in jeans and a t-shirt, I can only imagine how tough it was to take care of both of us on a care worker’s wage.

It’s a crying shame that the main culprits in the scenario of community worker’s dismal pay are the governments we have elected, who fund services so badly that it is often impossible to bargain for an increase. We are here demanding that the government of NSW post March 26 FUND EQUAL PAY!

When we think about what we as a community value, it comes down to people and community. Part of that is about people being able to live with dignity and the care that they need. When I think about the future I certainly imagine a society in which care is not a gendered term and where it is a value that carries both weight and monetary and social status.

We want more than just equality but justice and fullness of potential. Equal pay is one goal in this agenda. A community that values care and is organised enough to build power and achieve change is part of that too.

It is so great to see you here today, and to my mind what this wealth of support and supporters of IWD means is that change is possible. But it is only possible if we are all engaged for more than one day of the year. There are so many fantastic women’s organisations and organisers here today, from F, the amazing Sydney Feminist collective, many of whom organised this event, to the new Collectivo Mujer, to Asian Women at Work, to the Women’s Electoral Lobby, who have been lobbying for our rights at a parliamentary level for nearly 40 years. There are many, many more.

Please visit the stalls and sign up to one of these organisations today, so that the work that they do can continue and grow with our community.

The reason that I am involved in feminist activism is that gender and class inequality have affected my life and the lives of those around me. What the community workers’ case shows is that gender is still a marker of power imbalance and we need an active feminist movement that believes something better is possible and fights to achieve it. F is going to be working on the equal pay issue, improvements to anti-discrimination laws on the basis of religion to protect women to choose to veil or wear the burqa, as well as sexual assault law reform this year, and we want you all to get involved, with us or with another active organisation.

It’s 100 years on. Being here with you today inspires me to continue to imagine and fight for a world where IWD carries through the year in spirit, in activism and in feminist community. I want the fight for equal pay to truly be an outmoded debate for community workers, because we won it together in the Centenary year of IWD.


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