Tuesday, May 27, 2014


I just came across the #YesAllWomen hashtag on Twitter this morning, and against my better judgment and looming pile of assignments, I let myself get sucked in. 

The result: I am currently feeling so incredibly heartbroken and outraged. 

The hashtag comes as a result of a horrible tragedy that took place in Isla Vista, California this weekend near UC Santa Barbara, killing seven people including the tormented 22-year-old, Elliot Rodger, as he decided to take revenge on all of the women who denied or rejected him in the past. (I'm obviously paraphrasing but feel free to click the hyperlinks for more information.)

And my feelings come as a result not just of this moment, but of so many moments (large and small) to come before it, of campaigns I've been a part of here in London and of conversations I have all too frequently with friends about the way men ogle them in public on a daily basis. 

The #YesAllWomen bit surfaced after people quickly started chiming in and pointing out that #NotAllMen are killers or rapists and that women should stop lumping every male into the same category. Women around the world have collectively responded by saying that jumping to place men in the victim category is overlooking the sexism that women face on a daily basis: saying no to a man's request for a date and being called a bitch, having to lie about having a boyfriend so a guy will leave her alone, feeling the need to carry her keys like a weapon in case she is approached or attacked on her way home, not making eye contact so as to avoid possible harassment, never putting her drink down in a bar, and the list goes on…

Looking through all of the tweets and stories is truly heart-wrenching, especially as it comes after countless conversations I've had with friends about life in the city and the alarming number of men who assume it's okay to catcall, stare at, follow and even grope women in broad daylight. 

In February 2014, I took part in a safety walk in East London to raise awareness of the issues of safety in the borough of Tower Hamlets. The walk came as a result of listening campaigns at Queen Mary University and throughout the borough, as more and more people - men and women - reported instances of feeling unsafe and being harassed or followed. Men and women from institutions throughout the community - mosques, churches, schools, Queen Mary - joined together with local authorities to highlight the darkest places of the borough where people felt the most unsafe. The result: the mayor has promised to turn on more lights and increase the police presence in these areas. This is a fantastic example of community members joining together around a cause that affects people throughout their neighborhood to bring about positive change. 

The thing is, the more stories I hear the more I can't help but realize it's not just a matter of turning on the lights or increasing police patrolling because - great as they may be - these are simply cosmetic solutions: placing a bandage on a societal wound that has been oozing for centuries. Because in a time when too many families are facing the tragedy of a mass shooting, and when women around the world are expressing their fear, anxieties are high and anger is rampant. Everyone has an opinion and so many are quick to fix blame on one aspect of society. Tragedies like this most recent one are more than a matter of gun laws, women's rights, failed mental health systems, video games or even celebrities

Messy problems require messy solutions. My experiences have taught me that the only real solution to such a huge problem, complicated and layered as it may be, involves affecting change one person at a timeHow do we do this? Well social media campaigns are a great way of getting attention and raising awareness and for voicing opinions and experiences. 

We must go further.

We must speak with our sons, brothers, fathers, uncles and cousins. As women, we must communicate our anger and hurt with the hopeful message that men can and should be part of the solution to the ever increasing realities of sexism in our world. We must convey a message of masculinity that places respect and value of others at the top of the list.

And we must encourage and support those initiatives which are out there working to turn these stories and realities into tangible mechanisms for change. Organizations like Hollaback! are a great start. What began as a movement to raise awareness about street harassment has expanded to local activism in 79 cities and 26 countries, encouraging women to document stories of harassment and ultimately engaging policy makers and legislators to assist in implementing real, tangible solutions in those communities which need them most. 

The truth is, these stories of tragedy and sexism start and end with the same thing: people. Us. The human race. We are all we have. 

The question I have for us, world, is what are we doing on a daily basis to change this reality and create the world in which we wish to live? Are we speaking to our children frankly about these issues? Are we sticking up for each other? Are we sticking up for ourselves? Are we teaching the next generation the power of their words, whether face-to-face or behind a computer screen? Have we learned how to truly value human life, to show compassion and truly acknowledge people in all their faults, successes, anger, joy, pain and comfort?

It's easy to look around and jump on the "the whole world is going to hell in a handbasket" bandwagon. Yes, people suck, and they piss us off and they break our hearts and they hurt our feelings and they make us want to never leave our bed again, but despite my ever-increasing tendencies toward cynicism, I choose to adopt a different viewpoint.

This is more than just a single person coming to the end of their rope and taking their anger out on the world around them. This is more than men who are socialized to see women as objects and go weak at the sight of skin. This is about all of us and the world we are creating and perpetuating daily in our corners of the world. 

We are all we have. 

I've had the amazing opportunity over the past nine months to work with university students and various community members as a part of my grad program. I won't go into all the nitty-gritty details, but essentially I've been working with a great team of people to engage students in various causes and campaigns throughout their local community. As things wrap up and feedback starts to roll in, the outcome has been more than I could ever imagine. No, we didn't start a worldwide movement or campaign. No, we didn't manage to pass any major form of legislation to eradicate anyone or anything. And no, we didn't manage to get a hashtag trending on Twitter. We (not so) simply joined together under the assumption that no matter our faith, sexual orientation or personal belief system, we are all human and we all have the same basic needs. By embracing the issues that affect us all, either directly or indirectly, we managed to challenge the status quo and decide for ourselves what kind of world we want to live in.

The result was this: a handful of students learned that by opening themselves up and engaging with people they might not otherwise on a daily basis, they can bring about change that matters to themselves and the people around them, and their perspectives have in some way, shape or form, changed. 

Sounds nice, you say, but the world is still full of crazy people with rock-solid opinions at all ends of the political/religious spectrum, and the likelihood of getting those kinds of people to meet anyone halfway is slim to none. And you know what? You're right.

But I am not them, and I choose to focus on the here and now. To be present where I am and to join in team efforts like the ones I've been so privileged to be a part of over the past nine months, and engage with all sorts of people. And if the end result is that a few viewpoints and life perspectives have been affected in some way then it is well worth it.

Because that's all we can do. In this fast-paced, outspoken, falling-to-pieces world, we have the power to join in conversation with those people who are a part of our everyday lives, and be a source of life and positivity despite the circumstances. From the best friend you text every morning, to the colleague or classmate you see every week, to the dedicated mother of five who you occasionally engage in local campaigns with, to the clerk at the corner store you see every time you pick up a new pack of gum, to the homeless person you pass on the street every single day: this is our world and it is up to us to decide what it will look like. No amount of policy change or campaign hype will do it for us. 

There is no quick fix, but there is a fix. It is long, and it is messy, and it is worth it. 

We are all we have.