Lyn Mikel Brown is professor of education at Colby College and the cofounder of three girl-fueled activist organizations, SPARK Movement, Powered By Girl, and Hardy Girls Healthy Women. Her latest book is Powered by Girl: A Field Guide For Supporting Youth Activists. She joins Signature to discuss the books and authors that ignited her passion for youth activism.
As a working class girl growing up on the Maine-New Brunswick border, I was too busy wanting to be something I wasn’t to look much further than my own unmet desires. The first inkling that my frustration could be more than just personal angst came in the form of Ms. Magazine. I’m not actually sure where I got the idea, but I begged for a subscription that Christmas of 1972. While other fifteen-year-olds opened brightly wrapped packages to find record players and mini-skirts, I hugged a cover photo of Wonder Woman to my chest.
So it wasn’t by chance that Gloria Steinem’s Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions would be my introduction to activism. The book is filled with moving essays, brilliant commentary, and hilarious insight, but it was Steinem’s eye-rolling Playboy bunny alias, Marie Catherine Ochs, who led me into the active underground. Marie attended bunny bible study, stuffed her costume with plastic bags, and teetered on three inch heels to introduce the rest of us to systemic sexism. She and her unsuspecting fluffle of bunny friends taught me that things are not always what they appear and that objects can and do object.
Steinem awakened something of the undercover agent in me. But as the Maine saying goes, you can’t get there from here — I could eye roll with the best of them, but doing something about sexist teachers required company. I learned this much later. Reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire was nothing short of a revelation. Both a treatise on the dehumanizing experiences of formal education and a roadmap for the development of critical consciousness, Freire taught me that social change is a relational effort, built from the ground up. As I began my own work with girls and young women, trying to understand their pathways through oppression, Freire taught me that the ability to change the world began with genuine questions and the capacity to listen with humility.
This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color brought such listening to life. Editors Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua pulled together a beautiful, diverse collection of poetry, art, essays, testimonials, and critical reflections by women of color, queer, and working class women to embody a coalition politics. This Bridge gave me a language for activism and a deep respect for the hard, necessary work of building coalition. This Bridge “allowed for an original voice,” Moraga would say years later. “It is the intimate that brings down institutions.” Radical in its intimacy, in the courage of its contributors to bare their souls, This Bridge was my introduction to intersectional feminism and a new framework for the movement.
Pressed to find my contribution to this movement, Maxine Greene’s The Dialectic of Freedom challenged me to look at my work and my place in the world from new angles, to think hard about what I care about, why I want what I want, and to name the obstacles in my way. “[A] rock is an obstacle only to the one who wants to climb the hill,” she wrote. Only when we can name what is in our way can we hope to change it. Imagining freedom is a social activity. Our wide-awakeness comes when we have the “speculative audacity” to imagine things as if they could be otherwise, and this happens when we work together. The practice of freedom is the practice of genuine relationship.
Awakening, humility, relationship, imagination, coalition–these themes reverberate through my activism. Activism is to me what truth is to Adrienne Rich: “not one thing, but a deepening complexity.”
It is, of course, also a passion and a struggle.
And when I am lost—when I’m overwhelmed by the size and complexity of the problems facing us, I turn to Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Stories, Wild Possibilities for a dose of faith and reality. There I find the small successes that matter, the times when actions by the few somehow shifted the possibilities of the many. I carry Hope in the Dark with me so I can believe hopeful things. It reminds me of the girl I once was and the girls I now work with–all of those “beautiful insurrections,” all of the ways girls “throw themselves actively into what is becoming.” I believe what Solnit writes, and what I now tell them, that “every act counts” and that their hope for more, their impatience for change, their desire to connect and laugh and fully enjoy one another, their collaborative, creative, openhearted and improvisational actions matter. I tell them that their power to change the world is first a capacity to name. “The change that counts as revolution takes place first in the imagination,” Solnit writes. I believe that.