This month, Americans have had the chance to see the new movie Promised Land, an inspiring tale about a small town community of a few Davids standing up to the Goliath of a multinational corporation called Global. This in turn has inspired a whole community of Internet activism on TakePart.com — a website dedicated to using Promised Land as an inspirational tool for citizen change.
I am a woman who receives 50 emails a day, asking me to sign petitions or write letters on the behalf of others, and I can totally get behind Take Part. But I didn't always find my voice in a signature, or in writing a letter. The film had me thinking of my own life and past.
Once, in my early 20s, I dressed up as some sort of endangered rodent, and stood on the side of a roadway that was going to be widened and lengthened, thus destroying a habitat. Lots of people honked and took our brochures (union-made on recycled paper, of course), but in the end, the toll road expanded. I ended my physical activism the same day.
What I remembered that evening, tired and picking grass out of my socks, is that I didn't solve anything. But it also reminded me of a time when my actions did.
My First Success
When I was in high school — a Catholic high school — I was co-editor of the student newspaper. After yet another girl went missing from the halls between classrooms, I wrote an editorial at the ripe old age of 16 about what I saw as a major flaw in school policy. I hadn't really questioned any school rule up until that moment, and even though I wasn't much of a Christian, I was trying hard to lead a life of fairness and social justice at least.
You see, it was a sin to have premarital sex, and what better proof of that sin than a pregnant teenage girl? But what really got to me was that our school kicked the girls out and sent them to Mary Star of the Sea — the school all pregnant girls in our archdiocese wound up in when they started to show. The boys? The boys who got them pregnant kept going to school like nothing ever happened.
Even at that, the policy was uneven. Girls that were thin who could hide the baby bump were allowed to stay longer in school. Curvier girls that showed earlier? They were sent away. So I did something that sounded totally reasonable at the time. I wrote an article in the school newspaper and asked my uncle, an artist, to do an illustration of a girl in our school uniform busting at the seams. I asked big questions. If we were being taught to be pro-life, even though I was the pro-choice teenager that I was, isn't kicking out a girl for being pregnant going to make her think about choosing abortion more? I didn't feel like I had a stake in the whole deal. My pragmatic mother had put me on the pill when I was 15. It wouldn't be something I ever would face, but it didn't make sense and needed to be addressed.
Yeah, I was 16, and hadn't quite thought that writing about an hypocrisy of my school might come back to hit me in the face.
The morning the paper came out, our principal called the newspaper moderator to his office to reprimand him for publishing such an article, and as we were set to distribute the papers to every room, the principal ordered them to the dumpster instead. I saved one for my co-editor and myself, then we dutifully threw the rest away. I really loved the newspaper moderator and felt bad we'd gotten him into trouble. The moderator informed me from then on that every article I'd write had to first go to the principal's office for screening.
I kept writing, but not about anything real for a long time.
Then something crazy wonderful happened. Somebody — we never found out — went into the dumpster and retrieved the newspaper and stuck a copy in every locker on campus so that come Monday afternoon, everyone had read the article. My co-editor and I were called in for questioning, but we were obviously too dumbfounded so the administration knew it wasn't us. People came up to me to talk about it — teachers, other students. The power of words.They told me that I had pointed out something significant and that it wasn't fair that pregnant girls were kicked out. I'd always loved writing, but I had no idea it could affect people in such a profound way.
A Changed Policy
The following year, without fanfare, the policy was changed. The girls would stay. No one got kicked out for having her baby no matter what trimester she was in. In the end, they finally chose the sanctity of life they'd been drilling in our heads since day one. Their policy finally matched their pulpit. Today, no girl in my old diocese ever gets banished, expelled, or sent away because she is pregnant.
Still more came of it. Word swept through the nearby public school district. My article was taught in classes about censorship and the power of student journalism to change policy. It was my tiny claim to fame and I learned that writing could indeed change your world.
As an adult in my small Sierra Mountain, California town, I'm kind of known as a rabble-rouser these days. When it didn't look like the good ol' boy cops were going arrest a group of young men who left a kid paralyzed, I wrote letters everywhere, and blogged about the situation. When the same cops were not serving restraining orders on violent husbands, I took it to the head sheriff with complaint letters and phone calls. I have written letters and given testimony for my community college students accused of wrong-doing, I have worked on behalf of the local native American tribe for land rights, and served as a safe space for gay teens trying the difficult task of coming out in one of the few red state counties in California. Always, my writing has found a voice in justice for those facing some sort of hypocrisy.
What I Learned From Activism
I don't show up for rallies much and I've never dressed up as an endangered animal again. But my letter writing, blogging, and petitioning lives on and always will. I'm older too and can totally understand the principal's need to shun pregnant school girls, as I now have an impressionable daughter of my own. But no one should ever shun a young girl who, more than anything, needs her community's support. I'm proud of what I did as a 16-year-old. It's something my daughter can be proud of too.
Choose Your Inspiration
Every day people are taking small steps to create big change in communities all over the country. Check out the stories at Real Changemakers stories and read about Mama Hill, who started a home learning center for youth living in South Central Los Angeles, Alabama Chanin, who helped to revive her small town by starting a home-sewn apparel line that attracted the attention of some of today’s biggest fashion labels, and more. Use their Community Action Pack which features the best digital tools you can use online to spark action in your community.
What will you do to be an activist in your community?
Disclosure: This article has been sponsored. All thoughts & opinions are of my own.