The Feministing Five: Rachel Griffin and Josh Phillips

Griffin-Phillips.jpg
Josh Phillips and Rachel Griffin make one heck of a team. The pair met at Central Michigan University, where they were both members of Sexual Aggression Peer Advocates, CMU’s sexual assault education and prevention group. Today, they’re taking the mission of that group off campus and all over the country.
Dr. Griffin is an Assistant Professor of Speech Communication at Southern Illinois University. Griffin’s written works, including her doctoral dissertation, address the intersection of gender and race.
Phillips is the founder of East Coast Walkers, a group of CMU students who, in the summer of 2008, walked from Miami to Boston to raise awareness about sexual violence. His book about the experience, 1800 Miles, comes out this fall. The Walkers blogged about their trek along the way, and one entry, written from South Carolina, filled me with hope:
“Something remarkable keeps happen on this trip: our restaurant bills disappear. We will stop in a small mom and pop diner, the waitress will undoubtedly inquire what we are doing, and an eavesdropping patron will sneakily pay our tab as we devour whatever food is on the table. It must be magic…”
It’s not magic, but something better: it’s a sign that Phillips, Griffin and the East Coast Walkers are not alone in wishing and working for an end to sexual violence.
Phillips and Griffin regularly team up to speak about sexual violence, and to teach workshops on awareness and prevention. Their team approach works well, Griffin says, because when they’re addressing a crowd on the topic of sexual violence, “there are people who can hear Josh who can’t hear me and vice versa.”
And now, without further ado, the inaugural Feministing Five, with Rachel Griffin and Josh Phillips.


Chloe: What led you to your work in sexual assault education and prevention?
Rachel: before anything else, it came from being a survivor myself. Being a survivor combined with being at CMU, in an environment where sexual assault was positioned as a problem, is what really led me to continually doing activism, throughout earning a Bachelor’s, a Master’s and a Ph.D.
Josh: It stems from a personal story. A woman I was dating when I was in high school was assaulted. After she was assaulted there was a period of a few years where I was trying to find an outlet, and trying to find ways to support her. And I was just fortunate that I ended up going to a university that had an advocacy group. And I think by being involved in that advocacy group, I started to understand the issue more. I started to understand that it happened a lot more frequently than I thought. When you put yourself out there and you let people know that this is something that you care about, and that you’re a person that’s going to listen to them and believe their story, a lot of people within your circle and within your community begin to talk to you, begin to feel more comfortable with you.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine? Who are your favorite heroines in real life?
RG: I don’t read that much fiction. Having gone to school for ten years straight, most of what I read is nonfiction. But the last fictional heroine that I remember reading was Nancy Drew. I read the entire Nancy Drew series when I was a kid. But I haven’t read it recently, so perhaps Nancy Drew was horrible for feminism and I just don’t remember.
My favorite heroines in real life are the everyday women who do feminism. And I mean women who do feminism and don’t call it “feminism.” You can go all the way back in history and think about all the unnamed and unknown women who were engaged in gender politics, and at the intersections of race and class and sexual orientation far before anyone had ever written a book about it or written an article about it. And now, we’ve got women who live in pockets of society who do feminist work, but they don’t get phone interviews like this one, because no one knows who they are. But they do the everyday act of humanizing other people, and from my perspective, that’s what feminism is about.
JP: I don’t read a lot of fiction either. We’re nerds. But the only fictional heroine I remember reading about as a child was Wonderwoman. Which is really sexist, and it was really problematic ideology of beauty. But Wonderwoman is the only heroine I can remember following and reading about. It’s pretty sad that I can’t think of any other fictional heroines; there are plenty of fictional heroes out there.
As for real life heroines, the person I read the most is bell hooks. As an intelligent woman with a Ph.D., she can communicate in a way that’s accessible to people who don’t have a background in academics. I think that she’s so intelligent, and the way that she communicates her message, people can read her work and understand it. I think it’s important for us to have academically important women in positions of power who also know how to speak to the wider community.
CA: What recent news event or article made you want to scream?
RG: Chris Brown and Rihanna. It made me deeply, deeply sad, and deeply frustrated, and completely sure of how unfair the world is when the first news that he had hurt her was completely overtaken by panelists wondering what was going to happen to his career.
I was enraged by the event itself and by the media discourse that followed, along with the comments that came out of my students’ mouths.
However, I think I was more enraged just recently when he released his video talking about how sorry he was. I mean, he should be sorry, because he beat her – you should be sorry, without question. But what absolutely gets me is the public reaction to his apology. He was a hero, like, “what a great guy, that apology he gave Rihanna, that’s so nice of him.” He is apparently amazing for being a decent human being.
JP: The big concern I have is with the Michael Vick thing. He’s going back into the pros, and he did horrible things to dogs, and there’s been a lot of media attention around it. And I’m not mad at the people who are covering it, and I’m not mad at PETA, but what makes me upset with the whole situation is that there are athletes out there, high-profile celebrities, who beat their wives or beat their girlfriends, and they’re not making it into the paper.
So Michael Vick comes back and there’s a big conversation about whether people are going to forgive him. And all I can think about is back in the early ’90s when Mike Tyson was in jail for three years for rape, and when he came back, no one was questioning him. He had fights lined up while he was in prison – people were waiting to fight him as soon as he got out. He had dozens of fights lined up and millions of dollars coming in and celebrations to go to and homecoming parties.
We talk about the things Michael Vick did and we don’t pay any attention to those athletes or celebrities who have done equally, if not more horrible things, to human beings. And it’s really frustrating because we need to have a conversation about dogs and dog fighting, but we also need to have a conversation about people, about the women and children who are being put in horrible situations every day.
CA: In your opinion, what is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
RG: Our inability to function at the intersection. I think that we are so caught up in the differences among women that we cannot mobilize. We’ve got white feminists who talk about taking a colorblind approach, which just doesn’t work for feminist of color. We’ve got homophobia being directed at folks in the LGBTIQ community from heterosexual women. We’ve got feminists divided by class identity – feminists with access to class privilege who aren’t conscious of what it’s like to live without class privilege. We rarely account for ability, whether be it mental disabilities or physical disabilities. We’ve not yet come to understand what feminism means in an everyday sense while being accountable for global consciousness.
And I don’t think that there’s one kind of feminism that can account for all those differences, but I do think that the feminist community needs to understand that our needs and values and beliefs are just important as the other person’s needs and values and beliefs. So if I’m trying to have a conversation with a heterosexual white female feminist who has a disability, we need to come together in a humanizing moment and understand that her needs are just as important as my needs as a heterosexual able-bodied woman of color who identifies as a feminist.
We have to find a way for those needs to simultaneously co-exist and be met in different ways. And not everybody’s needs are going to be met quickly, and not everybody’s needs are going to be met fully, but I do truly belief that Audre Lorde was dead-on brilliant when she said that there is no hierarchy of oppression. We are so caught up in a social justice equivalent of a patriarchal pissing contest that it’s ridiculous. And until we stop struggling amongst ourselves, we can’t form a coalition across difference.
JP: I will qualify my remarks, which you’re never supposed to do. But I recognize that I’m in no position as a male to be telling females on the frontlines of feminism what’s wrong with the organizing of feminism. It is more my responsibility to support feminists in the direction that they want to go.
However, what I would say is challenging from an outside viewpoint is that I can’t find the focus of the movement any more. And I’ve studied the history of feminism and I’ve seen clear lines of political intention, clear lines and focus, and in the last ten or fifteen years, I don’t always know what is expected of male counterparts and allies in feminism. What’s expected of us isn’t as clear as it used to be. So if we could redirect, refocus and reorganize some of the overarching goals, that would really help some of us on the outside in supporting the cause.
CA: You’re going to a desert island and you get to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you take?
RG: Mandarin oranges, 7-11 Slurpees, and bell hooks.
JP: Mangoes, a case of root beer, and since Rachel took my favourite feminist, Sojourner Truth.

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6 Comments

  1. Comrade Kevin
    Posted August 29, 2009 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    And it very is true that we do end up rating oppression in a hierarchical sense, ironically a very similar one to that which compels us to action in the first place. This isn’t just a criticism of feminism, per se, it is a criticism of all of progressive thought and critical theory.
    My opinion is that we overthink it. We’ve all been educated, indoctrinated, and versed in the same terms, the same concepts, and the same strategies so as a result we often have an unfortunate tendency to over-complicate matters. What often annoys me about academic discourse (and I’m a product of academia, too) is that we keep fragmenting ourselves when finding a middle ground and coming to a basic understanding would be better served. Sometimes people who have never been highly educated have a common sense, matter-of-fact approach to issues like these that might not take into account all the particulars, but notably doesn’t end up with counter-productive bickering, either.
    And I think at times we would be wise to ask ourselves what drives us to care so passionately about the cause of feminism. Is it an altruistic desire to improve all of humanity? Is it sparked by a negative experience we have had with Patriarchy, sexism, racism, and those other ills we all seek to eradicate? For example, I rail against classism on a regular basis, but I also acknowledge that I myself hold stereotypical notions of working class individuals as hopelessly backwards and exceptionally ill-fit to run their own lives properly. Well and good if my revulsion at the status quo spurs me to action, but I also acknowledge globally that at times our own bitterness and our own internal agenda can overshadow the consensus process. This is what gives rise to that nauseating tendency for people to believe that all criticism must be designed solely for malicious ends and as a result, it must be coldly destroyed. This is also when we fragment, squabble amongst ourselves, and drift, rudderless, without a single purpose that might unify us for a greater good.
    Like Josh Phillips said above, I’m not seeking to dictate terms to any feminist, especially not to any female feminist. I merely aim to propose and I see part of my aim as an activist of many stripes to speak truth to power, and in doing so, to point out the ways in which we are hypocritical and illogical. I’m not above asking myself the same questions. I believe in the transforming power of rational discourse and sound logic and at times people confuse that with some sort of destructive intent. Not in feminist circles, but in all activist circles.
    The left is so alarmingly good at eating its own and that is what continues to limit the power of what we can accomplish. Look at health care reform, if you want a current example. We need to understand that coming to consensus means that we aren’t going to get everything we want and sometimes our pet projects and pet ambitions might not be understood properly by all, but that sometimes the minutia isn’t nearly as important as the substance.

  2. starryeyed.kid21
    Posted August 29, 2009 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    I find it interesting that Philips said, “I don’t read a lot of fiction either. We’re nerds.”
    Even though people who do read a lot of fiction are constantly called nerds, bookworms, geeks, what have you.
    Loved the interview, though. Philips made a good point about Vick, even though I think the coverage is justified, there should be coverage on the high-profile people who do abuse/rape people.

  3. Devoted_Toucan
    Posted August 29, 2009 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

    “For example, I rail against classism on a regular basis, but I also acknowledge that I myself hold stereotypical notions of working class individuals as hopelessly backwards and exceptionally ill-fit to run their own lives properly.”
    …Wow. I read this around an hour ago and I’m still very offended and shocked. Possibly one of the worst statements I’ve heard about the W/C, and one of the oddest places to see it said.
    On another note, I really enjoyed reading the interview.

  4. femme.
    Posted August 30, 2009 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Kick ass interview, Chloe. Very thought-provoking. Rachel and Josh’s answers to: In your opinion, what is the greatest challenge facing feminism today? were dead-on. I have felt the same way for some time now.
    I was surprised by my immediate answer to your last question: Cashews, mango juice, and Kathleen Hanna. I was surprised because I thought of Kathleen Hanna before anyone else, particularly one of the many “academic” feminists or “career” feminists who I expected to come to mind. Kathleen Hanna is pretty much my hero though.

  5. simonismycat
    Posted August 30, 2009 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    I just wanted to say that I appreciated Josh’s measured, thoughtful discussion of the Michael Vick situation. He was able to draw attention to the issue of violence against women while still acknowledging that animal abuse is an awful thing. I completely agree that violence against women is very often not as publicized, nor as publicly condemned, as violence against animals. Yet, I’m an animal lover as well as a feminist, and I found it troubling that, in the wake of the charges against Vick, many people used the incident as a jumping-off point to talk about how underreported “more important” things are in comparison. I think it goes without saying (on this site anyway) that it’s more than justifiable to be angry about gendered violence–as well as other hate crimes and injustices–but I don’t think this is an either/or situation. I don’t think caring about one form of violence excludes caring about another. I think it’s important to explore the reasons why someone like Michael Vick is more reviled in MSM than (to use the example in the interview) somebody like Mike Tyson, but I wish that it wouldn’t be framed in such a way as to diminish Vick’s actions. There’s a huge connection between the way we treat animals and the way we treat other humans, and I wish those similarities would be emphasized, so that we can work toward eradicating *all* forms of abuse.
    Anyway, overall a really interesting interview with some very cool folks!
    /ramble

  6. GREGORYABUTLER10031
    Posted August 30, 2009 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    “For example, I rail against classism on a regular basis, but I also acknowledge that I myself hold stereotypical notions of working class individuals as hopelessly backwards and exceptionally ill-fit to run their own lives properly.
    Well, Kevin, I appreciate your honesty about your snobbishness, arrogance and anti working class bigotry issues.
    A LOT of middle class and upper class people feel exactly that way about my class – but few are as bluntly honest enough as you are to admit your bigotry.
    Now, your bigotry is – like almost all bigotries – totally illogical.
    Since working class people do all of the productive labor of society (we grow your food, we cook it for you, we clean up after you, we build the buildings you work in and the cars you drive, we deliver all the goods you use and stock them on the shelves and we take care of you when you are sick) we are also perfectly capable of running our own lives without your condescending arrogant input.
    In fact, we are the folks who should actually be running the entire country – and the entire world – because we are the people who make the world run through our labor.
    But again, thank you for being honest about your bigotry – that’s a good start point!

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