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.