Guest Post: Perspective, privilege, and the anti-violence movement

This is a guest post from Annie E. Clark and was originally published last week on her blog. Clark is a founding member of the IX Network, a national collective of sexual assault survivors and allies working to improve safety and administrative accountability on college campuses. She supports black coffee, travels as often as possible, and blogs for the Huffington Post.

For those of you who might not be aware, the annual National Sexual Assault Conference (NSAC) is underway in Los Angeles, California today and will continue with inspiring speakers, exchanging of business cards, and sharing of stories for the rest of the week. Fourteen hundred advocates, activists, allies, and academics from all over the country are gathered for a few short days to discuss best anti-violence practices and moving forward together. They will then go home reenergized, with a few new tools, some powerful connections, hopefully good memories, and will report promptly back to their organizations about what they learned. It’s pretty standard, as far as conferences go, with a price of admission of about $475 (and that’s the early-bird special).

A few blocks down the road, you will find another group working just as passionately on similar issues of anti-violence and systems of oppression. You will find patches of a survivor collective, known as the IX Network, who have organized in order to hold their schools accountable for their climates of rape culture and illegal handling of sexual misconduct cases. These are the students and few staff members who road-tripped 12 hours to Sacramento last week to testify in front of a joint legislative body for four University of California schools to be audited under Title IX and the Clery Act. These are the students who spend late nights informing others of resources, researching school policies from the public library, brainstorming on the floor in crowded rooms, and writing legal complaints by hand. And although this group of students received a shout out in the opening key-note from Lynn Rosenthal, White House Advisor on Violence Against Women, this is also the group that cannot afford seats at the NSAC conference table. 

Privilege

First, I want to acknowledge my privilege. I’m white and a lot of the anti-violence movement is white-centric. While my personal story isn’t often represented, my gender and racial identities are, which already gives me an upper hand, and I have a responsibility to acknowledge my privilege and when appropriate, use it to teach. I’ve also had the privilege to be in spaces like NSAC before; I’ve received scholarships to conferences, I’ve presented, and I’m connected technologically to the world.

But today, I’m physically excluded from this conversation. I’m literally outside the doors of workshops and best practices and I’m shut off from the dialogue inside. There’s privilege on the other side of the door that I can’t access for socioeconomic reasons. At bare minimum in order to attend the supposedly representative National Sexual Assault Conference, one must:

-Know that the conference is happening
-Somehow be able to pay the registration fee
-Pay for air travel
-Have a place or pay for a place to stay in Los Angeles
-Have a supportive employer or school who lets you take time off/be able to afford the time off
-Buy food for the days you’re traveling
-Be in a family situation where travel is possible
(and the list goes on)

That’s a lot of privilege.

In no way am I discrediting NSAC 2013 or it’s attendees; I’m not blaming them for their privilege, and to be honest, I’d love to be there right now. Some of my colleagues from North Carolina are in attendance, and I acknowledge the hard work our non-profit, the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault, has done and the great struggles it has been through. Our incredible director and dedicated team there work long hours and are rarely given enough credit, as many in anti-violence work can relate. The grant writing process is never ending, there are always state budget cuts, and by the time you are finished cutting through the bureaucratic red tape, the work comes home with you and you are left on Sunday night planning the next week’s training sessions. Am I right?

But today, they and others have the privilege to be in a space with individuals dedicated to a common goal. Someone still paid almost $500 for attendees to learn and have this experience. I hope they learn from this experience and share the knowledge learned with those not in attendance.

The Anti-Violence Movement

So conferences are expensive; non-profit life is hard; what’s the point?

Here’s my issue: I see this conference as a microcosm of the anti-violence movement, and that’s problematic. Those who are privileged enough to gain admission to the “conference” are listened to, and those who can’t “afford registration” are often silenced. Of course, socio-economic status is only one example.

As an anti-violence movement, we do an OK job of spouting the rhetoric of inclusivity and intersectionality; we do often talk about cultural confidence and we claim to value diversity. But do we really always follow our pontifications in practice?

I want to pose a few questions, some food for thought:

Beyond the class privilege and education it takes to know about and get to a conference such as this, whom else are we intentionally or unintentionally leaving out of this NATIONAL conference? While I know people of color who are attending, what is the representation like? How many young people are there? Are the materials only in English? And importantly, which groups are being erased repeatedly and left out entirely?

Obviously, I’m speaking more broadly than NSAC; I’m talking about the anti-violence movement as a whole.

For those of you at the “conference,” (literally and metaphorically) I challenge you to be cognizant of your privilege and/or non-privilege in the way you interact with other allies in the movement. How would you (or would you?) navigate the anti-violence movement differently if you were a male immigrant? A queer person of color? A low income student? An elderly woman? A veteran? A low-income trans* student?

If you’re at this conference, then you are likely passionate about these issues and want to work for change. So think about it: How can you use your privilege and your voice to make our movement more inclusive? How can you open the windows and doors of the conference hotel to create a more accessible conference experience?

These conversations are happening outside of the walls of your conference hotel and your non-profit organization, on a daily basis. Let’s acknowledge who isn’t at the table and then figure out why not. Invite people inside. Learn from them and teach them. There must be space for everyone in the anti-violence community.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted September 3, 2013 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    I agree that there are a lot of issues surrounding privilege to be discussed re the anti-violence movement, but I think it’s crucial to understand and discuss the role that non-profit funding plays in determining who gets to go to these conferences, who gets published in journals, and who gets to have their voice and opinion heard and legitimatized. The issues discussed in this post are inherently tied up with the professionalization of anti-violence work, and the politics of non-profit funding and development.

    I would assume that many, if not most, of the attendees at this conference are having their costs covered by the organizations for which they work, which seems to be assumed in this post as well. Organizations must, then, have adequate funding to send staff to these types of conferences, and all too often organizations that focus on issues that affect those with fewer privileges do not have access to a large funding stream from government grants, foundations, and private donors.

    A number of factors influence an organization’s access to funding, and most of these factors are related to different types of privilege. As the author mentions, grant-writing is time consuming and requires skill. Government grants are extremely time consuming to write, and are often confusing and convoluted; well-established organizations that have written and received these grants before certainly have the upper hand. In a small organization with a small staff, taking the time to complete one could be difficult. Yet government grants in some ways help make the anti-violence community more inclusive. There are grant programs targeted at addressing the needs of Native communities and rural communities, and the new reauthorization of VAWA will expand those efforts and establish programs to fund organizations serving the LGBTQ community. The sequestration and funding cuts, however, may seriously undermine efforts to realize the goal of VAWA; a reauthorization only authorizes the spending of money, it doesn’t guarantee that the government will spend it.

    Writing foundation grants and working obtaining donations from private individuals not only requires some technical skill, but it requires the ability to relate to people who have money to give away. Organizations that don’t threaten the status quo that enables their donors to have a lot of extra money are certainly at an advantage in this realm. Organizations that plan events and galas that appeal to wealthy people are at an advantage. Organizations that make people with a lot of privilege feel uncomfortable and like they’re personally implicated in perpetuating something that’s harming others may have a harder time getting donations, even though they are often doing the most important work.

    The professionalization of the anti-violence movement, in particular, is a double-edged sword, and plays a large role in excluding grassroots activists from the conversation. Professionalization has enabled a lot of very smart people to devote their careers to addressing violence, which has certainly led to improved services and progress. Yet it also means that if you’re not staff at a 501(c)3 non-profit with a budget, you’re probably not going to be able to go to NSAC and other national conferences, you’re not going to be invited to speak, and you’re not going to be able to meet and connect with some of the “professionals” who actually are likely very much interested in and supportive of your work. As this post highlights, it’s important for the anti-violence community to start reaching out to grassroots activists and working hard to come up with ways to include everyone in the conversation, such as helping activists to find funding to cover expenses to attend conferences.

  2. Posted September 3, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Hi! I’m hoping that I’m not annoyingly posting this twice I completely apologize if that is the case. This is my first time ever commenting, and I felt like it would be safe to share my thoughts.

    First off, thank you for this article.

    Since I was at the conference, this certainly gives me a lot to think about, and I appreciate that. I will say that from what I saw (although it is only from my white, straight, identifying as female perspective) there were many cultures represented (and taking huge leadership roles from what I could tell), and that there were interpreters there. I saw gender neutral bathrooms, accessibility, and heard many people share that they were part of the LGBTQIA community. More men and military members were also there than I had seen previously.

    Were there issues? Sure. Obviously there were as this article discusses, but this proves to me that this is a movement that is willing to learn from its mistakes, and grow from them. I would hope that next year, the conference would have it live streamed. I would also say that for anyone who is interested, I’m more than willing to share the notes and resources I have from the conference.

    I would also encourage those advocates/activists who are just starting out to please keep us in the loop with you too! As someone who has done this for a long time, I’m so grateful for you, and really hope for the chance to learn from you too.

    Peace, Trace

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