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On a birthday, reflections on movement roles

I’m turning 25 on Sunday. I know I’ve said this every year since I was a toddler, but this new age feels much older. My birthday also comes this year within a month of the official one-half mark of my law school career. God and Bar Association willing, I’ll be an attorney in about a year and a half.

My birthday also comes, as it has for the last five years, eight days after the anniversary of my assault. This year, I didn’t notice as the date went by.

I’m turning 25 on Sunday and thinking about what it means to change within a movement where participation is defined by your experience. I’ve organized against campus gender-based violence since I was in college, back when my anger and energy derived from a deeply personal source that now no longer feels so familiar. I take as a given that politics must be led and fueled by those affected, but I feel less and less like that’s me as time goes on. I’m frustrated when I see panels or policy debates devoid of those with intimate knowledge of the problem, but, while I once knew it too well, my access to that experiential expertise is fading. I’m unlearning.

Last year I wrote about being OK, and about what an asshole I felt writing about being OK. Congratufuckinglations, Alexandra. A lot of people are having a really shitty time of it and you’re not. Brava. I feel the same today. And to be clear, I don’t have any claim to generalized truths about how people work or time works: to quote Eve Sedgewick, “people are different from each other.” So I can only speak to how time seems to work for this person, though of course I wonder if it feels like this to others, too.

I’m turning 25 and I feel like I’m leaving a version of myself behind in a way my personal politics can’t quite grasp. Trauma politics are real and they are powerful. Yet to claim a central place in the ranks requires not just an authentic claim to the collective hurt but a continued claim. So what if you don’t hurt anymore?

There’s a generous story I could tell about how there’s always room in the movement, how we’re allowed to heal without losing our claim to the experience. Yet I don’t think that’s entirely true: experience matters to organizing not as a ticket to the team huddle but as a source of knowledge about the reality of the problem as it is lived, not as it is imagined or written about or even testified to later. If that knowledge fades, so does the expertise. The work starts to be about empathy, which is good and fine but not the same. I feel like someday I’ll wake up and be an ally.

I’m also not sure I want forever to be true. “Once a survivor, always a survivor” sounds more sinister than soothing to me.

In law school we talk a lot about the different roles we need to make the system move: the zealous advocates on either side of the aisle, the neutral judge, the informed lay jury. And at home after class I’ve been thinking about the different roles we need people to play within movements, and how my own place needs to change as I do. In about 19 months I hope to be Alexandra Brodsky, Attorney at Law, which can’t only be additive to my current stance as Alexandra Brodsky, Student Organizer, but will need to replace it. I don’t plan to lose my fire; I’m in this for the long haul. But I’ll have passed another birthday, and another anniversary I hope again comes and goes unnoticed. I’ll be off a campus. I’ll know more of some things, and less of others. And I’ll try to be useful.


Washington, DC

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at During her four years at the site, she wrote about gender violence, reproductive justice, and education equity and ran the site's book review column. She is now a Skadden Fellow at the National Women's Law Center and also serves as the Board Chair of Know Your IX, a national student-led movement to end gender violence, which she co-founded and previously co-directed. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she is the co-editor of The Feminist Utopia Project: 57 Visions of a Wildly Better Future. She has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice at campuses across the country and on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, ESPN, and NPR.

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at

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