activism and art

I often return to this poem (circa 2007). I see it every day. I feel it–if not the rage, then the guilt of not continuously being enraged.

Today, at The Vagina Monologues performance at Cooper Union Hall in NYC, I remember why I wrote it: as a reminder not to get too comfortable with my privileges as a woman in relative safety in the developed world. It was a reminder that work to end violence against women and girls–despite my every day efforts here–needs dire focus and attention in critical parts of the developing world. It was a reminder of purpose.

When I first met Eve Ensler in 2006 in New Orleans for a V-Day conference after Hurricane Katrina, something caustic shifted in my bones. Sure, I’d read The Vagina Monologues. Sure, I’d heard stories about victims of sexual violence in far away countries and my own circles and communities. Sure, I was aware of the prevalence of sexual violence in the U.S. and worldwide (1 in 3). But it wasn’t until I’d been in that room with such a powerful group of women that I felt I could do something about it.

Still, I didn’t know how I could help, besides organizing fundraiser events or writing poems or speaking for equality whenever a situation presents itself. I didn’t immediately dive into humanitarian efforts after that. I had an MFA program to finish. And life-things to figure out and pursue. I would stay in the periphery of action for a while. And I would be OK with that for some time.

Eve’s speech after the performance today was powerful and convincing, as she breathes to inspire action among us all. She began talking about her work in the eastern Congo, in which she established The City of Joy where abused and exploited women are transcending their previous situations and empowering other women. The eastern Congo–Eve emphasizes–represents the confluence of all societal forces that have led us to this present reality–colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, racism, sexism, etc. The battle is fought for us here by countless women–gang raped, repeatedly, tied to trees for weeks–as a form of fear tactic/control, in order for militias in nearby countries to extract minerals and resources to feed our iPhones and plasma TVs. How can we not feel an overwhelming sense of moral duty to eradicate these atrocities?

But there is continued progress. Eve talked about the significance of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the like–the revolutionary energy that is circulating the globe. This energy was also mentioned by the producer/director of the forthcoming PBS series Half The Sky (Maro Chermayeff and Jamie Gordon) during a showing at Barnard a couple of weeks ago. (The multimedia campaign is based off of the book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.) We seem to be at the precipice of significant change globally. We are more aware now than we have ever been–of both the issues and our very own agency.

After the performance, I was telling a friend–one who is actively doing something by promoting literacy and “education in action” in the eastern Congo via The Mama Project–that I perpetually question whether I’m doing enough (per that poem) because the heartbreaking stories of these women feel so far and foreign, despite my awareness of them.

Most of my efforts have been arts-oriented–and not the activist kind. In fact, over the years, I’ve been griping about the dilution of agency of my poems–as I became entrenched in academic spheres. Today was a significant reminder of where the intersection of my energies felt the most active and powerful, where I need to return.

The very act of writing that kind of poem, the times I’d read it in public, the act of writing about this now–these actions are cumulative toward awareness and agency. The goal is to continue to transcend, to do more.