Editor’s Note: Courtney Martin is the author of Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists. She speaks to her generation in her writings and her blogs on Feministing.com, (“young feminists blogging, organizing, kicking ass”). And she speaks about her generation to older activists who are trying to figure out where all the political flowers have gone.
In her book, Martin profiles eight young people who exemplify the kind of activism that is a “bridge over the chasm between what our parents and teachers told us about good deeds, about success and what the real world needs every day.”
That chasm is very personal; her parents were, as she puts it, “radicals” when they were in their early 30s, as she is now, but her father had to make the practical decision to “get a secure job.” Now he is retired and looking for an encore.
Over coffee on a winter afternoon, Martin spoke with Suzanne Braun Levine – author, founding editor of Ms. magazine, and member of Civic Ventures’ board – about how to go about making the world a better place.
Q. You see a difference between your parents’ activism and that of your generation. Can you describe it?
A. I think the big distinction I make is about a “save the world” mentality. There was a lot of those three words when I was growing up, and both of my parents – in a well-intentioned way – thought: You’re Americans, you’re privileged, go save the world.
To me those three words deny the complexity of what it would mean to make change in this day and age. The world is more globalized, it’s more corporatized, it’s more bureaucratic. You can take any daily decision – like “I want to buy all my clothing from companies that don’t exploit people” – and if you follow that chain you find out, “Well, now I’m not exploiting people, but I’m using some sort of toxic chemical that’s going to someday poison my baby.”
It’s so overwhelming to try to lead a very basic meaningful life, and it’s very difficult to make a really solid decision about what is actually going to help, what is worth your energy, what is going to make a difference.
Q. Does your generation feel it has a movement of its own?
A. I’ve written a lot about this in terms of feminism, because the feminism that my friends and I are most interested is inter-sectional; it’s about race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and on and on. So immigration work can be feminist, maternal health work can be feminist, anti-police brutality – we’re all over the place and all of this may even work, but there’s no real way to codify it or to create any cohesion. Your generation is so frustrated that my generation isn’t willing to see themselves as a block, and use their power as a block, whether it’s rooting for Hillary or in other ways, and I do see that there’s a real loss in that.
I meet older feminists who are so relieved to meet me, and they’re like, “Oh, I’m so glad you exist. I thought there were no young feminists anymore,” and that’s very frustrating for me because I know so many young women and men doing incredible work, trying to be very visible, blogging, writing, really trying to be out there, and it feels as if sometimes older feminists don’t see us. They don’t even make the effort to go where we are; they just sort of expect us to show up on their doorsteps.
Q. Where do we find you?
A. On the Internet. You can’t count on numbers in terms of people showing up for a protest march, but you can count on both speed and numbers when you use the Internet as a tool for social change. At Feministing.com, for example, a reader sent us a photograph she took on her cell phone of this underwear for ’tween girls that said, “Who Needs Credit Cards,” which was really gross and creepy. We posted it along with an email address for the Wal-Mart buyer. The next day Fox News’ “About People” ran a story about it, and by the next day it was pulled off the shelves, because so many readers had emailed them. That’s an example of something that you certainly could have organized a protest around, but it would have taken a lot of time to get it going.
When I meet an older woman and she’s like, “Oh, I love Feministing, that’s so moving to me.” I see the way it really keeps my parents young to be constantly interested in everything, but it also really creates a bridge so that we can have some of these conversations. You don’t have to do like every trendy thing, but just at least know where are the young people who are talking about the issues that you care about and how to be in touch with that.
Q. What, if anything, does your generation want from us?
A. Young people really want mentoring. There’s this sense that we’re so sophisticated, that we know it all, but we don’t; we might pretend we know it all, but in fact we’re very hungry for mentoring. All the young activists I know are tired and are in doubt, and they’re confused and they’re passionate, but everybody I know could use a really awesome older mentor who could say to them, “OK, here’s the big picture, hang in there.”
If you’re an older activist in your encore career and you see a younger person who may or not appear to need mentoring, approach it so as not to freak out the younger person. Don’t go up to them and say, “I’m going to mentor you, you need this advice,” but just say, “If you ever have questions or you want to talk about things, I’m here to support you. I really respect what you’re doing, but I’ve been at this for a while and I’m always happy to talk to you about things and support you.” It’s intimidating for us to ask older people what they think, because we’re supposed to look like we know what we’re doing.
Q. So, if you were talking to someone like your father about wanting to go back into the social activism world, what would you tell them?
A. I think it’s much harder for men who’ve had very traditional jobs to understand how to be creative and kind of compose a life; women have been doing that out of necessity. My dad is 63, and he has no idea what an incredible amount he has to offer in the social justice sphere. He was an absolutely wonderful father, and I’d like to see him mentor other kids right now because he has all this love to offer. A lot of fathers like my dad didn’t get to be as present as they wanted because of how traditional their jobs were. This is like a second chance; he could have that chance with other kids. So many older men I know are finally realizing how important these amazing relationships are that they missed out on. Now is the time they could have an encore career and be really invested in these nurturing relationships. I think there’s something really beautiful about that.