Badass-Activist Friday presents: LORI ADELMAN of Feministing and International Women’s Health Coalition
It’s Friday, and we all know what that means! Interviews with your favorite badass feminists and activists. Whether social media queens and kings, creative artists, sex educators, or just kick-ass personalities, these people harness righteous anger, instigate movements and inspire culture change. We’re here to honor them and their work, but more importantly, to highlight how we can all get up, plug in, and Just Start Doing.
Feminism is an wide-ranging movement, and we at WIYL feel it’s so important to include activists working to broaden our perspectives and work in negotiating the complexity of intersectional oppressions, making the voices of marginalised groups heard. For this mini-series, we’ll be focusing on men and women who critique the gender hierarchy across all boundaries – cultures, race, age and medium.
So without further ado…
Lori Adelman is a writer, blogger, and advocate for global health and rights. She works as an Associate at the International Women’s Health Coalition, where she edits and writes for Akimbo, the IWHC blog, and helps develop and implement communications strategies to influence international policy and build local capacity in Africa, Asia and Latin America. She is also a regular contributor at Feministing.com and TheGrio.com. Prior to joining IWHC, Lori worked in the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, where she lent support to a U.S. tour that raised awareness about the obstruction of access to legal abortion after rape in Mexico. You can find her on Twitter, handle @Lori_Adelman.
We’ve faced many challenges to our reproductive health over the past couple of weeks – and it’s hard to imagine a world wherein women’s rights to their own bodies aren’t challenged. Can you talk a little about your work with IWHC, particularly how you work to progress sexual and reproductive rights more globally? Why is this important?
I feel both consumed with rage about attacks on women’s health and autonomy (which have been getting lots of attention recently but are certainly not new), and ridiculously privileged to be able to work to counter them, in my day job as an advocate and also as a blogger and writer.
The International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC) is this amazing organization that I discovered out of college. It works to promote and protect sexual and reproductive rights and health (SRRH), particularly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. And it does so by employing a unique model of partnership with grassroots organizations who are doing this work all over the world at the local, regional, and international level. So it’s a “coalition” in every sense; a movement, really.
I feel so lucky to be part of this transnational, progressive, feminist organization that practices what it preaches. The work is so important and dear to my heart because of what you mentioned in your question- the opposition we face is strong, unrelenting, and highly organized, so we need to be even moreso. Everybody deserves to live a free, fulfilled, healthy life. I don’t think I would be able to feel that I myself was living a fully self-realized life, as a woman, as a person of color, unless I was working to help others achieve this ideal as their reality.
Cultural relativity is an issue that is difficult to deal with, particularly when trying help achieve rights for women internationally. Can you speak to how you feel about this issue, and if you have any qualms with the way advocacy operates – does it follow a westernised ideal?
This is a great question, and one I spend a lot of time thinking about.
I think it’s really easy for activist spaces to fall in line with and begin to mirror the structure of oppressive systems that exist in the rest of the world. That’s why it’s so important, as activists, as advocates, and as feminists, to work and speak with communities, not for or on behalf of them. IWHC supports local leaders so they can implement what they know works best. Our support helps partners to more effectively distribute and implement their own message, not some westernized version. And at Feministing, we’re constantly working to provide a platform for others to share their own stories, and to be heard. I’m not saying I have all the answers, or that I’ve found a secret way to engage with people that completely eliminates all traces of systematic coercion or discrimination of any kind. Because the history there goes back a long way. But I’m saying that I believe it’s crucial to derive strategy and demand meaningful participation from the communities and people whose health and lives are at stake, and I try my hardest to live and work by that.
Are your personal experiences and identity important to your activism? Can you speak a little more as to how or why?
Absolutely. In its earliest stages, as is the case for many people, my own feminism was very much tied to my local surroundings: my hometown, my friends, my high school.
I went to a big public school, where I was very alone in my feminist beliefs, save for a few close friends of mine. And I’ll never forget, in 9th grade, experiencing my high school’s version of “sex ed” which consisted of, among other things, being asked to consume a bag of Cheeto’s, then gulp up a glassful of water, swoosh it around in my mouth, and spit it back into the glass. As my classmates and I looked at the unappealing orange flecks that had been transferred to the water, we were matter-of-factly told that when you have sex, you are exchanging bodily fluids, and the more partners you have, the more flecks you pick up in your “glass of water”. Though I found myself reeling at the image along with my classmates, a part of me questioned the foundation of the exercise and wondered how such an abstract and shaming image could help give me the tools I needed to navigate my sex life safely and pleasurably.
Since high school, I’ve learned that although of course our experiences at the local level, in our own communities, are our own, they do not exist in a bubble. I am just one small part of an entire global movement of people mobilizing for change around issues related to health, rights, and justice.
Feministing is a wonderful online community where you get to make feminist issues more accessible to internet-savy feminists, particularly youth. Do you think blogging and social networking technology is particularly important to feminism right now, and why?
Feministing, and particularly the writing of Jessica, Vanessa, Courtney, Samhita, Perez, and Ann, had so much to do with my evolution as a writer and activist. So I’m totally honored to be able to write for the site on a regular basis now. And to answer your question, yes, absolutely: blogging and social networking technology is particularly important to feminism right now because of the role it plays in consciousness raising. There was a time when “the problem with no name”- the problem of injustice- was experienced uber-personally, almost shamefully, often alone and in secret or in small groups of women. Now it’s named, discussed publicly, and countered in some of the smartest, funniest, most interesting and most culturally relevant ways imaginable on a daily basis, for all to see. That doesn’t mean these issues are automatically solved, but it’s certainly an important step forward.
The feminist blogosphere can get, like much of the internet, antagonist and unnecessarily personal – the recent slew of feminist commentors criticising Jezebel.com’s editor-ship and the commodification of the ‘feminist’ demographic is interesting. How do you feel about this flip side of feminist blogging? How can we make sure we are participating as respectfully as we can?
I feel wary of this “flip side”. It is off-putting, insular, and counter-productive. I recently wrote a piece called “How to Respectfully Disagree with Naomi Wolf” because I was so upset over how she was being attacked over the whole Assange/Wikileaks fiasco, even though I thoroughly disagreed with her stance. As I mentioned in that piece, I think it can be easy to get carried away as a feminist blogger and get lost in expressing solely rage, indignance, and outrage. Certainly those feelings are valid, especially with some of the things that are going on in today’s world. But as bloggers like Sady Doyle have so eloquently exposed, those aren’t the only things that should drive our activism. Being a contrarian may invite controversy and generate traffic, but is that the ultimate goal? If we truly want to push the agenda forward, we have to hold each other to a higher standard.
How does your work at IWHC inform your work as a blogger? Are there areas where these are incompatible, or where one is at odds with the other?
I blog both for the IWHC blog Akimbo as well as Feministing, and I also write for TheGrio.com, a news site geared towards an African-American audience. They are all drastically different spaces! I love being able to be a part of all three, because blogging for an organization’s blog is completely different than blogging for a large media corporation, which is completely different than blogging as part of a non-hierarchical self-described group of independent activists. Each of these spaces has its place on the internet, and I’m lucky to work with people who support my involvement in each of these spaces.
We at WIYL believe that blogging is the best way to encourage young feminists to get interested in and inspired by activism – do you have any words of advice for them?
Be courageous with your story. I truly believe in the radical, subversive, powerful, and progressive nature of being honest and thoughtful about race, class, identity, and politics in public.