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 cultural change. We’re here to honor them and their work, but more importantly, to higlight how e can all get up, plug in, and Just Start Doing.
We are particularly proud to present today’s activist, as she is one of our own: Marilla Li is a former intern for the Line Campaign and she is still on of the regular contributors to our blog.
Currently Marilla works as the Youth Services Coordinator at the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center in New York City.
Let’s hear what she has to say!
In your first post on the blog, you talked about some of the labels that you use for yourself and how you feel about them. How would you describe yourself now? Where are you now on your journey as a feminist/activist? And can you tell us a little bit about where you started out from?
First, let me acknowledge how honored I feel to be featured in the Badass Activist Friday series. I was reading through the list of past interview subjects – Heather Corinna, Andrea Plaid, Sady Doyle – and had a very dramatic feminist geek-out moment that, sadly, no one else witnessed.
Anyway. When I wrote that post in January 2010, I was in a very different place. I was graduating from Barnard College, wrapping up my senior thesis project, starting an internship at The Line Campaign, and participating in multiple student campaigns all at once. Everything was gaining traction and I felt like part of a major movement for change. I equated this movement to feminism and activism and, in the process, mistakenly laid down some assumptions about them.
I’ve been out of college for over a year now. These assumptions about feminism and activism no longer fit into my current surroundings. When I argue with people now about social injustice, in their eyes I am not being a feminist or an activist, but rather “radical”, “critical”, “angry”, or simply “difficult”. In this sense, Barnard sheltered me and my peers. It made an institutional choice to flaunt feminism and activism, throwing the term around freely on signs and posters, in texts and syllabi. It felt ubiquitous, secure and all-encompassing. Beyond college, however, feminism and activism feels like identifiers that need to be actively maintained.
My partner described my current state succinctly. He said, “You are a feminist and activist because you make these things a lifestyle. You never change the lens through which you view things.” To me, feminism is the desire to be treated as a person, an entire being, rather htan just a woman, and activism is the effort I take toward making this desire a reality. That said, feminism and activism make up a lifestyle that runs the risk of being very insular and alienating.
My feelings about my own labels have shifted a lot in a year. Instead of just being frustrated by people who don’t understand these labels, I step back, let the frustration pass, and focus on what to do in order to educate and empower those people. If I could talk to the person who wrote that blog entry a year ago, I would say, “You are right. Your peers are overthinking themselves into an identity-based paralysis. That’s frustrating. You’re smart. You’re proud. You’re fierce. But you’re also naive. You’re impulsive. You aren’t doing enough to empower the people who don’t have the same intellectual vocabulary you do. They haven’t been given the tools to build their identity the way you have. What are you going to do about it?”
You work at a community health center, where you program events to improve the health literacy of the Chinese immigrant population. How did you find your way into this job?
That’s an interesting story. For my senior thesis project, I researched the many ways that pharmaceutical marketing shapes (and is shaped by) different women’s attitudes toward oral contraception. My major was Anthropology, so part of my thesis required fieldwork. I spoke with my college’s health services staff for research. They referred me to the Charles B. Want Community Health Center, which is a non-profit, federally qualified health center. There, I met the Director of the Women’s Health Department. We only had one interview for my thesis, but that conversation blew me away. She told me about the community of undocumented Chinese immigrant women whose lives I had never touched, whose perspectives I had never once considered. She told me, ” Before these women came to the U.S., they lived under a one child policy, and were required to use long-term birth control methods like the IUD. What should they care about how the pill is marketed? The advertisements aren’t even written in a language that they understand.”
I remember being very shook by this initial conversation with this Director. I started thinking very hard about my own ignorance to the communities that exist under the radar. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. After my project ended, I emailed the Director of Women’s Health and said, “Here’s my resume. I want to work here. I don’t care what job you have available. Just give me something.” Bad career development tactic aside, I remember feeling at the time that if I didn’t start working at the health center, I wouldn’t be giving back and therefore wouldn’t be fulfilling my personal definition of activism.
How was your former position (working in women’s health) different from your current position (teen health)? How has the demographic you are addressing influenced your approach?
Without getting into too much detail, I will briefly explain that my transition from the former field to the latter was unplanned. I attribute the decision largely to someone upstairs, due to a combination of the federal budget cuts, hiring freezes, and poor management decisions. Sound familiar?
One significant difference between the women an the teens I serve is their set of priorities. Chinese immigrant women are unique in that they work long erratic hours, watch children and keep their families afloat (in the city and across the country) all at once. Women like these are machines of efficiency. At the health center, they arrive on time, register, hear a ten minute health education session, get the doctor’s advice, grab a prescription, and run. The teens, on the other hand, have to get dragged to the health center. They are much more preoccupied with fitting into their pre-existing social circles, with friends and at school. They are much less willing to come into the health center. In teen health, programcs have to reach youth in settings that they already know, which is why the Pediatric Unit implements more alternative activities in sports or in the arts. I’ve only worked at this unit for a moth, but I’ve seen Pediatrics program more interesting events – open mic talent shows, basketball clinics, public theater groups – than Women’s health would in a year.
Also, another significant difference is that I used to think that the women I served always felt stigma towards discussing health. When I speak to some of these women privately, however, they share some of the most amazing stories. For example, I once accompanied a pregnant patient on a hospital tour. While we waited, she shared that she had only been in the U.S. for a month, there was no one to support her through the pregnancy, and she was facing immigration problems because someone screwed up her medical records. “I don’t know who can help me,” she said. “If I don’t get a visa in the U.S., I’ll get deported after the baby is born, and the baby will have no one.” I wish I had more space to share more stories like these, but the reality is that every patient I meet has one. I’ve had a much harder time trying to build this kind of trust with youth, especially in a clinical setting such as at the health center. With that said, once I know the story, it’s usually just as compelling a story as the women’s. Building trust is always important and it is usually the first thing I try to do with individuals.
You conduct many of your workshops in Mandarin Chinese. Does this add another dimension to the work you are doing? How do you feel that your heritage influences your feminism, and vice versa?
This is a really hard question. It makes me feel obligated to explain the history of my learning Chinese as a second language. So I was born and raised in Ohio and later New York, but also spent some years studying and going to school in Beijing. Because of that education, my spoken Mandarin has no accent, but I can’t tell you how many times I have begun workshops or health education sessions and felt immediately categorized as “other” due to unspoken cultural markers. Most of my coworkers who aren’t from the U.S. call it a difference in “attitude” or “sensibility”. According to them and others I’ve asked, these discrete “attitudes” and “sensibilities” are discernible in subtle gestures such as a greeting or a facial twitch.
I think that anyone who is multilingual or who has studied linguistics understands and agrees that language is very wrapped up in cultural values. I read an ethnography detailing a society that considered cows to be a crucial element. The ethnographer realized the significance of this when he realized that the society had a million words to describe the cows by size, shape, color, hoof size, and so on. I haven’t done a lot of research ( anyone who knows otherwise, please correct me): but I don’t think that the concept of feminism exists in the Chinese language. If it does, it isn’t commonly used. I never once learned how to say “feminism” in Mandarin Chinese, at home or at work. I don’t know what this means. Is it substituted instead by “women’s rights” or “empowerment”?
This goes back to what I said before about recognizing one’s own privileges and ignorance, particularly the ignorance that comes from being unaware of one’s own intellectual vocabulary and identity-building tools. I’ve been trying to draw something productive out of recognizing these things. The fact that my job requires me to engage in a different set of cultural values certainly adds another dimension to who I am as a feminist and an activist. If feminism and activism are about communicating the concept of equality, then working with populations that faces so many communicative barriers inevitably calls those forms into question.
This isn’t a complication so much as an interesting challenge to one’s ability to communicate creatively. In order to reach people like those I work with now, I need to rely on more than spoken or written words. I also need to rely on emotional and visual markers to get my message across. Perhaps this is why media is such a powerful tool. It uses the visual to cut across very difficult barriers, such as culture or language, and creates emotional resonance with people who might otherwise live in isolation and estrangement.
Are you involved in any other projects that you’d like to tell us about? Particularly excited about a blog/movie/article/etc? Particularly upset about something going on in the world today? Please share!
I just listened to the 200th episode of WTF with Marc Maron, which is a really great podcast done by a very neurotic comic. I feel so connected to his podcast, which is both a validation and exacerbation of my own neuroticism.
Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services accepted new guidelines from the Institute of Medicine that will dramatically improve women’s health services.
Next month, a group of friends, some new and some old, and I will be submitting a zine on Asian women’s bodies to the Baltimore Zinefest.
Also, after submitting this entry, instead of watching preseason football, I plan to Google women’s rights groups in China as well as the Chinese word for “feminism”.
I remain excited about all these things.
Thank you for your time and your wonderful answers, Marilla!