Activism for Introverts: Become a Penpal with an Incarcerated Person

Writing to an incarcerated person is a powerful act of solidarity that perceives the humanity of people on the inside of the prison industrial complex. Letter writing also offers introverts a meaningful, consistent action that makes a difference and suits our personality type.

“And maybe
there are small
cracks in our walls
and we start to see
a sliver of light
shine through

in each other”
― Yusef Salaam, Punching the Air

Activism Is Consistent Action

Recently I came across the work of Omkari Williams, whose conception of activism really resonated with me. She says:

My definition of activism probably isn’t the one you’re going to find in the dictionary. For me being an activist means that you are someone who takes consistent action….to advance a cause that you are passionate about. For me the size of the action isn’t the point, what matters is that you are regularly taking action to make a difference.

Omkari Williams

Sometimes, the actions I take on issues or causes close to my heart feel somewhat sporadic, haphazard, and not at all consistent.

A natural introvert, living with anxiety and depression, makes me…well…pretty fookin’ flaky to be perfectly honest. I not only have a tendency to cancel plans with friends at the last minute; I’ve also signed up for interactive activist events with the best of intentions but ultimately haven’t followed through.

I love the idea of “consistent action”, but I find it challenging to authentically commit to practices that I can meaningfully incorporate into my life and are more suited to my personality type.

The only form of activism that feels truly consistent and completely integrated into my day-to-day life is being vegan. Three times a day, at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I boycott the oppression and exploitation of non-human animals. Whether I’m brushing my teeth with cruelty-free toothpaste or shopping for a pair of shoes that haven’t been made from a living being’s skin, I am consistently committed to my values of compassion, justice and non-violence for all.

It wasn’t always this way, however. Though my consciousness had been raised to this form of injustice, it took some time for me to change my consumption habits and consistently refuse to fund or knowingly contribute to the oppression of non-human animals.

These days, being vegan is as unconscious and automatic as breathing. But this now consistent action didn’t happen overnight. It helps to remember this when nurturing any new practice, but particularly when it comes to taking action on other issues that I care about but am less certain as to how I can personally show up on a regular and authentic basis.

A year into the pandemic, (outside of my job) the only thing I do on a regular basis is reading, gardening, embroidery, and writing letters and postcards to family in Ireland and friends all over. As a child I had many penpals, and my love of letter writing has continued into adulthood, especially since I moved to the United States.

With all of this in mind–my introverted nature, my desire to take consistent action on issues that I care about, and my existing love of letter writing–I started researching how to become a penpal with an incarcerated person, i.e. a person on the literal inside of the prison industrial complex.

What is the Prison Industrial Complex?

The Prison Industrial Complex is a multifaceted, for-profit system and an intrinsic component of white supremacy and institutionalized racism.

Mariame Kaba (aka @PrisonCulture on Twitter) has been the source of most everything I’ve come to know about the Prison Industrial Complex. She presents several definitions of the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) on her website, including the following:

“The prison industrial complex is a system situated at the intersection of government and private interests. It uses prisons as a solution to social, political and economic problems. It includes human rights violations, the death penalty, slave labor, policing, courts, the media, political prisoners and the elimination of dissent.”

Huey Freeman

CARA (Communities Against Rape and Abuse) explains that the PIC is “a massive multi-billion dollar industry that promotes the exponential expansion of prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers, and juvenile detention centers. The PIC is represented by corporations that profit from incarceration, politicians who target people of color so that they appear to be “tough on crime,” and the media that represents a slanted view of how crime looks in our communities.”

“In order to survive,” says CARA, “the PIC uses propaganda to convince the public how much we need prisons; uses public support to strengthen harmful law-and-order agendas such as the “War on Drugs” and the “War on Terrorism”; uses these agendas to justify imprisoning disenfranchised people of color, poor people, and people with disabilities; leverages the resulting increasing rate of incarceration for prison-related corporate investments (construction, maintenance, goods and services); pockets the profit; and uses profit to create more propaganda.”

The very existence of the prison forecloses the kinds of discussions that we need in order to imagine the possibility of eradicating these behaviors.

Just send them to prison. Just keep on sending them to prison. Then of course, in prison they find themselves within a violent institution that reproduces violence.

Angela Davis, Freedom Is A Constant Struggle

A State of Mind

In a 1998 article in The Atlantic, Eric Schlosser states that the prison-industrial complex (PIC) is not only a set of interest groups and institutions: it is also a state of mind.

We are all inside the prison industrial complex.

This is what I’ve come to understand. The most marginalized and oppressed are on the literal inside, but all of us are socialized and inculcated within this violent, cynical and exploitative system. The most marginalized and oppressed are both physically and mentally policed, but all of us have unwittingly–and uncritically–accepted the curtailing of our values and the policing of our imaginations.

Says Mariame Kaba:

Have people been offered a vision of public safety that doesn’t include police? If not, why not? The fact that police abolition is unthinkable to so many people is profoundly dangerous. It means that police have so thoroughly colonized and dominated our thinking that we are unable to even imagine a world where they don’t exist. The fact is that we haven’t always had police. What makes us believe that we always will–or that we always will have to?

To Stop Police Violence, We Need Better Questions–and Bigger Demands

Breaking free from limited–and limiting–thinking is challenging, especially when it comes to violence and oppression that is so normalized as to appear natural and valuable as well as inevitable. But it is possible.

Another world is possible. Another way of relating to each other is possible. Part of that process is recognizing the reality and humanity of incarcerated people on the literal inside of the prison industrial complex. Writing to an incarcerated person is an affirmative act of solidarity and recognition that may seem like a small act but is in fact quite powerful.

Why?

By Why? I mean a couple of different things:

Why is writing to an incarcerated person a powerful act? And why, fellow introverts, do you want to do this–what’s your motivation?

Why Write To An Incarcerated Person?

As Heather Mytelka explains in her invaluable Resource for Writing to Incarcerated People, writing to an incarcerated person is a way to resist and reject the carceral state’s reliance on isolation as a tool for oppression.

“Letter writing can be a form of harm reduction,” says Mytelka, and is often “a lifeline for imprisoned people–especially queer, trans, and gender non-conforming people and those living with HIV/AIDS, who are more likely to experience violence and solitary confinement.”

While fighting to abolish the prison industrial complex, we can’t forget to reaffirm the humanity on the inside. We must work to develop empathy and understanding for people impacted by mass criminalization and center our actions and writings on their voices. By strengthening our connection to incarcerated people we can uplift incarcerated leadership, learn from their experiences, and engage with abolition in a meaningful way.

Heather Mytelka, Resources for Writing to Incarcerated People

Writing a letter to an incarcerated person is meaningful for the same reasons writing a letter to any person is meaningful.

In the age of social media and instant text messages, there is something deeply personal and powerful about sending or receiving a letter. Letters take time, thought and a little extra effort to compose and mail. Taking the time to put pen to paper and stock up on stamps demonstrates genuine care and interest.

Letters are tactile artifacts designed to be held in human hands. The physicality of a handwritten message on a piece of paper conveys not only words but a sensory trace of the person whose hands moved across the page, folded it in half, and carried the envelope in their purse or coat pocket to the mail box or post office on a sunny or snowy day.

Always, but especially now with COVID-19 putting a halt to in-person visitations, letters are a literal lifeline for people in prison. Writing a letter to–or receiving a letter from–an incarcerated person allows two human beings to physically connect in some small way across space and time. When the prison industrial complex relies on dehumanization to legitimize its existence, this seemingly simple act is in fact one of transgression and refusal to curtail and withhold our compassion.

Why Do You Want To Write To An Incarcerated Person?

Introverts, in case it’s not clear: this post is not a pop-mag listicle of “101 Hobbies for the Socially Awkward!”

If you’re in search of a past-time in line with your personality, that’s fine and I fully understand: but please don’t use incarcerated people as a hobby or vehicle for your introversion.

If all you want is a penpal but you’re not interested in grappling with the wider issues or working on transforming your conception of justice, I suggest you look elsewhere for someone to write to. I don’t mean to be rude, and perhaps this all goes without saying, but I think it’s important to interrogate our intentions and understand what’s motivating us to write to an incarcerated person.

Too, for those who want to write to an incarcerated person as a form of activism, I think there is an equal risk of objectifying people, using them as a means to an end, or relating to them purely as a tool for our own ‘activist’ purposes. Not only is this patronizing and self-serving, it centers our own ego at the cost of someone else’s humanity.

Writing letters to incarcerated people can be a meaningful act of solidarity, but should neither be a mere hobby or an act of charity.

Writing letters to incarcerated people can be a meaningful act of solidarity, but should neither be a mere hobby or an act of charity. I encourage you (and myself!) to learn the ongoing history of incarceration, criminalization, systemic racism, and the prison industrial complex.

Think about the ways that you–which is to say I, which is to say all us of–have personally bought into and perpetuated the idea of policing and prisons as an unavoidable and ‘safest’ solution.

Having said all that, introversion is a real thing and not all of us can (ever or always) participate in traditional forms of direct action. Like Omkari Williams said, the size of the action isn’t important, what matters is that we are regularly taking action to make a difference.

Writing to an incarcerated person can be a meaningful act of solidarity and interconnection that also satisfies an introvert’s real need for time spent alone in silence, reflection or creativity.

(Introverts should bear in mind the privilege inherent in choosing when and whether to be alone or in a group. Neither those who are crammed into appallingly overcrowded prisons or those who are punished in the physical and mental torture that is solitary confinement have the luxury of such autonomy.)

So, what does writing to an incarcerated person look like exactly? And how do you find a person to write to?

I wanted my letters to be a familiar voice in a new city, a blues
song replayed in a strange village. On occasion, I sent and received
letters from friends in prison. They liked to call letters kites. 
For them, ink and blank pages were at a high premium. Their letters 
were usually full of promises, epiphanies, and requests for poetry.

I would return their kites with shout-outs from the city. Here, I 
would say, fly the kite for a day, if not your full sentence.

-Willy Perdomo 

Find A Person To Write To

On her list of 9 Solidarity Commitments to/with Incarcerated People for 2021, Mariame Kaba advocates writing at least six letters to an incarcerated person this year. I encourage you to read the full list, which offers many valuable insights and calls to action, as well as suggestions for finding people to write to:

I signed up to be a pen pal through Beyond These Walls because it works with prisoners based in the Pacific Northwest, where I live. For now, I figured I’d start off with just one pen pal, but it would also be great to get to know someone from a completely different part of the country, so I’ll look into that down the road!

Heather Mytelka’s Resource for Writing to Incarcerated People contain’s state-specific resources and links for certain kinds of incarcerated people, such as immigrants and refugees, LGBTQ+ people, political prisoners, and more.

How To Write To A Person In Prison

Once you’ve found a person to write to, here are some things to think about before taking pen to paper.

Establish Expectations

It can be genuinely heart-breaking for a person on the inside when their new pen pal loses interest after a short time. For this reason, several organizations I reviewed requested a minimum time commitment (typically one year, though not always).

As Heather Mytelka explains, writing to an incarcerated person can take several forms:

An ongoing letter exchange can take the form of friendship, mentorship, offering support, collaboration, journaling–just make your intentions clear and invite conversation.

If you don’t have the capacity for an ongoing letter exchange, write a general letter of support to an incarcerated person. A one-time letter sharing words of encouragement, poem excerpts, supportive messages, drawings, or general support can all make a positive impact on the mental health and well-being of someone on the inside.

Sister Helen Prejean’s tips for writing to people in prison also emphasizes the importance of making your intentions clear upfront: “If you just want to send a one-off note of support, make that clear so you don’t raise expectations – you could include something like “No need to respond, I just wanted to let you know I’m thinking of you.”

There’s no right or wrong way to do this–a one-time letter of support is absolutely fine. It’s just important to take some time to set intentions and reflect upon your motivations and capacity before signing up to be a pen pal.

Ensure Your Letter Reaches Its Destination

Though it may be frustrating for all concerned, it’s important to follow the prison’s rules so that your letter is actually delivered to the person you’re writing to.

Every state has its own rules about writing to prisoners, so make sure to do some independent research before sealing the envelope. Most of these rules would never have occurred to me in a million years and are just further proof of how arbitrarily punitive the system is. Regardless, here are some almost universal requirements/guidelines according to Sister Prejean:

  • Address your letter correctly, making sure to include the prisoner number.
  • Write your name and address both on the envelope and on the enclosed letter.
  • Do not enclose anything with your card or letter unless it complies with the prison’s guidelines. Usually, a photo or a news clipping is acceptable, but nothing else is, including stamps. The best approach is to send nothing but your letter the first time and ask your correspondent what is and isn’t acceptable in their prison.
  • Don’t use scented stationery or attach stickers or glitter. It’s surprising the sort of things that can prevent your letter from being delivered.
  • If you want to send a book or stationery to a prisoner, do not send it directly. Instead, purchase the item from an established bookstore and have them send it to the prisoner. Many small bookstores, unfortunately, do not mail goods to prisons, but Barnes and Noble and Powell’s Books do. [NOTE: Because Amazon no longer includes receipts in all the packages it sends, do not use Amazon. Most prisons require that a receipt accompanies the book and books mailed from Amazon often get returned.]
  • Do not send hardback books or ring-bound books. These get treated as if they are weapons!
  • Your correspondence may be opened by the prison. Don’t say anything that could cause repercussions for your correspondent, such as disparaging remarks about prison officials. Sexual or violent content is likely to prevent your letter from being delivered.

Heather Mytelka’s list of Do’s & Don’ts is also very helpful. For instance: DO be authentic and mindful of possible language barriers and mixed literacy levels. DON’T treat writing as an act of charity or speak down to incarcerated people.

I also found the following resources super helpful when starting my own research:

Additional Reading & Resources

Activism for Introverts: Activism 101 for Introverts + Highly Sensitive People with Omkari Williams

Today, Badass Cross Stitch announced the next training in their How To Be A Good Human initiative. I signed up right away and am super excited for May!

Join me and REGISTER HERE!

My definition of activism probably isn’t the one you’re going to find in the dictionary. For me being an activist means that you are someone who takes consistent action, whether in front of the scenes or way behind the scenes, to advance a cause that you are passionate about. For me the size of the action isn’t the point, what matters is that you are regularly taking action to make a difference. That’s my definition of activism.

Omkari Williams

As an introvert who lives with depression and anxiety, most forms of traditional activism are uncomfortable, stressful, and sometimes terrifying. I know I’m not alone in feeling that way.

However, introverts are passionate people and crucial components of a social change ecosystem, and there is a lot we can do besides marching on the streets or participating in more intense and visible forms of direct action.

Increasingly, I do feel compelled to challenge myself to take actions outside my comfort zone. But events like this are very validating for those of us who sometimes feel that our introverted nature means that we cannot be “real” activists.

This workshop will give you a structure that you can use to build your personalized plan for consistent, meaningful activism. You’ll discover your activist archetype, connect to your origin story (what propelled you to want to make change), and figure out where you fit on the spectrum of activism.”

Badass Cross Stitch

EVENT DETAILS:

Sat, May 8, 2021
11:00 AM – 1:30 PM PDT (2.5 hours via Zoom)

This is a pay-what-you-can event. 100% of the donations go to expert facilitator, Omkari Williams.

About Omkari Williams

Omkari Williams is a speaker, coach for activists both experienced and new, a writer, and host of the podcast Stepping Into Truth: Conversations on Race, Gender, and Social Justice. She says, “Our stories are bridges and foundational in creating societal change. Leveraging the power of our collective stories creates meaningful change and helps bring justice to the world.”

www.omkariwilliams.com

About the How To Be A Good Human Series

This is a radical skill share series conceived and presented by Shannon Downey aka Badass Cross Stitch for folks who want to do more in service to a just world, but feel unsure where to start.

www.BadassCrossStitch.com

Activism for Introverts: Craftivism 101 – Climate Change w/ Badass Cross Stitch

Greetings introverts and craftivists, and a very happy new year to you too!

Just a brief post to share an event I signed up for and am very excited about this month.

Thanks to the generous support of the Center for Craft, the amazing Badass Cross Stitch will be working in collaboration with the Museum of Design, Atlanta GA to deliver FREE monthly Craftivism workshops. Each month will focus on a different topic. This month they will be exploring climate change.

The workshop includes an intro to Craftivism and a full embroidery 101 workshop.

You will be learning AND making a fabulous piece of fiber art in community with other rad humans. Fun guaranteed.

Badass Cross Stitch

The first event in the series is Wednesday, January 20th 4-6pm PST / 6-8pm CT / 7-9pm EST.

You can Register Here.

Do it!

Activism for Introverts: Craftivism

The second in a series of posts exploring Activism for Introverts.

As I swelter in the heat of summer, my thoughts turn to cold, rainy days and an excuse to sit inside on a Saturday with a cosy craft project.

Since returning to reading and writing after a long hiatus, I haven’t made much time for knitting or embroidery. There are only so many scarves I can wear at one time, and there are only so many hoops I can hang on my wall.

Of course, I knit and stitch gifts for friends and family (like this floral bird I made for my mother, an embroidered portrait of my friend’s pooch Pacha, and this fox for my foxy sister).

But I’ve also begun to think about creating embroideries to raise awareness (and maybe even money) for issues, causes and organizations that are close to my heart.

A year or so after taking an embroidery class with a couple of friends, Ireland (my home country) held a national referendum around a constitutional ban on abortion. As I no longer live there, I couldn’t vote or canvass, but as a citizen and a feminist, I wanted to advocate for women’s privacy and bodily autonomy in my native home.

Along with difficult conversations on social media or over the phone with friends and family, stitching an embroidery was one way for me to articulate my support to repeal the 8th amendment. My embroidery was modeled after a controversial and contested mural by the Irish artist, Maser, which became one of the most enduring symbols of the Vote YES campaign.

Then, when the Irish people voted an overwhelming Yes to repeal the 8th, I made another embroidery to mark this incredible sea change in Irish society (the word for Yes in Irish is ). When I made it, I was thinking of the poem ‘The Cure at Troy’ by Seamus Heaney, and the lines:

History says, don’t hope on this side of the grave. But then, once in a lifetime the longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea change on the far side of revenge. Believe that a further shore is reachable from here. Believe in miracles and cures and healing wells.

At first, I didn’t think of these embroideries as a form of activism. For a long time, I held onto traditional understandings of activism and felt that I couldn’t claim to be an activist as I wasn’t doing anything hardcore, confrontational, or even particularly visible or apparent to anyone but myself. It’s taken me a long time to expand my understanding of what activism can be.

In part, these embroideries were a way to ‘say’ something when actual words failed me or made me feel so weary. Then, when staff at the Center for Disease Control were told that seven words or phrases would be banned from use in budgetary documents, I found myself furiously stitching–or stabbing–the seven words into a square of fabric, which I then turned into a Christmas card for my in-laws, along with a donation to the ACLU in their name.

I have a ways to go before I perfect being able to ‘write’ in stitches–this embroidery is not as pretty as some others I’ve made (though, when it comes to activism, that’s beside the point, of course).

So far, these few pieces have been my only overtly ‘political’ embroideries, but I’m scheming up some words and images to stitch in a spirit of compassion, consistent anti-oppression, justice, and resistance this fall and winter.

A spot of craftivism is the perfect form of activism for arty introverts.

And, if you’re anything like me, embroidery is an easy and inexpensive entry into the world of arts and crafts for those of you who are not naturally artistically gifted but looking for a crafty hobby that won’t break the bank or take too long to learn. (Not only am I an introverted activist, I am also a lazy, impatient, and broke-ass introverted activist.)

But enough about me. Below, I take a very brief look at the history of craftivism, then focus on a couple of artists–and counter-perspectives–from the movement.

A Brief History of Craftivism

The term ‘craftivism’ was coined in 2003 by Betsy Greer who defined it as so:

Craftivism is a way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice stronger, your compassion deeper & your quest for justice more infinite.

Betsy Greer

Of course, the practice and spirit of craftivism long predates the word. From “spinning bees” during the Revolutionary War to suffragettes who used their needlework as a tool in their fight for equal citizenship, women have been using their knitting and sewing skills as resistance and activism for hundreds of years.

Traditionally, women were taught embroidery as a way of learning ‘feminine’ characteristics. It taught them to follow a pattern, to be neat and docile, to be inside the home rather than out in the world. You learned embroidery to advertise your marriageability. But there was no way of controlling what women were actually thinking about while they were stitching.

Craft’s Long History in Radical Protest Movements

Craftivists have turned their attention to everything from voting rights to civil rights to the pro-environment and anti-war movements. Others have written much better and more thoroughly on the topic, so rather than replicate their work, I will simply point you towards it before focusing on a couple of contemporary craftivists in particular:

Sarah Corbett & the Craftivist Collective

Though she didn’t coin the term and I was already familiar with other arty crafty activists, I came across the word ‘craftivism’ through the work of Sarah Corbett when I started reading about how to reconcile my introverted personality with my passion for justice and a desire to speak up and do something.

Sarah, a former professional campaigner and self-proclaimed introvert, is the founder of the Craftivist Collective–an inclusive group of people committed to using thoughtful, beautiful crafted works to help themselves and encourage others be the positive change they wish to see in the world.

Her first book, A Little Book of Craftivism, came out in 2013 and a more in-depth guide, How to be a Craftivist: the art of gentle protest, has just been released. I can’t wait to get my hands on both.

I also love their Craftivist Manifesto, available for free download or letter-pressed purchase in English, Welsh, Portuguese and Spanish:

In this TED Talk, Sarah discusses this quieter form of activism that uses handicrafts as a way to get people to slow down and think deeply about the issues they’re facing, all while engaging the public more gently. 

As she elaborates, repetitive stitches help you meditate on complex, messy, social change issues and figure out what you can do as a citizen, as a consumer, as a constituent: “It helps you think critically while you’re stitching away, and it helps you be more mindful of your motives. Are you about joining people in solidarity, or do you want to be the savior, which often isn’t very ethical?”

At the end of her speech, she calls upon extroverts to think about introverts, and how valuable our skills are, when planning campaigns: We’re good at slowing down and thinking deeply; we’re good at bringing out the details and nuances of issues; and we’re good at intriguing people by doing strange little things that help create conversations and thought.

For introverts, her call to action is this:

I know you like being on your own, I know you like being in your head, but activism needs you, so sometimes you’ve got to get out there. It doesn’t mean that you’ve got to turn into an extrovert and burn out, because that’s no use for anyone, but what it does mean is that you should value the skills and the traits that you have that activism needs. Whether you’re an extrovert, an introvert, or an ambivert, the world needs you now more than ever, and you’ve got no excuse not to get involved.

Sarah Corbett

Plant Posse & The Vegan Craftivist

Plant Posse is a posse of plant-powered people producing jewelry and art promoting plant pride. They donate a portion of profits to various animal sanctuaries and animal rights organizations.

One of the artists, Brittney West, resonated with me in particular. I especially love her installation ‘Into the Fold,’ composed of origami cows at a slaughterhouse, some made from meat and dairy recipes.

From ‘Into the Fold,’ an installation by artist and animal activist, Brittney West

I’m not sure if she (or any of the Plant Posse) call or think of themselves as craftivists exactly, but I was happy to happen across them when writing this post, as I envisage using my love of embroidery as a way of raising awareness about animal rights and veganism.

I wasn’t vegan when I made most of these embroideries. But as I began to extend my sense of compassion and justice to animals as well as humans, I realized that Greer’s definition of craftivism is perfect. Once again:

Craftivism is a way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice stronger, your compassion deeper & your quest for justice more infinite. 

Betsy Greer

As a vegan who also cares deeply about social justice and human rights, I seek to cultivate this deep, expansive, infinite and all-encompassing vision of compassion and justice within myself and that which I bring forth into the world.

This morning I also came across the Vegan Craftivist who was creating a banner project with a hope of collecting enough vegan banners to sew together and create a flag or quilt display made up of individually crafted banners. I was excited to contribute to the project!

When I dug in a little further, however, I discovered that they have since become disillusioned by the concept of craftivism and the movement’s failure to recognize its white, heteronormative privilege. (I also realized that they are founder of the wonderful Sanctuary Publishers that I wrote about a short time ago.)

While I certainly understand these frustrations and have no doubt they are 100% valid and real, I don’t think these patterns of thinking and behavior are unique to craftivism. No activist movement, from feminism to veganism, is immune to being dominated and coopted by white people, and as a white woman I challenge myself to not only be cognizant of the fact but to actively work on dismantling my own oppressive and racists actions and behaviors.

While I of course respect this critique, as well as the decision to distance oneself from a space in which you are being silenced, as someone who is new to the practice of craftivism, I would rather learn from the movement’s mistakes than abandon the concept or practice altogether.

Artwork by the Vegan Craftivist

Clearly, there is much to think about and be critically conscious of, and I’m thankful to have come across a counter-perspective while I’m still so new to this form of activism. However (and however naively), I’m still excited to creatively express my values and beliefs through embroidery and other art forms.

Too, for me craftivism is likely to be but a small component of my activism, and I think there are times to push myself out of my comfort zone and times to integrate activism into a pastime that brings me comfort and relieves my anxiety, at least momentarily. It’s a long story, for another day, but embroidery has literally stopped me pulling out the hair on my head or picking at my skin during intense periods of stress!

As an introvert with anxiety, I believe that quieter forms of activism are valid. I agree that more disruptive, forceful, and tangibly results-oriented forms of activism are urgently necessary, but not everybody is able to commit to such actions, at least not on a substantial and sustained basis. Some people can do this, and I both admire and applaud them, but I think it’s unnecessary and impractical to dismiss certain forms of activism as inherently ineffective.

Though they may be slower and less obviously or immediately impactful, art and writing play an important part in a social change ecosystem, and I consider craftivism to be a legitimate way to express dissension and resistance to injustice and oppression–provided that your artistic practice also commits to practicing consistent anti-oppression.

Activism for Introverts: Help the Library of Congress Transcribe Suffragist Letters & Diaries

The first in a series of posts exploring Activism for Introverts.

Voter turnout in 2020 is poised to be the highest in decades, if not the century. Yet, there’s no indication as to which party will benefit from an expanded electorate. Nothing is certain, and arguably the most important form of activism we can do right now is appealing to apathetic friends and family, helping people to register, and fighting racist gerrymandering and voter suppression across the country.

At the same time, as we strive and struggle to create the kind of future we want to live in, it’s important to look back and learn from those who have fought and struggled before us.

Nearly 16,000 pages of suffragist letters, speeches, diary entries and newspaper articles are available to review and transcribe on By the People, a crowdsourcing platform launched by the Library of Congress in 2018. The goal is to make the library’s collection fully word searchable and easier to read, for scholars and lay historians alike.

Anyone can contribute and be a virtual volunteer. In an ideal world, this work would be deemed important enough to warrant it being a paid position, and I would not argue with anyone who disputes that this a form of activism and more a problematic instance of undervalued labor.

Still, as an introvert, women’s history nerd, and an avid letter and journal writer, for me this is both a valuable and interesting way to spend a small portion of my day now and then.

For you fellow literature lovers, it’s worth noting that you may also transcribe the poetry, letters and other writings of Walt Whitman (though, as much as I love his poetry, it should be noted that increasingly scholars are examining Whitman’s racism and questioning how inclusive Whitman’s vision of democratic society truly was). 

100 Years of Women’s Suffrage?

Similarly, while it’s important to acknowledge and celebrate suffragettes and women’s activism, we should not ignore the fact that the movement did not benefit all women equally. According to mainstream media and whitewashed versions of history, June 2019 marked the centennial of women’s suffrage. Yet, in fact, it marked the centennial of white women’s suffrage.

It will be 2024 before we can celebrate 100 years of Native Americans being able to vote, 2043 before we can celebrate Chinese immigrants (including women) being able to vote, and 2065 – 2065! – until we can celebrate 100 years of women of color being able to vote. And even that will be contingent on whether white people speak up and take action on discriminatory voter suppression and the erosion of this most basic right for people of color.

This is something we should care about for its own sake. As we hurtle towards the 2020 presidential election, the voter suppression stories that we’re bound to hear about aren’t just about which party will win or lose; they’re about an ongoing history of racist disenfranchisement and white people’s refusal to see what doesn’t affect us, or tendency to only care about something to the extent that it will impact us.

If we only care about voting rights in terms of strengthening the blue wave, then our concern–however well-intentioned–is ultimately rooted in our own comfort and advantage, as it always has been.

New Forms of Truth Will Arise

Nowadays, the opposition to women’s suffrage is incomprehensible to any reasonable, justice-minded person. Those who voted against women’s suffrage “stood firmly on the dark side of history, making claims about a woman’s role that would end a politician’s career today,” writes Rebecca Ruiz for Mashable

“Fighting for equality made suffragettes unpopular,” she continues. Their arguments were widely ridiculed and treated as suspect. A woman’s place was in the home, not in the voting booth or public sphere. Their subordination was natural and simply the way things are and should be.

I think of this sometimes when I try to speak up for the rights of animals and the systemic exploitation and injustices done unto them. Animals are not our property–their lives belong to them–and yet the use of these living beings as a means to our ends is seen as natural, inevitable, the way things are and should be. The fight for animal equality has little support, even amongst progressives with a heart for justice and compassion.

As an advocate for animal rights, it’s distressing and bewildering when people are unable or unwilling to recognize the truth about the systemic abuse of animals or to acknowledge it as a valid justice issue. I am not comparing women (or any human being) to animals, nor insisting that their oppression is, experientially, the same. Yet, I do believe that both forms of subjugation are rooted in similar hierarchical binary systems.

It was interesting, then, to note that some suffragettes did not limit their fight for equality to humans, but instead understood the interconnectedness between different forms of oppression. Vegetarian food fueled the British suffrage movement. As one suffragette said: “Vegetarianism aims so directly, as we women aim, at the abolition of the unregenerate doctrine of physical force.” The Vegan Feminist Network has compiled a long list of vegetarian and vegan women’s and animal’s rights activists, including British, Irish and American suffragettes.

It was comforting, too, to come across this passage in an 1851 letter from Angela Grimké to Elizabeth Cady Stanton:

The very truths you are now contending for, will, in fifty years, be so completely imbedded in public opinion that no one need say one word in their defense; whilst at the same time new forms of truth will arise to test the faithfulness of the pioneer minds of that age, and so on eternally.

Some believe that eating meat will be considered unthinkable to many fifty years from now. Fifty years is far too long to wait, but I trust that a day will soon come when opposition to animal rights will, too, be incomprehensible, and that in time no one need say one word in their defense because they will no longer be purposefully bred and killed for our profit and pleasure.

At the same time, I am reminded that I didn’t always recognize this truth myself, and that there are no doubt any number of other truths that I am reluctant to uncover and acknowledge. As Grimké wrote, new forms of truth will eternally arise to test the limits of our compassion and the consistency of our values. I strive to stay on the right side of history, no matter how unpopular or misunderstood that might make me.

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