Diversity in progressive movements part 1: The problem with calling for an “intersectional approach”


I’ve spent close to two decades working in progressive movements to advance social justice in the context of reproductive rights, HIV/AIDS, women’s rights, and international development. Throughout, diversity and representation within the U.S.-based organizations and transnational movements I have worked with and for have been seemingly intractable challenges. The largely white, highly educated, (upper) middle class leaders of mainstream women’s and progressive organizations and movements, for example, engage in some genuine hand-wringing about the lack of women of color, young women, positive women, women from the Global South, and [insert factor(s) of marginalization here] women in their membership, not to mention leadership and governance. They’ve even spent a lot of money on “diversity” initiatives—retreats, trainings, organizational change consultants and coaches, vision statements, and (my personal favorite) branded tchotchkes like lanyards and stress balls promoting said initiatives.

And still, nothing really changes. Take, for example, the forceful commentaries of reproductive justice advocates such as Sister Song’s Monica Simpson, Kris Ford of the Women’s Health and Justice Initiative, and acclaimed race, gender, and law scholar, Dorothy Roberts, whose recent critiques of the narrow construction of the U.S. pro-choice movement span more than two decades. Or the seminal writing and analysis of Gita Sen, Caren Grown, and Peggy Antrobus captured in Development Crises and Alternative Visions, written more than 30 years ago and still entirely relevant today. And Chandra Mohanty’s 1986 critique of Western feminists’ construction of Third World women, which she revisited with many of the same themes twenty years later.

For those of us who exist outside “the establishment,” we often speak of how our organizations and movements need to adopt an “intersectional approach*” in order to recognize and address the way that multiple identities, including, for example, race and class—not simply biological sex—shape the many and varied experiences of discrimination and resistance within what is often treated as a singular category of “woman.” In theory, not only would this foster more diverse participation and representation in our ranks, but also broader political agendas that speak to the realities of all women, not just those of straight, middle class white women who are the face and voice of mainstream second-wave liberal feminism.

But to be clear, it’s less the marginalized voices among us who need to adopt an “intersectional approach,” given that we actually experience it first hand, than the leaders of established, mainstream progressive organizations. As such, we are essentially hoping and/or asking for something over which we, being excluded from that very leadership, have very little influence or control. In turn, the problem is at least three-fold. First, it relies upon people who may not even be aware of or willing to acknowledge their own privilege to understand the concept of intersectionality. Assuming that barrier is overcome, then those same people must know how to translate the concept into practice, a task that bedevils even the best theories and analytical constructs (the difficulties serving as a convenient excuse for not doing anything). Finally, adopting something new requires action; a conscious choice to relinquish the comfort and familiarity of the status quo, including the unearned benefits of our own privilege.

It’s a frustrating place to find yourself, though not without its own benefits. Being “other” is often an elixir for building solidarity and resistance—my closest friendships and alliances have been built around shared, intersectional experiences of living on the margins: invisible and silenced despite (or in spite of) the valuable skills, knowledge and experience you have gained via your social location. Being “other” can provide access to radical subjugated knowledge, ways of seeing and doing that are more inclusive, authentic, democratic, and just.

So, it comes down to, how do we find/claim space to apply this knowledge? Space that has resources, visibility, and reach, in order to make a difference? That will be the subject of part 2 of this essay.


*A concept put forward by UCLA law professor, Kimberlé Crenshaw, to make visible the multiple identities that women of color occupy—based not only on gender, but also race, class and otherwise—and which have often been rendered invisible within the mainstream women’s movement in the U.S.


International Women’s Day: Remember Berta Caceres


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Source: Goldman Environmental Prize

Please take a minute to read about Berta Caceres—a woman, an activist, a mother, an environmentalist, a leader, and so much more—who was murdered on March 3 in Honduras. Ms. Caceres founded the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) , an organization and movement representing 200 Lenca communities in the western Honduran states of Intibuca, Lempira, La Paz, and Santa Barbara. She fought for and died defending indigenous peoples’ territories, rights and way of life against corporate-driven, state-sanctioned efforts to seize control of and profit from the earth’s natural resources.

Make no mistake, Ms. Caceres’ death was not a random act of crime and is not an isolated incident. All over the world, entire communities are being violently displaced by private enterprises seeking to profit from consumer-driven demand for raw materials—timber from forests; hydropower from rivers; minerals and metals for consumer electronics; fossil fuels; land for sugar, palm oil, biofuels and other agricultural commodities. And women like Berta are literally giving their lives fighting back.

Ms. Caceres’ life and death are not exotic, far-away events from which we can separate and distance ourselves. We are all part of an unsustainable consumer-driven global economy that is aided and abetted by unfair laws and policies, trade rules, monetary policy, and our own lifestyles.

I know no one likes a lecture, but I’m sick of having to measure my words for fear of insulting peoples’ sense of entitlement to consume as much as they desire without acknowledging the true human, environmental, and social costs of their choices.

Learn more:

Berta Caceres, environmental activist murdered, The Guardian

WoMin: African Women Unite Against Destructive Resource Extraction

The Global Land Grab – A Primer

2015 podcast by Liz Ford for The Guardian newspaper on women human rights defenders

Pay back your privilege with Equipay!

dinner with friends

Thanks to our friend Mark for forwarding this  Washington Post article on Equipay  – a hysterical app-in-the-making that helps friends divvy up their dinner bill, taking into account how institutionalized sexism and racism shape each diner’s income and earning power in the U.S. According to their website, Equipay “doesn’t split the bill equally–it splits it equitably,” and “when dining out with a high privilege group, Equipay automatically adds an EquipayItBack Surcharge…” Not exactly sure where they’re going with that, but I’m in.

Whether it’s wicked clever comedians and/or Beyonce, I firmly believe that humor and pop culture are some of the best ways to get us talking–really talking–about inequality and injustice. And I’m not just referring to politicians and the media.  I’m talking about you and me–talking about our own, sometimes conflicting, sometimes reinforcing sets of  privileges that we benefit from every day (or not)–the stuff like getting more or less airtime in a meeting; whether most people know how to pronounce your name; living in a safe, walk-able neighborhood; or figuring out how to respond to your kid when she asks, slightly worried, whether her skin is going to get dark like yours.

In addition to generating some deep thoughts, I’m pretty sure this app is going to rock my world because a) I’m not the type of Asian that can solve complicated math problems in her head, and b) I’m pretty sure someone’s gonna eventually have to buy me dinner…



Spoiler alert: Valentine’s Day buzzkill…but you’ll thank me for it

ID-100227254Image courtesy of farconville at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Lest you think we’re not here to brighten up your day and make your life easier, here are a few links curated especially for Valentine’s Day. As yet another consumer-driven holiday is upon us, take a few minutes to learn about the women and supply chains that enable us to shower our beloveds with flowers, candy and bling…because nothing says “I love you” like labor exploitation, conflict and environmental carnage!

Flowers and chocolate — “Women toiling in greenhouses in the flower region of Bogotá frequently earn less than $1 a day and endure exploitative working conditions,” according to a 2014 piece in The Guardian citing War on Want, an anti-poverty charity.

Lingerie – Quinne Meyers of The Lingerie Addict writes, “…[The] human aspect is especially important in lingerie manufacturing, where a hand-operated machine or someone with a simple needle-and-thread sews embellishments like tiny bows and cut-out lace. These details are popular on even the most budget-friendly garments, which can lead to factory workers earning well under a living wage … garment workers manufactured every single piece of lingerie we own, regardless of cost. These workers even make the bow-embellished five-for-$25 panties easily picked up at the mall. And when we purchase lingerie from large chain stores and international brands, we typically don’t know anything about the conditions of the factories they use. Is cheap lingerie worth the exploitation of human beings?”

Jewelry–minerals and metals – According to Global Witness, “the mineral trade has funded some of the world’s most brutal conflicts for decades…These resources can enter global supply chains, ending up in our mobile phones, laptops, jewelry and other products…”

And here are a few links and ideas to get you started on your ethical and sustainable Valentine’s Day on…

Free2work – be an informed buyer

DIY Valentines gifts

Find local, handmade gifts on Etsy

You’re welcome.


– Alia

What feminist politics looks like in practice: responding to the Zika virus

Image provider: CDC/ James Gathany

I’ve been accused of being overly abstract (and irrelevant) when pointing out that the personal is, in fact, political. It’s one thing for thoughtful people who have many forms of privilege–being straight, white, male, among others–to discuss racism and sexism in theory-existing somewhere “out there”, but quite another when they are confronted with the very concrete manifestations in their personal lives and relationships.

So here’s an example of what I see as a very positive and constructive application of theory to practice: the feminist response to the Zika virus. I imagine women in the Americas (myself included) being completely perplexed, if not downright terrified, of the recommendations coming from governments to avoid or delay pregnancy–for up to two years in some cases. It’s one thing if you have access to high quality health care, as most people with means do. But a very different story if you don’t.

Access to contraceptives and safe, legal abortion is severely restricted in many of the countries affected by the Zika virus. Violence, including violence against women, can make it difficult, if not impossible, for women to avoid unprotected sex, and in turn, pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (which the Zika virus is suspected of being). And any time states have taken it upon themselves to dictate whether and when to have children, the results have never been good for women. It’s a surefire recipe for abuse and human rights violations, such as coercive or forced sterilization, pregnancy, and termination as well as unsafe abortion.

And what of the right to become pregnant, to have positive pregnancy outcomes for both mother and child, and raise children in a healthy and safe environment? The situation with the Zika virus echoes what’s happening in Flint, Michigan, where parents and caregivers can’t even feed or bathe their children without potential devastating consequences of lead poisoning. The common denominator is that those most affected are poor and minorities, and it’s due to historical, systemic failures of societies to protect the rights and wellbeing of all people–not just the ones with privilege and money.

So back to feminism, this press release issued by the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights and the Latin American and Caribbean Women’s Health Network provides practical advice to governments on a human-rights based response to the Zika virus. Instead of issuing bizarre recommendations that would be difficult for any woman to implement, make sure women have access to comprehensive, high quality sexual and reproductive health care. Make sure we have access to services that will allow us to continue pregnancy if we so choose and the services and resources to address whatever health outcomes we and our children face. Get men involved–tell them to keep it in their pants if they’re worried about sexual transmission and microcephaly. And for God’s sake, stop controlling women’s sexuality and reproductive lives by criminalizing and restricting access to contraceptives and abortion.

It doesn’t make the Zika virus any less scary, but if governments–including the U.S.–took it upon themselves to follow these recommendations, it’d make it a lot easier to cope and make informed decisions about some of the most intimate aspects of your life. That’s what I call a practical application of feminist theory to real life.

– Alia

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