The privilege and cost of activism

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The privilege and cost of activism

Shelby Knox speaks on activism and the future of feminism

by Erin Cech on Thursday, March 1, 2012 - 6:43am

Shelby KnoxWhen asked what is most difficult about social activism, renowned feminist activist Shelby Knox replied, “that activism has consequences.”  Knox didn’t just mean that activism can be the catalyst for social change, but that it has very real, and sometimes serious, personal costs. Knox referred to activism as a privilege—one that carries the responsibility of including the voices of others. Like social movements of decades past, those who have the privilege to organize must make sure not to silence or ignore the voices of those without that privilege.

The Education of Shelby Knox

As part of the symposium on Ms. at 40 and the Future of Feminism, Knox discussed the 2005 documentary film that put her in the public eye. Knox’s hometown of Lubbock, Texas has some of the highest teen pregnancy and STD rates in the nation.  The Education of Shelby Knox (directed by Mario Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt) chronicles Knox’s work as a teenager to replace her district’s abstinence-only policy with comprehensive sex education. While the school board rejected the proposed measure, Knox succeeded in stirring conversations. In the process, Knox became an activist.  (Incidentally, her mother showed the film in Lubbock after Knox graduated, which pressured some schools to adopt comprehensive sex education.)

The Education of Shelby KnoxKnox’s story—one of public action, disappointment, and eventual success—is found among many heroic activists across the nation engaged in important consciousness-raising and grass-roots community organizing. But the part of the story not as often heard—and one artfully told in the Education documentary—is of the personal consequences of activism.  Knox’s pull toward activism challenged her own commitments to her faith and her family’s beliefs.

Concerned about the negative impact on the lives of her fellow youth, Knox was inspired to action. She felt that sex education could reduce teen pregnancy and STD infection, even if she chose to practice abstinence. At 16, Knox pledged sexual purity as part of the “True Love Waits” program.  Knox explains that “it was the thing to do if you were a good, southern Baptist girl.”  While Knox maintained her belief throughout high school that abstinence until marriages was appropriate for her, she was unconvinced that such a path was either universally appropriate or realistic. 

Trying to reconcile her Christian beliefs with her activism, Knox consulted her pastor.  Her pastor mused that Knox was promoting tolerance among people who were part of “the most intolerant religion of all.”  This tolerance, which inspired—and was inspired by—her work on behalf of those whose life choices were different than her own, became a source of critique of her personal morality. For taking this stance on sex education, some people in her community, for example, told her that she was “going to hell.”

Examining the personal costs of activism

As Knox’s role in the promotion of comprehensive sex education became more intense and more public, she worried that her activism might reflect poorly on her father and possibly hurt his business.  Her parents, for their part, worried that Knox’s activism might adversely affect her academically and socially.  Their fears were not unwarranted. As a Junior, Knox learned that the superintendent had been told to “stay away from her” because she was “dangerous.” 

Knox’s activism, in other words, not only had public consequences, it affected her relationships with her family and her faith.  But Knox was fortunate that she maintained the support of her family throughout.  As Knox leaned further into activism and later protested for her classmates’ right to organize a Gay-Straight Alliance, her mother even joined in the protests.  But the costs of activism are not so easily shouldered by everyone.  The very existence of personal consequences is the reason activism is a privilege: not everyone has the ability to engage in activism without putting their jobs, families, or personal safety at serious risk.

Social responsibility

As with the civil rights and women’s rights movements of decades past, the privileges and consequences of activism today are not equally spread throughout the population.  Poor women, women of color, and single mothers are more likely than white women to face prohibitively serious consequences for engaging in activism. Many barriers result from their proportionally higher poverty rates, low job security and work autonomy, and small to nonexistent financial safety nets.  Yet, these are precisely the groups most often in need of social advocacy and representation.

The Reyes Sisters at the event at StanfordA recent local incident makes this clear:  two women employed at the Santa Clara Hyatt, just down the road from Stanford, were fired for acting to promote equality for themselves and their co-workers.  Sisters Lorena and Martha Reyes, who were then employed as housekeepers at the Hyatt, arrive at work a few months ago to find pictures posted on the walls depicting their faces photoshopped onto the bodies of swimsuit models.  Lorena and Martha ripped down the degrading swimsuit photos in protest.  And, after 30 years of combined service to the hotel, they were suddenly let go.

The Reyes sisters, acting to subvert sexual harassment in their workplace, did so at enormous personal cost.  There are undoubtedly others who face similar inequities at work, but cannot—or dare not—participate in similar activism for fear of such consequences.

There is, therefore, a responsibility that accompanies the privilege of activism.  Knox argued that those who have the financial and social stability to bear the personal consequences of public activism have a responsibility to those who cannot. The responsibility is to those for whom such consequences are too great a burden to overcome—those for whom activism may cost them their jobs or their families. 


Miram Perez and Shelby Knox on a Panel on the Future of FeminismShelby Knox came to Stanford as part of the symposium on Ms. at 40 and the Future of Feminism; you can continue the conversation here. She was on the panel discussion of editors, journalists and bloggers. Knox lives in New York City, where she works as a consultant for the Girls Leadership Institute, Plan B and others.  She is also writing a book about the next generation of feminist activism.  Information about her current work can be found on her website and details about The Education of Shelby Knox, including ordering information, can be found on the documentary’s website.

More information on the Reyes sisters can be found at Hotel Workers Rising.

Responses to The privilege and cost of activism

John May's picture
06 March, 2012 John May (not verified)

I stand with the Reyes sisters by not staying at the Hyatt. We are in the 21st century and there is no place to discriminate in this country due to sex, age, color or orientation. Being passive by working behind the scene has not worked and the time has come to stand up and be counted.