This year I joined the team of Educators at Catharsis Productions. This is a group that prides itself on being able to say – and say confidently – the things about sex, culture, and violence prevention that other people may struggle to say. We lead these conversations, and in doing so we take up the often difficult mantle of raising our voices in amidst a maelstrom of differing opinions, perspectives, and strong feelings from our audiences. It is a privilege to be so involved in the changing landscape surrounding sexual assault in our country. As a social change worker, being at the forefront of this discourse can be exhilarating and rewarding.
As an introvert, it can be downright terrifying.
Contrary to popular belief, not all presenters fit the stereotypical outgoing, loud, and bubbly persona that society would have us imagine, and this is as true in social justice as in any other environment. Personally, I believe the sooner we get away from any stereotype in general, the better. But there is a suggestion – and I would argue a growing suggestion – that to be an effective part of a movement, one must prepare to “put themselves out there” and demand attention if they want to make any progress. After all, how can we expect to convert attitudes if we cannot even be heard?
While it’s a wonderful goal to motivate each other to speak up and use our voices for change, I think it’s time to call out the fallacies about being heard that we’ve bought into. We could all do with some reminding about what exactly we mean when we say, “speak up.”
Just so we’re all on the same page: The goal of any social justice work (like antiviolence or feminism writ large) is not that any one person’s voice should overpower or drown out another’s. The goal of our work is to give every person an equal opportunity to be safe and be heard – and this must include those who are ill-equipped to shout.
Being an agent for a cause you believe in is not dependent on how “loud” you are, or how much space you are comfortable taking up. For any readers who are fellow wallflowers, the volume at which you speak might, in fact, be the last tool you turn to in trying to create change. The voices that tremble are not any less valuable to our movement than those that ring out clearly, and I want to take this moment to address the voices who may still feel silenced, unheard, or unable to participate because of these arbitrary standards.
We see you. We value you. We believe that your voice matters, even if it shakes.
If you are passionate about a mission, embrace it by embracing yourself and the ways that you personally connect to it. Social justice, especially today, can be an intimidating frontier, especially with the level of fervor that can come from all sides of an issue. But there are plenty of ways to get involved that don’t depend on shouting at a rally, winning heated debates, or standing on a stage and talking about sexual violence.
Here are just a few alternative ways to get involved:
- Recommend helpful literature to friend and family. Sometimes it’s best to let others say the words that we struggle to, especially with loved ones whose support we value but whose opinions we’d like to change. There is zero shame in using these resources – they make the world better! Here are a few of my favorite reads.
- Volunteer your time and money to an organization like Planned Parenthood, RAINN, Chicago Foundation for Women, A Long Walk Home, Chicago Alliance Against Exploitation, or Northwest CASA. Since Catharsis Productions is based in Chicago, these are resources local to us – however, there are grassroots efforts made in cities, townships, and campuses everywhere, and they are all fantastic. Finding them is usually as easy as running a quick Google search. Organizing like this is a fantastic way to further the mission for gender equality that doesn’t involve shouting from the rooftops. Instead, it involves compassion, community, and dedicated work – things our world can always use more of.
- If you hear harmful language, jokes, or stereotypes being made in your regular social circles, shut it down. This doesn’t have to mean starting an argument. It can be as simple as not laughing at it, or as discussing it with those you are comfortable with after the fact and share the experience you had. Raise the everyday standards that we hold each other to, so that people who truly think inequality is acceptable will stand out.
- If you are an artist, a writer, a poet, a painter, a creative human of any kind: let your mission inform your work. I promise it will create thought provoking pieces and start new conversations where audiences don’t expect them.
- Write a blog! Exhibit A: this post. If you’ve got truths that need telling and you’re not sure where to start, get your thoughts down on paper in preparation to share them with the world. If you’re not sure where to start, Wix, WordPress, Tumblr, and Squarespace are all great resources. You don’t need a degree in anything to take advantage of the vast forum that is the web. Use it.
Ultimately, what matters the most is that all of us show up every day and be our truest, realest selves. It’s easy to feel pressured to hide our thoughts, especially about topics as incendiary as sexual assault prevention. But embracing your voice starts with letting people see you for you – even if they may disagree, even if it’s scary, and even if you think it may go unheeded. What I can promise is that actions speak louder than words, and every single action is crucial to creating the kind of culture we believe in. So embrace your voice – even (and especially) if it shakes.
Taylor Barton is a professional actor, dramaturge, and director, and holds a B.A. in Theatre from Columbia College Chicago.