Organizing for Change
On May 31, 2009, anti–abortion rights activist Scott Roeder shot and killed Dr. George Tiller during Sunday morning services at Tiller’s church in Wichita, Kansas. The target of constant protests, Tiller had survived a clinic bombing, previous shooting, and multiple legal challenges to close his practice, Women’s Health Care Services—one of only three clinics in the country that performed abortions after twenty-one weeks.
Within days of Tiller’s death, Steph Herold, a twenty-one-year- old recent college grad who was working as an abortion counselor in Pennsylvania, created the website I Am Dr. Tiller (IAmDrTiller.com). She sent the link to feminist blogs and women’s clinics, asking for stories from individuals working to make abortion safe, legal, and accessible. Submissions came in from nurses, medical students, escorts, volunteers at abortion funds, and abortion doctors themselves—all of whom held up a sheet of paper or sign proclaiming “I Am Dr. Tiller.” Criticism by Fox News host Bill O’Reilly only increased the site’s popularity.
Herold also created a Twitter account— @iamdrtiller—to promote the stories and, later, to continue sharing facts and information around reproductive rights and justice and to connect with other pro-choice activists. She also founded a blog run by a group of young feminist activists (read her story on p. 816).
Using new media tools and technologies, it’s easier for us to find and build community and make our voices heard. Today, anyone with a mobile phone or Internet connection can share information, create awareness, and attract the attention of policy makers or other stakeholders. While traditional forms of activism—such as street protests, boycotts, and well-crafted media campaigns—are still necessary and effective ways of gaining support and attention for some causes, the Internet and social media have transformed not only how we organize but also our ideas about what organizing or activism means.
There has never been a greater likelihood that one voice can make a difference. In fact, a far-reaching campaign is often started by just one person taking action—and today it might begin with blogging or raising awareness on Facebook, or tweeting about an injustice happening this very second. What may start as a small group of voices united by a common goal or grievance can develop into an organized and sustainable movement.
One group using the latest technological tools to effect change, the crowd-sourced initiative Hollaback! (ihollaback.org), formed to counter the street harassment frequently encountered by women and LGBTQ individuals. The movement encourages people to share their stories and to report instances of street harassment, from unwanted verbal attention to acts of touching or groping, using mobile technology such as the Hollaback! iPhone app. From its founding in New York City in 2005, Hollaback! has grown into an international movement.
We also have access to more information and viewpoints than ever before. Politicians, activist groups, and media sources keep us informed via email, text messages, and social networks. Racialicious (racialicious.com), Colorlines (colorlines.com), Feministing (feministing.com), Pam’s House Blend (pamshouseblend.com), Feministe (feministe.us/blog), Pandagon (pandagon.net), INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (inciteblog.wordpress.com), Shakesville (shakespearessister.blogspot.com), and The F Word (www.thefword.org.uk) are more than sites to visit for daily news and activism; they’re feminist communities where readers share, commiserate, and challenge one another. The do-it-yourself dynamic of blogs enables a wide variety of voices to reach a larger audience and become part of the dialogue.
Through social media, more teens and young women are speaking out and taking a stand. Julie Zeilinger was a fifteen-year-old high school student in Pepper Pike, Ohio, when she launched fbomb (thefbomb.org) in 2008 with the goal of creating a community and dialogue for teenage girls “who care about their rights as women and want to be heard.” Within two years, Zeilinger’s site had published submissions from all over the world.1
In this new era, traditional gatekeepers have been replaced by a decentralized assembly of digitally empowered citizen journalists. Organizing takes place independent of geographical boundaries, and stories have the potential to reach large audiences quickly. On the flip side, communities have never been more diffuse, and standing out among so many voices can be difficult. Online petitions and other forms of viral protest are sometimes dismissed as ineffective slacktivism. And access to new technology isn’t universal; a digital divide exists between the digitally adept and those without access to digital tools and/or those who lack the knowledge and skills to be media creators as well as consumers. Spending a few hours a week in a school computer lab isn’t the same as having a laptop or iPad in your backpack.
While social networking and digital media have certainly become important catalysts for change, providing new and effective forms of expression, we need to work to increase access so all of us have the tools and the means to tell our own stories.
1. Sarah Crump, “Julie Zeilinger, Creator of thefbomb.org, Examines Teen Feminist Issues,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 2, 2010, www.cleveland.com/arts/index.ssf/2010/05/julie_zeilinger_creator_of_the.html.
Excerpted from the 2011 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves. © 2011, Boston Women's Health Book Collective.
< Return to Organizing for Change Overview