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Young Women Speak Out in 'We Got Issues!'
From health to violence, spirituality to sex, We Got Issues! A Young Woman's Guide to a Bold, Courageous and Empowered Life chronicles the top 10 issues many of today's young women say they face in their everyday lives. Editors Rha Goddess, world-renowned performance artist and social/political activist and J-Love Calderon, activist and author of White Girl, traveled across the country to bring young women's real-life rants to print.
"We Got Issues!" is made up of powerful, and raw reflections, poems, and interviews, that express the views of women between the ages of 18 and 35. WireTap spoke with both Goddess and Calderon via telephone between stops on their current book tour.
WireTap: Do you think many young women know what it means to be bold, courageous and empowered? Or do you think many young women need guidance and mentoring in order to understand and reach these personal goals?
Rha Goddess: When we toured the country talking to young women, there were three things that really struck us. The first thing we learned and discovered is that young women do need permission and affirmation to raise their voices.
The second thing we discovered is that young women crave a thriving community. If they have healthy people around them who encourage and nurture them -- which includes, obviously, mentorship -- the answer is yes, they do feel the sense of being empowered. They do have a context for what it means to be bold and courageous. But if the environment around them, and the individuals around them are not empowered, the answer is no.
The third thing we discovered is that women are afraid of the word "power" -- particularly young women of color. They have pushed back from that word because of the experiences of corruption and abuses of equality that we have historically experienced in this country. However, they hold huge aspirations for themselves and huge aspirations for their communities.
WT: Did you find that many young women across the country respect and accept feminism?
J-Love Calderon: A lot of people identify feminism as an old white vanguard women's movement and are not connected to that term, especially younger women of color. I don't think many people identify as "feminists" necessarily. But if you look at the definition of feminism, they're right there. They choose not to label themselves because feminism is too small of a word that doesn't capture what they're really up to in the world. The word "feminist" was a talking point that allowed us to move forward in dialogue on what it means, what it has been in the past and what it maybe can be in the future.
RG: I think one of the aspects that this generation of young women are struggling with that is very different from [what] our mothers and grandmothers [struggled with] are the issues of race and class. I think there's a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done there, but I think this generation is willing to take it on a little bit more than our mothers and grandmothers were.
WT: Can you give some examples of race and class issues that are particular to this generation of young women?
JL: As a white woman, there is a group of conscious white people that I'm working with to help change the idea of feminism as it relates to race and class. We're working towards really looking at what our leadership can look like: a diverse leadership that supports all women coming together, understanding that white women come with certain privileges that women of color do not come with because of racism and white supremacy in this country. And really understanding what it means to be partners on this quest for self-determination for all young women and all people.
I think it's about looking at the term, redefining it, flipping it, and creating anew from some of our basic values. And from having the ability and power within ourselves to make change within our families, within our communities, and within the world. But doing it in a different way. In a way that is more about mind building [and] coalition building. And more about sisterhood as opposed to, "I'm doing it this way and if you don't like it, well, you can't get down with this." It's really about reframing the whole movement of what feminism can and should be like.
RG: I think the other piece of that is really creating a space for honest dialogue about the perceptions and assumptions we make about one another based upon race and class. Which is part of our work more and more these days. I think there are things young women of color don't feel safe enough to express to younger white women. And I think the same is true of younger white women not feeling comfortable expressing certain things to younger women of color. There's this generational built-in hostility. I also think it's about everybody willing to put their cards on the table and being willing to own those assumptions, acknowledge those assumptions, and there being a real agreement that they as a community are willing to start to work through some of those assumptions.
I think the other piece is the way in which resources get allocated, brokered and structured in a society. Particularly, within the context of the feminist movement. Very often you have the experience where white women are calling the table. And I think this generation is trying to work in a really different way. Meaning [those] who are used to calling the table are actually willing to allow other organizations led by young women of color to do it.
WT: When talking about young women's issues, the mainstream media often focuses solely on eating disorders. Is this perhaps an example of how white women's privilege and mainstream feminism's perception of eating disorders affects the media's portrayal of all young women's issues?
RG: I think there is a conversation about how the term "young women" focuses on white women but is framed as all women. That's part of the issue of privilege that we deal with and J can tell you about an interesting experience we had around the book cover. [Laughs] But I think that is one particular area of privilege where white women's issues are held up as to represent all women in the world. And yes, of course there are places of commonality. But there are also places of stark difference.
I think the other reason there's such a focus on eating disorders is because the media is so hyper-focused on women's physical appearance. It's all about the preoccupation with the pretty. So, it's about who's getting plastic surgery, who's getting the boob job, who's getting their toes redone, and who's starving themselves. And there's the whole thing with celebrities, like Nicole Richie, living with eating disorders.
JL: I totally agree with Rha. I know eating disorders is a big issue that we do need to look at, but in a way, it can keep us occupied -- "Here's another example of women who can't even control what they eat and what they don't." I think it's just ridiculous that they put the focus on that.
Back to the whole cover thing, Rha and I worked with our publisher on a cover design of a beautiful woman who was sitting with her arms crossed looking out. We thought she was really engaging; "Talk to me, I wanna hear." We loved it. But we got a call from our publisher who said one of the biggest bookstores, who was going to order 400 books, decided they wouldn't order the book unless we made the cover multiracial. They said [the cover] would attract only African American women.
RG: And she wasn't African American, she was multiracial. They made an assumption that because she was black that automatically meant that look or that composition was not accessible to any woman who wasn't black.
One thing I just wanted to add to this whole conversation about eating disorders is that it's posed like alcoholism, like drug addiction. It's a personal struggle and there's never a core analysis of the social political pressures that bear on young women. Not as the actual illness, but as a symptom of a deeper, deeper core of an illness that young women are facing because of the ways they are hindered in this society. That's never spoken about. It's always about the personal gossip and the drama.
WT: What advice do you have for young women who feel only certain women can be bold, and they're not one of them?
RG: Boldness, beauty, and creativity belong to all of us. That's also why we're very adamant about the fact that we stand for all women because we all have something to bring, and if young women don't bring whatever it is they uniquely are here to bring, then we don't get it.
Turn off the television. [Laughs] Shut off the radio. All those mediums that attempt to define who is anointed or ordained to be bold, courageous and powerful. And really listen to your heart and know that you're not alone. We're out there, we're looking for you and we're calling you out. Come play if we're in your city! [Laughs]
JL: I also think bold shows up in many ways. You can be silent and still be bold. What does bold mean to you? And how can you feel confident and comfortable in your own skin? The bold can show up in your smile. In the way you wink your eyes. Define what bold is to you and find different ways you can enact it every day.
Celina De Leon is a contributing writer for WireTap and the Interviews Editor at Feministing.com living in Brooklyn, NY.