In her seminal work, All About Love, African- American activist and author bell hooks writes, “All great movements for social justice in our society have strongly emphasised a love ethic.” Now, we’re not saying we’re a “great movement for social justice”, but at the core of our activist organising, fEMPOWER aims to practice an ethic of love. We embrace this ethic as it is not only vital to the sustainability of our program, but our relationships with each other as co-organisers and our ability to communicate the message of fEMPOWER to young people.
fEMPOWER started as an initiative of the Wom*n’s Collective last year and since then, it’s grown to have over eighty registered volunteers and we’ve developed workshop content about the construction of masculinity, safe relationships, “myths” about feminism and many other topics. We’ve travelled to schools across New South Wales and spoken to feminist collectives and full year groups. We’ve kept the program completely free, relying on the generous contributions of community members.
We attribute the success of our program to our centering of love as the driving force behind our work. Working with an ethic of love means acknowledging that when boys make sexist comments in our workshops, it’s because they have been socialised in a culture of misogyny. It means acknowledging their potential to change and grow, and responding to these comments with compassion, rather than anger. While it can be infuriating to encounter what seem like young Men’s Rights Activists who leap to excuse catcalling, objectification and even violence against women, we have learnt that anger will not change them.
Anger, in those situations, polarises both parties and undermines any ability for students to listen and learn. Instead, we are counterposed and rather than negotiating and acknowledging each other’s viewpoints, both people are engaged in a futile contest of views. Often we have less than an hour to spend with over thirty students. Given our goal is to communicate as much information as possible so students are passionate enough to learn more in their own time, an argument with one student not only wastes that precious time, it undermines the willingness of all students in the class to engage with feminism at all.
The greatest harm of failing to practice an ethic of love is it stops us from learning and growing ourselves. We started fEMPOWER thinking there was some “feminist law” we needed to communicate to young people, but soon realised, they have a lot to teach us. With anger and defensiveness, we never open ourselves up to the wisdom of young people. We become complacent and our work becomes stale. If we responded to all negative feedback with a vehement belief we are always correct, we’d never have developed to the stage we are at now – going to boys schools to talk about masculinity and including male volunteers in our project.
When we enter schools with an ethic of love, we are able to embrace teachers who have gone above and beyond to make space for us in their schools. We are able to encourage students who have the right inclinations, but have not had the opportunity to discuss and clarify their political thoughts in a classroom environments and so may say something ‘problematic’. When we enter schools with an ethic of love, we leave empowered and passionate about where else fEMPOWER can take us, instead of feeling disheartened and immobilised by the fight still ahead of us.
As four young women with various other commitments and obligations, it is love for one another that allows us to sustain this project. All of us give countless hours of unpaid labour to activism, so when we meet late at night in the few free hours we have in our week, it is only by working to support each other that we can confirm the value of what we do. When someone is too busy, we accept their apologies and if a mistake is made, we recognise it was just a mistake. We thank each other wholeheartedly for work done and give criticism from a place of mutual respect.
fEMPOWER forces us to challenge our assumptions about what it means to be an activist. It requires a particular form of politics that we’d probably have shouted down a few years ago. We force ourselves to be understanding and empathetic, not because it’s easy or our first inclination, but because it is necessary. As four young women who are privileged in more ways than not, we have no justification for being angry. We have been benefited by the system and so it is with love that we hope to fEMPOWER those who don’t have the privileges we do.
If you’d like to know more about fEMPOWER or become a volunteer with our program, visit fempoweraustralia.com and follow us on Facebook