Young Feminist Summit Empowers New Activists

by Guest Writers Sara Marcus and Kirsten Thompson

We are probably two of the worst people to tell you what it was like to participate in NOW's Young Feminist Summit Against Violence that took place in Arlington, Va., April 7-8.

 We were working behind the scenes and didn't get a chance to attend any workshops or any of the working groups where Summit participants developed grassroots plans of action in a variety of areas. However, we are two of the best people to tell you about the importance of the weekend, and its impact both on our personal attitudes and on our attitudes about NOW.

 The Summit was part of the NOW April Action Weekend, which also included the Rally for Women's Lives and the first national display of the Clothesline Project. The whole weekend focused on ending economic, political and physical violence against women.

 This Summit was only the second of its kind. NOW's first Young Feminist Conference was held in 1991 in Akron, Ohio, and was coordinated by a young feminist steering committee working with "seasoned" activists in the local chapter and at the NOW Action Center. This year's Summit was organized almost exclusively by young feminist project staff members and volunteers. And, here's where we come in.

 In January, we were contacted by Kirsten Xanthippe, the 24-year old conference manager, who had gotten our names from a leadership list of high school young feminist groups. In the months that followed, we assumed leadership roles in planning the logistics for the Summit.

 At the time, neither of us were NOW members. In fact, neither of us had much faith in NOW's agenda or inclusiveness. Never having worked on a project of the Summit's scope, we didn't think hierarchical structure had any place in feminist activism, and consequently the necessary bureaucracy we encountered while working on the Summit was initially vexing.

 The Rally often took priority over the Summit, and even up to the last day of the Summit our skepticism persisted. In the midst of our frustration we were approached to appear on a syndicated radio talk show.

 We agreed to do so, but then slightly panicked at the thought of possibly having to defend an organization we actually knew very little about. When we turned to Kirsten Xanthippe and Pat Varieur (president of Columbus, Ohio NOW) to convince us that NOW mattered to us as young feminists and as radicals, what we got was an entirely new way of looking at the organization.

 Kirsten and Pat put everything in realistic terms. We had accomplished so much. The process, though trying at times, guaranteed that nothing was overlooked, and with a project of this size, that was a vital reassurance. And yes, we admit the experience of the members of the executive committee far outstripped ours. Even so, we had proven that we could take/earn responsibility beyond what is sometimes expected from "kids."

 Pat pointed out that we had fulfilled our roles as leaders not merely of tomorrow, but of today. We had pulled it all off. With nearly 1,200 attendees, the Summit was an incredible success.

 We went to the interview with a sense of euphoria. We had changed people's perceptions of appropriate roles for young activists. Feminism will always be a vital issue to us, but we recognized now that working outside society can only affect so much change. Nobody can hear you screaming "revolution" in an empty room.

 Permanent and significant societal change must come from within the existing structure (flawed as it may be), and this means that we must work within that structure to a certain extent.

 Young women at the Summit talked about the need to connect, to create a network. We have a network we can use -- it's called the National Organization for Women, and it's ours for the taking.

 NOW is a highly visible and centralized vehicle through which our goals have been, and can continue to be, realized. We have both become NOW members, and with such an early start, there's no way we can fail.


Marcus and Thompson, both 17 years old, are high school activists in the D.C. area.


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