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Shelby Knox, Itinerant Feminist Organizer : The Face of Gender Justice

By June 17, 2010 3 Comments

What is your name, age, and location?

Shelby Knox, 23, New York City.

What is your profession?

I am an itinerant feminist organizer. I travel across the country to organize with young people for social justice, as well as speak to audiences about the next generation of feminism. I’m also a writer, consultant, and attempted blogger. My mom thinks I’m a professional Tweeter — I use Twitter to organize, create and revel in the gender justice community, and teach and learn more about women’s history and all the other vibrant social justice movements working online.

What did you study in school and what degrees do you have?

I went to the University of Texas at Austin, from which I have a B.A. in Political Science. Since I traveled more than attending classes — to promote a documentary film featuring my activism, called The Education of Shelby Knox, that came out my freshman year — I sometimes say UT allowed me to get degrees in airline negotiation, time management, and LIFE!

What was your first job?

I started working as the weekend receptionist for my dad’s car dealership in Lubbock, TX when I was 15 and did that until I left for college. I was charged with answering over 100 lines and countless questions about cars, both tasks for which I was completely unqualified. The experience taught me a lot — mostly that I could never be happy or fulfilled going into an office every day.

Who or what inspired you to break into your current line of work?

When I started to be asked to speak at colleges, conferences and non-profits about my experiences as a youth sex education advocate, I couldn’t possibly imagine what I could say that was more important or insightful than any other young person. So, I went to every venue and offered up all I had: my story. Then I would ask (beg) for someone else in the audience to talk about their experiences. Someone would and, invariably, yet another person would go: “Wow, that happened to you too? That happened to me but I thought I was alone!” I often had that same “aha!” moment listening to their words and after a couple dozen speeches turned consciousness-raising groups, I realized the revelatory power of feminism. To me, feminism is hearing your pain and your struggle in someone else’s voice and suddenly realizing there’s nothing wrong with you and nothing wrong with them, but something wrong with a world that makes you think there is. I recognized the incredible privilege of being given the opportunity to talk, cry, and learn with so many people. But, I never imagined it would turn into a career — I knew after I graduated from college I would have to get a “real” job.

But then I got to New York City and, by the grace of the Goddesses, met and struck up a friendship with Gloria Steinem. She told me that what I had been doing all through college was what she had been doing for 40 years. She’s the one who told me my “title” was itinerant feminist organizer and that there’s a long and noble history of women who’ve changed the world by sharing and collecting women’s stories. Once I saw myself in a line of amazing women — Susan B. Anthony, Sojurner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, to name a few — I knew there was nothing else I could do with my life that would be so fulfilling and impactful.

Name/describe one incident when being a woman has helped your career?

I often face the old stereotypes of a feminist: man-hating, unshaven, angry, ugly shrew. People are sometimes surprised that I am the definition of femme by personal preference, that my feminism and organizing is often very different than what came before, and that my anger is real and justified but not without specific aim. In defining what feminism and womanhood are for me personally, I can show other women they have the freedom to do the same.

Name/describe one incident when being a woman has hindered your career?

“Well of course she thinks such and such about women’s inequality — she’s a woman!” The feminist movement needs more male spokespeople because often people can only begin to learn from someone who looks and sounds like them.

Who is your role model or mentor (alive or dead)?

My mother and father supported me even when they disagreed with me and taught me that to be happy you have to stay true to yourself. My grandmother taught by example that grace and true courage mean conquering adversity with adaptation and a good sense of humor. Rose Rosenblatt and Marion Lipschutz, the women who made the film about me, pushed me to analyze everything and expand my world past the borders of the world I was born into. My role model, the person who I would most like to be like one day, is Gloria Steinem. Of all she’s taught me about feminism — oppressions can’t be uprooted separately, men have as much to win as women in the battle for equality, look to Native communities for wisdom on gender justice because it began there — the most important thing is that you can’t let fame, success or harsh criticism hinder your personal evolution or change who you are inside.

If you could give one piece of advice to a woman starting out in your field, what would it be?

Your story is the most important asset you have. Don’t let anyone tell you that just because your lived experience is shorter, it isn’t valid. Speak it with the confidence that you know everything, be willing to admit that you don’t, own your privileges and identities, and remember that if you’ve made one person feel more human, you’ve changed the world.

Links:

www.shelbyknox.com

@shelbyknox

– Interview by Jessica Gross

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