by Charlotte Mabon

One of my favorite TED talks is given by feminist author Courtney Martin.  When I’m a little low or feeling stretched too thin, I will watch the short talk for a quick pick-me-up.  I remember the first time I watched this talk.  I remember sitting on my bed in the Units (yes I lived in the Units as a sophomore and it really wasn’t that bad) and just happened to be scrolling through TED Talk’s webpage.

In the aftermath of taking Introduction to Women Studies my freshman year, I was on full throttle all-things-feminist.  I had become a completely transformed individual, searching for anything I could get my hands on that further validated my new passion.  Though it may sound oh so corny, that class changed my life.  Not that I had immediately transformed into a fully formed feminist-social-activist-with-all-of-the-right-answers because that certainly wasn’t true, and still isn’t true to this day, but I was in the beginning moments of defining what feminism meant to me, and how I wanted to use it in order to help others.

So there I was, in the wake of my fantastic life-changing freshman spring semester, scouring the Internet for any blog post or web page with the word “feminism.”  Lo and behold, “This Isn’t Her Mother’s Feminism” TED talk popped up, and boom.  Eighteen minutes later I was crying. I was crying because at last, I felt a little less alone in the world.  Not that I haven’t been able to discuss my new passion among friends, family, and professors, but I had yet to find some media outlet that was speaking to something that was lighting a fire inside of myself, and fulfilling me in a way where nothing had done so before.

In her TED talk, Courtney Martin discussed the changing ideology of feminism.  In other words, she discussed how today’s feminism holds (for the most part) the core values expressed in “older” waves of feminism, but that the social causes, faces, and understandings surrounding feminist ideology today has changed.

Martin further discusses how fed up she was with the world after she graduated from grad school.  She explains that she wanted to go out and change the world, and did all the things that she felt would bring about global social change.  She phone banked, she protested, she worked at a non-profit, and she also volunteered but yet, she still felt that “…none of it seemed to matter…”.  I am in no way saying that none of those things matter.  Because they do!  They matter a great deal.  Those things she listed are crucial and needed for social change!

Frustrated at her efforts, Martin decided to turn to something that she was good at, and what she felt was the only thing she could do at such a hopeless moment.  She decided to write and ended up publishing a book called Do It Anyway.  Martin researched and interviewed young social activists making current social change in frustrating institutions such as the education system, U.S. military, and government.  This new generation of social activists played up their strengths and creativity to start rewiring social institutions from the inside out.

She stressed that these individuals were not only incredibly intelligent, but were also “… humanizing forces in deeply intractable systems….”  I understood what she was saying but at the same time, I didn’t entirely get what she was saying. Yes, these people were wonderful and were finding new ways to break down discriminating and unfair systems, but a humanizing force?  What was that?

It wasn’t until recently, upon returning from the Branch Out National trip that I lead this past spring break to the Fan Free Clinic in Richmond Virginia, that I finally got what Courtney Martin was saying.  On one of the final days of our trip, my group members along with Fan Free’s street outreach experts went to a public housing community on the outskirts of Richmond.  On this cold day, we set up a table full of free condoms and flyers that promoted Fan Free’s health care services.  We also went out with one of Fan Free’s workers, and handed out condoms to the individuals walking outside in the community that day.  We were also letting community members aware that Fan Free was offering free HIV testing at the newly opened information center just a few streets over.

Until that time, I had only ever read about the public housing community, and seen from afar public housing units in Philadelphia.  It’s one thing to read about something, discuss it in class, and/or watch it on a film.  However, it’s on a completely different emotional, physical, and mental level when you are (to a degree) immersed in a particular situation.

Our trip was almost finished, and I had gone through a number of emotional roller coasters up to that point.  But it was here in the public housing community, where I felt completely and utterly exhausted.  I felt small, weak, and desperate.  Saying I was overwhelmed would be an understatement.  Quite honestly I was unable to process the task at hand.  Instead, I went through the motions.  I handed out condoms, interacted with individuals, and froze in the chilly Richmond air in a surreal blurred moment.

I handed out condoms, passed along flyers, and had interacted with a few of the people that lived in this particular housing area.  I did not establish a long-term relationship with any of the people that I met in the community, and this was heartbreaking.  It was too brief of a moment, and I couldn’t hold onto it at the time.  It slipped away and as we drove away, I couldn’t help but wonder, what was it that I was doing? How was I helping?

It was looking back, lots of internal processing, many discussions, and weeks after my trip that I finally realized what Fan Free was doing, and what our trip had done.  In comparison to mine, many trips had concrete agendas.  They were building houses, feeding the needy, or canvassing from door to door.  It took watching Courtney Martin’s TED talk for the millionth time when the impact of the trip hit me.  A humanizing force?  I got that.  I felt that.  And I’m pretty sure that every single participant in my group felt that too.   Fan Free felt that every day.  We couldn’t rid the world of HIV/AIDS at this specific moment.  Fan Free wasn’t able to give everyone in the community that day a free HIV test.  But we were there, and that’s what mattered.

Doing meaningful work is loaded wordage.  Meaningful work means something different to everyone.  And everyone evaluates meaningful work differently.  For some, meaningful work is creating a brand new non-profit.  For some, meaningful work may mean going to graduate school and getting a counseling degree.  For others, it entails volunteering every so often.  Meaningful work means something different to everyone, but what I think we all can agree upon is the fact that if we are collectively aiming to be that humanizing force that Courtney Martin alludes to, that’s where we are going to see change.  In my opinion, no matter what meaningful work means to you, aiming to be that humanizing force in what you do is what truly matters.