One of the speakers at the February 2 TEDx North Adams event was Kristen van Ginhoven, Founder and Artistic Director of WAM (Where Arts & Activism Meet)Theatre. The professional values and personal struggles she shared were inspirational.
Kristen knew that she couldn’t “save the world,” but she found a way to use her theater background to make a difference. WAM focuses its productions on works by and about women and girls and donates a portion of the proceeds from its theatrical events to organizations that benefit women and girls.
She went on to describe her obligations as “a woman of privilege.” I get concerned when I hear someone defined as “of privilege,” because it creates yet another set of assumptions that makes it difficult to know a person. What defines privilege? Race is one element. Sadly, it is becoming a dividing rather than a uniting factor in the fight for social justice.
When I participated in Leadership Maryland in 2009, we did an exercise where we all started out lined up together and stepped forward or back depending on factors like our parents’ jobs/professions and whether we went to private or public school. I was surprised to find myself toward the back of the room. My race conferred privilege, but my socio-economic background did not.
Kristen said that as a woman of privilege she feels obligated to speak up “in the moment” when there is injustice. We don’t speak up in the moment, she acknowledged, because “we are afraid, we panic, or we just don’t know what to say.” When I was a first year student at Harpur College, a public college now part of Binghamton University, I was at a party at Cornell. About half a dozen of us were sitting around when someone started to tell anti-Semitic jokes. I had absolutely no idea what to do. I was afraid to speak up and especially afraid to tell them I was Jewish. I couldn’t leave because I was dependent on my date for a ride. (This was way before cell phones or Uber.) I have never forgotten the anger or fear of that moment.
If something similar happened today I’d like to think I would immediately confront the speaker, not because I am Jewish, but because it is wrong. I’d also like to think I would react similarly to any form of inappropriate speech or behavior, but I know it was not that long ago that I held back at the crude sexist language of an elected official who had power over my institution.
Kristen’s was a message for our times, but one not always easy to heed.