Starting/Growing/Reviving That Feminist Club…

This is a guest post by Echo Zen. Echo is a feminist filmmaker, blogger, speaker and sexual health advocate, currently deployed in the States to counter the influence of Tea Party moppets. When ze’s not doing ad consulting for birth control, ze tries to blog semi-regularly for Feministe (partly to set a good example for zir sister).

Perhaps you’re stuck in university hell, but lucky enough to attend a university that promotes such radical, heretical values as believing that even women have rights, or ensuring students have to access to emergency contraception to protect their health and futures. If however you attend a uni where authorities believe rape’s not really rape unless your assailant climaxes… well, you may have a bit of work to do, if your goal is to jumpstart, grow or revive the feminist scene on campus.

Barring an infusion of $6.5 US million in mansplaining seed money funneled into the feminist club you’re working to launch, there are no magic bullets to make your job easier. You might find yourself up till 0200 in the morning, typing project proposals or emails explaining to professors or students how their goals intersect with yours and why they should work with you. None of us are experts, and anyone claiming to be one is either stupid or a brilliant heir to Rosser Reeves. But between the author and colleagues who’ve volunteered insights for this blog post, we have around 10 years’ experience in campus advocacy. Some of us still do consulting in this area, long after graduating. So whilst the work might be hard, there are things we know you can do to raise the odds of payoff in the end.

Again, we’re not experts, but the consensus among us is the following principles will make the path to ultimate feminist domination – or just making your club relevant again – a clearer, more robust one.

1. Make your goals exciting… all of them.

If your org’s goals don’t inspire, you’ll have trouble with attracting support – in the form of student members, advising professors or outside funding.

Maybe your goal is simply to create a space where students can come together to discuss what feminism means to their daily lives every week. That’s noble, and helps to build solidarity. But if you want to expand its reach and ability to effect change, your club needs to bring something more inspiring into people’s lives. Warm, fuzzy feelings can only do so much to attract membership, or build capacity or bring lobbying power to the table.

And when you’re thinking goals, distinguish between short- and long-term ones. Robust orgs have both – something folks can see in the short-term to know they’re doing good, whilst seeing how it’s building up to something in the long-term. For this to happen, goals need to be tangible, concrete. This is the basis of strategy, i.e. how short-term objectives contribute to long-term direction.

Several students at one of our campuses recently formed an org with the goal of “improving rape prevention awareness”. By itself this goal was meaningless – how to measure awareness? So they operationalised it by deciding they’d measure how many Greeks could pass an anonymous test, given after a revamped rape prevention workshop required of all Greek orgs. Of course they needed to first design this revamped workshop and get the university to implement it, and then they needed statisticians who knew how to operationalise measures – oops, this wouldn’t be possible if the club were comprised mostly of gender studies majors.

Fortunately they had medical students and psych majors in-house already, to take care of all that. That brings us to our next point, if you’re to recruit the best people…

2. Do what no other organisation can do.

Your org has tangible, concrete goals. Why should folks help you with those goals? Is there an org doing such work already? Don’t reinvent that wheel if you can avoid it. At one campus we considered launching a pro-choice student group, but nixed it after determining campus Democrats were already doing good work in that area. Of course if another org is doing your intended work badly (or is run by closet rapists), that may be a good reason to reinvent their wheel ASAP. But otherwise, complement what others do instead of repeating it.

To word it simply, offer something other orgs can’t – something exciting enough that people will join up, support or fund you. Yeah, saying you’ll “promote campus feminism” might be enough for the admin approving your club’s official status. You’ll need something more to convince people they should risk their GPA for some club. Maybe what you offer is a chance to work with your uni’s top AIDS researcher on a domestic violence project you’re running in collaboration. Or maybe it’s an opportunity to work with feminist artists to attack rape culture via video art. Know your competitive advantage – and if you believe you have none, find them. It’s rather unlikely you have no advantages, i.e. unique strengths, because everyone can do something nobody else can.

The key is not to wish you had resources to do something, but to do stuff based on your resources. We worked once with a feminist club comprised mostly of hip-hop students (of colour, which was refreshing). They ended up putting on a damn good fundraiser against domestic violence, for reasons you can guess.

Ultimately people need to be able to see what the results of their work might be – it comes down to having concrete goals, not just fuzzy platitudes about solidarity. But what if goals are hard for outsiders to grasp, to where they can’t visualise it themselves? “Sounds like pie in the sky”, they say. Happens all the time outside feminist advocacy – you want project funding for a mobile app or poster campaign, but they can’t see how the idea will work because nobody’s done it in this/that context before.

That’s when you’ll need concrete examples of those tangible goals.

3. Prepare to prove your ideas will work.

When the concept for “Portal” – one of the few games with a female hero – was first bandied about, nobody knew what the developers were talking about. They had to point to their proof of concept, “Narbacular Drop”, to prove teleportation games could work. And you may have to do lots of legwork on initial concepts you can show to potential members or supporters, to prove your org’s goals are feasible. These concepts may end up being your lifeline, to be trotted out when others have questions or doubts about what you’re doing.

Recently one of our campus clubs approached a medical student group with a pitch for online sex education for dorm residents, via interactive video. Needless to say, nobody understood what the hell anyone was talking about, until someone mocked up a concept demo of how the system could work. As soon as the med students saw this was a credible idea that could sustain the group’s relevance for the next few years at least, they were sold.

But how did the club come up with the idea? It wasn’t so much the club was comprised of geniuses. They just knew where to look.

4. Expose yourself to any innovation, regardless of origins.

In the above case, club leaders didn’t just recruit the best people from outside gender studies – which included engineering friends who didn’t know much feminism but wanted to do something exciting. They also cultivated relationships with diverse organisations, from art collectives to technology orgs. These networks exposed them to innovative ideas in those fields as soon as they came up, so they could start thinking up ways to adapt them to feminist contexts.

From the art collective, the club learned of new design trends, which they immediately applied to their own social media. And from the technologists, they absorbed best practices around using mobile devices to influence millennials, adapting them to promote reproductive justice.

There’s diversity in members, and there’s diversity in ideas. You can’t staff an org with just women’s studies majors – it’s intellectually incestuous, and doomed to eventual irrelevance via academic siloing. Even if your club is comprised of smart people, you still have to network outside your area of expertise. Often groups believe their ideas are better than everyone else’s, which manifests itself through “not invented here” syndrome. But realistically your group doesn’t have the best ideas, and won’t find them till it looks beyond itself to see what others are doing, and how their innovations can be adapted in pursuit of feminist goals.

That brings up our last point…

5. Exploit those innovations to stay relevant into the future.

With one sexual health org we advise, many of their innovations in social media are a result of their close collaboration with a student group that has nothing to do with social media. This group is an arts troupe that tours high schools, teaching about HIV/AIDS and positive attitudes through dance, music and skits on topics from body image to homophobia. Whilst assisting the group with evaluating their messaging effectiveness, the org also determined which messages were best delivered through new social media channels – knowledge that now forms the basis of their own projects.

Exposure to new ideas is vital to anticipating how to innovate your org, to stay relevant to the future. It is in a way a summation of everything we’ve discussed here, as it requires a robust foundation provided by the previous points. But how you leverage innovation is up to your org to determine – no one strategy fits all. All we know is, from our own experiences, it boils down to this: 1) Excite. 2) Be unique. 3) Prove yourselves. 4) Learn new things. 5) Predict the future.

But we’re not the authorities in this field. That’s we’re posting here – not so we can pass down holy knowledge, but to start a dialogue around whether these points would work for you or not. For us, these principles empower us to be stronger than Obi-Wan Kenobi, or Chell from “Portal”. How well do you think they’d work for your org?

Author: has written 212 posts for this blog.

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7 Responses

  1. birdie
    birdie August 31, 2013 at 5:44 pm |

    If you want a career in academia, at least in STEM, you cannot admit to being a feminist.

    1. BBBShrewHarpy
      BBBShrewHarpy August 31, 2013 at 6:18 pm |

      That isn’t my experience. It’s pretty much assumed the women who make it are feminists. What is your career stage? Science or engineering?

    2. SaraC
      SaraC August 31, 2013 at 10:15 pm |

      Almost all the women in my department self-identify as feminist, but I’m in the humanities (English.)

    3. Alexandra
      Alexandra September 1, 2013 at 5:10 pm |

      How so? I’m typing from my laptop while doing a round of PCR, and given that my (female) mentor at this university has been active in the local lefty political scene for years, I don’t really see this in my daily life, at least not yet.

  2. The Round-Up: Sep. 3, 2013 | Gender Focus – A Canadian Feminist Blog

    [...] Feministe, Echo Zen has some ideas and tips for starting a feminist campus club or reviving a flagging [...]

  3. FYouMudFlaps
    FYouMudFlaps September 4, 2013 at 6:19 am |

    Honestly, this article was preachy and annoying. And implying Gender Studies majors can’t use a computer or strategize.

    1. Echo Zen
      Echo Zen September 4, 2013 at 4:29 pm |

      Yeah, I kind of got that same impression too, reading it before sending it off to Jill. Part of the problem is it resembles an article for “Harvard Business Review”, whose pieces have definitely have a bragging, look-at-what-brilliant-entrepreneurs-we-are tone to them. The post could have been improved by analysing failures and not just successes, but I was already pushing well over 1,000 words and didn’t want to drag it out further.

      Personally how would you have written this post differently? Also, if I gave the impression that Gender Studies folks can’t use computers, I apologise.

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