University City

UNCC speaker says anyone can be activist

At a grassroots activism workshop held as part of UNC Charlotte's inaugural Activist-in-Residence series Oct. 17-21, nationally renowned activist Jennifer Baumgardner asked each of the 24 people attending to give an example of a time they stood up for a cause.

After decades of work as a feminist advocate, Baumgardner has learned most people possess the heart of an activist, even if they don't at first consider themselves one.

Around the room, instances emerged, many from childhood, long forgotten and never before considered under the light of activism.

One person recalled as a 10-year-old poking a half-dozen signs in her friend's yard, urging speeding motorists to slow down on her busy road.

Another remembered how strangers would drop stray animals on her front steps, the result of her mother's reputation in the community for working tirelessly to find each a loving home.

As each person in the workshop took a turn, the understanding began to take hold that everyone has an activist within.

It's a title that sometimes takes getting used to, said Baumgardner, who admits not initially feeling worthy of the label when it was first began sticking beside her name in the press. "It felt a little fraudulent," she said. "I felt at first I hadn't done enough."

But the 41-year-old's list of accomplishments has earned her the title. Besides writing several books on activism, including "Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism," which she co-authored with Amy Richards, Baumgardner has written on feminist issues for countless national magazines, sat on Oprah's couch in 2002 for a program on feminism, and served for five years as editor of Ms., a magazine co-founded in the 1970s by Gloria Steinem, one of the grandmothers of American feminist activism.

Looking back, Baumgardner now realizes she has been an activist for more years than she has not been one. "The first issue I remember really dealing with was pro-choice," she said.

"When I was in fourth or fifth grade I had a pro-choice button that someone had given to me. I would debate about it with other kids."

Grassroots activism starts with a strong passion that something needs to be done to eliminate or correct a wrong. From there, what happens next often snags the budding activist before the campaign can take root.

"They see problems in the world and they're desperate to change them, but they're not sure how," said Baumgardner.

During the workshop, a brainstorming session listed enough ideas to fill Katie McKee's toolbox. McKee, a senior at UNC Charlotte, attended the workshop to prepare for the launch of her campaign on carcinoid cancer, a rare form of cancer that struck her grandfather this year.

"I think an online support group will be our first goal," said McKee after the workshop. "Then from there we think we want to move on to organize a walk."

Strong goals that can be measured make all the difference, said Baumgardner. "Everyone is arguing about Occupy Wall Street, and that they don't have goals," she said. "I don't know where it's leading, but I don't think it's going to be inconsequential. They are capitalizing on a need. There is a need for the overaggressive left-wing voice of discontent to be raised in unison."

Much of that discontent is voiced in person, not through the Internet, which Baumgardner says can be a double-edged sword. "I think it can make people more passive," she said of the Internet. "That's what's so cool about Occupy Wall Street. It's a face-to-face interaction, and I think that's the reason it feels more profound to people."

No matter how it's achieved, anyone can make a difference, said Baumgardner.

"Every day we have a million opportunities to in some way intervene and change the society," she said.

"You don't have to do it every day, but to start seeing yourself as someone who is alert to those possibilities, I think is the most significant thing."