2020: The Anatomy of an Activist

The Big GoodStorytelling2020: The Anatomy of an Activist
January 12 , 2020 / Posted by Katie Smith / Storytelling /

2020: The Anatomy of an Activist

There is a social media trend of sharing the side by side photos of people at the beginning and end of the decade. These posts have been mostly funny, and some got me thinking.

2020 marks a decade for me of working in civil rights and championing social enterprise. Though I’ve earned a living as a marketing and communications professional for 20+ years, I’m still learning all the time.

A tactic that still rings true for me is that being authentic is the most powerful tool to move hearts and minds. I train subject matter experts to speak and write in their most genuine voice to connect with readers and viewers. Yet, I rarely share my own story.

So, I decided to write a post that, for the first time, shares why I made the big pivot from a successful and lucrative career in entertainment to focusing on social justice.

Many moons ago, a civil rights leader gently espoused to me, “people who do this work have an experience of their own.”

The short answer is I do this work because I believe systemic change is needed to create healthier, happier, and more prosperous communities. Below is the story that led me to that conclusion.

I’ve had quite a career. By the age of 30 years old, I was driving a $20M online subscription business, consulting for $100M+ companies and raking in cash at a rate I had never seen in my life.

At 33, I decided to leave it all behind.

“I was born an activist,” is something I have said for a long time.

Taking the position of Director of Digital Communications at the ACLU National in New York City was the first time I was paid to practice what I preached.

In 2010, many people thought we were living in a post-racial time because Barack Obama was president. Had we listened to historians, they could have told us that divisive times seem to stick around in American history. It would take the killing of Trayvon Martin to bring about the beginning of a new awakening.

At that time, the ACLU’s big campaigns focused on marriage equality, digital privacy, criminal justice reform, and dozens of vital civil rights issues. The most onerous task was to prioritize our work.

My experience with the ACLU has become one of my proudest moments. Our team won a 2013 Gold Pollie for Best Online, Social, or Mobile Advertising Campaign (from the AAPC — American Association of Political Consultants).

Edie Windsor was the hero. Her case went to the Supreme Court of the United States, and she helped to end the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). My team’s work was a small part of a national strategic campaign to bring marriage equality to the United States. Still, winning an award for that work means the world to me and all of us.

For me, it was a full-circle moment arriving back in my home city of Los Angeles after the Supreme Court made its decision. Because I had left when we lost the battle against Proposition 8 in California (which sought to create a constitutional amendment to eliminate the rights of same-sex couples to marry).

Though it was an exciting time, I learned from experience that many of our significant battles were local. That marriage equality didn’t help LGBTQ+ people with job discrimination and more. We had to take the fight back to the state and county levels.

There are more stories to tell.

A few years ago, I was at an event at The California Endowment in Los Angeles, where experts in the fields of social justice came together to share their vision of the future. To set the tone for a session on intersectionality, representatives of Deloitte asked us to review a one-sheet they produced. Though their synopsis was not complete (to capture human nature on a one-sheet is impossible), which they readily admitted — it was revealing.

It took me a year to process the boxes I checked that day. I’m queer, non-binary, neurodivergent, and more. At the time, I had only shared that I’m gay and nothing else. I have not yet shared my own story.

My differentness is ever-present within me while being hidden in plain sight.

I grew up low-income and do not have a college degree. I’m an autodidactic and self-made person because the educational system let me down. I had little to no support for dyslexia. My Mom didn’t understand what was happening with me, and neither did I. We did the best we could with my diagnosis. She always said, “you can do anything your heart desires if you put your mind to it.” I believed her and began teaching myself.

The struggle was real in so many ways — in school, being bullied by the boys and our parent’s divorce. Activism became an outlet.

As a teenager, I saw the power dynamics between men and women — in school, in media, and in my neighborhood. I began learning about women’s rights, and as soon as I got a car was in the streets protesting with NOW (National Organization for Women). I called into radio stations. I wrote letters talking about equal rights.

At this time, I was still in the closet. I learned at an early age that being myself meant being bullied and hurt. I retreated, gravely wounded, and only started to come out when I finally left school.

In 1992, I bought a personals ad in the LA Weekly with the title “Bikini Kill” and followed with, “if you know what this means, call me.” Back then, I was living in a very conservative Simi Valley suburbia (made famous by the Rodney King trial).

I listened to many strange and sometimes terrifying voicemails from men that came along with my ad. That is how these dating ads worked back then. We got private voicemail boxes that people could respond to. We could not block what was sent.

Finally, someone answered with the correct response.

Our first date was a Joan Jett concert, but our real hangout was a coffee shop called Jabberjaw (where we saw Bikini Kill together; see photo). She lived in what was called South Central (now South LA), and Jabberjaw (off Western and Pico) was an epic all-ages place for #riotgrrrls like us to meet up.

We lived through the LA uprising but in radically different ways. The police barricaded all entrances and exits to Simi Valley. I was trapped with my Mom and sister, worried about what was happening to the city I was born into and loved.

She, my first kiss, was trapped in her home off 68th and Western. After things settled and I was finally able to reach her for another date, I asked, ignorantly, what it was like to hear all the gunshots and chaos. She replied dryly, “I hear gunshots every day.”

Meaning, the city at large was getting a raw glimpse into what her everyday experience was like. At that time, I had no idea. The South LA community was impacted in ways that were invisible to me — until I started hanging out at her house more often.

After finishing school, I worked as an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) in Long Beach, Downtown Los Angeles, and South LA.

My exposure to these conditions connected me to her, but perhaps more importantly, I saw the injustice. It wasn’t a riot, it was an uprising of people who were suffering generations of oppression, mass violence, and persecution.

Getting to know her and her immigrant family taught me more than she’ll ever know.

A couple of years after the 1992 uprising, I voted against Proposition 187. It was my first time voting and a critical test of my humanist values. Yes, I wanted undocumented immigrants to have access to public services such as healthcare and education. I understood very early on that upstream care is a better investment for our families and communities. I already had an urge to help improve these systems, not remove or divest.

My single Mom, a union worker (UFCW 770), instilled in me, starting at 18 years old, the importance of my and our votes. I learned that voting required that we, as a society, stand up for our collective values. My employer at the time was pressuring all his employees, including me, to vote for Prop 187. I stood my ground in the face of being fired.

After I left my job as an EMT and swept aside a dream to become a paramedic firefighter, I finally got on the path that led me to today. And I was lucky enough to get mentored in a profession that better suited my strengths. This was when I started advancing and honing my craft as a marketing and communications professional. My first real office job was for a natural products company, a cooperative that had a factory and a non-GMO (genetically modified organisms) research farm in Iowa. Executives were based in Boulder, Colorado. A girlfriend at the time helped me get the job.

Fast forward to my last position before my pivot was in the entertainment industry. I was the head of New Media for Playboy Enterprises (that climb is its own story).

As a person who grew up with a Mom stressed out each day, worried about how she’ll pay the bills, it is not surprising that the first half of my career was focused on generating wealth. I was digging myself and my family out as best I could.

Then, suddenly, my Mom died at the hands of a cruel healthcare system — a system that favored the wealthy. Even though I was on the path to wealth, she was stuck with her low-income insurance. She had a standard gallbladder removal, they nicked her liver, she bled to death and died on Mother’s Day. It was and is the most traumatic moment of my life. I could not save her.

That moment changed everything. In front of friends and family at my Mom’s memorial, I said with tears in my eyes, “I have no idea how or what I will do, but I do know that I will fight to ensure this injustice never happens to another human being.”

I then left my $225K+ a year job and went on a sabbatical to figure out my next steps.

An 18-month journey to 13 countries helped me track down my DNA Memory. I worked with a genealogist to trace my family origins. Then I traveled to each place to learn about the lives that led up to my own.

Mostly, I spent time talking with people. I became more fascinated by how all humans are connected, not just my connection with my ancestors. I believe I was able to communicate with strangers because they could tell I was truly listening, genuinely trying to understand their history and experience. There is no better way to learn than to listen.

It helped me process my own pain. Though I would come to find that it is an ongoing practice. To talk, to listen, and to move our bodies is healing. I walked and meditated each day.

I also did quite a bit of studying. It’s powerful to see that scientists, specifically in the epigenetics field, are discussing how the negative impact on our human and environmental rights correlate to our quality of life. It’s sad to see much of this evidence, but promising because the data is making visible a new layer of the impact that will be hard to ignore.

These insights made me wonder how many people are afflicted by trauma and live with various forms of PTSD. And I began to question, what is the impact this lasting condition has on our families and communities over generations? Many men in my family suffered from PTSD on account of a war. Our blood was shed in every American war going back to the Revolution.

Initially, I planned to write a book about our family in honor of my Mother. The story took a turn when I arrived in Israel.

There is a big difference between the quality of life for Palestinians versus the predominately Jewish populations. And after many discussions with Muslims in Egypt, six months before the Arab revolution, I was alarmed.

I became a witness to history once again. These visions and stories from my travels sit alongside my understanding of how people of color are treated in the United States. I had to change the narrative of my own storyline.

I used to believe I did this work because I am queer and that marginalized groups of people are stronger if we stand and march together. That is still true, but what is more evident now is that I understand my privilege.

Trauma affects all of us in ways that are significant and often unseen.

Understanding the universal impacts of intersectionality can lead to more profound solidarity, which is what I believe is needed to fix the broken systems threatening all of us.

Yes, I had a challenging life, but what about the many others who have it worse simply because of what they believe or the color of their skin?

Studies suggest that 48% of inmates may have dyslexia. Compare that number to what experts assert — 20% of the general population may have the same neurodivergent nature. Too many people assume people with dyslexia are dumb, lazy, and misbehaving because they are “bad.” That rubs against the fact that some of our most important inventions come from people who were born with dyslexia — Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and more. It’s estimated that 40% of millionaires may also leverage the unique way of thinking that comes with being dyslexic. Our favorite friend, Jennifer Aniston, also has dyslexia. The list goes on.

I have deep empathy with these folks because I somehow survived and thrived, but many will not. Why? I suspect it has to do with all that is visible. I’m white. Most of the incarcerated community are people of color.

My biological matter made me who I am, and my experience with that matter in our culture and society made me an activist.

The biggest lesson I have learned is that we’re all connected, and mostly in unseen ways. It’s time to take a more in-depth look into ourselves, to share our story, and mostly, to listen. And when we do, I suspect we’ll have more compassion, which can lead to solidarity in a more enriched community that shares the desire for equal opportunity and the pursuit of happiness.

Today, I find purpose working on campaigns that drive impact to that end.

I’m thankful to everyone who shared their stories with me and helped me find myself. And I’m grateful to have had a Mother to love me no matter what.

She and you inspire me to pay it forward every day.

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