Sausage Factory —
Today was supposed to be the day I released the video of my conversation with Tim Whitehead, Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA).
But before I do that, I need to address some issues that have been raised in a letter by NOLOSE. I believe this letter is addressed largely to me (or at least I was the catalyst for the letter), as well as to the larger white fat activist community.
I realize that since the letter does not call me out by name, some will assume I’m being paranoid and neurotic again, but there are two items that suggest NOLOSE is calling me out for my efforts against Strong4Life.
First and foremost is this paragraph:
A person of color raised questions on the “Stand4Kids” tumblr about the tools used to make the project inclusive, the intent and possible effect of the projects in communities of color, and the ways in which these images would be used to support children of color in Georgia. The response was disappointing: these discussions had not happened within this project, and the commenter was told that if they wanted to support diversity within the project, they, as a person of color, should join the project’s Facebook page and offer solutions. More recently, the organizer of the campaign did address this posted concern to acknowledge that the proper outreach had not been done, and that she would take the questions posed on board. [emphasis mine]
This interaction seems to be the crux of the letter: that a person of color (POC) raised concerns about the lack of diversity in the I STAND photo series, and that someone from our group told this POC that if they wanted diversity, they should join our Facebook group and offer solutions.
Well, as you may have guessed, the person who responded to the POC was me, and you can read the full thread for yourself.
But before I address this, the other reason I believe this letter is addressed to me is that in my second response to Julia Starkey (the POC who commented on the FatKidsUnited blog), I said:
Everyone working on this campaign is a volunteer and everyone working on this campaign is committed to encouraging diversity of bodies, lifestyles and viewpoints. Some of us are better versed in diversity strategies, while others, like myself, are flying by the seat of our pants. [emphasis mine]
Jump back to the end of the NOLOSE letter where it says:
Flying by the seat of your pants, when it comes to addressing the real concerns and questions around diversity and inclusion of POC in fat activist spaces or campaigns, will no longer be good enough.
So am I being paranoid, or was this comment thread the inspiration for the letter from NOLOSE? I’ll let you decide.
Now, we need some context to make sense of all this because unless I explain what I was doing at this moment in the history of our fight against Strong4Life, I fear some will assume that my inaction in response to Starkey’s comment was something more than that it really was.
On January 4, I began noticing an uptick in articles on Strong4Life, which Deah had already written about back in September 2011. I found the sudden resurgence of media attention odd (and as I later learned, the campaign had been running since May), but had not planned on doing anything but blogging about it.
Why hadn’t I planned any action? Well, in October 2010 when the show Huge was canceled, I attempted my first shot at fat activism (as opposed to blogging only), eventually organizing an international rally outside ABC studios in support of Huge and more fat-friendly television.
I busted my ass putting all the pieces together, even getting the support of Savannah Dooley, co-creator of Huge, and Nikki Blonsky and several of the show’s main characters. Things were looking great until I posted my video, which, in spite of Dooley’s warnings, included a swipe at Joey Lawrence, whose show, Melissa & Joey, was spared the axe at ABC Family.
Because of this, Dooley withdrew her support, followed by Blonsky and the rest, and the rallies collapsed like a souffle at a Megadeth concert.
Since then, I’ve avoided any attempt at creating, or leading, any movement or action in support of Fat Acceptance. I knew I lacked the skills and personality to lead a successful movement, so I decided to leave it to the “real” activists in Fat Acceptance.
Fast forward to January 4 — I’m ready to write some posts about the resurgence of Strong4Life, when I read this Facebook post by Candye Kane, which made me wonder why it didn’t seem like anyone in Fat Acceptance was doing anything about Strong4Life. After all, fighting Strong4Life seemed to be exactly what Fat Acceptance was made for.
That inspired my first post on January 5.
This was the beginning of my work against Strong4Life.
On January 6, as we mounted this campaign, I emailed two Fat Activists who I knew would be strong and powerful allies: Ragen Chastain and Marilyn Wann.
Both of them responded immediately and expressed an interest in doing something to fight Strong4Life. Two days later, shared her brainchild with me about creating an alternate billboard campaign, which I thought was epically awesome, while I began formulating my own project, the FatKidsUnited video series. I also began to write daily on Strong4Life.
My biggest obstacle at this point was trying to reach as many Fat Acceptance activists and supporters as possible. In the nearly three years since I’ve begun FA blogging, I’ve pissed off countless people and burned pretty much every bridge I felt had suffered too much structural damage.
But being the optimist I am, I reached out to a handful of these people, tried and true Fat Activists who understood what was at stake.
I have a habit of over-estimating people, and envisioned the Strong4Life issue helping us rebuild bridges throughout the Fat Acceptance community in the unified purpose of ending fat stigma and hatred. I indulged fantasies of everyone I had ever met in the Fatosphere coming together, casting aside their differences and singing in a spirit of unity and harmony for the fat kids of Georgia.
On January 13, I sent an email to one particular blogger who I have had a pretty rough history with and essentially asked if we could call détente for just this moment. Following is an excerpt from that email:
We need every single voice we can get on this campaign, and I’ve noticed a distinctive absence of voices from mainstream Fat Acceptance. I realize this is largely because nobody wants to work with me or be associated with me, which is completely understandable in most circumstances. But here we have a chance to improve the lives of fat children in Georgia and it’s time to set aside our personal differences and focus on what really matters.
I don’t care if you mention that you got this information from me. In fact, it’s probably best that you don’t. But if we could coordinate our efforts to send a unified message to CHOA and to the Surgeon General (and First Lady on Twitter, too!), then we have a shot at bringing down the billboards.
Once we accomplish that we can go back to the status quo. But for now, can we call a truce and work together, even if it’s behind the scenes?
Rather than respond to my email, this person posted a passive aggressive post about what a faux activist I am:
It is upsetting to see someone who has trolled multiple fat activists treated as a legitimate player in FA. Someone who has positioned himself as a faux activist for the benefit of those eager to use him to show how awful fat acceptance is… Sure, problematic people can sometimes have good notions. I’m not going to judge the people I do trust for endorsing the work of someone I have no faith in or respect for. But I’m not going to participate. I’m not going to lend credibility to someone I feel has not shown good faith towards the activists and especially the women who have led fat acceptance to where it is.
This was the only response I received from this group of Fat Activists who I contacted in spite of our troubled history. Later, I wrote my post, “Unnatural Allies —”, in response to these activists.
This is how I began my work: completely disheartened that my past behavior had so alienated me from Fat Acceptance that Fat Activists were intentionally opting out of the debate due to my involvement.
Up to this point, my online activism had consisted of encouraging people to call CHOA and Strong4Life to demand they bring down the billboards. When it was clear that wasn’t helping, I posted the Call to Action on January 16.
I had no idea whether the first approach was better or whether this new approach might yield better results. I had no idea because I am not an activist and I have never done anything like this before in my life. Inspired by Candye’s words, I wanted to do what I could to end Phase 1, but having never taken on a multi-million dollar healthcare campaign before, I was basically brainstorming ideas and hoping something, anything, would work.
By the end of the week of that first Call to Action, I was feeling personally discouraged, and began wondering whether I should end the campaign after approximately two weeks with few signs progress. And publicly, there wasn’t much happening, but behind the scenes Ragen was busy preparing for the billboard campaign, and I had only heard sporadically from Marilyn since that first January 6 email. I had no idea about the I STAND photo project until Marilyn told me about it on Saturday, January 21, at which point my confidence surged as I felt like the cavalry had finally arrived.
Buoyed by Marilyn’s inspirational project, I launched my video project the same day as I STAND on Monday, January 23 with visions of a fatty version of “It Gets Better” dancing in my head.
Sadly (to me), only two people, the incomparable Jennifer Jonassen and our very own erylin (although we couldn’t figure out how to post hers) responded to my call for videos.
Meanwhile, I began helping Marilyn with her project, Photoshopping posters and even providing access to my Dropbox account so her team of Photoshop Angels could quickly and easily exchange source files and finished posters. And behind the scenes, Marilyn, Ragen, Rachel Adams and I were busy hammering out the details of the coalition that was forming.
It was in the midst of all of this that I received Starkey’s comment:
I was wondering what methods or policies you had in place to make this project welcoming to people of diverse races, ethnicities, ages, religious, etc.
Do you have plans to have people in the “we stand with” posters be more representative of children who are targeted for weight discrimination?
All too often programs and posters produced by government offices attack children of color, particularly those who are economically marginalized.
The stand4life site had 5 children’s faces on it. Two appear to be white, while three appear to be black. I don’t see 3/5 of the posts above or on the tumblr depicting people of color (with the caveat that guessing someone’s race based on a photo is dodgy)
Julia was referring to the handful of photos I had posted on the FatKidsUnited blog, which were a fraction of the posters that had been created by that time. I created this page as a home for the photos, although a Tumblr had been created simultaneously for this project, which I wasn’t aware of at the time. So, the images available at the time of Starkey’s quote (around 20 in all) weren’t even representative of the photos submitted.
Marilyn was busy with the launch of I STAND, so I figured I would respond to Starkey with what I thought was an invitation to help us improve the diversity of I STAND.
All of our photos are submitted by people who want to be a part of this campaign. Obesity and race are correlated (as are obesity and poverty, and poverty and race), and in Atlanta, race plays a factor. As mentioned in this post, Strong4Life uses child actors, so they can pick and choose the diversity they wish to represent. We are limited by the participation of our members. Also, this is a limited list of the posters created, which we will be updating today. To see the latest, visit the Stand4Kids Tumblr, where photos are being added as quickly as they can create them.
That being said, I think it is important to have greater diversity among our representation and if anyone has ideas for how to do so, please let us know. Our campaign is open to everyone, everywhere, no limitations.
This answer did not satisfy Starkey, as she was looking for a specific list of things we had specifically done to make I STAND more inclusive. I could not been involved in the logistics of I STAND, rather than strategy. And as Marilyn would later point out to me in private, this was her project.
There are already a lot of information resources available online on ways to increase diversity in organizations and campaigns. Before I repeat myself, what resources have you looked at? Are there strategies you have tried which have worked for you? What about ones that haven’t?
How are the images and messages on the Stand4Kids tumblr going to be conveyed to communities in Atlanta? In particular how do you plan to address children in the Atlanta area?
My project was the video series, which failed to get anyone but Jennifer involved at all. Now Starkey was demanding that I list the resources I had consulted for our diversity strategy and what strategies I had already attempted… just one day into a campaign that I was simply helping out with.
So I tried to explain how our efforts were volunteer-based and, once again, that we would definitely welcome any assistance in improving the diversity of I STAND. I also tried to explain how stretched thin I was between assisting Marilyn and managing my own activism, which included both the video plus my daily blogging on Strong4Life.
Everyone working on this campaign is a volunteer and everyone working on this campaign is committed to encouraging diversity of bodies, lifestyles and viewpoints. Some of us are better versed in diversity strategies, while others, like myself, are flying by the seat of our pants. I am totally open to any recommendations, but I am squeezing this campaign between my real 9 to 5 job and my family, and it has taken its toll on both.
If you would like to help us improve the diversity of the community, we welcome you with open arms.
As far as how the messages and images will be conveyed to Atlanta and how we plan to address the children in the Atlanta area, we are still in the planning stages of that phase of our project. If you would like to contribute to the discussion, I encourage you to join our Facebook group and provide your input.
But, generally speaking, I can say that our message will be positive and uplifting, encouraging children of ALL sizes to love themselves unconditionally and to pursue health without focusing on weight (aka Health at Every Size).
On January 27, I received an email from Marilyn Wann which mentioned that I had offended Starkey with my response, and Marilyn answered Starkey herself:
I welcome people to send their photo and credo to me at firstname.lastname@example.org along with any photo credit and whether you’d like your name to appear on the image or not (either way is fine).
I haven’t done proper outreach yet, but I totally agree with you, Julia, and take your suggestions on board. Thank you!
It enrages me that anti-”obesity” campaigns pride themselves on targeting poor people and people of color and imagine they’re doing anyone any kind of favor.
So, my comment, which said that we hadn’t done anything, but that we welcomed help in improving diversity was “disappointing,” while Marilyn said she hadn’t done the proper outreach yet, but that she was taking Julia’s comments on board. Because of this, NOLOSE says that Marilyn “did address this posted concern.”
I want to know, what’s the difference between these two comments? Marilyn said what I said: we hadn’t done anything specific to improve diversity yet. The only difference I can see is that Marilyn said that she had not done the proper outreach, while I suggested that anyone who was better versed in diversity strategies should join the Facebook group to give us ideas.
So because I did not respond to Starkey’s comment by offering to research diversity strategies and personally do the work of getting POCs involved in Marilyn’s I STAND campaign, I have invited the following criticism from NOLOSE:
When open and authentic conversations about race and class fail to happen, we see these attitudes in the ways that people are left out of conversations. We see people who live with great privilege speaking as authorities on the impact of racism and classism, without basing their approach in the ally model. We see large size acceptance campaigns launched without coalition among diverse groups, thoughtful discussion around inclusivity, or well-versed allies on hand to help answer questions and facilitate community conversation. We see white allies depending heavily on POC and poor people to discern, direct, and implement the work of addressing these concerns within our communities only after or in response to work being presented that does not include their voices. We see white allies responding defensively and closing down conversations when presented with clear questions about taking steps to do their own work of finding ally mentors, addressing the ways their own acknowledged and unacknowledged privilege directly affects members of their community, and engaging in thoughtful dialogue about the interconnectedness of oppressions and the diverse ways those oppressions affect different members of our communities. [emphasis mine]
This is the accusation leveled at me: that I have left people out of the conversation because I did not find an ally mentor for the I STAND project. And, of course, I’m told that flying by the seat of my pants is not an option for activism.
Allow me to point out one other interesting corollary to all of this: recently I stumbled across a Facebook group called “Fierce Fatties” and, thinking it was some kind of fan page for our blog that I hadn’t seen, I asked to join, was approved, and I posted a comment on that group about how excited I was to find this page.
The next day, I was banned from the group and it became private. I contacted the moderator, Virgie Tovar, to ask why I was booted and to ask why they were using the name Fierce Fatties if they weren’t going to include the person who coined the phrase “fierce fatties” into the group.
Virgie never responded to my email and I was essentially shut out of that group and any conversations with them.
Virgie is also one of the co-signers of the NOLOSE letter.
So, in my opinion, what this comes down to is that in building a coalition to fight against Strong4Life, as well as in trying to work with allies and activists like Virgie, I was ignored or publicly blasted for my work. The day immediately following the launch of I STAND, a project I had no responsibility for, I was asked about our diversity efforts and responded with an invitation to participate. Meanwhile, I completely and utterly failed at getting ANYONE to participate in my project, and the primary focus on my activism has been daily blogging and organizing a scatterbrained phone-in and letter-writing campaign, something I had never created before. And all of this was done between jugging projects at work and my family.
And yet, because someone told me that I should research diversity and recruit POCs personally, and I did not have the time, or skills, to do that, this means that I was leaving POCs out of the conversation. And because I invited Starkey to join us on Facebook to help come up with ideas to promote diversity, this was me “responding defensively and closing down conversations.”
And finally, there’s this criticism:
POC in the fat justice movement demand and deserve allies showing up to the table of our campaigns and work, rather than constantly being told they have made a place for us at theirs.
Again, my offense was that I invited Starkey to join us on Facebook, “our table,” rather than went to “their table.”
The thing is, I didn’t know NOLOSE had a fucking table!
I had no idea who was doing what, aside from Marilyn and Ragen. Just three days prior, I was on the verge of giving up because I didn’t think anyone was really doing anything, and it all seemed like a waste of time. Maybe if Starkey had said, “Hey, we’ve got a group of POCs working on this over here,” things would have been different because I would have been aware of the table.
Instead, I was asked a series of questions for which I didn’t have an answer because we had just begun this project, and because I didn’t drop the other projects I was working on to appease Starkey, I’m now being accused of excluding POCs from the discussion.
This isn’t the first time I’ve committed some grave offense against a political identity group, but this one seems completely unjustified in my opinion. I’m sure NOLOSE will disagree and explain all the many ways in which I failed to ensure diversity and inclusion.
And that’s fine. I’m willing to accept whatever further criticisms they want to share because I’m out. I’m done. I quit.
As proud as I was to see the title of “Fat Activist” beside my name in this article, I’m renouncing the title immediately. I’m not an activist any more. I’m just a blogger.
I will no longer lead or spearhead any form of activism, although I will always be willing to lend my voice. But in the three years I’ve been here, I have faced a barrage of criticisms for all the things I do wrong as an activist or an ally. I’ve been routinely raked over the coals for things I wasn’t even aware of, and in the eyes of many people, that lack of awareness is as much of a crime as willful ignorance.
I’m tired of people shooting first and asking questions later. If people have an issue with the way I present myself, the way I work with other groups, the activism I’ve done, then why wouldn’t they email me privately and try to explain where I’ve gone wrong.
Oh, that’s right, “real activists” don’t do 101, they just point out the failures of others.
That’s fine with me. The past three months have been nothing but one long, complicated pain in the ass, and my only reward has been public accusations of erasure and exclusion.
Well, I have never been, and I will never be, the kind of person who can anticipate the needs to the multiple and diverse allies that contribute to Fat Acceptance. And if that precludes me from being an effective Fat Activist, then allow me to be the first to say good riddance.