5 Things You Must Do as a New Activist: Takeaways from NOW's National Conference

Last week I attended my first National Organization for Women event, and what a doozie it was.

Attendees ages 20-something to 80-something filled the rooms of the hotel in DC, many sporting feminist t-shirts, some covered with change-the-world emblemed buttons, all with a common mission: to make the world a better place through equality. I'm not sure I've ever been in a room so full of compassion, unity and just enough societal frustration to get things done.

Granted, frustration drew these people together to begin with, and surely they're all consistently fueled by it. But this wasn't a time for negativity--other than to shed light on needs for change not a soul present was ignorant to. This was largely a time to celebrate fifty years of progress, while exploring hopes and goals for the future.

As the grassroots arm of the women's movement, NOW is "dedicated to its multi-issue and multi-strategy approach to women's rights." The largest organization of feminist activists in the United States, NOW has hundreds of thousands of contributing members and more than 500 affiliates in all 50 states and DC. They focus on winning economic equality, championing reproductive freedom, opposing racism, fighting bigotry against LGBTQIA individuals, ending violence against women and more.

One huge highlight of of the national conference for me was equal parts awards ceremony and captivating panel. As someone who believes in the power of using whatever skills and talents we have to contribute to positive change, I was especially struck by participants' advice for new activists.

Accept support and prioritize self-care.

Grace E. Franklin, a poet, playwright, actress and director, and Candace Liger, a spoken word artist, fitness trainer and health coach, cofounded OKC Artists for Justice in 2014. The organization provides advocacy and support for women of color facing injustice in Oklahoma--a state with twice the female incarceration rate of other sates, and that ranks low for mental healthcare and education. Recently, OKC Artists supported the 13 women who accused former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holzclaw of a collective 36 counts of sexual battery, rape and stalking. Both women received NOW's Woman of Action Award for their powerful advocacy.

When you're first starting out with activism, said Franklin, expect the unexpected in terms of support.

"Be prepared to get help from places you didn't expect, and accept it, and to be turned away from places you expect it from," she said. "The people who show up for you--that's who you should be concerned about."

You can address those who don't show up for you and your cause or who argue against it, she added; in fact, she recommends it. More than anything, however, stay focused on your mission while accepting support where it appears.

Meanwhile, don't let self-care fall to the wayside--which is far too easy to do, said Liger, especially after diving in full-speed-ahead.

"You have to make sure that you're taking care of yourself mentally," she said. "You've got to remember to eat, remember to drink water, because the fatigue and exhaustion literally weigh on your spirit, and you can lose track of why you were there in the first place."

Admit when you don't have the answers.

After New York City-based artist Emma Sulkowicz was raped while a student at Columbia University, she began carrying a 50-pound mattress--the kind used in the school's dorms--everywhere she went on campus. When two semesters later, her alleged rapist had not been expelled, she continued carrying it, straight onto the stage at her graduation ceremony. She was awarded NOW's Courage Award for the performance piece, entitled Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight).

One of the scariest things for her, after being "accidentally thrust into being an activist," she said, was feeling as though she didn't know as much as she should. She made peace with this fear by recognizing the need to admit when you don't have every answer.

"Part of being an activist is wanting to learn more, and admitting that you don't know everything, because that's how you're going to learn it," she said.

Turn your anger into positive action.

Bettering the world around you requires seeing darkness, and a world without it. Woman of Vision Award winner Muriel Fox has been doing so for decades.

Fox is a public relations executive and one of NOW's co-founders who helped organize its premiere conference 50 years ago. Her many accomplishments include writing the letter that compelled President Lyndon Johnson to sign the executive order that added sex to Affirmative Action efforts, making millions of corporate jobs available to women. She also fought for the need to prohibit sex-segregated Help Wanted ads--which became one of NOW's earliest triumphs. (I had no idea ads once specified "Help Wanted Male" or "Help Wanted Female.")

Her advice for new change-makers is at the heart of what activism is all about.

"Concentrate on something that makes you really mad," she said, "and that makes [you want to] do something about it."

Follow your passion.

Shireen Mitchell, one of the plenary's speakers, is bullied on a daily basis--which further validates the need for her work. She founded Digital Sisters/Sistas Inc, the first organization to focus on girls and women of color in technology and online access. She also launched Stop Online Violence Against Women, which addresses online threats of violence against women, particularly those who face both racial and gender-based threats.

Activism stems from what is important to you, she said. Mitchell was drawn to technology early on, and as early as her first time using the internet, she was harassed because of her race and gender. Her passion for tech joined forces for her desire to make the internet, and world, a safer place for women, especially women of color.

"As a new activist, you'll find the thing that drives you, that gives you energy whether you're paid for it or not, and you jump into that role," she said.

Such passion drives all of these women, each of whom gleaned standing ovations for their insight and accomplishments. Listening to them, I felt more proud than ever to be a woman with a voice, and ample freedom to use it.