More armchair quarterbacking
There been a lot of discussion of race and the Atlanta billboard campaign in the fatophere lately. I can't say that most of it seems to me as if it would be useful to someone struggling with the issue of how to be inclusive.
I've read the original thread that caused all the fuss, and in that thread, Atchka asks a few questions about what, exactly, he should have done or should do to include people of color in the fat activism surrounding the Georgia billboards. As far as I can tell, he has never gotten an answer from anyone.
So, although I'm probably the least qualified person to try to answer that question, I do think that it's sincere and that it really should be explored, so I'll give it a shot. I hope that others will also contribute their comments and ideas. Also, I'm pretty sure that at least some of this did go on behind the scenes, but I don't know the whole story.
I want to start by saying that this whole effort has been absolutely amazing and that I am blown away by what has been accomplished. Even though it may not have been textbook perfect (and what kind of grassroots project being done for the first time would be?) it has been well managed and effective beyond anyone's expectations. Sometimes when you see that something needs to be done, you just do it. I have become very cynical about human nature over the years, and this campaign has really lifted my spirits.
I also want to make it clear that I know I'm being an armchair quarterback. I knew about the anti-billboard campaigns from pretty early on, and I could have volunteered for a role doing what I'm about to describe. However, it just didn't occur to me at the time. The fact that we were non-local and were taking action on an issue that was local to Atlanta had occurred to me, but the full implications of it really didn't hit me, as I didn't give enough thought to the demographics. However, that's a poor excuse, because what we probably should have done first is...
1. Figure out exactly where the billboards are and who lives there.
When the effort to do something about the Georgia billboards first began to gel, there was an issue of context that (as far as I know) was never fully explored. This campaign is in Atlanta, Georgia. The majority of the children in the negative stereotype-based, fatphobic Strong4Life advertisements were either Black or Hispanic. In fact, according to Wikipedia, Atlanta is approximately 55% Black, 35% White and 5% Hispanic. In Georgia as a whole, the population is approximately 60% White, 30% Black and 5% Hispanic. These are the demographics of the people whose neighbourhoods are being polluted by the negative ads.
We could have made a map of the ad locations and then figured out the ethnic and economic demographics of the specific areas that were targeted.
In reality, I think there was some awareness of this issue, especially after the first of the "stage one" billboards were removed and Children's Healthcare of Atlanta began really obviously targeting poor Black neighborhoods. However, it may not have been acted upon strongly enough.
2. Look for links into Georgia-based, activist, African American and Hispanic social networks.
Some of this could have been done through our social networks. There are size positive bloggers and commentators who may be from Atlanta or have Atlanta connections - particularly activist, African American connections. Even a general call-out for volunteers may have drawn out people who could have helped link the fatophere campaigns to local Georgians, particularly African Americans, who were concerned about the effect of the billboards on their children.
I seem to remember that an Atlanta newpaper columnist wrote a piece that was critical of the campaign, early on. It would have been a good idea to get in touch and to see if there was anything they could do to help.
3. Seek out community groups local to the billboards
After reaching out with our social networks, the next thing we could have done was seek out local Atlanta groups who are already fat positive: the local NAAFA chapter (I think Marilyn Wann may actually have done that), local BBW groups, the local plus sized fashion community. Body image activists, feminists, and eating disorders groups share common ground with the fat acceptance movement and are often based in universities and colleges. I'd look specifically for educational institutions in and near the targeted neighborhoods, with diverse faculties and student bodies. We could even have looked for privately owned plus sized and big-and-tall shops and enlisted the owners' help.
We could have tracked down community groups and cold called (or e-mailed) them. Local chapters of civil rights organizations? Volunteer-oriented churches? People in those types of organizations are going to be just as likely to be fat-phobic as they are to be sympathetic to our cause. However, it's hard to believe that the Strong4Life billboards won't have offended people involved in social justice. If we'd taken the right approach (HAES and an acknowledgement of the racist aspects of the Strong4Life ad campaign), we'd have had a chance to win some allies there and to support people in those organizations who may have already been concerned about the billboards and thinking about taking action.
4. Listen to - and amplify the messages from - local people
We could have tried to find out what the people who saw the billboards every day were thinking about them; what effects they were having. We strongly suspect that the billboards are psychologically harmful and probably counterproductive as well. We could have strengthened that argument with real examples - written, audio and video testimonials from real local people, not actors with a message someone else wrote. Then we could have plugged the hell out of these messages on our blogs and social networks.
5. Partner with concerned organizations and individuals
"Do you think something should be done about those billboards? Have you got anything is mind? Is there anything we can do to help, or can we plan something together?"
And from there on in, hopefully the fatophere's efforts could have meshed with actions taken by local groups that reflected local demographics.
The Issue of Timing
Now, I want to emphasize that this is difficult stuff. It isn't "just Google it." There's social risk involved, there's the possibility of substantial delays, however...
The billboards had been up since May, 2011. Fatophere bloggers had been aware of the campaign for a long time. I remember that someone linked to this this April 2011 article on Sociological Images right after it was posted. However the fatophere campaign didn't start until January 2012.
It's true that all of the things I describe above would have slowed down the response. The fact is, we did it at the last minute anyway. There was no organized response from the fat acceptance community for the first seven months of the Strong4Life Campaign. If we'd been on top of the issue from the beginning, there would have been time to build a coalition.
I'm not blaming anyone, because I'd have to blame myself too. I wasn't a leader in the campaign, even at the rather late time it emerged. I just photoshopped a bunch of "I Stand" posters. That was my contribution. It's just how things worked out.
The fact that we accomplished something so solid and that so many people (of all backgrounds and physical descriptions!) were ready to put their money and their pictures behind it tells me that it was needed and that it was a good idea. The fact that it got done by a group of volunteers with absolutely no grants, public or private - only individual contributions - is incredible. I don't think we should be too hard on ourselves. BUT, if it had been organized sooner, there would have been more time to build alliances.
The Issue of Distance
There's also the question of whether or not it was appropriate to get involved in someone else's local issue. In this context, we were "people from the internet," an amorphous group of size acceptance activists with no particular tie to Atlanta, Georgia, taking action from a distance. I asked a good friend who isn't involved in fat acceptance (okay, my husband) what he thought. He said "Do you think it was wrong for people outside of South Africa to take action on Apartheid or people from outside Afghanistan to criticize the Taliban for how they treat women?" And he's right. When you can clearly see that something's wrong, then how is it wrong to speak out about it and take action against it? The thing is, doing it from a distance and in relative isolation was probably not the optimal way to go about it.
On the other hand, I do see the negative Stand4Life campaign as primarily sizest and secondarily racist. The size issue is what's right out front. It was definitely not an inappropriate issue for fat acceptance activists to take a leadership role on. Some people might disagree, arguing that the ads are primarily racist because associating fatness with minority groups reflects badly on the minority groups (presumably because fat people really are - insert negative stereotype here). As someone who sees fatness as a neutral physical characteristic and fat people as a group that's in need of social justice, I am not on board with that, although I can certainly see how many people would view it that way.
I think that what we did - especially what Regan Chastain, Marilyn Wann and Shannon Russell (Atchka) did, was spectacular and that it was absolutely a positive and worthwhile thing to do, even though sure, it could have been done better.
But maybe what we can start here is a list of ideas for how, specifically to establish partnerships with other community and social justice groups. And maybe the best way to reach out to people who aren't exactly like us but who share similar values right now so that we can share social networks and give each other help and support when it's needed.
I think that for my next post, I'm going to start the work I talked about above, just to see how long it takes and how difficult it is. For example, is there an easy way to find out the locations of the Strong4Life billboards when you're not actually in Atlanta?