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Friday, November 12, 2010

Feminist Activist Marisa Ragonese Knows How to Change the World (Interview) (2010)

What she's saying is: There's a way

Marisa Ragonese will tell you she's "cute as a button and smart as a whip," but she's also subversive and inked and funny and passionate and...well, let's get Marisa herself to do the whole "bio" thing:
"I'm a radical feminist from Queens who has been organizing for more than a dozen years with and on behalf of girls, women, LGBT people—especially the "L"—and youth. And I am so, so sick of the terms set by the hegemonic culture which structures the world so that most people suffer, living and dying in injustice."
With that in mind, I invite you to check out a conversation between two Queens natives who sort of broke the local mold.
WATCH VIDEO: Operation Wild: Female Forces

Marisa is Pissed Off

My Conversation With Marisa Ragonese

Planet Green: So, how did a nice Italian girl from Queens become a high profile feminist renegade?
Maria Ragonese: Feminism found me, I think I was always loud and critical so I was an easy target for it and I think it was strong and incredibly smart musicians like Tori Amos , Ani Di Franco, and especially Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill who brought me into a wider movement.
PG: You say, "We need to do some momentous organizing. Like the Montgomery bus boycott. Something huge. Something really, really huge." I couldn’t agree more. So, two questions: What do you have in mind? Why do so many of today’s activists shy away from such sustained, serious action?
MR: Let me give you an example: the St. Patrick's Day Parade on 5th Avenue (NYC), organized by the AOH. Every year, they exclude LGBT Irish people and they release a statement that's a variant of "the parade is a triumph of Catholic values over homosexuality." For years, the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization (ILGO) would organize to get queers to join the parade "illegally" and they would—including Chris Quinn—and they would get arrested. It was great but it never worked to change the parade policy. 
Fast forward about 10 years later: I brought Generation Q youth there to protest and it was freezing cold as usual, and we were standing out there with the very dwindled group of protesters since over the years people had given up and the firefighters in the parade were making fun of us. The firefighters! They were blowing kisses and flapping their hands (badly) and they were cursing and name-calling and I was just like: Wow, we don't have to take this shit. I don't want my kids to stand here in the freezing cold to be abused by civil servants. So we left. And I thought: That's what we all need to do. 
If 10% of all people regularly left big and small public events, if we removed ourselves from these situations and made ourselves visible as we did it, if we put out enough information why but let our silence and absence speak in that moment in lieu of letting the same dominant and abusive under and overtones prevail or holding up the same signs and chanting the same chants, we could get somewhere. And I think allies would join. And I think the world would change.
And imagine if women (51% of the population!) did that. I'm thinking Lysistrata, where the women of Sparta and Athens decided to withhold sex from men until they stopped their endless wars. They used one of their only powers over men and one of the loudest forms of protest you can ever imagine—SILENCE—to change their world. That play is almost 2500 years old (and written by a man, no less) and we still haven't gotten it. When I think about queer organizing (and also when I think about the women's movement), something that I always want to do is leave. Maybe I'm just lazy. But I think it could work.
PG: I get it. If Americans refused to volunteer for the military, the interventions would have to stop. If they refused to vote until elections were fair, we'd have a democracy. And so on. If the system is corrupt, do not participate. However, I know you also engage in a more personal, smaller scale model of activism. Can you talk about your work with the Queens Community House and Generation Q?
MR: You know, I do smaller-scale activism because I actually get to see results (whereas the larger-scale stuff is long term and sometimes the progress if almost impossible to measure). One type of activism I like to do is educational. For the past five years, I've been working at any school or after-school program I can get into: I do workshops/lessons or help to marshal conversations about gender, sexuality, bigotry, bullying, and oppression, in general.
One really structured workshop is a modification of a lesson I picked up at a GLSEN conference years ago called "Sticks and Stones", which uses participant's own (mis)information about LGBT people to explore homophobic name-calling and its roots. I almost ALWAYS watch students change through even brief critical discussions of their beliefs vis-a-vis the language they use. It's really satisfying and I know it has a domino effect as these students move through their lives.
Sometimes I get to work with students over the course of a semester and that's truly transformative. We'll start with Sticks and Stones and then work our way towards more informal discussions of, say, the "rules" of gender. Kids are so smart and perceptive. When I approach them with respect and openness, if I'm truly honest about what I believe and why, they'll do the same and then we all change. Sounds corny but it's true.
PG: Give us an example of this approach.
MR: One really fun session I like to do is called "LGBTQ (and sometimes "A") with me, Marisa!" They can ask anything they want about LGBT people as long as they write it down, hand it in, and listen to the answer. Kids are mostly obsessed with sex and very curious about difference and why people—including themselves—behave the way we do. Again, I try to be as honest as possible. I also try to be appropriate and professional but sometimes that's not as important as being honest. 
PG: With all the varied approaches and ideas you're utilizing, where's your head right now? What's got you feeling excited and maybe even optimistic?
MR: Right now I'm really interested in applicable research. I'm a PhD student studying social welfare and I'm trying to figure out how we can take advantage of this long-overdue focus on LGBT bullying in order to infuse an appreciation for human diversity into a federally-mandated curriculum in our schools. This is difficult because I'd really like it to be palatable and even meaningful to most Americans, and the Christian Right is dead set on minimizing federal interventions and they hate homosexuality, so it feels like a little bit of an impenetrable stone wall—which makes it all the more attractive to me. I'm simultaneously looking for points of connection with students so educators have a chance to guide youth to think, feel, and act differently, and also between prevailing and subjected belief systems of the adults who control school agendas. I think most people are inherently kind and compassionate, so I know it's possible.  
PG: This isn't always an easy perspective to maintain these days.
MR: Mimi Abromowitz (my professor and adviser) recently reminded me of a crucial fact (although she's extremely smart and articulate, difficult to keep up with, and I take crappy notes, so be mindful that it's so not a direct quote): We've been hearing, at best, individualistic propaganda to justify an irresponsible and non-sustainable capitalist system for more than 30 years, and at worst, we've been hearing that some people matter more than others for just as long.
We've heard this so many times and in so many ways that it's become part of our unexamined culture. But we also know that even our most mainstream politicians—Presidents Roosevelt and Truman—saw the world very differently not too long ago. They believed in human rights and they believed that the role of our government was to intervene not just to protect private property but to intervene into concepts of private property that left most people with nothing. What I'm saying is, there's a way.
PG: On that note, what's next for you and how can readers connect with you and your work?
MR: What's next for me is continuing to do educational work in the schools and youth community—someone from DYCD just wrote to me asking if I would work with her daughter's Girl Scout troop (I hope they give me Simoas), and to trudge forward with the development of effective interventions into youth culture to promote critical thinking and respect for humanity. I recently resigned as director of Generation Q to pursue this work but I encourage people, especially teens, to find out more about it and get involved. You can call Simone or Marwa at 718-204-5955.   
As for how readers can connect, they can find me on Facebook or get in touch via e-mail at fast.it.forward@gmail.com.  
I'm also perpetually writing books that I don't publish although I have this one that's practically done; it's full of dark and hopeful poetry for teens: hot mess. The UNH gave me their award for Excellence in Advocacy in May so I feel a need and an obligation to at least press and distribute copies of it along with a discussion guide among the several dozen Settlement Houses around the city. I'll keep you posted on that hot mess.
Radical/Feminist Linkage
5 Radical Green Actions That Could Get You Arrested and 5 Alternatives That Won't
Michelle Tea Talks About Community, Energy, and Her Insane 500-page Memoir-Fiction Hybrid Book (Interview)



  1. Great interview. Thank you. Marisa makes some excellent points on the fact that withdrawing support - in relation to unjust practices - can be a truly effective for of activism. But she reveals in the following quote that she is a dedicated statist as well: "But we also know that even our most mainstream politicians—Presidents Roosevelt and Truman—saw the world very differently not too long ago. They believed in human rights and they believed that the role of our government was to intervene not just to protect private property but to intervene into concepts of private property that left most people with nothing." Roosevelt and Truman believed in human rights? lol Wow. That is one one of the most absurb statements I have read in a while.

  2. I meant to write "form" - not "for.":)