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I didn’t expect an activism handbook to make me cry. Sure, I was on the first day of my period, experiencing some killer cramps, and generally feeling incredibly sorry for myself. But to say I was blindsided by how much Gina Martin’s Be the Change tugged at my heartstrings is a whopping understatement.
I’m going to boldly assume you know who Gina Martin is and that you’ve been following along her campaign to make Upskirting (the act of taking a picture up a person’s skirt, dress, kilt, etc) a criminal offence in England and Wales. I’m going to assume you know that the trigger moment for the campaign was that Gina herself was the victim of Upskirting at a festival two years ago; and that she’s told her story many, many times in the press since then. I, too, have read the story many times in various media outlets. But until I read the book, I had no idea just how awful that incident actually was – how frightening the experience must have been, how intimidating the harassment from the group of men responsible, or how invasive the photo they took was.
This speaks volumes. I followed along as Gina launched the campaign, as she talked about it on every news channel and in every newspaper, as she walked in and out of parliament in an assortment of technicolour outfits and kept her followers updated on her progress on Instagram. I knew a man had taken a photo up her skirt. But, until I read the book, I never really thought about what that meant. What that must have felt like. We’re surrounded by stories of women’s bodies being observed, touched, objectified, violated. And it’s infuriating and heartbreaking – but it’s also numbing. We become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of trauma and abuse and pain levied against marginalised bodies that we’re exposed to, and it becomes nearly impossible to see the wood for the trees.
Who among us hasn’t sat around with a group of friends of marginalised genders and exchanged stories of being followed home, groped on the tube, harassed in a bar? The worst part often isn’t even the stories we tell, it’s how lightly we tell them. How casual, everyday they feel to those of us who live them. The worst part is that I have occasionally caught myself thinking that a particular story doesn’t even sound that bad. Y’know. Comparatively. Gina writes; “as women, we are so used to putting up with and brushing off harassment, intimidation, assault, or worse. We feel it’s our fault and we’re scared of causing a fuss.” The worst part is having to remind ourselves we’re allowed to be angry about the things that happen to us. We don’t have to laugh them off, reaching for the bottle of wine, already forgetting why we even brought it up. Whether its a creepy man making us uncomfortable on the bus or our abuser being appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States, we’re allowed to be really fucking angry.
That’s the most striking part about Be the Change. Gina invites you into the book by inviting you into the trauma of that moment. It packs its punch (friendly reminder it had me weeping by page 3) and holds you there – she doesn’t let you brush it off, even as she’s explaining how she herself tried to forget it at the time. We already know how it ends (spoiler alert: she changed the bloody law) but it’s this moment of indecision that is inescapably relatable: if she’d brushed it off, it would have become another anecdote to be told over a bottle of wine, and nothing would have changed.
Everything rests on that one decision to just not let it go. As a result, the entire book is shot through with an underlying sense that in every single, everyday moment – from the microaggressions we experience to the injustices, big and small, we witness – we have the power to change the world around us.
In parts, Be the Change is what I wish they’d taught us in school (alongside taxes and mortgages and whatever an ISA is, I beg of you) instead of the sodding Pythagorean Theorem or the zillion other things I forgot the second I passed my GCSEs. There’s detailed advice about contacting journalists, writing press releases, and using social media to your advantage. Gina dedicates space in the book for the reader’s own ideas and notes, for their plans and passions to develop as they read.
One of the things I loved best about the book is how Gina acknowledges at every turn that there a million ways to change the world and very few of them have to involve fighting the actual law or running a campaign that gets the attention of the international press. It’s written both for the person who already has their own cause or campaign in mind and for the person who has no idea where they should be directing their energy but has a burning desire to do something, anything.
At every opportunity in the book, Gina gives advice as to how to find your ‘thing’. She reminds us that doing good has almost nothing to do with how many Instagram followers you have (though she does acknowledge the power of social media) and everything to do with your ability to look at your environment and see room for improvement. From your home, to your workplace, to your local community, there are countless ways to be the change we want to see. And they pretty much all begin with deciding to kick up a fuss about something it feels like everyone else around you is happy to just accept.
Be the person other people accuse of being too sensitive, of making a big deal over nothing, of being incapable of taking a ‘joke’. The end of the book’s introduction reads like a battle cry: “I was fucking over it. I was over accepting it as ‘part of life’ – as part of my fee for being born a woman.” Be the person who causes a fuss, because it’s not nothing. And if you’re not gonna listen to me, listen to Gina: “we’re all activists in training”. So let’s get out there and do something – and you can start by getting your hands on your very own copy of Be the Change: A Toolkit for the Activist in You.
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