After my first WGS class, and well into my second, I began carried around a terrible weight on my shoulders. It took me a while to realize, I was carrying the weight of the world. Every Women’s Issue, every issue involving race and class, every story about the terrible things going on internationally, they were all weighing on me in a very personal way. Here I am, white, middle class, attending college. I had all this privilege and it seemed I had to use it. Every time I heard a news report about human trafficking, world hunger, or women’s rights I felt the need to immediately take up arms and… what? It was infuriating to see the monstrosities going on and be so newly educated on the why’s, the how’s, the politics and the patriarchy, and yet feel helpless.
I was a determined driver, left without a vehicle. This was really hard for me. I went through a period of time where I was ready to give up on WGS and find something easier, like history: you can’t change it. WGS focuses on the present, and the future, a lot, and they are so malleable, it was terrifying. I didn’t feel like I, someone who can barely keep her own shit together, could make any difference in the big scheme of things. The women who I admire and am inspired by seemed like muses, not completely human, or legends, not completely real. Gloria Steinem seemed more like a hero than an activist. Maybe, though, are they one and the same?
My trip to the Oakton Community College Women’s Conference opened my eyes to the vast and welcoming community of WGS scholars. I found that presenting, listening, and having meaningful conversations at conferences like this was a great way to be introduced to what activism could be like. A group of people discussing change, exchanging ideas, and networking is often how a movement is started. It seemed much more obtainable to discuss small matters of change, than marching to Washington or staging a rally. Additionally, I had so much new information to take home with me, and that has been invaluable as I have completed research papers, started new policies at school, and started this blog.
Even with all this new information, at first I was lost at what to do with it. I was in my last semester before graduating and getting my Associate’s degree, and I allowed the stuff that wasn’t homework and studying to fall to the wayside. Up until mid-April I didn’t think much about activism at all. Then, I got a letter in the mail from my college. It congratulated me on my upcoming graduation and reminded me that in order to walk at the ceremony I would have to purchase a cap and gown, a roughly seventy dollar purchase. I immediately felt the tears well up in my eyes, not only from sadness, but from anger, too. I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford this. My husband and I have been struggling to stay afloat ever since I dropped to part-time work in order to finish school. Seventy dollars was an electric bill, gas for a week or better, the new tire we desperately needed. I felt cheated or tricked, like I had worked so hard to graduate, with Honors, on the Dean’s List, and on time, and it wasn’t good enough to get to walk across the stage. Instead, I would get an unassuming envelope a month after school is over, no bells, no whistles, and no applause.
And I am not ashamed to admit, I like applause. I like being celebrated. I’m pretty freaking awesome, in my opinion.
Then I started thinking about other students from my community college. Many of them had gotten their GED, and this would be their first graduation ceremony. Others would go straight into the work force, and this would be their last graduation ceremony. Many were single parents, some were even single grandparents. Every person who I sat next to in class, every student who stayed at the library from open to close, every student who had to bum rides and take the bus, they all deserve to walk across the stage. They all deserve to celebrate, get an applause, and shake the Dean’s hand. When all of these thoughts came to me, it gave me the funniest taste in the back of my mouth. Bitter and salty, it was the taste of a call to action. I knew I had to do something.
I wrote a heartfelt letter to the Dean of Students. I explained the dilemma that caps and gowns caused many of our students. I proposed a plan. I called it Pass Down the Gown. The premise was simple, after graduation, those who chose to could donate their gown and next year students in need could simply pick one up. I outlined my own personal connection to the problem, but explained the bigger picture. The cap and gown provided confidence, recognizing one’s achievements helped them achieve more and more! It was a disservice to our students to allow financial problems to get in the way of celebrating a milestone. I nervously delivered the letter, by hand, to our Dean of Students and waited nervously for her to call. Honestly, I didn’t expect a busy and important person in a higher faculty position at my school to take any notice in the rantings of some broke college student.
I was wrong. Doctor Smith called me the next day! I was overjoyed (and still nervous.) She told me my idea was the best she’d heard all year! She gave me some recommendations on how to proceed, and pretty much gave me the reins. She even mentioned it the Board of Graduation that morning and many didn’t even realize this was an issue. She said many of them said it sounded like a great idea. I was thrilled, over the moon, and felt so empowered. I immediately began writing ideas and expanding my simple idea into a huge charity event, complete with photoshoots and balloon animals. The next morning I brought it all to my professor and good friend, who I met twice a week for an independent study class. I laid out my plan, admitting it had grown a bit since we last talked. This class taught me much, enough to fill an entire blog post of its own. One of these was this: In order to succeed, you must start small. You must remind yourself to think of the simplest way to complete this project, and then you do that. If that succeeds (or if it doesn’t), you take the good parts, you toss the rest, and you try again, incorporating some of those other ideas. Thankfully, I was convinced to keep it simple for the first Pass Down the Gown, too.
I passed out flyers in the “Gowning Room” for a while, but I don’t think people liked the idea of giving it up so soon; they hadn’t even walked yet! I explained that I was collecting after the ceremony, but still… So I just sat the flyers on a busy table and mingled with different groups I knew. I spoke about it casually (as “casual” as I get…) and mentioned getting together after the ceremony.
Before too long it was time to graduate. It was a surprisingly sweet and heartfelt ceremony, but maybe I was a bit nostalgic. I walked across the stage and heard my name called, and my hubby and friends whooping, I think. It was over in, like, thirty seconds. But I’m glad I did it.
After the ceremony I headed straight to the “De-Gowning Area”, thinking I would get them as they came off, but it turns out, people really like to wear them for a while. I didn’t take into consideration that many people would want to go out to eat, show it off a little bit. I even went down to the lobby and front steps outside, thinking I may get someone after they’ve taken pictures, but no luck. In the end I didn’t get a single gown. I was beyond disappointed, but between my husband and friends, and my favorite professor, I plucked up, and began to plot my new strategy…