I never meant to be an activist.
Even now, I have trouble thinking of myself in the light. The word activist has always conjured up a certain image in my mind: someone in the thick of the battle, shouting, unwavering. All I’ve done is write.
A couple weeks ago I was honored with an invitation to speak at a summit for the Restaurant Opportunities Center in Boston. They are currently campaigning not only to raise the minimum wage, but to abolish the substandard minimum wage for tipped employees. I was there to add my own testimonial to the ways in which server’s incomes are unreliable, citing my own experience with sexual harassment and the effect that had on my tips. Despite having written extensively on this subject, I had never spoken on it publicly, save a few phone calls with local reporters two years ago. This time my voice shook.
There is a difference between the carefully crafted words I can lay on a page, chosen for their power, and the words I try to speak, my voice trembling, to a room full of people including lawmakers and press. As I stood among my allies, I realized that my story no longer belonged to me. And perhaps, in some ways, the specificities of my experience aren’t even important. Instead, I have unwittingly taken on the burden of sexual harassment and assault in the restaurant industry as a whole. The details of my account matter – but only as a corroboration and testament to the existence prevalence of such a culture. My story isn’t about me; it’s about everyone who’s faced the same hardships.
I have begun to feel this pressure immensely. I felt it especially as I recounted my history as a server, hoping to play a role in changing the laws and tradition of an entire industry. What I was doing was activism.
The issue with being an activist is that it is so much messier than anyone realizes from the outside.
When the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office announced its plan to pursue litigation against the Route 9 Diner, it initially felt like a victory. After nearly six months of late nights; tearful, exhausted skype calls; a barrage of personal attacks; and a move back to my home country, I exhaled thinking I could rest easily for the first time in months.
But within days the owners of the diner closed their business without warning. They gathered their employees in the dining room to break the news, where they insinuated that the AGO had forced them to shut down. Cruel messages on social media from the diner’s most recent servers began to pour in, attacking me and the others who had shared the abuses they endured at the diner. Soon, it became to difficult to feel uplifted by the progress we had made since writing our initial blog posts.
From the other side of the world my ex boyfriend told me, “This may not feel like it from the frontline, but from home, we see this as a victory.”
The problem was that the diner was more than a building; the consequences were reaped by more than the owners. We were not all immune to the struggles we had caused our former coworkers; people who, despite their aggression toward us, were people for whom we still cared. Fierce debates broke out within families and many of the girls began to quietly delete the blog posts that had garnered so much attention. Though the community rallied behind us, it was impossible to ignore the fallout. As Elizabeth Adams, former coworker, wrote: justice doesn’t always feel just. The aftermath doesn’t always feel like a triumph; there is almost always collateral damage.
This became obvious even among the women who had once so bravely spoken out against the treatment of women at the Route 9 Diner. While we were once a closely knit group of endless support, our individual ideas of what justice should look like began to clash, and slowly we unraveled. I lost friends on both sides of this fight. Some hated me because they had convinced themselves I was overreacting to the trauma I had endured and blamed me for the accidental and unfortunate consequences they now faced. Others told me I was weak when I gave in to the need for self-care after an emotionally charged fight I never truly intended to start. Was this what justice was supposed to look like?
Now, two years later, I have picked up the fight again. Whether or not I want it, I have a platform to advocate not only for victims of sexual violence in the restaurant industry, but for those who have experienced it at any point in their lives. It is my good fortune that people have been willing to listen to my words and hear my voice, small and trembling as it may be, and have continued to give me the opportunity to speak on the issues about which I am so passionate. It is both humbling and gratifying that despite the backlash and self doubt, more and more women have said, “me too,” and added their own cries to the ever-growing chorus of resistance against a culture and society that allows our experiences and our stories to be considered negligible and normal.
Last week I had the pleasure and honor of posing for Anja Schutz’s photoseries #GrabHimByTheBallot. It is a response to Donald Trump’s casual lewd remarks about sexually assaulting women without consequence. Like me, Anja stumbled into activism accidentally. I cannot speak for her, but I can identify with the overwhelming feelings of gratitude and validation that come with numerous women standing beside you, gratefully empowered by your work.
My own empowerment doesn’t always emerge in the form of the written word. My activism is not always a battle cry.
Today, they look like this: