Soraya Chemaly Is Expanding Women’s Civic and Political Participation
Soraya Chemaly is an award-winning author, activist and former Executive Director of the Representation Project and Director and Co-Founder of the Women's Media Center Speech Project. She has long been committed to expanding women's civic and political participation. She is the author Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women's Anger and the recipient of the 2022 Passionistas Persist Trailblazer Award.
Listen to her full episode here.
Passionistas: Hi, we're sisters Amy and Nancy Harrington. We founded the Passionistas Project to tell the stories of women who are following their passions and fighting for equality for all. The more we spoke with women for our podcast, subscription box and the annual Power of Passionistas summit, the more we saw a common trait in all of them. They are unstoppable.
Whether they choose to use their voices to start a women-owned brand or fight for the rights of the marginalized, we found that all Passionistas are resilient, compassionate and persistent.
Each year, we honor women who embody these qualities by presenting the Passionista Persist Awards. This episode of the podcast is an interview with one of the 2022 recipients.
Our next award this evening is the Passionista Persist Trailblazer Award. The definition of Trailblazer is a pioneer, an innovator, a person who makes a new track through wild. Tonight's recipient is an activist and author who is pushing boundaries for women daily in this wild country we live in.
The award is being presented by Dr. Melissa Bird, a feminist, author, healer and coach. Melissa's purpose in this world is to teach women how to step into their truth and quit playing small.
Meissa: I am so pleased to be presenting the 2022 Passionist Persist Trailblazer Award to my amazing, inspiring friend Soraya Chemaly. Soraya is an award-winning author, activist and is the former Executive Director of the Representation Project and Director and Co-Founder of the Women's Media Center Speech Project. And she has long been committed to expanding women's civic and political participation.
One of the things I love and adore about Soraya is that she is the author of one of my most favorite books, Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women's Anger. And I do not think it is any coincidence that on this day of all days, on this year of all years, I get the privilege and the honor of presenting Soraya with this incredible Trailblazer Award.
So, Soraya, thank you so much for joining me today to receive this amazing, beautiful, awesome, well-deserved award because you are certainly blazing many trails in my life and the lives of so many of us.
Soraya: Thank you so much, Missy and thank you to, The Passionistas Project. I am really, genuinely so honored. It has been a difficult year. It's been a difficult decade, actually, and honestly, it's just nice to know that organizations like yours are thinking about the work that people are doing, that requires this kind of persistence, which doesn't necessarily mean the same thing as hope.
But really and truly, I'm genuinely very, very honored and delighted to be able to have this chance to have a conversation with you again and want to just say thank you very much.
Melissa: Oh, you are so welcome. God works in very fascinating ways and the fact that you and I are here together. After the Supreme Court has released so many devastating decisions just this week, like in the last literally six days. Yes, I think it is. Um, I think it is awesome actually, that you and I are together at this moment talking about trailblazing, right? And, and about how are we moving forward. Um, as part of the Passionistas Project, as part of the work, um, that Amy and Nancy have brought together and culminated so that so many people can have a platform for change and a platform for blazing trails.
And I think that, you know, you and I in our professional work, Soraya, we work with so many organizations and so many people who are trying. The thing that I love about the Passionistas Project is they are doing in such an authentically beautiful way. And so the first thing I really want to talk with you about today is about the Power of the Passionista and this mission of bringing all these women together from literally all over the world to talk about making change with diversity, equity and inclusion. Truly doing it this time. Like the lineup just blows my mind every time I think about it. So what does the Power of Passionista mean to you?
Soraya: When I first heard Passionista, my response was a, a little bit viscerally to think, oh, hold on. That's a word that I personally have heard that you have heard that many of us have heard. That's used dismissively. You're so passionate about that project you work on. Right. As though some of the issues that we are fighting against.
Um, our pet projects that we do in our spare time because it makes us feel happy, you know, and so I actually had that initial response, but what I really came to understand and think about was the fact that there's no reason to reject the word passionate or the idea of what it implies and clearly means in this context.
I mean, these are women from all over the world who are dedicating their lives to making change often in situations of. Grave, danger of risk, um, of political, uh, violence. Uh, increasingly we know this is the case. Increasingly, we know that the people at the forefront of so many movements, environmental movements, climate change, indigenous rights, uh, apportion, reproductive rights, racial justice, it's over and over and over.
Women, black women, queer women, trans women, women who are just pushed farther and farther and farther into the margins. And so I think it's really important to understand what it means. Honestly, the word kind of to me lies at the nexus of the personal and political that some people have the luxury to think are.
Right? We know that that's a decades old expression from the feminist world, that the personal is political. But a lot of people really still benefit from separating those two things. And, and, you know, we gain nothing by pretending that they're separated. Um, and I actually think the word Passionista, um, makes people think about that if they care to.
Melissa: I think we have to have passion to keep moving on. If we remain passionate about the things that deeply impact our lives and our world and the world of other people, particularly all of the women you just mentioned, we start talking about disabled women, women who are engaging in decolonizing work. We start talking about rebellious women, women who are trying to get educated and disrupting the education system.
When we think about people being the ones who are potentially gonna get us through. Then we have to understand passion. Because without passion, the drive in hopeless moments becomes diminished. And so what are you the most passionate about?
Soraya: When the Dobbs decision came down, I think like a lot of people, I burst out crying. And the thing is that you've been doing this work, I've been doing this work for, oh, it feels like decades, right? Yeah. Like literally, there was no surprise in this at all. There was just profound loss and disappointment and sadness and rage. That's how I felt, you know? And it was just so eviscerating actually, because I think.
If you have been on this side of this fight, seriously, you understand what just happened, what we just lost, what it represents. And that's not to diminish other losses at all, but it's such a turning point to have the right taken away. But it is a really critical point and a great unraveling. Yes and yes.
Yes, yes. I'm so glad you called it a great unraveling because I think that is profoundly important for people to understand as we're thinking about, I mean, trailblazing the world as we know it will fall apart. And we're seeing it in little tiny anecdotes. Mm-hmm. you know, doctors who have a woman come into their emergency room at 11:30 PM who with an ectopic pregnancy, that's about to blow, but they've gotta get on the phone with the attorney.
Yeah. And make sure they can do the procedure. Cuz her life isn't totally at risk yet, but it will be soon. Right. I, I'm just like, maybe now you understand that the single what the single issues. Not issue. It was always oversimplified into this idea of the act of abortion. And that is never what any of us was talking about, you know?
And so I think the thing you were saying, what am I most passionate about? And I was kind of winnowed down into this nub of real despair. You know, just that feeling that you get, which is hopelessness. But I will admit that that was swamp. Pretty quickly by my rage. Yeah. And I think by many people who, many people had this experience of feeling this justifiable rage, but in fact, you can't let that rage hurt you.
This is the point, right? If the, if the rage you feel is causing you dangerous stress or causing you to hurt yourself in other ways or. To, um, destroy relationships that are important, that that's not a functioning tool. And, and so I'm quite passionate in this moment about acknowledging anger, acknowledging the rage of the moment, and also appreciating that while it's not the conventional, socially acceptable, um, method of displaying. Anger is literally one of the most hopeful emotions because if you can maintain your anger, which is different from resentment, right?
Like I feel resentment when I look back at people's decades of work that feels dismissed and lost, I'm looking back, right? That's different from a rage, which is a feeling that things can and must change. Because you don't feel rage. If you feel really genuinely hopeless. What you feel is sadness and despair and depression, and that's paralyzing.
And it's okay if people feel that way because in fact, this is a sad, depressing, paralyzing moment. But I would just say that I also believe that, again, it's not, not to say embrace a rage and an anger that are destructive. It's not at all what I mean, but acknowledge that the rage and the anger are justifiable and that they need expression and that no matter what, they are hopeful.
They are fundamentally hopeful. We think that in order to make change, we have to, we have to set aside anger and. And yes, what I love to refer to as Righteous Fury. Mm-hmm. in order to disrupt systems and make a difference. And I remember so many times when I was lobbying at the Capitol in Utah for a Planned Parenthood, I would just be furious.
I can't play poker, I can't keep any emotion off my damn face. And I would be so livid and then I would like take this breath and go, what has to be done? How can I communicate what is necessary to these people to help things move forward? Because I had to focus on, not me, but the thousands and thousands of people that are gonna be impacted by that.
Those pieces of legislation, either that I was trying to push forward or that other people were trying to push forward. And as soon as I channeled that rage and moved it into, everything changed as long as I wasn't screaming and yelling and huffing at, at directly at human beings and being abusive and confrontational, I still got rage.
I still had all the rage. Mm-hmm. And I channeled it.
Melissa: And I'm curious, when you talk about rage, what are the things that you really wanna help people who are part of this Passionistas summit understand.
Soraya: Taking our rage and using it to blaze wherever we're going. There are a few things that really still strike me. Um, it's been three years since the book was published and, um, you know, it, it's one of these books I think that has a very long tale because in fact there is an evergreen quality to these ideas. Mm-hmm, you know, and, and we wanna underst. Emotionality and we in particular, I think wanna understand the role it plays in our cognition because if you are a woman, or if I'm identifying, you know, how quickly and easily people dismiss you, if you express anger.
Which is why so many of us try not to show anger, feel anger, display anger. We've grown up being punished for it or, um, mocked for it. You know, that's the number one worry women have. It's not that someone's gonna be violent, it is that they will be mocked for expressing anger, which is an expression of need or an assertion of will.
Right. And we're, we're, we're not supposed to have either of those, those things. Mm-hmm. , but I, I think. , there are a few things. One is to be a trailblazer and to use your passionate feelings and beliefs. Doesn't require that you take on the whole world all at once or have an institution or a structure. You know, the whole fact of trailblazing is that you find a new way.
You find a way that makes sense to you, and then , most times it also makes sense to other people, but they just either didn't do it or didn't think of it or didn't have the time, but are so appreciative of the fact that you might do it. And so for some people that might be organizing a local choir to resist peacefully.
In a certain way, right. To other people it may be writing legislation to other people. It may be mobilizing, um, transportation, who knows what it is, right? But I think it's really important to not feel paralyzed by the idea that there's a way to trail blades. The point is it's risky. Yes. You, you, you have to take the.
People may call you stupid or you know, any number of terrible, terrible names, which 100% will happen. Okay. How you know you're on the trail. That's how you know you're on the trail. So you really have to, you have to really fundamentally be okay with people not liking you. That's the other lesson that really strikes me about being passionate and being angry as part of.
We are so, so expected and socialized to be likable and to put others first, and not make other people uncomfortable. Trailblazing always makes people uncomfortable. It's okay. We need more people to be very profoundly uncomfortable. I'm thinking about my own moments where friends have come to me, or clients have come to me, or organizations have come to me and said, you know, I have this.
I really wanna do it, and I don't think I should because if I do A, B or C is gonna happen, people won't like me. I'll lose my family, I'll lose my friends, which is what stops us from doing our core, what we are here to do. Right? Right. It stops us from living at our purpose. Oftentimes what I hear from people is that I must be really unique for writing the, the very first bill I ever wrote on my dining room table when I was getting my master's degree.
Thinking about what propels you and the people that you know, all these women who are here as part of the summit, all these people that are connecting with all of us who are involved as either award recipients or speakers. What do you want people to know? You know, there's gonna be a lot of noise, there's gonna be a lot of us versus them.
There's gonna be a lot of polarization cuz there's nothing. This country more loves more than polarizing each other.
Melissa: What do you think people really need to hear about that polarization so they don't get distracted by all that noise?
Soraya: Well, it's so hard, you know, because in fact the stage at which we're in the polarization is intimate, right? We're not talking about someone who lives in another state who feels differently. We may be talking as women about the person who's sleeping next to us in bed. That is a very difficult situation that millions and millions and millions of people find themselves in. The polarization is very gendered and very raced.
The political polarization. Mm-hmm. But at the same time, we all know there are a lot of liberal progressive men and a lot of extremely conservative women. Yes. So, you know, I don't wanna suggest that it's straight down the line that fathers and daughters or, you know, so I, I think it's important to acknowledge.
The intimacy of the issues that we're talking about and it demands of us different tactics and techniques. It demands, honestly, and this is what, this is why I gravitated towards anger as a way of shedding light on some of these issues of inequal. The inequalities are deeply intimate, right? And so the thing about anger in an intimate setting, whether it's a family setting, a religious community, which is almost always patriarchal, right? Our main religious faiths are all mainstream patriarchal, um, regardless of the community you're in. The thing about disdain, anger is that it, it erases the, even the idea of reciprocity, right? So if you're angry at people, you know, and you don't tell them who exactly are you protecting or hurting.
Maybe you're protecting yourself because it's too big a risk to think, I love these people. I have dedicated my life to them. I've taken care of them, or I do it every day. But what if they don't return that care? Right? What if I say I'm very angry? This is very important to me, I need you to support me.
And what they do is get angry at me for the way I express myself or laugh at me and diminish my concerns. Those are legitimate concerns because they happen every day. And so I just think we need to acknowledge the risk because in fact, the hard part about thinking about reciprocity is acknowledging.
There are power. There's power at play, social power at play in our institutions at every level. So yes, in the government, but in our schools and in our places of worship and at our dining room tables, I always say, if you can't practice a hard conversation at home among the people that in that you trust and who in theory love you and support you, how are you supposed to do outside. I think that's really the thing that keeps people from engaging.
Melissa: The topic of this conference is diversity, equity and inclusion, right? And I think that right there, Soraya is why people don't really authentically dig into do I work because I agree. Because if you can't have that conversation at home, right?
Soraya: How in the hell are you supposed to have it in a corporation with thousands of employees. So often the onus of these conversations falls on the minority people who are most negatively affected. When we think about intersectionality, it's very often the case that you think about black women, um, or trans women, right?
Yeah. And what gets erased is the intersectional nature or relevance or political. Identity of a white straight man, for example, or of a, a, a white straight woman. That identity, because it's so often conflated with a normal person mm-hmm. as opposed to, and, and a person whose identity doesn't matter. That gets very complicated.
And so when you have to do the hard work of talking about those identities, It feels as we know, like an attack on people. That's, that's where the term white fragility comes from, you know? And so imagine being, uh, a woman at the dinner table who wants to talk to her children about whiteness, and that's not really appreciated by her spouse.
How is she also gonna talk about male or straightness, right? If she has a child, if she like. It's a very complicated, and I think the reason it gets so complicated is because these conversations are threats to identity. You know, they're threats to how people think of themselves as being good people. I don't know how many men I've talked to who you know, hate identity politics.
Without thinking about their own identities, right? Because in fact, from their perspective, which we keep hearing over and over again, they've done what everybody can do, which is work hard and provide and protect and do exactly what they were told to do, which in fact, they are doing, they are. And in fact, there are rewards that come with and those rewards do not extend to other people. That's the point.
So the diversity and inclusion conversations come, as you say, to a hard stop because they, they have to happen intimately. Yeah. You know, they, they have, they, that's, that's the only way things are gonna change.
Melissa: One of the things Amy, Nancy and I were talking about as we've been trying to get sponsorships for the conference, right?
Because as you do, like it's a conference, right? Sponsorships. Right. One of the things we realized really early on, because I'm like, this is a DEI, no-brainer. We have elevated like people with disabilities. Yeah. You know, indigenous folks, like trans women, like we've. I've never been so involved with an organization that actually is doing all of this.
Like I, I was really surprised. Yeah. Whoa. Like, this is real, right? We're having such a hard time getting money, and I realized we, we had this moment, this epiphany, Soraya, where I was like, we're elevating the other.
A hundred percent. A hundred percent. Every person involved with this conference is the other. Yeah. And corporations can all day talk about how committed they are to whomever we wanna name, but when it comes to putting their money where their mouth is Right, they don't deliver. I agree. And I'm wondering if you think. If you have any ideas about how we can all leave this summit and, and really start to hold people's feet to the fire as we're moving into this new era where so much is gonna get decimated.
Soraya: I belong to many different organizations. I've set on the boards and advisory boards of many organizations dedicated to. Um, representation, diversity and inclusion in lots of different industries. And the first thing that happens, of course, is that you, you go after the easy, theoretically, money, people who you already know are predisposed.
If you belong to, uh, uh, an organization that traditionally focused on women mm-hmm. , you might go after. Women donors, right? Sure, sure. Yeah. Beautiful. To an organization that focused on black women, there were far less women donors that were black women. So, you know, your, your pool might be a little narrower.
Yep. But what what happens is that even as you say, it's, it's not just in your case that you've gone after the other, it's that even a word like Passionista. Marginalize as an organization. Mm-hmm, because of its feminized underlying, vaguely sexualized, you know, kind of con the language, the context, the biases that go into that.
Imagine if you had this kind of organization dedicated to men trailblazers, you just probably wouldn't call it Passionista. And so we end up being marginalized just by virtue of the words and identities that we're trying to support. When we do that, we end up, first of all, just going after about two to 4% of available monies that leaves the other 96 to 98.
That in terms of private money, comes from men, individual men, wealthy men. Mm-hmm and, and I'm always flummoxed. Why, why are we not asking these very outspoken, wealthy men who claim to be supporters of freedom and you know, on and on and on. I'm like, where's their money? Yes, where's their money going? I mean, I only vaguely tongue in cheek did I suggest to a friend yesterday that there should just be a Men of Conscience organization that handed money over. Here's the money.
Mm-hmm, but you know, very often money comes with strings attached. Yep. And that gets very complicated for some organizations, you know? Yeah. Um, so it kind of becomes a vicious, self-fulfilling cycle, cycle of scarcity. Mm-hmm. But we do have to find. To hold people publicly accountable. Yeah. Hold organizations accountable.
There's very little transparency. Yeah. That's a big problem. You know, so I don't, you know, I don't have a really easy solution. I would say though, that if you are a trailblazer and gender is a component of your trailblazing, be aware of the degree to which that becomes marginalizing. By default, I mean, for 10 years now, I've lobbying fighting, engage in activism around freedom of expression, online harassment, violence against women, and really and truly, you have to explain which gobsmacking to me still why that's a matter of democracy.
Yes, right. When your most vulnerable, marginalized citizens cannot speak without the threat of violence, yes, and harm and rape and lynching and horrible things, your democracy is not functioning. We just live in a society as we know where it's not until the freeze breach. Of the most powerful, who still tend to be cisgendered, straight white men, Christian. It's not until the those rights start getting scratched at that people pay attention to democracy. There's nothing new here. This is the, you know, it's the history of the nation that doesn't make it any less frustrating.
How can we come together? I think it's very important to come together. To for, you know, the, the one thing about the internet, despite all of its bad, bad aspects, is that it does enable people to come together to build fluid communities. Um, you can build, you know, chains of ad hoc communities. That are meaningful and valuable and supportive and you know, people can share moments of joy and humor and accomplishment and shared goals and visions.
And I think it's very easy, particularly since we seem to be pretending we still are not in a pandemic, but we are right. In a time like this, I think it's very easy not just to feel isolated, but also to withdraw. You know, I felt that tendency where. I think it's better to be alone than to be to, to subject other people to my particular mindset.
Right now, I know what that's like. We, we went to dinner last week and this weekend and I walked in. I saw a man and I thought, if he offers me a drink, I think I have to just, I'm just gonna say to him, well, what do you want me to have? Because, What the fuck where you're at. Yeah. That's where I am. Right.
I'm like, I can't have a conversation. I need to not have this conversation. Yeah, right. And, but I think that's a bad instinct. What we need is more connection, not disconnection, not connection with people we're angry at. I don't want to suggest that, you know, but we need to build on the relationships that bring us comfort and joy and connect.
And we need to make those connections with more and more and more people. I, I love what I, I, what I love about that is that, um, I've been saying that if we really, truly are ready to disrupt white supremacy and racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, all the things, if we are really truly there, then connecting on.
And allowing ourselves to let this crumble right is really important because I don't wanna live under a regime that is founded on the doctrine of discovery and manifest destiny. That's exactly right. Like we have been, we've been, nobody knows, frankly, what the doctrine of discovery is. Right. It is the document that our constitution is founded on, which says if you go to a piece of land from wherever you are and you, uh, whatever European Christian country, whatever European Christian country you're coming from, and you discover it, then you have free reign to kill everybody who's on it. So you can discover it. Yeah. And that is the Reader's Digest condensed version in literally half a second.
Melissa: But I don't wanna live under that and when we come together and hold each other in all of this and we connect wherever we're at, then we can start to figure out ways to move through this as it is burning around us.
Soraya: Yeah. Yeah. And I think too in, in terms of coming to terms with what all of that really means, I think that. What's very clear is that communities that have been under-resourced and PO and and punished for centuries. For centuries, right, they have been responsible for themselves. They have already been at war with the government.
They have already been punished repeatedly by the society. Yes. You know, this is not new. Honestly, what's new right now I think is the shock to white communities. Just like, just like when Trump was elected, frankly. Yeah, right. Just the shock of it. To some people that, my God, it can actually happen. And you're like, yeah, yes it can.
Yeah, sure enough it can. Cause it has, it's happened over and over and over again. And so that circle of people who are negatively affected is now bigger. And I think part of the problem is the instinct in many communities is, well, we need to do something and then they start from. Instead of stepping back and thinking this would be a really good time to educate myself, to listen, to learn, to support the leaders who've already been doing this, the communities that understand how to do this, you know, and I know this too, I will say this flat out because I have seen this over and over again.
What often happens, particularly among. You've seen this too, right? In feminist organizations, but philanthropic organizations that aren't specifically feminists. White women will replicate patriarchal power structures by default, you know, and, and they will act in ways that are corrosive. To other types of organizations and societies.
So very hierarchical, very dominant, very power over, very top down. We've seen that. We've seen that destroy organizations over and over again. So I think it's just really important in this moment. To step back and be very self-reflective. How am I contributing to this problem structurally without knowing it?
What mistakes have I made? What can I learn? How can I be quiet? How can I learn? How can I learn? Is really, I think, possibly the most important thing that can, the question people can ask right now, we all can learn.
Melissa: Soraya:, thank you so much for your time. Oh, thank you. I'm blazing a trail that I can go running down to.
Soraya: No, thank you again. Really and truly. And you know, I wanna say thank you to Nancy and Amy especially, um, and always such a delight to talk to you and to work with you in solidarity. Um, so thank you all very.
Passionistas: Thanks for listening to the awards presentation with Soraya Chemaly, and thanks to Dr. Melissa Bird for the amazing interview.
To learn more about Dr. Bird, visit DrMelissaBird.com. To learn more about Soraya, visit SorayaChemaly.com and be sure to subscribe to The Passionista Project Podcast so you don't miss any of our upcoming inspiring guests. Until next time, stay well and stay passionate.