Today was election day – this means some people, not very many, who live in this rich and comfortable country went out and voted, but not enough. This also means that some people got some political power – they’ll influence policy and the way that money is spent but in many ways the best way we’ll know them is via the media circus that will now unfold. We’ve had our own media circus here locally, as breaking news as the votes started getting counted told of sex scandal and rifts and resignations in Northern Ireland’s newest political party which really hoped for, promoted and pressed for change. The sense for many is that those who voted, possibly for the first time wasted their vote on this new party. I’d like to say this is all just a distraction, this is a Hunger Games or a Big Brother, something that keeps us busy while we ignore the sideshows. The sideshow of dramatic and groundbreaking work and initiative but it’s being ignored because politics and who the media follows is more important. The sideshows of suffering of violence, trauma, death and addiction that aren’t profiled because who holds or is going to hold the power is more important. Not the people doing the hard work or articulating the difficulties, but the people that have got or are due to get the power and will now speak and be photographed and filmed, who will tweet and status update who will play the game, create the spin, build a platform – but is this really about leadership? I’m just not convinced. I think the leaders profiled in the series this week would all urge the people that follow them to vote because in many ways it’s all they have, but experiencing an authentic and relational justice is a way down the road until we spend some time deconstructing the circus and the games we’ve created around power. President Snow in the Hunger Games suggests that some sacrifice, some games and circus are necessary in order to keep everyone in order, to maintain ‘peace’ and the status quo – here’s where I consider anarchy and riot and revolution even from a hypothetical perspective – what cost does the ‘order’ of things really have? The detriment of many to the benefit of some? What if in the absence of games and circus we discovered love of ourselves and each other, the flourishment and dignity of ourselves and others and the freedom to live justly and humbly exchanging and experiencing justice and fairness by mutual respect and regard for one another. It’s lofty, it’s dreamy but I’ve not heard any political leaders or media analysts articulate this vision – but the women featured here in this series have.
Introducing: Kellie Turtle – Human Rights Worker & A Belfast Feminist Network Founder
As a downhearted youthworker who had listened to an hour of language and insult in a minibus from some fairly unappreciative teenagers I first encountered Kellie as a friendly, confident fellow traveller on the working with rude, angry, disillusioned young people road. I know her as this youth and community worker, as a friend, as a feminist, a speaker, facilitator and activist. Kellie has this dynamic energy that is both intense and and gentle, considerate and intelligent. She’s smart and feisty as well as thoughtful and open to learning and being challenged. She’s changed conversations about women and gender in Northern Ireland and has a real vision and commitment to leading change across all sections of Northern Ireland. Kellie’s leadership is motivated by a desire to redefine and experience power and what that means when it comes to looking out for people, her leadership is informed by the experiences of people on the ground, in the hard and painful places. Meet Kellie here:
What do you love about what you do and why?
What I do is a mixture of the formal and informal – by day I am a public servant delivering human rights education and advising on the human rights compatibility of policy. In my spare time I’m an organiser with a rag tag bunch of grassroots feminist activists who do a range of things to challenge gender inequality and injustice in Northern Ireland. What I love about both of those is the sense of being part of the resistance in a culture that is socially and politically dominated by patriarchal, capitalist, theocratic institutions and gatekeepers. What I love most about human rights based work is being able to apply a legal framework to our wee country that puts lines in the sand. These are standards that have been hard won over the years by people who believed in a vision of shared humanity that says ‘This is what dignity looks like; this is what you are entitled to no matter who makes the rules in your corner of the world.’ What I love about feminist activism is the totally spine-tingling, hairs-standing-on-end potential energy of collective organising and action, the kind that reminds me that the creativity and power that belongs to all of us who believe in equality and social justice is terrifying to those who maintain the status quo.
We all have hum drum/mundane aspects and tasks in our life and work but what are the things that you really live for? Give you a buzz? Make you get out of bed for? Spend your whole year planning for?
I think I get the greatest buzz out of doing the things that scare me. None of them are genuinely frightening compared to what some people face in their day to day lives but in terms of the work I’m involved in it’s the opportunities that come along to step outside the safety of the ‘people who already think like me’ bubble that make it most exciting. When I accept invitations to take part in radio debates relating to feminist issues I usually lose 3 days of my life – 1 to frantically prepare and be anxious about what I need to say, 1 to be exhausted and totally brain dead after it’s done and 1 to be distracted all day while I obsess about all the things I should have said but didn’t. Meeting with politicians usually provokes the same reaction, or delivering a talk at a public event or organising conferences. All of those things give me the fear because I have a deep sense of the responsibility I have when I am tasked with trying to capture all the hopes, passion and experience of my co-workers in this struggle and represent this to people who might find their own view of the world turned on its head as a result. I know that’s not going to happen every time but I hope I keep the fear regardless because I feel like as long as I have that I will know I’m speaking from a place of truth. I think I balk a little when I see people with influence discussing matters that can change people’s lives with a blasé attitude – I’d rather feel a little uncomfortable or out of my depth than take any influence I have for granted.
Can you talk about/describe a couple of personal key moments or experiences that you think shaped your interest and passion for the work and roles you currently hold?
I think the messages I got about my gender identity from an early age were really influential in later finding it easy to step outside the societal gender norms and rebel against those. Within my family I experienced a liberating sense that being a girl carried no particular set of expectations. I went from an obsession with diggers to a love of barbies and a penchant for repeatedly marrying my toys in lavish wedding ceremonies. As I got older I spent my spare time doing sports and reading Judy Blume novels in equal measure. My parents always instilled a sense of striving to be the best at whatever I wanted to pursue. In terms of peer relationships on the other hand, I was judged harshly by my female peers at my all-girls grammar school and found wanting. I was regularly reminded that I was too lanky with sticky-out teeth, frizzy hair, no boobs, too much of a swot and not experienced enough with boys. Being a failure as a girl by all popular definitions ultimately led me to largely reject all popular definitions and for that I am eternally grateful. It seems a little ridiculous now to be linking my passionate belief in abortion rights or disgust at the impact of the austerity agenda on women’s economic freedom to the fact that I was a smart, sporty kid who was unpopular at school. But I know that some women never develop a critical lens when it comes to gender because they’re so dependent on the validation they get from fitting in. The Irish suffrage campaigner Hanna Sheehy Skeffington described the suffragettes as rebel women because they were not just challenging the political establishment but rebelling against their very sex and what it meant to be a woman. When it comes to developing the ability to rebel against narrow gender definitions and see the injustice that they prop up, I think being a gender misfit gave me a head start.
Another influential experience was my first proper job when I finished my education as a youth worker in a community development organisation. I know we have a lot of those in Northern Ireland and some respect the community development model more than others. This one wasn’t perfect but it did its best and it really developed in me an understanding of what social justice is. I think until that point I only knew how to ‘help’ people and my sense of anger at the pain and inequalities in the world and in my own city was to want to give people something to make it better. My experience in this community project taught me about the difference between ‘those less fortunate’ and the oppressed, the people that the system will always keep in want in order to satisfy the desires of those at the top. I learned about solidarity and participation and that if you benefit from that inequality then you better not be telling people what you think they need. I learnt how to listen and build mutually beneficial relationships, to add my voice to advocacy when it was needed and keep quiet when it wasn’t. Most of all I learnt that the biggest division in our society is not religion but class and it is a division that our political establishment still doesn’t want to talk about because they all fall on one side of that line. I think that’s why I am determined that the feminism I’m involved in respects the diversity of experiences women have when we consider the influence of class, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and all the other battles lines that have been drawn in the fight for equality. I don’t think anyone can be truly feminist without aspiring to a complete reorganisation of the world where power is not a commodity but the vehicle for taking care of each other.