Power in the Individual: Dr. Victoria Farris’ Road to Activism
On the night of the 2016 election, Dr. Victoria Farris remembers having champagne in the fridge ready to pop in celebration of the election of the first female president. Her sons, Jack and Wells, wore Hillary buttons to the polls earlier in the afternoon and were equally excited about Hillary Clinton’s potential historic win. Farris didn’t have time to process the election results the next morning knowing she had to break the news to her sons. “I remember waking up early and thinking, ‘what am I going to say to them?’ I won’t ever forget the feeling in my stomach when I heard them running downstairs and they’re like, ‘Did Hillary win?’” Before Trump’s election, Farris believed that she was doing her due diligence by simply voting Democrat across the ballot. Now, two years into Trump’s presidency, Farris has marched, raised her voice, and has been arrested in protest of Trump’s agenda. She has proven that an individual act of resistance holds so much power.
Like many white liberals, Farris felt like she had been living in a bubble and couldn’t comprehend a world where a proven misogynist, racist, and xenophobe would be voted into the highest office in the land, subsequently putting the rights of marginalized groups in jeopardy. Having worked in the field of Higher Education and Student Affairs for 12 years, Farris was accustomed to being an advocate not activist. She encouraged her students to vote, shared articles on Facebook, and wrote angry posts, but her anger was boiling over and her forms of passive activism wasn’t enough to quell her anger. At the time Farris was also realizing her place in Trump’s America as a white, middle class, cisgendered woman. She obtained her doctorate in Higher Education Management and began to work independently consulting, training, and coaching on social justice and inclusion, particularly in identifying and disrupting whiteness in the workplace. Her activism began to increase; Farris marched in the Women’s March in New York and called her senators for various issues, but it wasn’t until she saw flashing images of kids in cages on the news that spurred her willingness to put her body on the line for her beliefs, “…the images of these kids, who were the same age as my kids -- like the only thing different about them is the country that they were born into. I couldn’t sleep at night and I generally, I’m a good sleeper, but I couldn’t sleep at night.”
It’s important for Farris to leverage her privilege for those who can’t. Farris recognizes the women of color who’ve championed the Women’s March and stresses that in her activism, she must ask what is needed from these communities and ask how she can help so as to not co-opt the movement. “My research is on the role that white people can play in disrupting systemic racism. It’s essentially just that you have to learn about it. You have to understand about it. You have to recognize yourself in a system, and then you have to do something. And that something means that you leverage what you have and you accept the consequences that come with it, and you do it in community with people of color and in community with the groups that you are intending to be allying with.”
Farris was astutely aware of her privilege while engaging in activism. On getting arrested for the first time Farris noted, “It was the whitest most privileged arrest ever.” Farris experienced her first arrest while protesting separated families at the Hart Senate Office Building. She wasn’t handcuffed or roughhoused; due to the sheer number of arrests on that day, she was booked in a booking station that was erected outside. While being processed, Farris continuously considered her privilege even in her interactions with police. She understood the perception of the gracious white woman thanking police officers, knowing the history and contentious relationships that people of color have with police. “I recognize that the more that I thank the police and like really make it like they are heroes; the more I’m exerting my privilege and sort of buying into that privilege.”
Even with all of Farris’ knowledge of privilege and systems of oppression, given the record of white women leveraging their privilege to protect their proximity to power rather than aiding those in need (case in point the 53% of white woman who voted for Trump); it is understandable to view Farris’ new-found activism with a bit of skepticism. To dismantle systems of oppression, ally ship is crucial; but marginalized groups have become fatigued with privileged groups receiving the credit on the battle that’s been hard fought by groups that are directly affected. Take for example the #MeToo movement; with one tweet Alyssa Milano quickly became the voice for stories of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace. Thankfully, rightful credit was given to Tarana Burke, the true founder of #MeToo who originally created the movement specifically for women of color. In most cases, these clarifications aren’t often made leaving white faces as the heralded saviors for marginalized groups who seemingly can’t help themselves. When asked about white ally ship versus white savior complex and if they are at all related or different, Farris took her time to answer, even revisiting the question at the end of the interview. “I think that the difference is ego,” Farris said. “I think that when you’re in something for what it gives you and how it makes you feel, I think that that’s when you’re on the slippery territory of savior. When you’re in it for the bigger picture, I think that’s when it’s different.”
When first arriving to DC to protest Trump’s immigration policy, Farris was just experiencing a taste of the power that she yielded in her voice. She would harness that power even more when protesting Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. Farris’ involvement in the Kavanaugh protest began long before Dr. Christine Basley Ford’s name was even uttered; she took issue with Kavanaugh’s position on voting rights, civil rights, healthcare, LGBTQ rights and women’s rights. She also took issue with the process and the lack of transparency; she had an overwhelming feeling that the voice of the people was not being heard.
Tuesday, September 4th was the start of Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings and Farris was faced with a dilemma. Her sons’ were starting school the next day and she would miss picking them up from school to head to DC. Like her parents before her, Farris has practiced transparency with her sons about current events and politics. She even shared when she was arrested for the first time. Her youngest, Wells, asked if Farris had been handcuffed, which she hadn’t, to that Wells responded, “Then you really didn’t get arrested mom.” For Farris, her activism and parenting go hand in hand. When Farris was 10 years-old, her parents encouraged her to write a letter to then President Bill Clinton after he had mentioned something about teen pregnancy in his State of the Union that she didn’t agree with. Farris grew up at the height of the HIV & AIDS outbreak and she remembers her parents talking to her and her sister about the facts about HIV & AIDS and encouraged her to always seek the truth and ask questions. Farris realized that had Clinton won the election, she wouldn’t have thought twice about talking to her sons about how the system works in their favor. She realized she had to do more to make her sons’ aware of their privilege and how to use their voices to dismantle an unjust system. So before she headed to DC, Farris spoke to her son’s about what was at stake and her reasoning behind missing their first day at school; with her son’s permissions, she headed to DC.
Farris spent most of September on Capitol Hill. The organizations she connected with, Center for Popular Democracy and Women’s March, provided shelter at a church where she slept in a sleeping bag on the floor with a pillow from the church pews. Farris, being self-employed, didn’t make any money that month; but when family and friends saw her documented activities on Facebook, they began sending money via Venmo that helped Farris with the cost of transportation and food, allowing her to sustain her activism in DC. On Capitol Hill Farris hounded Republican senators who were on the Senate Judiciary Committee. She noted that the interactions with these key Republican Senators was not pleasant, many of them blatantly ignored the cries of their constituents. Farris recalled an interaction with Sen. David Perdue (GA) that became less civil when one of her peers questioned his manhood which prompted Perdue to get in her face and had to be held back by Capital Police. Witnessing the level of apathy on Capitol Hill empowers Farris even more to make her voice heard. In her first visits to DC, she was hesitant about entering senators’ offices thinking that it was something she couldn’t do; that quickly changed when she realized the senators work for her and the American people, decorum became a thing of the past. “If only my mother could see me busting into those offices, she’d have a fit!”
On September 16th, Ford’s allegations of sexual assault were made public in a Washington Post report. In her allegations, Ford alleges that Kavanaugh pinned Ford down at a party, attempted to remove her clothes, and covered her mouth with his hand to stop her from screaming; all in the presence of his friend Mark Judge. Kavanaugh denied the allegations. On Sept 27th both Ford and Kavanaugh testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. At this point Farris, like many women, had an increased personal stake in Kavanaugh’s confirmation. In an essay published on Medium entitled The Toll of Misogyny: One Woman’s Story, Farris shared her experiences with misogyny and sexual misconduct that goes as far back as after puberty; an experience that many women can attest to. She shared how she got a breast reduction at 23 to reduce her 36DD breast but that did nothing to deter the unwanted attention that her body received, “I didn’t know how to live in this world—in this body—without being in a constant state of shame and rage. So I quite literally cut them off.”
The allegations against Kavanaugh were also personal because of Farris’ role as a mother to two boys. In the #MeToo era the question has been raised as to whether boys are safe. A mother on twitter tweeted out that her son is afraid to go on a date alone for fear that a woman would leverage false accusations against him which has prompted responses under hashtags #HimToo and #ProtectOurSons. Trump has even said that it’s a scary time for men stating, “It’s a very scary situation where you’re guilty until proven innocent.” The reality is, it has been and continues to be a scary time for women. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, between 2% and 10% of sexual assault reporting are false; by comparison according to the same study, 1-5 women and 1-71 men will be raped at some point in their lives. The US Bureau of Justice Statistics states that only 35% of all sexual assaults are even reported to the police.
Farris is raising her sons to understand boundaries; how to interact with people appropriately and how people should interact with them too. “I have taken this as an opportunity to keep talking to my kids. I don’t think consent is a one-time conversation. I think it has to be an ongoing conversation,” Farris said. What worries Farris is not how her sons are being raised, but the messages that they’re receiving outside of their home. “Our kids are growing up in a society that’s structured around patriarch and misogyny,” Farris said. “I’m not afraid that my kid will be falsely accused. I’m afraid that my kid will internalize these messages and will think that behavior is okay.”
The Saturday before Kavanaugh’s confirmation vote, Farris was faced with another dilemma. She had already been arrested six times while protesting Kavanaugh; her youngest son’s birthday was the next day and she couldn’t risk getting arrested again. Her son was her priority, but at the time it was hard to reconcile leaving DC at a crucial point. As she was departing, Farris saw buses pulling up with loads of people from all over the country ready to take the stand in her place; the image moved her to tears. “I cried tears of gratitude, tears of hope. Also, there was this element of like... they have been watching. People have been watching what we’ve been doing here and now they know that they can do it too. It was powerful.”
When asked if she still felt hopeful after Kavanaugh was confirmed Farris said, “I have no choice but to feel hopeful. My privilege can allow me to tune out but I want to leverage my privilege.” She mentioned attending civil-rights activist DeRay McKesson’s book talk where he stated, “Hope is work, hope is not magic. Hope is work.” Farris is turning her hope into work. In the past she relied on showing up to the polls and voting Democrat; now she’s identified eight senate races that have the potential to be flipped to blue during the midterm elections. She plans to raise money and canvas for those candidates she feels can be true change agents. Farris harnessed a power that she’s never wielded before and truly believes in the individual power to make lasting change even with the smallest efforts.