“There’s Power In Your Voice” — The Reality Of Being A Full-Time Activist

Human connection and feeling seen are vital to our sense of self and wellbeing. In a three-part series of virtual heart-to-hearts, as part of Refinery29’s Self-Service partnership with Dove, we’ve connected like-minded women to discuss beauty, body image, identity, visibility and activism in relation to self-esteem, to show the deep connection and wisdom that can come from speaking honestly about our experiences. In part three, Tanya Compas and Amika George meet on video call to discuss activism, self-esteem and self-care.
At 17, Amika started Free Periods, a campaign to end period poverty in the UK. Named one of TIME magazine’s most influential teenagers in the world, for the last three years Amika has worked tirelessly, organising protests and petitions and lobbying the government to provide free period products in schools, which finally happened in April 2019. "I don't think I'm an inherently confident person," she told fellow activist Tanya, "but I had to develop that confidence to do interviews and public speaking on this issue."
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Confidence and high self-esteem might seem like a prerequisite for activists, who spend their lives speaking out on behalf of others, but for Amika and Tanya it was something discovered along the way. An award-winning youth worker and LGBTQ activist, Tanya experienced homelessness last year, which had a huge impact on her self-esteem. From that experience, she decided to start Queer Black Christmas, a safe space for young Black queer people who had also been through hard times and been made to feel as though they couldn’t exist as themselves at home and in the world. 
In this heart-to-heart, Tanya and Amika discuss how using your voice empowers others to use theirs, and the impact that being a visible activist has on their own self-esteem. 
Amika: Hi Tanya! 
Tanya: Hey Amika, how’s it going?
A: Good! I was reading about Queer Black Christmas, it sounds amazing, how did you start it? 
T: Thank you! It really was amazing. After personally experiencing homelessness, Queer Black Christmas was birthed out of a desire to create space for queer Black young people to come together and celebrate the holidays. Like myself, queer Black young people may not spend Christmas with their families, or may find Christmas particularly difficult at their family home. Originally, my idea was just to bring young people together for a meal, but it got so much bigger. I was like queer Black Santa! I crowdfunded for the event and asked the young people what they wanted up to £40 and then ordered it as a present. One young trans person asked for a donation to their top surgery fund, so I said 'I'll donate to the fund, but you can also get a present.' Another young person asked for a £40 food voucher because their food bank was closed. These are the realities of what queer Black young people have to go through. On the day, we did all these cheesy games but it was so fun – we had afrobeat musical chairs and a big meal provided for free by Cue Point London, who are amazing allies and supporters of my work with Queer Black Youth. It was the most beautiful day. I wanted to do Queer Black Summer over the summer holidays but obviously COVID-19 happened and I thought that was it for my work with youth. After taking a month or so to just deal with all the emotions and angst that came with being in the peak of a pandemic, I got the idea to start a crowdfunder to fund some workshops and provide some more long-term engagement for queer Black youth. Within one day we had almost raised £50,000 and by the end of the month had fundraised over £110,000. I split £58,000 between five other incredible organisations who work with queer Black youth across the UK including Rainbow Noir in Manchester, Unmuted Brum in Birmingham, Humblebee Creative, Gendered Intelligence, who support trans and non-binary youth, and Colours Youth UK, who run an annual festival in Manchester for QTIBPOC youth. This crowdfunder meant that I have now been able to set up Exist Loudly as a CIC, create some initiatives and run workshops for queer Black youth, along with funding another year of Queer Black Christmas! It’s all really exciting. I just need to find a team of other queer Black people to work with now! How has your campaign been affected?
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A: That's so amazing! Congratulations! So I started Free Periods in 2017, lobbying for the government to provide free menstrual products in all schools and colleges in the UK. Two years later, the government did make a pledge to end period poverty and as of January 2020, the scheme started, which means that schools can order the products through an online portal. But obviously with the pandemic, schools were closed and that cut off the really vital access, so we started another campaign to say that the government should continue to provide the products, which was successful, so that even though schools were closed, you could still get in touch with your school and pick up the products. It’s inevitable that those who were already struggling to afford the products would continue to struggle under lockdown. A lot of young girls know that their families just aren't able to provide the funds for the products, so they don't feel comfortable asking. I get messages from young people saying they'd never even ask their mum for products because it would be a choice between food and tampons. These are the girls who have to ask their teachers or friends or use alternatives like toilet paper, newspaper and socks, which obviously has an impact on their self-esteem. Or they miss a whole week of school. Periods don't stop for a pandemic! And of course it’s not just schoolgirls who don’t have access to products, it’s homeless women, refugees, asylum seekers. The economy and Brexit are always going to take priority over the health and wellbeing of these groups and that can feel disheartening. Going through something as huge as COVID-19, it's like, are they ever going to listen to us?
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T: I can relate so much. My period just came and I went to the supermarket to buy products but there weren't any. I had to borrow from my housemates and I'm someone who has the privilege to afford these things. I read the interview you did and you talked about girls putting tampons down their sleeve and it made me laugh because I used to do that, and I still see girls do that when I do workshops in schools. Kids are so used to shame. People like you and I have to dispel these stigmas around periods and sexuality or whatever it may be. We’re so used to women, non-binary people and trans people being silenced and the issues that we face not being a priority because those in power tend to be straight men and not from the communities that we exist in, so it's really easy for them to dismiss the issue.
A: Definitely. There's this idea that we can't talk about periods or celebrate menstruation as something powerful, we need to think of it as something shameful and disgusting, and that has an impact on girls' self-esteem and confidence. I started campaigning quite young and I don't think I really understood the gravity and the emotional drain that advocating for a cause can have when you’re being repeatedly ignored by the people who have the power to make change. At first I found it really hard not to take it personally when I was talking about period poverty and Free Periods and just being completely ignored and silenced; that really affected my self-esteem. I also found it hard because I was posting a lot on social media and finding a huge community of really engaged young people who were constantly messaging me asking how they could help, but on the other side you get the middle-aged male politicians – one of whom refused to say the word 'tampon' in parliament. It's hard to be the middle person trying to reflect that energy in the political space. Since life has been on pause in lockdown, I’ve started to register the toll these things have taken. When you're moving so quickly and doing a million things at once and thinking about advocating for a cause, you can very easily neglect your own mental health and wellbeing. That's something I've been trying to work on lately, because you can't help other people if you can't help yourself first. You can't do anything if you don't believe that you can. 
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T: 100%. It's so easy to forgo your own emotional, mental and physical wellbeing when you're doing this sort of work because you're so passionate about it and there's always a next, and a next. When it comes to self-esteem, you go from working with people in your community and it's all great and wonderful, but then you go and reach out to MPs or the government and it's really hard. I've applied for funding and been consistently turned down because they don't see why there has to be something specific for queer Black people. They understand queerness in relation to white people and they understand Blackness in relation to gun and knife crime but they don't see how these issues can coexist in one nuanced experience. The work I do is focused on creating spaces for joy but they don't understand it outside of trauma, they don't understand why I'm bringing people together to experience joy, rather than to talk about their trauma. You have to pimp out the community in order to get the funding to do the work – you have to talk about trauma in order to get funding for joy, and that process really affects my self-esteem. There's a lot of responsibility, being a visible activist, to always get it right and to always be present. Everyone is seeking somebody to understand them and being a visible activist, you might be the only person they can see who will understand them, and of course you want to do that for everyone but it's physically impossible sometimes, and that's a lot of pressure. 
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A: Definitely. As an activist, people expect you to have an opinion on everything and you're seen as not being a good activist if you're not posting about the latest piece of news. That affects your self-esteem. I had to learn how to overcome that and to keep pushing through and speaking out. But people do respect the fact you've put in the work and that you're carving out representation, and no one can deny that's having an impact. Nobody can tell you that your experience is wrong because you're the only person who can tell your own story. 
T: Exactly! I say that to my young people. By talking about your own experiences, other people will be drawn to you who share the same experiences. You realise there's a lot of power in your voice. There is worth in your experience. And don't think you have to say these things to change the world; start by trying to change your own life and make it easier to navigate. Once you do that, then you can make it bigger and make further impact. 
A: I really agree! My book is coming out in January called Make it Happen and it's this idea that whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever your age or gender, you can be an activist. Activism doesn't have to be huge and scary, it can be something small that impacts one person, it can be a tweet or an Instagram post or signing a petition. My petition got 300k people posting it and it actually changed government policy! Now is a great time to be an activist because everyone's at home and if you have access to the internet, now's the time to tweet that thing you've always felt was wrong that people aren't talking about enough. I saw your post about creating the content you want to see – so if you can't find content online that you feel you can identify with or that represents your experience, then create it yourself, so that others can see it. That was so incredible. Social media obviously gets a lot of flack and it's not perfect but there's real value in that – you can be the representation that you can't see. So thank you for that!
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T: Thank you for saying that. There is value in what we put out; you may not change the world but you may change the way one person sees the world, and that's the most important thing. When you see someone being passionate about something – and it could be anything, any cause – it enables you to also feel the power and to say it for yourself. It also gives you the language. With the work you're doing, you're giving girls the language to call out their schools and to ask that their schools apply for the free product scheme from the government. All these things allow people to empower themselves and raise their self-esteem and confidence, to feel like they can have these conversations. Even if it's on a totally different issue, they feel empowered to speak. 
A: Totally agree. We've agreed with everything each other has said!
T: Haha yeah I know. I’ve loved chatting to you. 
A: Me too! Hope we get to meet in real life soon.  
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