Activist panel: ‘passion is key’

Local activists met in the Laurel Forum at UNC Asheville today to encourage students to find their passions and get involved in their community. 

“The cries of the people who are oppressed are loud if you’re sensitive,” said Clare Hanrahan, founder of the New South Network of War Resisters and legal adviser to the Occupy Asheville movement.

It was the first of two panels about community activism hosted by UNCA’s women, gender and sexuality studies program.  The second panel will be held Thursday from 12:20 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the Laurel Forum in Karpen Hall.  The event is free and open to the public.

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Volunteer opportunities abound in Asheville, but according to Monroe Gilmour, coordinator for the Western North Carolina Citizens for an End to Institutional Bigotry, overwhelmed students should pick an area they’re excited about and work it into their schoolwork.

“My advice is to find your passion, where you’d really like to be involved, and see if you can somehow work it into your academic life, whether it is a paper you’re doing or an internship,” Gilmour said.  “I know when I was in grad school, I did my internship with a minority consulting firm, and I did my paper on migrant social services in Oregon.  That got me involved in things I was already passionate about.”

According to Nicole Hinebaugh, activists should not lose touch with the individuals they seek to help.

“Get involved at the ground level and actually meet the people you are most interested in working with,” said Hinebaugh, the project director for the Women’s Wellbeing Development Foundation.  “We can get interested in helping, but we help from this distance that we don’t actually ever interact with people we are helping . . . So wherever your passion lies, if it is working with people that are homeless, go meet homeless people.  Go interview them.  Speak with them.  Sit on street corners with them.”

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Founder and president of Just Us For All, Samuel Soper understands students may have difficulty pursuing activism while balancing academic work.  However, Soper encourages people to remember little acts help, too.“If just one person can walk away feeling a little bit different after an event, then that is a huge difference, and that is a change,” Soper said.  “Change can’t happen on a grand-scale right away.  Small things have to build up into something larger.”

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Hanrahan, who described herself as an “agitator from the start,” said promoting large-scale change can seem intimidating.  However, she told the audience, “Don’t believe the lie that you’re powerless.  That is systematically hoisted upon us to disempower us.  There is power in even one of you taking a stand to embolden and encourage each other.  Don’t even doubt the power of collective action.”

In response to a student’s question about how to prevent exhaustion from over committing to activism, former executive director for Western Carolinians for Criminal Justice Ellen Clarke said to pace yourself.

“You have a whole life ahead of you.  It doesn’t all have to be done today,” Clarke said.  “Shy away from people who are trying to put too much on your shoulders.  Or if you’re doing it to yourself, practice compassion with yourself.”

According to the press release, panelists for Thursday’s event include:
• Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet Natasha Trethewey, Charles Howard Candler Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University
• Holly Iglesias, prose poet and North Carolina’s only winner of a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship; lecturer in UNC Asheville’s Master of Liberal Arts Program.
•  Molly Must, muralist and co-director, Asheville Mural Project, a branch of Arts2People
•  UNC Asheville students Caroline Wilson and Kaley Fry

Photos by Megan Dombroski.  Megan Dombroski is a senior journalism student at UNCA.

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