Wednesday, September 28, 2011

On Community

I recently took a brief, financially ill-advised but positively wonderful, two-night trip to New York City. My main intent in doing so was to see a friend I hadn't seen for fourteen years. As you can imagine, the experience was thoroughly surreal. It's weird when you're inside your own head and you can't really see yourself growing and changing, and then you're forced to reflect on what a strange little person you were at 13. I was overjoyed to find that my friend and I have one of those relationships that you can just pick up again, no matter how much time has passed, not least of all due to the fact that he has grown into an amazing, sweet, funny, clever and brave person - don't I know how to pick 'em!

But that's actually not the point of my post. You see, while I was in NY I was staying with the inimitable Steph Herold, activist extraordinaire and founder of I am Dr. Tiller and Abortion Gang (from whence I know her). I had never met Steph in person before, and in fact only knew her through the surprisingly warm, incredibly close community of AG bloggers.

It is not generally my wheelhouse, flying off on my own to a strange (and how!) city in America to stay with people I've never met. But such is the power of the online community. Steph and her partner (and their gorgeous dog) turned out to be simply lovely hosts, as did Nicole Levitz, another AG blogger I was meeting in person for the first time. We had great conversations about all manner of things - reproductive justice of course, but also sex, maple, wine, real estate, politics, the differences between Canada and America, work, life, cats, dogs and mice.

One of the things we discussed was moving around as a child, and what kind of impact that can have on your adult life. I knew my friend I was there to see because I lived in Australia for six years as a tween; until I moved out of my parents' house I lived in four different cities. I know that's not a lot compared to some kids, especially army brats, but it certainly had a big effect on me. Certainly it wasn't all good: I have a hard time taking those first steps towards making deep and lasting friendships; I tend to be a bit snobby about my "worldliness"; I probably idealize the time I spent in Australia too much. But it has all been worth it for the opportunity to have people like my visiting friend in my life. It made my heart ache to wish him goodbye, again, at the end of my trip; but at least now it is easier than ever to be in touch with people who are far away.

All this to explain that I am so grateful for the online communities of activists I have encountered and been privileged to be a part of. I'm thinking specifically of Abortion Gang but there are lots of others - starting in mIRC chatrooms and into my teenage Wiccan days (ask my friend Amy about this, she will be glad to make fun of me with you) and moving through every stage of frivolous fandom and earnest activism (and sometimes both combined). I am so grateful to live in an age where we have such technology at our disposal, and where I can connect with such well-spoken, thoughtful and courageous people. And of course, again, there are downsides; I have a whole folder labelled "hate mail" in my gmail that can testify to that. But it has been worth it to know these people, and to be welcomed into their lives and (sometimes) into their homes.

I know all this stuff is supposed to be making us less social and neighbourly, and in some ways I agree; I read Bowling Alone for a university class and I thought Putnam had some pretty valid points to make. But maybe it's just because I'm an introvert and online communication is so much easier for me, but in my experience it has opened the world up for me. I talk to so many more people, read so much more, and see so many more issues through so many different perspectives than I ever could have otherwise. And I can be in contact with amazing, brilliant people I left on the other side of the world fourteen years ago without a hope of seeing again.

Most of all, I think these online communities are so important to our movement. I believe that while it is far from the only way to do effective organizing, online activism is such an efficient and valuable way to reach and connect people. Not only like-minded people, either. Friends of mine have told me that the stuff I write, and other stuff I share on Facebook and Twitter has made them curious about those issues in their own communities. Imagine that on a grander scale, and you can really see the importance of big feminist group blogs like Feministing, Racialicious, Tiger Beatdown, Shakesville, Womanist Musings, etc. etc.

I read shit every day that I would never see or think about if I didn't have the internet. And more importantly, I have amazing friends in far-flung places with whom to share insight and maple cookies any time I can get there. Thanks internet! And thanks especially to the generation before mine (Gen X?) who pioneered this style of activism that has redefined the meaning of the word "community".

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