The power of storytelling to combat stigma and the power of art to open hearts came together last month as students on 95 college campuses around the country participated in the 1 in 3 Campaign’s “Week of Artivism.” From April 13 through 19, activists posted “pop-up” displays, some with the permission of their administrations, others as guerrilla actions. These featured real people’s abortion stories in a variety of locations, including quads, students unions, and even bathroom stalls. Throughout these efforts, students say, labels like “pro-choice” and “pro-life” took a backseat to story-sharing—perhaps offering insight about ways that young activists, far from being apathetic or disinterested, are engaging their peers about issues of reproductive rights and justice.
The findings of a recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute support this affinity for storytelling. Millennials report that personal experience with abortion is the biggest factor in their views on reproductive rights policies. Eight in ten who have had an abortion and more than 60 percent of those who know a close friend or family member has had one say it should be legal in all or most cases.
That tendency to equate the personal with the political may explain the way that young activists have gravitated toward campaigns that focus on storytelling, and the “Week of Artivism” was no exception. Student organizers watched their efforts spark a dialogue on their campuses as awareness about the need for reproductive health care access led to widespread, nuanced discussion of views on abortion. They say it didn’t seem to matter whether the art was posted for a week or a day; once their peers were presented with life experiences and information they hadn’t considered before, the conversation continued in classrooms and around campus.
According to student activist and Michigan State Students for Choice public relations coordinator Emma Walter, the pop-up art and discussion actions also tapped into the way millennials “look to build new vehicles for change” through social media and creativity.
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“The graphics received a very positive response from students,” said Walter. At Michigan State, she explained, “We held the event outside to capture the foot traffic where it would receive more attention. We were quite pleased with the reception from students, as many took time to view the stories and also share their support through taking their own pictures with the displays.”
Campaign director Julia Reticker-Flynn explained that kind of interactive response is what the 1 in 3 Campaign was designed to provoke.
“We see art as integral in creating this shift in culture,” she said. “Our aim during these weeks is to provide an opportunity for young people to create artistic displays in their communities that challenge stigma around abortion and ignite a new conversation—one steeped in empathy and respect.”
Conversations around shame had already begun to take place before the campaign at Colorado Mountain College, where Molly Goldberg, student activist coordinator for Amnesty International, was moved to participate in the pop-up art because of a previous attempt by a stranger to stigmatize abortion.
“I’ve always been a human rights activist and reproductive rights have been important to me, especially because I’ve had an abortion myself,” said Goldberg. Although she’d prioritized other issues in the past, she said, “I had an epiphany when we were out after an [anti-drone] action with Amnesty International.”
Seemingly out of nowhere, someone who approached the group of activists randomly began telling them how abortion was wrong—that it “ruined women.”
“A woman in the group of eight of us said, ‘I had an abortion and it didn’t ruin me,’” Goldberg recounted. “And then all of us said we had had one too—all eight of us. I realized it’s common, but still so stigmatized.”
At Colorado Mountain College, the administration took down the displays, which Goldberg said could have been a timing issue. Her group had unknowingly picked “school visit day” for the guerilla action; the administration, she said, could have just been avoiding conflict with prospective students’ parents.
Still, she noted, this reaction was itself emblematic of the stigma people who have abortions face. “In some ways the administration’s actions spoke volumes as to why we were doing the action; they took it down because of the stigma and it really pissed people off,” said Goldberg.
The displays coming down definitely didn’t stop the conversation on campus, either.
“I heard stories from kids that their entire three-hour math class turned into a debate on choice,” said Goldberg. The discussion was complex, she reported; as students shared their own stories, some peers who had formerly taken positions of banning abortion except in cases of rape or incest shifted their viewpoints.
Reticker-Flynn said the sharing of stories did more than change minds on some campuses: “Students at Washington University in St. Louis said that the visibility of these stories reminded students who have had an abortion that they are not alone.” Goldberg, too, noted that the incident with her administration also prompted her to think about how individual people are affected and silenced by stigma.
“I wonder if the reason [abortion] can be traumatic for some women is the stigma; society has made it a traumatic experience for them,” she said.
Irene Suh, co-president of Students for Choice at the University of Michigan, said that the pop-up art’s statistics on who has abortions and how common they are were especially effective on a campus she describes as “predominantly white” and relatively economically privileged.
“People are still very surprised—even people supportive of the choice to have abortion—at the ‘1 in 3’ statistic,” said Suh. “People think of it as a very rare occasion. Then they read these stories and they think ‘Wow, this could be me; I totally could have been in this situation.’”
For Suh, recognizing her privilege and realizing that low-income women and women of color disproportionately struggle to access reproductive health care has shaped her activism. “Not only is it really stigmatized, but it’s hard to access,” she said. “I had no idea this was an issue for people.”
Both Goldberg and Suh describe the success of the “artivism” campaign as fostering conversation through an intersectional feminist lens.
“I think the most surprising conversations were with a lot of the male students who were feminist allies,” said Goldberg. “The conversations actually led into feminism and the debate around the inclusivity of feminism, how it can be a bad word, and how it sometimes doesn’t include women of color. It was surprising that people were understanding how the social justice issues affect each other.”
Suh’s history with sexual abuse led her to valuing bodily autonomy as well as effective, comprehensive education on personal agency. Since becoming more involved in abortion rights, the scope of her activism has broadened along with her perspective.
“Coming into college I supported abortion, but I didn’t know why it was important—just that the root of the issue is that people want to assert bodily autonomy,” said Suh. “For religious and political issues, this very common medical procedure one in three women have is stigmatized. I started thinking about other issues—especially the struggles for racial justice—and how reproductive justice is integral to that.”
Suh has worked to assert her agency and feels privileged to have control over her body, even if it was a process. She’s fighting to make that same control a reality for everyone.
“It took me a while to get there,” she said. “My hope is that by talking to people and sharing stories like through the 1 in 3 Campaign, we’re allowed to stand up and say, ‘We can do this!’”
The type of unflinching positivity and drive exhibited by student activists like Suh flies in the face of the reputation with which millennials are frequently saddled. Media and some older organizers can frequently disregard students or younger people as “slacktivists.” Despite all evidence to the contrary, our country’s youth are written off as lazy and self-absorbed—or at least indifferent and apolitical, especially on abortion rights.
All of the student activists who spoke with Rewire vehemently contested the widespread characterization of them and their peers.
“I disagree with the portrayal of millennials as a monolithic disengaged group,” said Walter. “My generation is just as engaged as previous generations in our approach to social issues.”
Goldberg sighed with almost tangible annoyance.
“Everyone talks shit on millennials and says that they’re self-centered and I haven’t had that experience at all,” she said. “They’ve been very open to changing the world, which sounds idealistic, I guess, but it’s true.”
That idealism comes from their connectivity, according to Goldberg. “I think the access we have to social media and the knowledge we have about it is used as a reason to write us off, when that is actually an advantage,” she said. “We are more connected to people around the world than anyone has been before and those connections inspire us to take action. Millennials are able to be idealistic because we’ve seen it—the Arab Spring, the Black Lives Matter movement. Social media and connectivity is bringing us together.”
Suh echoed the virtues of online connections: “The mass media wouldn’t be educating the public, so people are getting online and talking to their communities.”
Both Suh and Goldberg expressed aggravation at the characterization of their generation as specifically uninvolved in or unable to understand governance.
“It’s frustrating—especially with the last election—with everyone saying young people didn’t vote,” said Suh. “There’s this assumption that we’re all being selfish and focusing on what we want to do. The reality is that people in my age group are incredibly educated on these issues.”
According to Reticker-Flynn, the students who contacted the 1 in 3 Campaign about bringing the “artivism” project to their schools are committed to equity and innovative outreach.
“Many of the students participating are leaders of reproductive health, rights, and justice organizations on their campuses,” said Reticker-Flynn. The goal was to build on the work and energy of those individuals to spread both messaging and involvement.
“It is the hope that through this action, student leaders will be able to reach students who are new to these issues and engage them in powerful conversations,” Reticker-Flynn added.
“We have great ideas on engaging,” said Suh. “The bounds of feminism have been pushed by young people making these issues palatable. That’s a really great [contribution] that maybe we don’t get enough credit for.”