Insider and Outsider Approaches

Over the past week, a friend (and cohort member) of mine told me that a mutual friend of ours had quit her work position.  Our friend felt that her feminist identity was not respected or heard, so when she felt targeted by her employer, she decided to resign.  My cohort member and I were both surprised and hated that our mutual friend had this experience.  As we continued to discuss this situation, I expressed that I felt our friend could have worked to collaborate (and even suck up if needed) in order to keep this coveted position.   By gaining her employer’s goodwill, maybe she could then articulate her frustrations and wishes.  I discussed specific strategies that I would have tried in order to change the situation by collaborating with those in charge.  My friend allowed me to keep talking, and she finally said that she thought the fundamental difference was if a person was trying to affect change in the system from the inside or the outside.   Her simple comment struck me powerfully.  
My lack of understanding of our mutual friend’s perspective was striking.  I have been so indoctrinated into my insider approach to change that I did not even recognize her position as taking a stand and being rejected.  I began to wonder from where my affinity for an insider approach developed.  The answer was pretty clear. 
As a middle-child with two brothers, I am self-diagnosed with “manipulative middle child syndrome.”  My friends and I joke about my ability to understand the needs, desires, and motives of others and use that knowledge effectively and skillfully (maybe I should have been a corporate attorney, not a psychologist).  I credit this skill to tirelessly navigating life with two brothers and not wanting to ever have to play alone, so tactical compromise became a necessity.  I recognize how my upbringing aided me in excelling at an insider approach to change, but does that mean I should simply stay with what I know?
So, I began to ruminate on the optimal way to elicit change to societal structures.  Is an insider or outsider approach more congruent with feminist ideology?  Should we jump into the patriarchal system and then collaboratively work to enact change?  Or should we advocate from the outside and reject joining the patriarchal system (as much as we realistically can)? Have I been approaching feminism and social activism the wrong way?   What is the right way?
The more I reflected on these questions, the more I realized the reasons for my insider approach were what I truly wanted to challenge.  Why do I use an insider approach to influence change?  I definitely recognize the benefits from an insider approach.  It allows me to collaborate with those in power and build allies.  An insider approach also allows me to use my positive reputation to influence change with fewer tensions.  If someone’s guard is down, maybe they will be willing to listen.   I am also aware that fear may sometimes drive my decision to pursue an insider approach.  My fear of being “othered.” 
My fear of being “othered” is the same fear that all oppressed individuals experienced regularly.  It is that feeling and knowledge that you have deviated from the societal norms and others recognize your deviation.  It is followed by pressure to realign with the norm.  Failure to realign leads to labeling, judgment, and pathology.  
Of course I am scared.  However,   given my myriad privileges (e.g., Whiteness, upper-middle class status, able body, accepted size), maybe I can withstand being “othered” and use my privilege to fight for others.  Not that being “othered” will cease to hurt, but my privileges may open doors to help me further advocate for those who are “othered.”  My privileges may also lessen my sense of being “othered” if those in power can relate to me around common privilege (there goes my insider change approach creeping in!). 
So after coming to this conclusion, I then felt guilty because I have been affected by fear and have not been a brave, confident feminist, and I am vigilantly analyzing and judging my insider approach and my motives.  And BAM! Suddenly, I am myopically focused on an outsider approach.  However, the more I sat with this tension, the more I begin to rethink it (yet again).  Why do I need to pick an approach?  Don’t both approaches have benefits?  Why can’t I just sit with ambiguity? (Probably because ambiguity is a Type A’s worst nightmare!)
The more I put up a fight and want a clear cut answer on the best way to approach societal change, the more I realize that such an answer does not exist.  My challenge is not to pick a side, but to integrate them effectively.  I know the benefits of an insider approach, so I need to focus and meditate on the benefits of an outsider approach.  In an effort to keep the outsider approach salient in my mind, I have begun a list of positive, feminist reasons to challenge myself to step outside of my insider approach. 

11)   A pressing need for feminist voices exists on our society. 
22)   What I say and do may impact others, whether I know about it or not.
33)   Solidarity exists in the experience of being “othered,” and I have many friends with whom we can deepen our connections through such experiences
44)   Others may experience the same fear that I do, and my actions could subsequently encourage others to act.

This list is far from complete, and I anticipate adding to it as I progress in my understanding of insider and outsider approaches to feminist activism.  My hope is that I increase my awareness of why I chose to advocate as I do.  I also hope to challenge myself to be vulnerable to fear and “otherness.”  I invite others to hold me accountable on this journey and encourage everyone to continue the never-ending process of evaluating and increasing understanding of ourselves.    

Written by Katy Haynes Owen

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