Let’s go back to 1994 — pre–social media, pre–cell phones, and, for the most part, pre–commercial-use internet (I know, hard to imagine). I was a teacher’s assistant in a women’s studies class at Penn State and was known on campus for my work as a women’s rights activist. A student approached me in class one day and asked if I’d heard about the new show MTV News: Unfiltered, which allowed viewers to become reporters and document footage of real-life controversial events.
The show certainly piqued my interest: I learned about it at the same time that awareness about the disturbing institutionalized sexual harassment taking place at my university was growing on campus.
Every year, female students at Penn State were subjected to sexual harassment by the Mifflin Mob — a group of male students that would grab, grope, and yell derogatory remarks toward members of the opposite sex. The Mob originated at a men’s dorm on campus during spring finals week long before I was a student. Over the years, it had become a twisted tradition in which men gathered in this dorm and proceeded to run through campus screaming and trashing things in their path before ultimately landing outside of a women’s dorm and screaming sexual remarks at female students who watch from their windows. Because the mob ran during finals week, many students were studying in libraries late at night while this occurred, and therefore felt unsafe walking through campus.
I can vividly recall one incident where a female student, who had been previously gang raped, heard this group of men shouting sexual obscenities outside of her dorm, causing her to spiral into a regressive state. She locked herself in the bathroom and slit her wrists. Instead of reprimanding those involved and putting an end to the mob, the school’s administration archaically responded by focusing on their female students’ actions. They locked the bathroom doors in the dorm to prevent another cutting incident and handed out paper signs that said “pull the shade on harassment” for women to hang in their dorm windows — as though doing so would stop their male peers from engaging in such a ridiculous, sexist event.
I was enraged and ready to put an end to this horrendous tradition. I went home and dialed the MTV News: Unfiltered hotline and left a message about the long-standing sexual harassment that had been taking place at the university. To my surprise, I received a call back. In fact, I had been the first caller to use the hotline and the first story the show picked up. They sent me two gigantic video cameras and assigned me to go “undercover” to shoot footage of the mob in action. To document both sides, we decided to put one camera in the dorms in which the administration had locked the bathrooms, while another camera followed my fellow protesters and me outside where the mob had convened.
Today, thanks to social media, most people are accustomed to being on video and sharing our experiences. But at that time, no one wanted to be caught on camera doing something bad. The mob found out that there would be cameras present and decided to cancel their run. It was a victory for our movement and a step in the right direction, but MTV News still wanted the story and to show viewers what the running of this mob really looked like. We worked with a local TV station to get footage of the mob from years prior and interviewed students and protesters who had experienced it firsthand. We sent the segment, which highlighted how just a handful of active students put a stop to an almost 20-year tradition born from institutionalized sexual harassment, back to MTV News.
After the segment aired, I was approached by a woman who told me how our story personally affected her. She’d had a similar experience with sexual harassment on campus, but didn’t feel empowered to speak out or do anything about it at the time. That conversation made me realize the power and potential of my work, and I started speaking around the country about student activism. I knew that I was destined to use the media to create awareness and implement change.
While this definitely wasn’t my original plan for a career, I’ve found that you can build a business out of social change that feels authentic to your core. Now I’m the founder and CEO of Talk to Jess, LLC, a strategy firm that helps brands better connect to women and girls. I’ve worked as the global ambassador for Dove for over 10 years and recently consulted on the relaunch of Barbie’s body. I work with companies to help creatively make social change. Activism can be more than a hobby or project: It can be your professional destiny.
Here are some essential tips to get you off the ground:
- Find your purpose. I think purpose is what makes you effortlessly happy. It isn’t necessarily loud and grand; it can be quiet and bring you joy. Focus on the feeling of it in your everyday life. My purpose is to be a communicator and storyteller on behalf of women and girls. I truly care about elevating women around the world and putting an end to gender stereotypes.
- Define your story. Defining your story will help you explore the “why” of what you do: It’s the driving force behind your mission and a constant exploration of the life-changing experiences that shape you. The greatest thing about defining your story is that you can always redefine it. We may hit roadblocks that try to throw us off our paths, but if we understand that these obstacles are just scenes of a bigger story, we can bring ourselves back to center and reinvest in our “why.”
- Recognize opportunity and respond when it knocks. No one will come with a big neon sign indicating an opportunity, so listen to subtle signals. Take my example of calling in to MTV News. I could’ve doubted myself and let those hesitant voices in my head hold me back, but I didn’t. This is what opportunity knocking looks like: jumping on the moments that terrify you because life rewards you for it. I knew I needed to stop what was happening on my campus — or at least try to shed light on it — no matter how scary doing so was.
- Stay focused, even amid inevitable naysayers, like those who do not want the lives of girls and women to improve. Because people felt threatened by my decision to tell the truth, I faced rape and death threats as a 21-year-old student. Following your purpose in life can be a lonely road — our culture encourages comfort. You can stay on the sidelines wishing for a better world, or you can find a way to make it your life’s work (and pay the bills!).
- Align yourself with those who support your vision. They will prove to be stronger than anyone trying to detract from your vision. In the end, changing culture takes community, so find a solid support system — whether it’s a local group of like-minded individuals or a virtual community of activists working toward a similar mission. This will give you the reinforcement and motivation you need to keep pushing forward.
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