Catching Up With Itinerant Feminist Organizer Shelby Knox

May 18, 2016

The 2005 documentary film The Education of Shelby Knox chronicles the efforts of Texas high school student Shelby Knox to get comprehensive sex education taught in Lubbock's public schools. The school system's abstinence-only education policy (i.e., no information about condoms) has been a spectacular, unqualified, and tragic failure, unable to stem the area's nation-leading rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The school board and city of Lubbock essentially took a stand against comprehensive sex education based on the religion-fueled (and disproven) assumption that education leads to promiscuity.

One might expect such a liberal stance from a bed-hopping, pill-popping rabblerouser, yet Shelby's credentials make her position all the more interesting. She's an honors student and avowed virgin until marriage. Coming from a supportive (yet conservative Christian and Republican) family, Knox struggles to do what she believes is right, convinced that Lubbock's decision to turn a blind eye to the problem is doing real harm to her peers.

Knox stands resolute in the face of school board setbacks and her disapproving fundamentalist pastor Ed Ainsworth, who sees Shelby's crusade for sex education as contrary to Christian teachings. Knox explains that while she herself has chosen to remain celibate, she recognizes that not everyone has the same support system and opportunities she has, and that her choice is just that--her choice. She refuses to accept Ainsworth's belief that good Christians cannot be liberal in their views.

The Education of Shelby Knox shows a person's courage in questioning deeply-held beliefs, as well as the dangers of basing public policy on personal faith. Shelby, a bright and articulate activist, finds that the self-evident failure of the abstinence-only approach is blamed on a few "bad" kids instead of a failure to educate. The film is at its heart an inspiring story about personal convictions and tolerance. The film gives insights into Biblical literalism and fundamentalism, as represented by pastor Ainsworth. Ainsworth, who tells Shelby that "You're a liberal Christian, and that makes a lot of people real nervous... the terms liberal and Christian are like oil and water." Ainsworth seems unaware that it is his views, not Shelby's, that make a lot of people real nervous. In a moment of chilling clarity and candor, Ainsworth cautions Shelby, "Sometimes when I hear you speak, I hear tolerance." Shelby replies, "Sometimes the Bible is not clear enough for me."

The Education of Shelby Knox is an insightful study of faith, tolerance, and one young woman's coming of age in a religiously-divided America. It examines the social, political, and religious pressures that divide our country, as well as the human spirit that can unite us. The film won an award at the Sundance Film Festival and made the festival circuit. It has aired on the PBS show P.O.V. (check for rebroadcasts), and can be purchased online.

In person Shelby is charismatic, self-assured, and quick to smile. I met her at the High Falls Film Festival in Rochester, New York (one of the few film festivals worldwide that specifically celebrates the work of women filmmakers) where she and co-director Rose Rosenblatt introduced their film to the audience. I interviewed her about the film at the time, and recently found her again on Twitter and thought it would be interesting to catch up. Though ridiculously busy she found the time to answer a few questions about her life since the film, changes in Lubbock, feminism, politics, and how to create positive change in the world.


BR: When we last spoke, shortly after the documentary about you made the rounds in festivals across the country, you were planning to move to Washington and begin speaking on sex education for the Advocates for Youth organization. Now you're working with Gloria Steinem in New York City as, I believe, a self-described "itinerant feminist organizer." Can you connect the dots between Lubbock and Manhattan, in terms of your journey and focus as an activist?

SK: I didn't grow up dreaming of being a feminist activist; it's not like that's a result on any aptitude test and I didn't even realize it was a possible ‘career' until the film came out and I started meeting the dedicated organizers who are the backbone of the movement. In fact, I'm still figuring out what it means to have dedicated my life to feminist activism--and make a living out of it at the same time!

Much like I stumbled into activism as a teen, I ended up living with Gloria Steinem in New York after I accepted a job with the Sadie Nash Leadership Institute when I graduated from college. One of her friends was on the board and, since she was going to be away for the summer at a writer's retreat, Gloria opened up her home to someone who needed a place to stay and was willing to take care of her elderly dog and cat. I fit the bill and, when we finally met at the end of that summer, struck up a friendship that led to me staying on in her home for almost two years while I built my portfolio as a feminist speaker and writer. It was through my friendship with Gloria that I realized I'm part of a proud tradition of women's rights activists who do their work for the movement by going from city to city and lending their voices and profile to local feminist work.

As I traveled across the country, sometimes with Gloria but often by myself, I began to understand that my generation's feminism is increasingly sparked, strengthened, and played out in online spaces as well as offline ones. That's why I eventually accepted the role of Women's Rights Director at change.org, the non-partisan petition platform. I worked there for over four years, helping people start, run, and win petition campaigns for gender equality. One of my ‘specialties' became working with college rape survivors trying to get justice and change their campuses to be safer for all people.

And that, to make a long story short, is how I ended up in my current position, back in the documentary film world as the Outreach Director for Audrie & Daisy. The film, about two girls who were raped in high school by their fellow classmates and subsequently bullied online, premiered at Sundance earlier this year and has been purchased by Netflix for wide release later this year. I'm working with an inspiring list of groups-like Futures Without Violence, Know Your IX, SafeBAE, and Women, Action, Media--to build a robust and interactive campaign to accompany the film upon release and inspire action on the issue of rape in middle and high schools.

The throughline to all of this work is my passion for making the world safer and more equal for all marginalized people through community building, story sharing, and collective action. Just as I wouldn't have ever imagined myself a feminist organizer all those years ago, I never thought I'd be back where I started, in the realm of documentary film. That's what is so awesome about a non-traditional career path, the privilege of working where I'm most needed as an organizer.

BR: What about the topic that originally inspired you: Has anything changed in the Lubbock schools' sex ed policy?

SK: Lubbock still has an abstinence-only policy, unfortunately, but there is hope on the horizon. The first Gay Straight Alliance in a public high school in Lubbock started up last fall and is still going strong, and the students at Texas Tech University have built a strong foundation of women's rights activism on that campus. The truth is, until states mandate comprehensive sex education, there will be places like Lubbock that refuse to provide it, even though the federal government now financially incentivizes teaching it. That's the battle still being waged in Texas and in other communities across the country, one that parents, teachers, and students are still taking on.

BR: There seems to be increasing tension between the different waves of feminists, especially over the past few years. Many men and women (Meghan Trainor, Meryl Streep, etc.) who presumably share the goals of gender equality are reluctant to self-identify as feminists for various reasons including that they don't agree with what might be called the more "radical feminists" who are (rightly or wrongly) perceived as misguided. For many it's an important issue: An incredible number of bytes have been spent over the past few years blogging about, opining about, and dissecting quotes from celebrities (and specifically women) about their status as a self-described feminist. Some feel that stars and celebrities have a social obligation to publicly take a position, while others think that how a person self-identifies is their own business. Still others think the whole question is just a distraction from much more important feminist issues. What's your position?

SK: I personally love and honor the word feminist, and am proud to use it as my primary label for myself. But I also understand, as a white, cisgender, documented woman, it's a label that's safe and useful to me in a way that many folks of color, queer people, and other marginalized communities can't embrace because it's frankly been a movement for far too long that is led by and fights primarily for the rights of people like me. I know far more people who refuse to identify as feminist--who do powerful, important gender equality work-for that reason, rather than concern over being perceived as "too radical." In fact, I'd bet they would say the feminist movement is far from radical enough.

That is the more important conversation, in my opinion, far more relevant to the future of gender equality movements than whether this celebrity or that celebrity will use the word. I'm more concerned with building a intersectional movement that centers the needs of the most marginalized, uplifts leaders whose experiences are diverse and their organizing impactful, and refuses to be little more than a mouthpiece for the problems of white, middle class women. If we don't do that, and do it with intention and respect and a willingness to really look at the way feminism has failed a vast swath of non-white, non-straight folks across our history, the movement will fail and deservedly so.

BR: Related to the above, there seems to be a palpable divisiveness, a sense among some people that anyone who doesn't agree with them in every respect (or chooses different approaches or emphasizes different goals) somehow isn't a feminist (or may even be sexist!). Do you agree or disagree, and what do you think is the root of this polarization? Is it simply an inevitable and harmless product of growing pains for the movement, or does it represent a serious challenge to the future of feminism?

SK: There is no Office of Feminism, no official body handing out membership cards and down rulings about what is feminist and what is not. I think the only thing feminists must agree on is that anti-equality folks like Sarah Palin and her ilk have no right to the word because their work is deeply and intentionally counter to the goal of gender equality. I find, as an organizer, that this argument is one that's primarily played out in the handwringing, trolling media rather than in the ranks of folks who do pro-equality work every day. Of course there are disagreements about strategy and funding but there's not a finite amount of good work that can be done and most organizers are too busy actually doing that work to squabble about petty differences. The real fight for the movement's success is ensuring that we're intersectional, focusing and organizing on all issues through an anti-racist, pro-LGBT lens, and taking on the factions that are determined to maintain the status quo. Feminism is probably a good life philosophy but, more importantly, it's a movement dedicated to collective organizing. And that means actions, big or small, as long as they're moving the ball forward on equality, are far more important that labels or thought pieces on the Internet. 

You can find out more about Audrie & Daisy at the film's website and catch it later this year at film festivals and on Netflix. 

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