When she was 15 years old, Shelby Knox fought to get comprehensive sex education (as in, sex ed that acknowledges that people have sex before marriage, and gives them the tools and information they need to do that safely) taught in high schools in her town in Texas, which at the time had the highest rates of teen pregnancy and STIs in the country. There was a documentary made about her fight, called The Education of Shelby Knox. It sounds kinda boring, right? A documentary about activism? But it starts taking over your mind and your heart the second you hit “play.” You will fall in love with Shelby and want to join her in railing against authority.
Today Shelby is a professional activist. She travels around the country speaking about feminism, and works at Change.org, helping other activists get attention for their campaigns. When we asked you, last month, what jobs you wanted us to find out about for you, one of your top five answers was “activist.” (This is just one of the 817,602,711 reasons you are the coolest readers in the world.) So we called Shelby up to talk to her about her job.
How did the makers of The Education of Shelby Knox know about you?
We were doing our own thing in Texas, trying to get comprehensive sex ed into our high school, and one of the filmmakers found out that her son was getting abstinence-only [sex ed] in New York State. So she started to look into: what is this abstinence-only, and how are people fighting against it? She came across some newspaper articles about the fight in Lubbock and about me, in one of which I had told a Washington Post reporter, “‘There’s nothing to do in Lubbock but have sex,’ says 15-year-old virginity pledger Shelby Knox.” [Laughs] So they were interested in finding out what was going on in Lubbock. They came and found a town that was embroiled in controversy. They told me initially they weren’t actually interested in me, but then they met my [conservative] parents and realized that they were reacting very positively toward their daughter slowly becoming a raging liberal, and they wanted to watch that process evolve. They said it was like a train wreck—they couldn’t look away.
When you started working to get comprehensive sex education in schools, you were Christian, raised as a Southern Baptist, and you were a virgin. I feel like most activism starts with personal issues—things that are relevant to your own life. But that obviously wasn’t the case with you—you weren’t even having sex at that point. So why was that the issue that really snared you?
Because a friend of mine in my math class found out that she was pregnant, and she was kicked off the soccer team, and was about to be kicked out of her house. And I, in a moment of Southern Baptist self-righteousness, said, “Well, how did you let that happen?” And she said, “My boyfriend told me I couldn’t get pregnant the first time.” I was terrified, because I would have believed it too. And I was angry that she didn’t have the information to tell him that that wasn’t true, to protect herself, and yet she and she alone was going to bear the societal consequences of becoming pregnant. That sort of sparked me to wonder, OK, well, what are we learning about sex? Who could have told her that that wasn’t true? And that was when I started paying attention to this pastor who had come to our school for the past couple of years teaching his [abstinence-based] “love, sex, and dating” seminar.
Is that the guy in the movie?
Yeah, Ed Ainsworth—who we called Sex Ed, for obvious reasons. I started doing some research on the internet, and I realized that a lot of the things that Ed was telling us weren’t true, or were only partly true. Through an organization called Advocates for Youth, which fights for comprehensive sex education around the country, I learned that Lubbock was probably getting funding from the federal government for abstinence-only sex education. And so then I made the connection that my school was being paid money by the government to tell us lies that were then hurting my peers.
It’s pretty amazing when you put it that way.
It was infuriating! Because when you’re raised conservative, as I was, you’re told that all authority figures have your best interest in mind—it’s very paternalistic. And to realize that there was this system of authority figures that I trusted, who were actually lying to us on purpose—it was infuriating. And it began a journey of asking questions of authority and knowing that authority does not always have your best interest in mind, and in fact often decidedly doesn’t have your best interest in mind.
You also, as a teenager, started fighting for the rights of Gay-Straight Alliances, and for the inclusion of gay sexualities in sex ed, and for queer rights in general. What brought you to that?
One of the [gay] students came to one of our meetings around comprehensive sex ed, and asked, “What are you gonna do about gay students?” I didn’t have a good answer, but somebody else [in my group] piped up and said, “Half of all gays die before the age of 40; it’s not a good lifestyle; we shouldn’t be promoting it.” And I kind of innately knew that that was wrong, and that it was a horrible thing to say, and I started having conversations with a group of kids who were trying to start a GSA at our school. I started to understand that our fight was connected—not only do gay students need resources within sex education, but they were also living in a school environment that was so hostile to them (the bullying, the abuse from students and from teachers) that they also really needed the Gay-Straight Alliance that they were fighting for. And they, like me, were being told, “Shut up. You’re just a kid—you don’t know what you need. We’ll take care of you,” and not being taken care of.
Did they eventually get a GSA?
[Sighs] No. They took it to court. They were the first Gay-Straight Alliance [in the country] to lose [in court]. That was partly because of the abstinence-only policy in Lubbock that prohibited any frank discussion of sexuality at all. So they took it to court on several levels, and finally decided to stop fighting it because it was taking a toll on the kids who were suing. There are still efforts every year to get a Gay-Straight Alliance in that high school, and it still has not happened.
You were 15 when you started this work, and I think it’s so hard for anyone at any age to change their mind about anything. It’s also really hard for anyone to fight for what they believe, once they figure out what that is. What gave you the strength at the age of 15 to (a) change your mind, and (b) stand up for what you believed?
Anger combined with self-interest—I knew that I was one of the students that was being lied to. I also realized that, as a white, straight kid with relatively well-off parents, I was in a much better position to use my voice, and [to voice the examples of] my friends who had gotten pregnant, and I felt a tremendous responsibility to use that in any way that I could. I did not do it perfectly, by any means. I learned activism, as most people do, in a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants sort of way, and have many stories of things that I tried to organize that completely failed—including an event where there were like three people there, and one of them was my dad. [Laughs] It was a community conversation around comprehensive sex ed. I didn’t really know the politics of the time, and we were talking about Planned Parenthood, and we were really using strong liberal messaging. I think even people who might have wanted to come and who could have seen our point of view were turned off by the way that we were talking about the issue.
It just seemed like it was not for them.
Right. I later came to find out that actually 90 percent of parents do want their kids learning comprehensive sex ed when that is defined as what it actually is. The Republicans have been able to reframe sex ed as, you know, porn in kindergarten classrooms, which no parent is going to want for their child. So later I learned to be really descriptive about what sex ed is and what it’s not.
When did you decide to make activism your life?
I didn’t really decide. I went to college at the University of Texas, and the film came out during my second semester. I immediately started to be asked to travel across the country and speak at Planned Parenthoods and NARALs and colleges and high schools. I had never really realized before that you could be an activist professionally. I kind of thought the feminist movement was something that had died in the ’70s—accomplished its goals and died. So I got a very on-the-ground education about this vibrant movement of activists who were fighting for reproductive rights and gender justice. When I realized that this was an option, I realized it was the only option for me.
Because I am still angry, every day. I still feel a responsibility to use my voice. Also, I’m a really big women’s history nerd, and there’s a beautiful legacy of women standing up and using their stories to contrast the mainstream narrative of what life is. I had inadvertently become one of those people—my story was used to change the conversation around sex ed. I wanted to continue to help other people use their stories to make change in their lives and the larger world.
I watched the Makers interview with you, and in it you said that it’s easier to be taken seriously when you’re older. But you were able to be taken pretty seriously as a teenager.
It feels like I was, but only after the movie came out. In Lubbock it always felt like the adults were meeting with us kids and sort of rolling their eyes at each other, like, Oh, they’ll learn. They’ll learn the ways of the real world. I think it’s important to acknowledge that we live in an ageist culture, and that young people are often discounted. I think we as the feminist movement can do better about facilitating youth voices rising to the top in activism. Because there are real barriers. I used to want to volunteer at this organization, but they could only accept volunteers during school hours. Like, really? You want me to be there, you want my voice, but you can’t make arrangements for something else? Weekends, after school, something like that? But as I got older, after the film came out and I had more confidence, speaking with confidence and acting as if I was going to receive the respect that I deserved made me get a lot more respect.
What’s your title at Change.org?
How do you describe to people what you do for a living?
Change.org is a platform where anyone anywhere can start a petition and win campaigns for justice in their communities and in the world. I help people get more attention to their campaigns, target them well, make sure that they’re making the right ask, and get it out there to the press. I focus primarily on issues around women’s rights. Change.org works on lots of different things, but I’m really interested in working with more young women to see what they want to change in the world, because I’m 25 now and I don’t have the pulse on what’s going on with the teenagers. So I’m really interested in getting more young women using the site as part of their activism.
What do online petitions accomplish? Do they work?
Yeah! One of the things that’s cool about Change.org is that if you enter the address of the target, the person who can make the decision, into the petition, every single time someone signs, that person gets an email. So they feel the mounting pressure as people sign. We also do some creative things, like target companies on Facebook with ads, so they feel like the world is closing in on them and everyone is signing this petition. [Laughs] We do social-media bombing on Twitter, we help organizers figure out who would be the best target for a Facebook-wall attack, or to start asking questions of on Twitter. I think online petititons can be very effective, and they have been. But like all activism, it’s never one thing. It is a tool in a much larger tool set of how you make change in the world.
You said that people don’t plan a direct path to becoming an activist—the path is probably different for every activist. But if a girl is passionate about an issue and she wants to DO something but isn’t sure where to start, what would you tell her?
If you care about an issue, start reading blogs about it, start reading Tumblr and Twitter, and become vocal in those areas. Look up local organizations that work on that issue, and see if you can come to their meetings. See if they need an intern or a volunteer at one of their events. Start talking to your friends about the issue and creating a community of your own of people who care about it. And don’t be afraid to fail or to do something wrong, or to be unsure, because the activist community is all about trying things and seeing if they take and if they can be part of the revolution.
I’m just thinking of so many teens who started zines, or started Tumblr blogs, and things like that. Those are the steppingstones to larger activism. I learn a lot from Tumblr. The people that I follow tend to be a lot of queer kids and kids of color who are really challenging the gender binary and how their communities talk about queer sexualities. I’ve learned so much about language and about activism and stuff like that from them. I don’t know if I use it well, but I use it to learn.
How long did it take to find a job and why was it so hard?
Change.org is my first job.
Right, you’re 25, so that’s age appropriate.
I’ve been there about a year. I couldn’t find a job at a women’s rights organization—I think because even though I was so well known, I was so young, and many people didn’t believe that I had real organizing skills. I was incredibly lucky that people were willing to hire me as a freelancer, to do one-off projects or to go help organize in communities. And I was also able to make money as a speaker. That was really how I survived in New York until Ben Rattray, the founder of Change.org, called me up one day and said, “You’re one of the leading voices of online women’s rights organizing.” I was sort of stunned by that. I was like, how did that happen? But I guess taking your own path and doing it your own way can and does pay off.
Does it feel different to be paid to do activism when you used to do it for nothing? Do you feel farther from the on-the-ground action?
I don’t, because I still travel across the country and speak, and also Twitter is incredibly connective, and so I’m always finding and learning about new things there. But I think I would [feel that way] if I didn’t get to travel all the time and talk to real activists and organizers.
I love your Twitter. You’re so good at it.
Thank you! I use Twitter mainly because I remember when I was 15, 16 years old in Texas and didn’t think that there was a larger movement of people out there who felt like me around sex education and gay rights. I want to tweet so that people who may not live in New York City or L.A. or these big bastions of activism know that there are people out there who understand them, and that they can be part of the conversation and they can create the conversation.
Do you ever get sick of talking about feminism?
No. It’s my favorite topic in the world. It’s my whole life. Some of my friends make fun of me. They’re like, “Don’t you do anything else?” Yesterday was my day off from Change.org—my first day off in a year—and I went to a protest around [the lack of] women on the board of Facebook.
How did that go?
It went really well. The sort of stupid thing is that they wouldn’t even come down and accept the petition from the protesters, which I think was a really bad public-relations move.
What’s the most frustrating thing about being an activist?
I think the challenge of being an activist is that every single day your inbox and your Twitter and your Tumblr fill up with injustices in the world, and things that you want to fix, but you’re not sure how. It can get demoralizing, and it can start to feel hopeless. I just have to remind myself that I can’t do it all, nor should I want to do it all, and there are people who are working on this around the world, just as hard as I’m working on it.
Is there a pressing issue affecting teenage girls that you want to direct people’s attention to?
Actually, right now I have a petition that I’m helping a 14-year-old girl work on. Her name is Julia Bluhm, and she started a petition asking Seventeen magazine to run one unaltered photo spread a month. She is working on this because of the way that Photoshopped images make teen girls feel about their bodies. The goal would be that if Seventeen magazine were to do this, it would start a trend within teen publications of understanding that they have a responsibility as to how they portray young girls.
At the end of the movie it says that you plan to run for president. Do you still plan to run for president?
I hate this question.
No, it’s fine, it’s just one that I have not figured out an answer to. I think it’s incredibly important for all women to consider themselves as candidates for political office. So I do consider myself a possible candidate. But I think that I have probably said too many controversial things in too many places to run for president. [Laughs]
You famously lived with Gloria Steinem for two years when you first moved to new York. Was she a good roommate?
[Laughs] Yes! She was a fantastic roommate. She was fun, and always there to listen to my anger about the latest activist thing, or listen to me cry that my best friend had forgotten my birthday. She is just incredibly kind and giving and open and sweet. I’m really glad that I get to know her.
Did she leave dishes in the sink or anything like that?
No, she cleans up after herself. The only roommate issue we had is that I go to bed really early and get up really early; and she goes to bed really, really late. Like 3:30, 4 o’clock in the morning. Sometimes I would be getting up as she was going to bed, which is funny.
Anything else you want to say to our readers?
The only thing I ever worry about [in interviews] is that my path to activism is filled with so much privilege. I had a movie made on me, then I lived with Gloria Steinem. That is not going to be everyone’s path. So I would just encourage everyone to not be afraid to make your own path and not be afraid to ask for help when you need it and certainly never refuse to help others, because in the end our sisterhood is the most important thing that we have, and we have to build it in our generation. ♦
(Interview conducted by Anaheed.)