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Will Feminists Innovate Out of the Ashes?

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Michelle Goldberg's cover article for The Nation, "Feminism's Toxic Twitter Wars," details what many of us have already seen -- or personally experienced -- online: judging, shaming, marginalizing attacks couched as credible "feminist critique."

The consequences of such behavior have been so debilitating to the cause of feminist power and influence that even some of the entrepreneurs of "online feminism" have looked for new ways to make a difference. Anna Holmes, founder of Jezebel, notes in the article that the blogosphere "feels like a much more insular, protective, brittle environment than it did before. It's really depressing," she adds. "It makes me think I got out at the right time."

While the pain and hurt that many feminists have experienced as a result of our online interactions with each other is quite real, I hope it is not the end of our story.

All movements, sparked in response to a particular need or moment, must adapt and grow with the times. Online feminism's growing pains have all the ingredients needed to harness lessons learned and develop into a new, more empathetic and respectful feminist practice -- something I think the world desperately needs.

A dozen years ago, when I was founding Exhale -- an organization designed to support women and men post-abortion and change the social climate so that it's more respectful of our unique abortion experiences -- my co-founders and I wanted to make sure anti-racism and cultural competency work was fully integrated in the way we ran our organization, delivered our services and pursued our mission. We had no money when we started, but the money we did have, raised in small donations from friends and family, we spent to pay community leaders who would train our volunteers (the women and men who provide peer counseling on our national after-abortion talkline) in anti-oppression work. We wanted to make sure everyone at Exhale had a working knowledge and understanding of the way racism, sexism, homophobia and other structural issues had an impact on the way people experienced abortion.

The first training that these leaders provided to Exhale went well. We asked them back again. At some point in between these two trainings, they decided to take a more confrontational approach, and without first checking in with me or my other co-founders, they went ahead and did it. The training blew up.

Without going into much detail, I can tell you that as a white woman, I spent several days and hours on the phone talking with Exhale's white volunteers afterward about what had happened, and my co-founder, Carolina De Robertis, a queer Latina, spent several days and hours on the phone talking with Exhale's volunteers of color. Then she and I spent several hours talking to each other about what exactly it was Exhale wanted to do with this training session.

Our big epiphany was that we were a community all too used to feeling judged, shamed and stigmatized as a result of our abortions, and that our social mission was to change this dynamic. We wanted to infuse more support, respect and understanding into the culture -- more connectedness and less divisiveness. More love and less hate.

We asked: How could we listen non-judgmentally to our talk-line callers, and yet judgmentally point our fingers at each other for perceived wrongs?

Carolina and I decided that instead of focusing on critique and confrontation, our mission would be better served with proactive and creative strategies that could build the supportive, respectful social climate that we envisioned. We adjusted our training methods, and then we used the lessons learned from our updated transformation approach to develop pro-voice: Exhale's innovative leadership discipline for transforming social conflict.

Exhale has come a long way from the "calling out" critical culture that social justice and feminists activists have come to be so well-known for, and, yet, whose practice has caused so much hurt and pain. Now, Exhale's pro-voice leaders are known for the empathy they offer the world through their shared connections and mutual respect.

All signs point towards online feminism's ability to innovate and create what's needed out of the ashes of these toxic Twitter wars. In December, Ngọc Loan Trần wrote for Black Girl Dangerous that they are "willing to offer compassion and patience as a way to build the road we are taking but have never seen before."

Verónica Bayetti Flores wrote for Feministing, "We've long been really good at critiquing and saying what we don't want, but to get to a world we DO want, we have to be able to dream really big."

It isn't just feminism that's rethinking their tactics. On Orchestrated Pulse, Rob the Idealist notes:

The aimless outrage has many social justice circles spinning their wheels and going nowhere. We can't build transformative change that way... I want to find ways to accurately describe and dismantle oppression, and that doesn't happen if we're constantly reacting to shenanigans. In my opinion, we're looking for politics in the wrong places.

On Twitter, in response to The Nation's story, Brittney Cooper (@professorcrunk) and Samhita Mukhopudhyay (@thesamhita), both of whom were featured in the article, talked to each other about the value of offline conversations. Samhita tweeted that with in-person conversations, "You have the opportunity to humanize and be compassionate."

There will always be questions about how to address the social problems and the problem-people and yet, an online feminist practice known for its compassion, humanity, patience and ability to dream big has the best chance for creating the world we need.

Exhale co-founder, Carolina De Robertis, is now an award-winning novelist and she is on Twitter: @caroderobertis.