new gen activist doreen st. felix on scandal and beyonce
Hand-picked by Lena Dunham to blog about reproductive rights for Not That Kind of Tour, Doreen St. Felix is fresh out of college and already shaking up the activism world.
Photography Katie McCurdy
Native Brooklyner Doreen St. Felix has always had a passion for writing. "I was nine years old and I'd take notes for class in the tiniest writing so that I could save paper for writing stories," she says. She also grew up with inspiring people around her, like her single and financially independent Haitian grandmother.
In college, St. Felix began combining her passions for speaking out, writing and art — through everything from student journalism and activism to her undergrad thesis, Black Girls (a collection of essays about her mother, Lauryn Hill and Michelle Obama). Since then, magazine and newspaper readers (Doreen has written for The Guardian and n+1), college students and activist groups alike have looked to her words to help form their own opinions and plans for action. Most recently, she's been helping to organise protests in New York in response to the non-indictment in the Eric Garner case.
Her breakout moment came last fall, when Lena Dunham asked her to blog about reproductive justice for her Not That Kind of Tour. St. Felix published important stories tied to the cities in which Dunham was speaking. "I was really psyched that her tour had that bent to it. Reproductive justice is such an important conversation, and I loved being able to contextualise it with stories of different women in history and geographical locations."
St. Felix's work with women's issues never stays trapped on a page or screen. She has lent her insight to roundtable discussions and has spoken at New York City high school mentorship organisation Girls Write Now. St. Felix describes her role as a mentor as unplanned but rewarding. She's learned to hear what young people are really saying about their struggles, and not assume they're facing what the internet tells us they're facing. "You have to sit on your hands and listen," St. Felix explains. "If they don't fit into exactly what you know from Audre Lorde...maybe it's you who needs to change."
St. Felix is optimistic about what the media and entertainment industry can do to further conversations in areas like feminism. She sees the power of television to create images that help marginalised people imagine different realities. Working as a consultant for Steve McQueen's new HBO show Codes of Conduct helped drive that home. "Working in TV showed me that we [as women] can control how we're shown," St. Felix says, naming Fox's Empire and Shonda Rhimes' shows as examples. "Working this system gives women images they wouldn't normally have...a show like Scandal demonstrates what it's like to be in a black woman-focused world, and that's important for people to see."
That "image-making," as St. Felix puts it, is all the more vital because of the whitewashing effect that she feels feminism has experienced since its first and second waves. St. Felix says she sees a long history of a feminism that applies more to white women than it does to women of color in the political sphere, as well as a consumer culture in which companies recalibrate what feminism means in order to "sell" it — in the form of products and services — to their target audience. "Instead of starting with the more marginalised groups, [companies] usually start with white women, who, in the pay gap, earn $0.77 for the dollar men make. But what about black women, who earn $0.66 on the dollar?" she asks. "Or Hispanic women, who earn $0.58?"
She's also working with other black women she's met on the internet to set up what she calls "a sort of pop culture canon." "When the media talks about feminism for the black woman, and about who gives off that kind of girl power, the discussion is always focused on Beyonce. And that's great, but it also undercuts the work of artists that were important to us before, in the 90s, for example — people like TLC and Brandy." St. Felix says they'd like to create a sort of performance in which each person would talk about an artist that has touched them.
She's also working on a play based on the idea of consent. "Consent has been narrowed to the place and moment at which sex is about to happen, but there are so many other instances in which consent is an issue," she explains. "Like living in a neighborhood with poor air quality. You don't say yes to that. You don't have a choice." The play will focus on marginalised groups like women and the queer community, and she is working on bringing it to universities in about two years. St. Felix is going to be a guiding voice in the worlds of writing, art and activism for a long time to come.
Text Courtney Iseman
Photography Katie McCurdy