Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Topsham. Show summaries are available at lovemaineradio.com
Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle, and you are listening to Love Maine Radio show number 322, airing for the first time on Sunday, November 19, 2017. Today’s guests are Shane Diamond, founder of Speak About It and Alison Beyea, executive director of the ACLU of Maine. Thank you for joining us.
Speaker 1: Portland Art Gallery is proud to sponsor Love Maine Radio. Portland Art Gallery is the city’s largest and is located in the heart of the Old Port at 154 Middle Street. The gallery focuses on exhibiting the work of contemporary Maine artists and hosts a series of monthly solo shows in its newly expanded space, including Ingunn Joergensen, Brenda Cirioni, Daniel Corey, Jill Hoy, and Dave Allen. For complete show details, please visit our website at Artcollectormaine.com
Lisa Belisle: Shane Diamond is the executive director of Speak About It, a Portland¬-based nonprofit promoting consent education and sexual assault awareness at high schools and universities around the world. It’s good to have you in.
Shane Diamond: Thank you. I’m glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
Lisa Belisle: Tell me about Speak About It.
Shane Diamond: Absolutely. Speak About It was started in 2010 to talk about consent and healthy sexuality in a way that talked about consent positivity and healthy relationships in the context of getting consent so that both people can enjoy it or all people can enjoy it. The show is written originally in 2009 at Bowdoin College where I was a senior, and I was asked to be in that original version. There were eight of us and it was a blast. We thought we would do this thing for the first years and then nobody would care.
It turned out to be way cooler than any of us thought it would be. I graduated in 2010 and I was like this should be everywhere. I sat down with some folks in the administration and they were like okay. I was like, “Wait, what?” I moved to Portland and was working part-time at Bard Coffee and kicked this off. In 2009 when the show was written, all of the dialogue around consent was no means no, go until you hear stop. This is bad. You will burst into flames.
Speak About It was written to counteract that and say yes means yes, and ask for what you want, and be able to talk about healthy sexuality, and what it means to be in a relationship and not be in a sexual relationship that those two things can be separate and what does that look like and how do we talk about it, and giving people language to talk about consent in a way that demystifies the awkwardness of it.
Also, talking a lot about bystander intervention. If I’m at a party and I look a little funny, ways to empower you to step in and say, “Shane, come with me to get a slice of pizza. Let’s go to the bathroom. Let’s go change the music,” to step in and help prevent situations that might lead sexual assault.
Lisa Belisle: What was your initial interest in this? Why did you think that this was an important thing to put out there into the public conversation, I guess?
Shane Diamond: That’s a great question. I think most people are having sex, everyone is talking about sex and no one is talking about how to make it better, how to make it fun and so my wish upon a star unicorn, snowflake dream is that everybody has good sex. I don’t care who you’re having it with or when, if you’re waiting for your wedding night or if you’re not, it should be good, it should be enjoyable. You’re not there to bake a cake, you’re there because you want to enjoy it and hopefully you want the other person to enjoy it.
Speak About It to me is giving people that language to be able to talk about it , to talk about what we want and also where our boundaries are. Through this conversation and through this education and this dialog, we are preventing sexual assault by empowering people to take ownership over their sexuality and speak their minds. Ultimately, we want to end sexual assault. I know that’s not going to happen. We’ve been doing this for seven years. We’re not going to fix it but we can hope to chip away at it and make sure that people have healthier, more positive experiences.
Lisa Belisle: Is it in your mind a problem with communication that can ultimately cause either, one, to not enjoy sex or maybe even want to end up having a sexual assault experience.
Shane Diamond: I think communication is certainly at the heart of it. There have been some studies and people can believe or not believe and of course they’ve been refuted, but one study a few years ago found that the majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated, like 90 something percent of sexual assaults are perpetrated by a small percentage of people. Most of them are men and many of them were repeat offenders.
Those people, we’re not going to fix. If 95% of assaults are caused by 5% of people, we’re not going to fix those 5% of people. Some people are just bad apples but the other 95% of people who are good, who are well-intentioned, who have good hearts, who if you ask them if they’re going to get consent would say, “Of course, I would. Why wouldn’t I get consent?” People don’t have the language to say, “Hey, can I do this? Does this feel good?” If you think now, I’m 29 so I got a cellphone when I was 16 because I wrecked my car and my parents were like, “Wait, we can’t trust you.” This was when it was 10 cents to send a text message and two to receive. Now, 17, 18-year-olds are coming in college grow up with cellphones, grow up with smartphones. The majority of the way they’re communicating is through technology. Nobody is having face to face conversations anymore about benign stuff.
We’re encouraging people, put the phones down, go out to lunch with someone, talk about the weather, ask about stuff that doesn’t matter so you can practice language, practice communication so when you want to make out with someone, you can look at them and say, “Hey, do you want to make-out?” You’re not going to text them and then look over, smile and wait for them to receive the text and text you back. That’s not how the world works. It’s encouraging people to find their voices and find language that works for them.
Lisa Belisle: See, I can’t help but think this is … It’s a funny place we’ve gotten ourselves to that we are so connected with technology that we are disconnected as humans that we now need to encourage people to go out and learn how to have conversations as humans. I mean it’s not a judgment, I mean it is what it is.
Shane Diamond: I remember being high school and middle school and like calling my friend’s houses and having a conversation with my mother about here’s how you address your friend’s parents and here’s how you answer the phone at our house. Now, people just text each other. Even all of us have smartphones, how often are we calling versus texting. If you’re calling me, it must be important. If it’s something simple, you can just text me but if you’re calling me, it must be important because nobody calls anymore.
Lisa Belisle: That’s true. Generally when my children call me it’s because something bad has happened or they need money or something.
Shane Diamond: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: What type of pushback have you gotten from people who just want sex to be … Don’t have it, just wait forever, we need to be married. I mean there’s so much interesting psychology wrapped around …
Shane Diamond: I think one of the most diverse shows that we do, we’ve been hired by the US naval academy and this is going to be our fourth year there which is really exciting. We speak to their sophomore class every year because the first year they’re there, they’re called plebes and they’re pretty much just run around in uniforms and get tied to desk and stuff. Not actually. They don’t have a lot of freedom. We speak to the sophomores once they’ve gone through that first year of training.
It’s really cool now that all of the upper class men have seen the show and so the seniors were able to say, “Hey, we think this is important in our culture here.” It’s one of the most diverse shows that we do because of the breakdown of the naval academy. They have students from all 50 states, and Puerto Rico, and DC. You have to be highly recommended and so we have a very diverse audience and different opinions.
People love it or they hate us. You have to think about my… I’m trying to think of life like Olympic diving scores. Bear with me on this. In Olympic diving, they give you scores and then the judges immediately throw out the highest in most scores and you’ just look at the ones in the middle. Everywhere, we’re going to get a lot of great praise and we’re going to get people who hate us. If we let those two opinions drive what we do, we’re going to go crazy. A lot of the pushback is people who are religious, people who think that talking about casual sex is bad.
I think people want to see themselves on stage and so folks who are choosing not to have sex or choosing to wait until marriage. We talk about that in the show but we’re also talking about when you have sex or are sexually active. We’re not just talking about P and VG sex. When you’re sexually active, about communication respect and people who aren’t ready, who aren’t at that point often push back against it. Really, we don’t have a ton of negative feedback. We’re very lucky. I mean schools don’t hire us so if they hate us they won’t bring us in but among the schools that we go to, our feedback we’re grateful is pretty positive.
Lisa Belisle: You mentioned the naval academy. What other schools have hired you?
Shane Diamond: We are about to send four separate troops to 41 colleges in the next three weeks. This fall alone, we’re going as far south as Florida. We’ll be at Florida Polytechnic University. We’re heading southern Methodist University in Dallas. We’ll be at Hendricks college in Conway, Arkansas. We’re sending a troop to North Carolina. We’ll have groups in Pennsylvania, Ohio, upstate New York. We do a lot of ivy league schools. We’re at Harvard, Cornell, Penn. We just got hired by the US merchant marine academy outside New York City which will be really fun.
We’re going to Vassar College outside New York City. We are fortunate to do work here in Maine. We work with UNE, SMCC, USM, Colby and now Thomas College. I said Speak About It started at Bowdoin and so they do a show in-house with student actors and we don’t go there but we high-five as we drive up to Colby. We’re sending a group four hours north of Toronto this year to North Bay, Ontario. I’ve instructed them to eat some Timmy Ho’s donuts for me.
Lisa Belisle: When you were starting this as a senior at Bowdoin, did you ever think I’m going to be coordinating all of these people to go all over the country to talk about something that I feel is really important?
Shane Diamond: Never. There were a couple of years in the beginning where I felt like I was holding sand in my hands and just waiting for all of the grains to fall through my fingers. It’s been a remarkable journey and I’m very lucky to have a lot of support from the community. My wife has been incredible supporting me through this. Her partner talks about sex all the time and it probably gets old., but I got into this because I loved being on stage and seeing people’s minds change.
Letting people know that you can talk about it, that it’s okay, that you should be talking about it, that no one is going to light you on fire, that it’s okay to talk about pleasure and seeing people’s faces change when they realize they have power in this. I never thought I would be behind the scenes coordinating spreadsheets to send other people out and I am learning to get that warm, happy, stage feeling by empowering my educators to go out and make that change and then they tell me about it in the office.
Lisa Belisle: Do you still get to go out on stage yourself?
Shane Diamond: I don’t. I actually rewrote the script a couple of years ago so that I don’t know all the lines or I didn’t know my lines. I know the entire script backwards and forwards. I’m hearing it for eight years but it was too much to get on stage and try to coordinate things as the executive director. We do offer some programs that I get to run. We were just at a retirement home talking about consent and communication which was really cool. We do programming for high school juniors and seniors and then college freshmen is our meat and potatoes, but we offer programs for parents of high school students to encourage parents how to have a dialog about consent with their kids.
You were saying that if your kids call, it’s because something bad has happened. We’re encouraging parents to talk to their kids about sex, about sexuality, about communication in ways that are non-threatening so that when something bad happens they … or if something bad happens your kids feel comfortable talking to you, so if you’re in the car and a song comes on, you’re like, “This song is kind of rapey. This song is sort of misogynist.” You can plant those seeds in a way that’s informal and then it’s easier to have more difficult conversations down the road. I get to do that which fills my soul.
Lisa Belisle: I don’t want to undersell my children because, to be cool here, they do call me at other times.
Shane Diamond: I’ve got photos here in the studio.
Lisa Belisle: Exactly. They are really great kids. I am thinking about, you talked about songs coming on the radio and I’m thinking about my daughter who’s a women’s… She’s a gender studies major and what used to be, I guess, called women’s studies but now I get to encompass all genders so that seems more inclusive. She will talk about things coming on… Some things that she watches on television, movies songs on the radio and it really does lead to interesting conversations in the car.
Shane Diamond: Absolutely.
Lisa Belisle: She’s 21 now and this is something that started. We had to start talking about a lot of the stuff when she was much younger. How did you start having these conversations with your parents?
Shane Diamond: My mother is going to kill me. My parents have been divorced almost my entire life. They get along really well and co-parented very well. We were very lucky to have both parents in our lives, my sister and I. I must have been like nine or 10 and I was getting something out of my mom’s purse. She was holding our wallets and I pull out a string of condoms. I was like, “Mom, what is this weird gum, individually packaged weird gum?” She goes, “No, no.” She opens it up and blows up a condom. If you see a blown out condom, it’s like a size of a watermelon. She holds up to me and goes, “Don’t ever let a guy tell you, he’s too big to wear one.”
Lisa Belisle: I love your mom.
Shane Diamond: Now, I’m queer so what are you going to do.
Lisa Belisle: I think that’s great. Again, that must have started when you were much younger, the ability to even have a conversation about that when you were nine.
Shane Diamond: I think my parents were really great about empowering us in our bodies and our choices. My sister and I are both athletes and so we talk a lot about what it meant to be in our bodies and taking care of our bodies obviously from working out in nutrition but also about the relationship our bodies get to have with other people and empowering us to make those decisions and being able to talk frankly about it. I remember talking to my dad about early relationships. He was a straight dude. He wants straight due opinions and passed them on to the two of us. It was helpful to be able to have someone speak bluntly about what’s about to happen and here’s what to look forward to and here’s some speed bumps that can happen and how to talk about it.
Lisa Belisle: You’re sending group in to talk to an older population What’s the difference between what that group is going to say and a group that’s speaking to college freshmen.
Shane Diamond: Yeah. You’re talking to a retirement home?
Lisa Belisle: Yeah.
Shane Diamond: That was super interesting. It’s actually not too dissimilar from talking to college students. I went with my program coordinator and it was just the two of us and really people in retirement communities, they’re living with strangers, meals are provided. They probably aren’t working and so it’s a very similar dynamics living in college and some of these people are with partners, some are widows or widowers and maybe you’re dating again, maybe you’re not but probably haven’t had many conversations about consent because it hasn’t been relevant or no one when they were 20, certainly nobody was having this conversation.
It’s again being able to talk about pleasure and respect and making sure that your partner is awake and excited and is consenting, is agreeing to engage in something. If we say this across the board but if you don’t feel comfortable asking for what you want, you might want to hold off until you’re comfortable asking for it. What does that language sound like? It was awesome. It was a ton of fun. It was the second best question I’ve ever been asked happened at this training.
Lisa Belisle: That would be?
Shane Diamond: Spencer, are you ready to edit?
Spencer: Hit it.
Shane Diamond: We went in and we were talking all about pleasure and consent and one of the women was probably in her 60’s or 70’s raised her hand and asked… She was like, “What are your thoughts on self-pleasure?” We were like, “Girl, get it.” Get into some of the biology about the body changes and so it might take a little bit longer to get the car started and don’t give up. It’s just dynamic change and think about introducing lube and that might be helpful and she was like, “What’s lube?” We were like, “A lubricant K-Y jelly.” She was like, “I know that.” I was like, “If you’ve got any sensitivity to yeast infections, anything with glycerin probably isn’t going to help.” She was like, “Okay, cool.” I was like, I have the best job.
Lisa Belisle: I didn’t really hear anything in there that needed to be edited out really.
Shane Diamond: Perfect.
Spencer: Those were facts.
Shane Diamond: Facts.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah. This conversation that I’m having with you reminds me of a lot of conversations I have as a doctor with, really, it’s young women who come to see me, young men don’t tend to come see me. It’s usually young women that used to be, when I started in medicine 20 years ago, all about birth control. That was the conversation. Nobody wanted to get pregnant and now young women they wanted… They’re not even necessarily interested in the birth control because some of them haven’t even started having sex yet, they just want to have a conversation about sex in general and what things that they need to think about. It’s very interesting that it’s always traditionally was birth control and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and both of those are very negative. You’re talking about something on the other end of the spectrum which is not as negative.
Shane Diamond: We have some programs in the fringes that we’re excited to start working on one of which is really talking about pleasure in the anatomy of pleasure and again, we can talk about this and it can sound like we’re promoting sex or we’re straying from our mission of sexual assault prevention but the more we can talk about owning your body and making empowered informed decisions, this is all primary preventions sexual assault and so in having a conversation about pleasure teaching people that you can ask for pleasure, you can know what feels good and that makes you a better sexual partner and a more communicative one.
This all fits together but really excited to start thinking about how do you talk to people about what your anatomy looks like and how to treat it and how to interact with other people’s anatomy and what words to use. What makes people feel comfortable? What makes people feel sexy? Of course encouraging people to say no or here’s my boundary and this is far as I’m going to go. One of our favorite videos that we like to show as a high school teacher from outside Philadelphia named Al Vernacchio and he does a talk about changing how we talk about sex education, that in America we “overlaid” sex, I’m using air quotes with baseball.
Everybody knows the bases analogies. They’re a little bit different but everybody gets the gist. He breaks it down and says, “That’s really restrictive. In baseball, you can only run the bases in a certain order, in sexual activity you can go anywhere you want and you don’t have to follow a set path. You can start a third base and then run to the outfield and that’s okay.” Baseball makes it sound really competitive. It’s one team against another. It’s a spectator sport.
You’re telling all your friends about it and so his solution is that we think about it instead like pizza because when do you have pizza, when you want to have pizza. What’s the first question? “Hey, do you want to have pizza? What kind of pizza do you like? What’s your flavor? What’s your pleasure?” If we can start having these open ended questions with people in terms of sexual activity, it makes for just much healthier, safer, more enjoyable situations.
Lisa Belisle: You mentioned that your original mission was really, and is, centered around preventing sexual assault and there has been a lot in the news in the last five years really that’s been difficult, really controversial. It probably was never clear cut but it seems like maybe things are even less clear cut than they once were.
Shane Diamond: It’s tricky. On the one hand, we’re seeing in the past few years, we’re seeing more reports of sexual assault on college campuses and one can look at that and say, “It’s because there’s more sexual assault happening,” but the stats are actually relatively the same. It’s just that students feel more comfortable talking to their administration which shows trust and action, and faith in the process for a lot of people who are reporting these assaults.
If a school tells you they have no sexual assaults, that’s not good. That’s saying that their students don’t have any faith in the administration to come forward and report it. It’s not saying that sexual assault doesn’t happen there. It certainly is getting muddier and I think part of this ties in to the media and how that we were able to have access to all this and we’re writing BuzzFeed articles and things are happening on Twitter. Anybody can be a writer now and so things get bigger quicker.
It is certainly interesting. One of the things we recently started talking about was that we have a legal driving limit for alcohol, it’s .08 and there’s no legal consent equivalent. In a lot of states, in a lot of schools they say if you’re intoxicated, you’re unable to consent but it doesn’t say what intoxicated means and that’s different for everybody. I might process alcohol differently than you do based on what I had for lunch or if I worked out and if we’re drinking enough water. Two drinks to me might be a different than two drinks to you. There’s no line for that, there’s no sex breathalyzer and part of what we do is encourage people to have these conversations.
If you think you or your partner might be too drunk to consent, don’t. Don’t do it. Wait until you’re both sober. The risk of hurting someone or breaking the law is much greater than asking to wait until another time. It’s tricky. We get that question a lot how drunk is too drunk and where is that line? The answer is we don’t know but we encourage people again to communicate and check themselves and think about what they want and how their partner is doing. Even if you’re looking for notches on the bedpost, what kind of a notch is it if someone is unable to consent?
Lisa Belisle: I think we’ve also even had to come to the place where we recognized that we used to think of rape as being stranger and now the fact is that a lot of sexual assault is acquaintance. That’s something that’s tough to wrap your head around is somebody that you are friends with could potentially do something harmful to you.
Shane Diamond: Yeah, it’s really hard. I remember I was looking at colleges in 2005 and the blue light system was really popular and so you should be able to see a blue light from another blue light and they were emergency phones because someone could jump out of the bushes and rape you. What they’re finding out is that over 70% of assaults the perpetrator is known to the survivor so you’re right, it’s someone you have class with, it’s a friend, it’s a partner. Certainly there are people who are malicious but I think for the most part it’s miscommunications and it’s a lack of language.
It’s making assumptions either based on past activities, “We had sex last Saturday. It’s okay to have sex this Saturday or I don’t want to ask because it’s my partner and I know or it’s my partner and I don’t want to say no.” A lot of this muddied communication mostly well-intentioned people with a lack of language and then confidence to be able to use it and that’s what we’re trying to teach.
Lisa Belisle: The other thing that I think we’ve had to work on is the fact that as a woman you can sexually assault a man and traditionally this idea was with at least penetrative assault it was always the male that raped the female and that’s had to change.
Shane Diamond: It has, and I think that has probably always been happening. We just haven’t been talking about it. One of the things that I love about Speak About It is we present a range of experiences so people who are having sex, not having sex, experimenting with their sexuality, we share about 18 monologues throughout the show. It’s an hour-long performance. We share about 18 monologues, all which are true stories that have been sent to us by students. Our hope is that everybody in the audience can relate to some part of the show whether it’s one of these monologues, if it’s one of the skits that we do, some of the dialogue or if it just seeing someone on stage who looks familiar, it’s really important to us that we don’t have five straight white people of equal height on stage.
One of the monologues that we got recently was about a man who was assaulted by a woman and he had a physical response to something. He didn’t have an emotional response but if you touch a body in a certain way, it’s going to respond and him feeling a little bit betrayed by his body. This stereotype of men can’t be assaulted especially if you’re not being penetrated and how do you talk about that? How does queer assault play into this? If you’re two female-bodied people and what does assault look like if we’ve got this paradigm of penetrative rape?
This leaves a lot of people who have bad experiences who are assaulted out of that, out of the equation so we’re trying to add more language to say in any situation regardless of your gender identity or who you’re sleeping with, you’re being sexually active with, if there’s no consent, it’s sexual assault. Of course then, the other side of that is we don’t want to put a label on anyone so if someone comes to me and says, “I had sex. I realized it wasn’t consensual. I didn’t really consent to this.” It’s not my place to say, “Oh, you’re a survivor of sexual assault.” We can have the legal definition that says anything without consent is sexual assault but it’s not for us to place labels on anyone about their experiences.
Lisa Belisle: You’ve been doing this now for seven years.
Shane Diamond: Seven years.
Lisa Belisle: What would you like the next seven years to look like?
Shane Diamond: Oh, boy. I’m really excited to have more conversations about pleasure and what that looks like, about empowering people, about how to be healthy media consumers, healthy porn consumers and what that looks like. As I said, a lot of our programming is high school, juniors, and seniors, and college freshmen. You could argue that by the time people are high school juniors, and seniors or college freshmen, they’re already decided how they’re supposed to be sexual beings. We’ve been saturated with media with people telling us how we should look, how we should dress, what we should do and one could argue that by the time we speak to these students, it’s too late.
I would love to see a programming for younger high school students, maybe even middle school students to be able to talk about boundaries and respect and bodies and communication. As I said, we’re going to be at 41 schools in the next few weeks. I want to be everywhere. We should be everywhere. Let’s go everywhere. We’ve done this program at Wesley. We’ve done it at Cape Elizabeth. We do programming at Casco Bay High School. Let’s get all the Maine schools. We’re here. We’re in Portland. Let’s make it happen.
Lisa Belisle: I’m sure that that’s going to happen because it seems like-
Shane Diamond: Thank you.
Lisa Belisle: …you’ve had great success so far. I’ve been speaking with Shane Diamond who’s the executive director of Speak About It. A Portland based performance nonprofit promoting consent education and sexual assault awareness at high schools and universities and also apparently retirement facilities around the world. Congratulations on the work that you’ve done so far and good luck with your future endeavors.
Shane Diamond: Thank you so much and if people want to check out what we do, you can find our website speakaboutitonline.com. We’re on Facebook, Facebook/speakaboutit or Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, Snapchat behind the scenes, @wespeakaboutit. Keep in touch, Follow us, like us. We’ll like you back. Be a part of the conversation and thank you again for having me. I’m really honored to be a part of this.
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Lisa Belisle: Alison Beyea is the executive director of the ACLU of Maine where she oversees the organization’s legal, legislative, public education and development activities. Thanks for coming in today.
Alison Beyea: Thanks so much for having me.
Lisa Belisle: I know. We’re especially fortunate because you don’t have a lot going on right now.
Alison Beyea: It is an exceptionally busy time unfortunately.
Lisa Belisle: I guess I want to talk about that but I know that as an attorney, you could have chosen any number of different things to get into and you chose this. Why? What’s your background?
Alison Beyea: There’s so many things that go into creating who we become as people and it’s hard to not look back to the early years to think about what motivated us, what impressions we had. I was fortunate to grow up in a family of activists, of people who were committed to social justice and environmental justice. In some ways, I’m not sure it was a choice so much as a destiny to follow in my parent’s footsteps. I think the family joke is that there was… Once I came home in third grade complaining about how the boys wouldn’t let me play football during recess and then planning my critique to the administration. That was a good sign that probably I was going to be set for a path of activism.
Lisa Belisle: That’s interesting because other people might have come home in third grade and just been like, “I can’t play football, go do something else.” Instead it’s like, “How am I going to work on this problem? How am I going to affect change?”
Alison Beyea: I was very lucky to be surrounded by people both in my… Many people in the school and my family who really taught me that as a woman, I had a right to all of the same advantages that other people were being offered and so that was something that was supported that I had a place in our society, I had a place in our community and I should be equally participating in that.
Lisa Belisle: Define for me if you would civil liberties?
Alison Beyea: Civil liberties and civil rights is really very much about the relationship between us as individuals and our government. This country was founded on some wonderful values, aspirational mostly because we weren’t really living many of those values at the time the constitution was created but they’re really a set of guidelines about how we should be treated as individual human beings by our government and civil liberties is particularly related to our freedom, to express ourselves. Our freed to not be confined by our government and our freedom to really participate in our community.
Lisa Belisle: When you talk about our country being founded on a nice set of guidelines for civil liberties, it doesn’t mean that our country was actually engaging in these?
Alison Beyea: It really is something that I myself have to find a new language to talk about because I think many of us who grow up with I mean whatever obstacles I face they were nothing compared to what many Americans face today. I think it’s important that we say in the constitution it is a rule book to a certain extent but even though it was founded on those basic values of equality, we were not honoring that. It’s taken generations and clearly we’re not done. We are not done with a quest for people being valued for who they are no matter what the color of their skin, no matter what religion they practice or no religion. I like to think of our work at the ACLU is trying to help us get closer to those values every day.
Lisa Belisle: It’s a big thing. I mean that’s an enormous aspiration. If it were easy, it would have happened a few hundred years ago, right?
Alison Beyea: Absolutely. There’s so many ways that our system perpetuates itself and power structures perpetuates itself and it’s not easy. I often say that I am fundamentally an optimist. I could not do this work if I didn’t believe in the power of community or connection between individuals and the power for us to evolve. I mean despite what seemed to be many setbacks right now, we really have made progress. In some areas much more rapidly than others and some of those thorny issues related to race do not seem to be moving forward with the speed that other issues have, but we are. We are making progress. Even back in the ‘70s, I was able to play football and that was progress from my mother’s generation. We are making incremental change and I do believe that each of us can play a role and getting us closer to those founding ideals of the constitution.
Lisa Belisle: Overtime as part of the ACLU, have you seen a shift from the types of things that were being focused upon and are being focused upon now?
Alison Beyea: I think that in some ways in Maine over the last six or seven years, we had been confronting some of the very difficult negative issues that now the country is facing. We have seen an increase in, I guess what I would call wedge issues, issues that relate to typically underserved communities whether that’s low-income people, whether that’s racial minorities, whether that’s immigrant status. I have seen increasingly and we have seen in our office a repolarization on those issues and that is manifesting itself in the public discourse how people talk to each other and it’s definitely representing itself in our state legislature which I think many people would agree is more divided than it’s ever been.
Lisa Belisle: How do we get here? How do we get to a place of being so polarized?
Alison Beyea: I wish I had an answer to that question. I think that some of it comes from the issues we’re just talking about. There are some deeply entrenched systemic systems of oppression that we as a community have not figured out how to deconstruct and many people are invested in maintaining those structures. I think some people believe that these issues have always been there and we just weren’t talking about them and in a time of more rapid media, more ability for us to just talk to ourselves than not talk to other people, we are increasingly saying things that are displaying such hostility. I think there’s probably many, many reasons that we got here. I think the result is really incredibly destructive to so many people’s lives. We see that in our office every day.
Lisa Belisle: Give me some examples of that. What are some of the things that people are coming to needing help with?
Alison Beyea: Much of what we do at the ACLU is at a larger policy level. We fight for things in the legislature, we file law suits to try to have a larger impact but it’s really the stories of the clients who we help. That is what keeps us feeling inspired to do our work. Last year, we were able to highlight an issue that many people refer to as debtor’s prison and what is it about is how low income people get caught in a cycle in the court system and actually stay locked up in jail because they literally cannot to pay their bail or pay their fine.
Not because they’re a threat to the community but because they simply don’t have enough money to get out. This has been referred to as debtor’s prison. The Supreme Court has found it to be unconstitutional and so it’s a practice that has been creeping back into the American justice system. We’ve been looking to do that and we’ve made a lot of progress and I’m very pleased with the people who are partnering with us but we’re able to get a young woman who we actually had a court clerk call us and say there’s this woman and she can’t get out of jail.
She’s had been there for 10 months and we are able to go before the court, take her case and she was able to go home. It’s just those real lives. She had been sitting there writing letters and trying to get someone to pay attention and by some amount of luck, she would get to us and we’re able to help her. It’s those actual stories of individual lives that help us stay motivated to try to work on larger issues.
Another issue that really just happened about a week -and-a-half ago the ACLU released a report call named we belong here and it’s based on 10 months of interviews with students and educators around the state about what it’s like to be an immigrant kiddo here in Maine and the stories are horrific. The way our young people who come from different countries have different colors of skin pray to different people or different gods are treated is really a wake-up call to those of us who don’t experience it on every day.
Hearing these students particularly now: “I can’t believe you told our story. Thank you. No one believed that this was happening.” When they call us and they talk to us and they say, “We want to do something,” and that makes every hour of work worth it that we can help tell stories just like you do and bring that to people around Maine.
Lisa Belisle: Give me examples of some of the things that kids are experiencing?
Alison Beyea: Let me start by saying one of the things we did and support was also identifying all of the unique and exciting programs that are happening in schools. Schools are finding ways to try to combat these problems and we really wanted to highlight those because we want other schools to feel inspired that it’s not just this task that they’ll never be able to accomplish but you really can make a difference in kids’ lives.
What we’re hearing about is systemic and repeated bullying. Girls having their hijab yanked at when they walked through the halls. There’s a story of a young girl who made the varsity soccer team and high school and was so proud and they got to the finals and the referee would not let her play unless she took her headscarf, which is illegal, unconstitutional but yet no one knew to speak up for her. The ref may not have not understood himself. She had to make a choice between her religion and participating in this goal that she had worked so long for.
Kids shouldn’t have to make those choices. There are persistent name-calling, scrolling of racial epithets not just immigrants and black students but to Latino students, any sort of immigrant you might see. Let me say, most educators would say this is not new and it certainly extends to the LGBT community really any group that is traditionally been targeted, schools are not able to protect the students in the way that the law requires.
Lisa Belisle: Is it made more difficult now because there’s so many other extenuating circumstances. It used to be students go to school, come home, we have telephones, we don’t have computers, we don’t have social media, we don’t have all these other layers which interconnect people. Is it harder now for schools to get a handle on some of the stuff?
Alison Beyea: I started my career representing kids and I work with schools a lot back in the ‘90s and early 2000’s and there is no doubt that schools are being asked to do 10 times more with 10 times less. Then you add technology challenges and I think it is really daunting what they are being asked to do. Yes, I think it is harder. I also think it is harder and our political landscape is full of statements by elected officials that are racially charged and really I think with permission for statements to be made that schools are trying to figure out how to protect their environment so that all kids have the ability to have access to an education and feel safe to learn.
Lisa Belisle: One of the things that I hear often is this idea of free speech and so people will use it on both sides that I should be able to say whatever I want because I have the right of free speech and if free speech turns into something heedful or turns into something that prevents somebody from accessing something that they have a right to like an education that seems to be the sticking point is that you can’t just have people running around saying whatever they feel like because even if they have the right to do it, they’re still impacting other people.
Alison Beyea: You’re absolutely right and I think it’s important that people remember that the amendment applies to government. This is only when the government is telling one person and that they can’t speak and another person they can speak. It’s really about a government individual relationship. The context of schools, you’re absolutely right, there comes a time when speech can create such a hostile environment that it impacts other people’s rights to accessing education and so the first time is not a defense to allowing speech that is denying other people their rights just to go rampantly.
I think it’s very popular to just say, “I have a first amendment right to say that.” You have a right to know how the government restricts you in certain context but there’s many ways that government has reasonable ability to restrict that. I think that’s what the schools are wrestling with our laws in Maine are pretty clear that the school does have the ability to make sure to limit what’s happening in the school classroom to make sure people can actually learn.
Lisa Belisle: One of the things I wonder about as the mother of a 21-year-old daughter and a 24-year-old son, and a 16-year-old daughter is it because we’ve come so far in so many ways that maybe there’s the sense that we could just sit back and relax and not have to work too much harder in areas like maybe gender equality. I’m not sure how you feel about this. I know you also have children and you’ve worked in the educational field so tell me what you think.
Alison Beyea: It’s really interesting thinking about women’s rights in relation to other rights and is our work done? I mean I would say no. If you look at even who’s in leadership in Maine, you see few… Even in nonprofits you don’t see as many women leaders. I always find this interesting if you look at the nonprofits that the largest nonprofits in Maine so the largest budgets, those are all run by men. I think we still have a long way to go, making sure that women are also in leadership roles.
I mean I think it’s also… Women’s rights are an example where we feel that it is so much better than it was that there’s sometimes a sense of that we’ve done enough. I guess the thing that strikes me most right now and reminds me that women’s justice issues are as important as ever is what we’re seeing in the reproductive healthcare arena. My mother has worked… I followed in her footsteps. She’s worked in women’s rights. She was working on access to abortion in the ‘70s.
I’m with many women of her age on a daily basis and they’re like, “How did this happen that we are not only fighting for access to reproductive care and the ability to decide whether we have children and when we have children. We’re fighting for access to birth control. I mean the very things that allow women to fully participate in this society are being stripped away and so I think that is the most obviously place where you can see that actually those rights are very much unresolved as much as on racial justice and immigration rights. Women are equally targeted right now and we need to continue to really fight for those.
Lisa Belisle: I think for many people that I’ve spoken with, there’s this sense of shock that something that we have finally achieved that we’ve finally taken for granted even the ability to get birth control pills and have them paid for by insurance to backslide and backslide so dramatically. I think it tells us just how shaky that might have been in the first place.
Alison Beyea: It’s a great point. I think there’s been a lot of… I mean one of the things that is so inspiring right now is to see the level of engagements and activism happening in Maine, happening all over the country. People are reengaging in their political process and I think engaging at a local level which is I think where real change will happen. I think that is really inspiring. I think you’re absolutely right. It was always shaky and I think that’s probably a fair critique of people like me, of people whose rights were protected and was not paying attention enough that for many groups it never actually came there.
I think this is a really important moment for progressive leaders to recognize that sometimes we have stopped fighting for movements once we’ve gotten what we’ve wanted and we need to really make sure that everyone is having a seat at the table. Everybody is included and in the long run we built that movement that everyone is equally valued and equally part of it and that we don’t give away rights for some groups just to get them for others. I think we will build a lasting change that we want to see so that our daughters, great-granddaughters, this will be not a thing anymore.
Lisa Belisle: Do these seats at the table include people that don’t necessarily think the way that we do?
Alison Beyea: What a great question. I don’t know that I have a great answer to that. I do think that the way we become estranged from each other is part of the problem. I think we all like to see the narrative that we like to see. I think the soundbite culture doesn’t help this. People are looking for just a phrase as opposed to a deep conversation. I think for all of our American bravado, we actually aren’t very thick skinned and I think we have trouble having difficult conversations. I think, yes, I do think that those conversations need to happen. When I think about in what order, I think some of it is there’s still enough work to be done even within the community that is trying to advocate for more equality and more freedom.
That groups needs to do a little more work with itself to make sure everyone is at that table. Before maybe, we tackle those issues but I think you’re absolutely right to focus on it that we let ourselves off the hook at the thanksgiving table or in those moments when you’re out with someone and you’re talking to them and they say something and you’re like, “Do I say something? Do I talk about why that hurts or do I just pretend it didn’t happen?” I think we have to do a lot more talking about what hurts.
Lisa Belisle: I had a conversation the other day about somebody that I am doing a profile on for Old Port magazine and one of the things that came up was that if you aren’t liberal enough then you can be as progressive and liberal as almost anybody around you but if you’re not liberal enough then you actually… You don’t even get a seat at that table.
When you’re saying even working within our own group that comes up for me is this idea that only some people have the right to talk and those are the people that have what are believed to be the right answers way over on one side. This bothers me as somebody that has… I have tried to be thoughtful about my life. I have tried to be thoughtful about my children and my patience and the way that I live and so the silencing that I have felt myself doing because I don’t have as far leaning of you as some people. It actually makes me feel like I’m more in step with maybe people on the other side, but I don’t want to get to the place where I am that angry that I am not polarized. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Alison Beyea: I mean the solution for me because I promised you at the ACLU there’s always people left of me and there’s always people right of me. As an organization we confuse people constantly because we take positions on both sides. What has been really resonating for me in the last few years as we’ve grown, we’ve become a much larger staff. We’ve been able to hire a lot more young people and it is a constant lesson in humility. I mean I am just amazed at how often I see the world through the world that I grew up in and really paying attention to how defensive I get in that situation.
I’m very fortunate because when I am called out, it is called out in a very supportive and engaged thoughtful process. I think the problem is it’s not always done that way. I do think that for me I have softened a lot more into that experience of humility which does not come easily to me of I might have something more to learn and trying to not see it as a critique that I don’t have the cred to do it which I may not. I haven’t experienced many of the things that are happening bit just trying to be open to the listening.
I am considered to be a fairly on the progressive end so I may not feel it the same way someone else would feel it but I am finding that more conversations slowing down which we don’t really give ourselves time to do as working professionals makes that easier to go deep on those conversations which can get really hard. I mean we dedicate our lives to trying to make things better and it’s really hard when someone says you know what, you could still do it better. For what it’s worth, I am finding that to be the most helpful tool in these situations.
Lisa Belisle: I agree. I enjoy watching my daughter who has a gender studies in history concentration on her education. I enjoy her watching conversations with people of varying inclinations because when she started she had learned some things and she is very intelligent and she was more astringent. Overtime, she had learned that in order to actually keep a conversation going, she can’t be astringent, and strident, and focused on only her own views. She has to do that.
Then when she does that, I’ve seen other people who are having a conversation with her open up about their own experiences and be more open to her point of view. Really, I think it can be useful on both sides that people, if they’re able to listen, if they’re able to not be defensive as you said, it can really get you much further in mutual understanding.
Alison Beyea: I would imagine in your medical argument it’s hard because we are hardwired to go into fight or flight and so when someone is saying something, I think it really is hard not. I don’t claim to not … My first reaction isn’t always gentle but I do think ultimately when you soften into that, that is when the relationships deepen and you really can understand what someone is saying. To your earlier point, that’s not what our modern culture expects. It’s the sound bite, it’s the tweet, it’s the line that will get attention. None of this encourages deeper understanding.
Lisa Belisle: There are some times honestly where you have to stand up and you have to use your voice and you can’t be softening and you can’t be … I mean none of us wants to engage in conflict but sometimes conflict is required. It just is a necessity.
Alison Beyea: Absolutely. I think really what we’re trying to make sure, at least in the ACLU isn’t those people who need to be able to have their voices heard have the power and the support to speak.
Lisa Belisle: That is a perfect way to end this conversation which I think is very interesting and very appropriate given what’s going on in the world these days. I hope the people will take the time to learn more about what the ACLU is doing because obviously we’re just touching the very surface of some of the things that you are working on right now. I’ve been speaking with Alison Beyea who’s the executive director at the ACLU of Maine where she oversees the organization’s legal legislative public education and development activities.
Alison Beyea: Thank you so much for having me.
Lisa Belisle: Thank you. You’ve been listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 322. Our guests have included Shane Diamond and Alison Beyea. For more information on our guests and extended interviews, visit lovemaineradio.com. Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show, sign up for our e-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as @drlisa and see our Love Maine Radio photos on Instagram. We love to hear from you so please let us know what you think of Love Maine Radio. We welcome your suggestions for future shows. Also, let our sponsors know that you have heard about them here. We are privileged that they enable us to bring Love Maine Radio to you each week.
This is Dr. Lisa Belisle. I hope you have enjoyed our show. Thank you for sharing this part of your day with me. May you have a bountiful life
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is brought to you by Maine Magazine, Aristelle, Portland Art Gallery, and Art Collector Maine. Audio production and original music are by Spencer Albee. Our editorial producers are Paul Koenig and Brittany Cost. Our assistant producer is Shelbi Wassick. Our community development manager is Casey Lovejoy. Our executive producers are Kevin Thomas, Rebecca Falzano, and Dr. Lisa Belisle. For more information on our production team, Maine Magazine, or any of the guests featured here today, please visit us at lovemaineradio.com
Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Topsham. Show summaries are available at lovemaineradio.com