Finding your activist voice

    In order to speak out against injustice, it is necessary to actually speak up. But what if you've always been the shy kid?
    Frida Berrigan speaks at an international peace action camp in Sweden in July 2011. (Facebook / Martin Smedjeback)
    Frida Berrigan speaks at an international peace action camp in Sweden in July 2011. (Facebook / Martin Smedjeback)

    I was a really shy kid. In middle school, I tried to get through class without saying anything. But by high school it got so bad that at a parent-teacher conference my English teacher told my mom,“I know the wheels are turning and that she is paying attention, but she never says anything.”

    “Just call on her,” my mom replied. “Even if she isn’t raising her hand.”

    After that, Ms. Jira would call on me whenever our eyes met. Heart banging, palms sweating, I was able to contribute. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. With my mom’s encouragement, I told all my teachers to call on me, even if my hand wasn’t raised, and I made it through high school.

    College was another challenge. I went to one of those small liberal arts schools where you call your professors by their first names and sit in a circle in the grass when it is nice out. No one raised their hands; they all just talked, a lot, all through class. It took me months to figure out that most of the big talkers had not done all the reading or completed the writing assignment from the last class and were talking to hide these facts — and the teachers knew it. During office hours, I told my professors that I needed to be called on. I told them I was shy and had a hard time finding an opening in the discussion. For the most part, professors accommodated my impediment, and I grew more confident as the months went on.

    For class presentations, I practiced extensively — index cards, talking to the mirror, the whole bit. I labored, and I was able to get my points across. But I always envied those who could talk off the top of their heads (extemporaneously, as we said in college) and sound brilliant.

    A few years out of college, I found myself working for a great and brilliant man — William D. Hartung, who directed a think tank called the Arms and Security Initiative that was based at the New School University. He researched and wrote on the trade in weapons systems and platforms and munitions, on nuclear research and development, on military aid and education programs, and on general security policy issues. He commented on the news of the day, tried to inject sense and sanity into debates on weapons sales, military spending and decisions to intervene militarily. He was funny and quick and principled. He still is. He continues to do similar work for the Center on International Policy.

    Soon after he hired me as a part-time researcher, he went on vacation. I was alone in the office when the phone rang and a radio show booker asked if I wanted to do an interview. I demurred, explaining that I was new and Bill was out of the office.

    “I know, I know, he said I could get in touch with you. Everyone has to start somewhere; there is no better practice than a live radio interview.”

    Terrifying. But, he persisted, telling me that Bill Hartung was also shy. What? No way.

    “He worked to overcome it. He even took stand-up comedy lessons as a way of getting over shyness.”

    Lessons? In standup? I was incredulous. I was also game. I did the interview. The booker told me that the host’s job is to make the guest feel comfortable, and be prepared with questions that get the information and analysis out there in a way that is entertaining and enlightening.

    “No one is going to try and trip you up,” he said (this was not Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh, mind you). “They will help you do a good job. Just pretend you are speaking just to them.”

    Great advice. I closed my eyes, talked to the host and tried not to imagine tens of thousands of people glued to their radio waiting for me to mispronounce Herzegovina. But I did it. I was so proud of myself when it was over. I felt like I had run a race.

    When Bill came back, I grilled him about being shy, taking standup lessons, doing radio and giving speeches. I told myself I would say yes to every opportunity that came along, that I would practice, practice, practice and never let shyness get in my way again.

    It worked. Over time, and with lots of practice, I got better. I was not shy, I told jokes, I gesticulated wildly, I alliterated, I told stories to elucidate my points and I learned people’s names fast. In short, I developed a shtick, even when talking about issues that are no laughing matter.

    After Sept. 11, 2001, I gave a whole series of speeches and radio interviews about the folly of declaring war on terror, and the need to treat the attacks like an international crime rather than an act of war. I spoke as a New Yorker, as someone who witnessed the attacks and fled Manhattan on foot like a refugee, breathing in the burning dust. I spoke of the need to ask why. As in: Why do they hate us? And said that we have to look at our history and foreign policy for the answers. I spoke of wanting justice not vengeance, reconciliation not recrimination, healing not hurting. I told the kids that tens of thousands of New Yorkers organized and marched under the banner “Our Grief is Not a Cry for War.” I shared the voices of people who lost loved ones on 9/11 and organized themselves into a group called Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. I gave that speech to six classes of high school students out on Long Island on Valentine’s Day 2002 (wearing red leg warmers, for some reason).

    Many were incensed and offended, but a lot were really grateful. One teary-eyed girl came up afterwards to say thank you and to tell me she had never heard anyone say anything like what I had said. “I like your leg warmers too,” she finished. I think she was just being nice about the leg warmers, though; they were a bad choice.

    In rural Pennsylvania a month or two later, I riled up a crowd of college students with my “no war on terror” talk so much that a security guard escorted me back to my car for my own protection. On the long drive home, I thought, if Ms. Jira could only see the shy girl who couldn’t raise her hand in class now.

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