Ronelle King: Do something that years from now you can be proud of

Ronelle King is an Afro-Barbadian human rights activist and intersectional Caribbean feminist. In 2016, she founded the viral social media movement #lifeinleggings, which later evolved into a grassroots organization, Life In Leggings: Caribbean Alliance Against Gender-based Violence through Education, Empowerment & Community Outreach. As the director, her role is to ensure that the organization fulfills its commitment to reducing the region’s pervasive rape culture and eradicating regional occurrences of gender-based violence. In 2019, she co-founded Pink Parliament, an initiative that encourages girls between the ages of 14-20 to consider careers in politics. Through her work, she has been a driving force in highlighting key issues pertaining to gender rights, youth development, and marginalized communities’ protection. She was awarded the 2017 Youth Hero (Female) Award by the Barbados Youth Development Council and the 2018 Queen’s Young Leader Award by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, acknowledging her dedication to reducing gender inequality in her country and region.

[Below is the interview transcript which is edited for clarity]

Q (0:21) What motivates you to work on gender-based violence?

Ronelle (1:07): As a survivor myself, I was not speaking up for myself. When I founded my organization, Life In Leggings, it was both an advocacy for myself and others. I created a space in which other women can do and find the same. In a society that can be defined as rape culture, it means that you’re more likely to shame blame victims rather than support them. It means that you are, in other words, creating an environment in which the perpetrators will feel much safer. They’re not going to be penalized or punished for their actions. You have women who never speak of their experiences. If they don’t speak of it, it goes underreported.

What motivated me was I wanted to end this practice. I wanted to empower survivors. I wanted to empower myself, as well. I wanted to make changes in society. I wanted to do more than a standard that put the onus on women to prevent their rape. To answer the question, what motivated me was that I got frustrated with how things are being done, and I wanted to do more. I wanted to do better to create the change I knew could be possible.

Q (3:07): How did you start it?

Ronelle (3:10): In 2016, I founded the organization on November 24. It was one day before 16 days of activism. I went online. I was frustrated because we were having a lot of conversations. It was a very frustrating month. Before that month, earlier in the year, I had an experience of almost being kidnapped on my way to work. I was trying to go to the police station to get justice and being turned away. When this conversation happened in November, it was around child abuse, sexual harassment, and sexual assault.

I had spent quite some time over the years to educate people on these particular issues and the realities in which women face. How does it feel to be a survivor and carry these traumas with you? I had reached this boiling point. I felt that the timings are right. I could create a conversation in which people are going to listen and in a way in which women feel comfortable speaking out. They are not going to be shut down.

What I did was I went online. I posted my first experience. I messaged a couple of friends. I told them that I had this idea. This was what I wanted to do if they could support me. They eventually shared it to share their experience. Within the hour, it started taking off, almost immediately started taking off. By the first day, my timelines were flooded with the hashtag, #Lifeinleggings. That’s what we chose. It was heavy on alliteration. What we were trying to convey essentially is to translate the experiences of Caribbean women. It is like walking in my shoes and understanding my experiences. The incidents listed under this hashtag are the realities women go through in their country and this region. It spread from Barbados to Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, and so on. For the most part, all the Anglophone Caribbean countries, and one or two countries outside of the Anglophone Caribbean. It spread into the Diaspora in the global north, and then it started going to the global south.

Courtesy: Ronelle King’s photo on Facebook

Q (7:27): You first started in Barbados, and then it spread out to other countries in the Caribbean. How do you engage with women and other people on social media platforms?

Ronelle (7:41): That was so well received. I think it was a little bit more received than I expected. I felt it was going to resonate with a lot of women. I wasn’t expecting it. It broke the internet. We had female politicians stepping in and speaking of their life and leggings experiences. We had regional recording artists. We had women of power, so the conversation became an intersectional nature because you had transwomen. We had lesbian and bisexual women. You had migrant women and so on. All these different women were speaking about their experiences.

Q (8:35): I had seen some backlash examples when young women talked about sexuality and gender-based violence because it is controversial and taboo. Have you experienced the backlash when you started the line leggings?

Ronelle (8:51): Right! When we first posted, it was well-received by women. They were there were the ones to see it first. They pretty much just wanted to know what we were doing. They were posting their own experiences.

But the first male reaction was one of shock. There were a lot of men who were just absolutely shocked. They knew that women had experiences of rape. It was not unknown to them. They were surprised at the sheer number. Some women were posting 20 or 25 experiences. They were like a brick-and-mortar catharsis. Women were speaking and talking about these experiences. When you post something new or read someone’s experience, you realize that I had a very similar experience. You remember something that you push back. You go back, and you put another experience. Men were shocked by the sheer number; they were also shocked by who was posing these experiences. A lot of women that they cared about had experiences that they didn’t know. They didn’t realize that these women were walking around with these traumas. Women that they met are their mothers and grandmothers who had experienced gender-based violence.

The next day, it was being reported in the newspapers, not just locally, but regionally. It has support from student groups and universities, not only in the country but in the region. Some people in a diaspora outside of our community were seeing it because this was before the Me Too Movement.

As you rightfully said, in these cases of cyberactivism or cyberfeminism, there’s a backlash. A backlash did come in. There were a lot of men who felt that maybe some of us were lying. They thought that we must have done something to have these experiences. Some of them even started a reactionary hashtag such as Life in Pants, which speaks to the fact that they’ve misunderstood our campaign. They tried to detract from the conversation. They tried to silence women. They try to hijack the hashtag by using it to speak to their own experiences or what they felt were experiences, which weren’t comparable. It was just men using the hashtag to complain and talk about silly things like how they carry a woman on a date, and a woman expects the meal to be paid for. It is a false equivalence, and it’s almost insulting.

Women saw that as a moment of no bystander intervention. They call men out and said what they were doing was wrong. Women had a right to speak to their experiences, especially acknowledging that women usually don’t come forward. To silence them, hijack this hashtag, or call them liars to perpetuate the same actions they are speaking out against. It had fascinating and minimal support when you come into cyberactivism. Now, Leggings’ Life has become a household name, and it has a good connotation to the term even men still remember it. They always remember when women in the Caribbean practically broke the internet because they were frustrated with how they were treated like women in the country and the region.

Q (14:14) You transform an online advocacy platform to be an organization. How did you mobilize support to make this happen?

Ronelle (14:24): We registered the organization. We would have formed the first executive of the organization. We mobilize quickly offline. We had a town hall by December 2020. We spoke to many new women in the country and outside because of technology about what they wanted to come out in the movement and what were their specific experiences that they were hoping that we could address. We began with that. I continued with my vision of creating a space or helping women to challenge gender-based violence. Because the organization and movement are survivor-centered, we create platforms for women survivors to bring their silences, take control of their narrative, and advocate for themselves.

We prefer the organization that has shifted culture. We started to do a lot of work, such as interrogating gender-based violence in the country and society and mapping the historical database violence. Because our countries are post-colonial, the first instances of gender-based violence that would have happened for us were during slavery. We did work with an exhibition with the Barbados Museum of Historical Society. We also published in a journal about the exhibition. What we did was that we created a space in which we examine rebellion and activism in Barbados documented 390 years. We created the space in which persons in the society would better understand activism, what it seeks to address, understand the types of activism that have been before, and how these actions are very revolutionary.

We had a march. That was our first project, marching in seven Caribbean countries together with different sectors, public sector, private religious, government, civil society, and so on. We create a platform for women to talk about their specific experiences and challenges, so the people who have the power to make the change and to reclaim the spaces in which we felt most violated. We spoke about sexual harassment a lot on the hashtag. We went through the streets to reclaimed it. And with support, we’re all there together, resisting the sexual harassment that we often face. Women feel empowered to tell the people that we’re not going to tolerate it anymore.

A lot of people didn’t quite understand. Life in Leggings was an excellent way for them to understand why those two options were necessary and understand how they can be a part of moments like Life in Leggings. A lot of people asked me how do they get the courage to do what I did? When you see something wrong in society, people will comment within their privilege, and they think it’s somebody else’s responsibility. All it takes is one dissenting voice. It just takes one person to highlight it. It can snowball into something more. If you are frustrated with that saying that persons with disabilities struggle with transportation in the country, you speak about that. You can create a platform in which almost anybody can hear you.

Q (20:24): What are important lessons learned from running an online advocacy platform to promote women’s rights and eradicate gender-based violence?

Ronelle (20:34): You need support. I find that I get a lot of help. I’ve always gotten a lot of support from other organizations that have the same mandate as me. This work can be gratifying, but it can also be very draining. It can affect you, as well. It is most important to build those connections to keep you going.

You have all these women who are doing this work long before. They continue to speak up and encourage you and remind you why you’re doing this. What I’ve also learned is that you wouldn’t know everything. You can rely on them as well, for some information and advice. You could collaborate in terms of services. Some of them are much more established. They have shelters, whereas we have none. We do referrals to their shelters. We have an online platform bigger than their platform, so we get their information out in terms of the hotlines.

But what I’ve also learned is that it’s hard. A civil society organization sometimes gets support. Sometimes you don’t get help in terms of finances. We sometimes get left off of funding lists. They feel that other Caribbean countries are more deserving of the funding are much more need. Sometimes we don’t qualify for financing that would be critical to the work we’re doing because of simple things. We have a high human development index, which means that we have free health care, free education, and the quality of life for a person is good. In terms of the services that could be available, the implementation, the fact that the country is economically suffering.

About three years ago, we got left off the list in terms of funding because of a human development factor. If the government does not have funding, we will be relying very heavily on international funders or private sector funding. The private sector is also affected because of the finances in the country. We have particular issues like that. We rely very heavily on feminist organizations that are not so rigid in their qualifications or supporters to ask for locally.

Q (24:48): I’d like to ask you about your family and community. How your family and community inspire you to work on gender-based violence.

Ronelle (24:57): Mom is a disability rights advocate. She is a special needs teacher. She advocates for those who are marginalized within society. My dad is a sports person, internationally recognized as somebody who also works with my mother, in terms of the youth and persons with special needs. I think that is how I’ve identified very clearly disenfranchised and marginalized persons because they’ve always been for most of my life. I would have helped both of them in many ways. People like my grandmother would have taught me to stand up for myself and stand up for others. The values were instilled in me in my formative years. My society would have supported the work that I do. They’re supportive for the most part and proud of the work that I do.

Q (26:23): Wonderful! This is my last question for you. Do you have any messages for young people, especially young women who want to start something new, who want to start something different in their community?

Ronelle (26:36): Map out your goals. For your action, what are your short-term or long-term goals? And do something that years from now you can be proud of. Don’t overthink it because it may not necessarily. I was not sure if I would do everything exactly how I did it. There’s no perfect action. Don’t stress about those kinds of things. You have a purpose, and you want to create a change that matters. So as long as you have the best intentions and take action that does not harm you or harm others and that can make that change, just go for it. You never know what you could achieve if you don’t hold yourself back for now.

Q (27:37): Thank you so much for joining me today.

Ronelle (27:40): And thank you for having me.

Thank you for listening to the Next Women Generation. To support this self-funded project, please click like and subscribe to our podcast. If you like this interview, please leave us a review. You can also send us feedback on social media platforms and websites. Stay tuned to our next speaker.

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