Activism v. Professionalism: Floral Arrangements Edition

Last night was the night of a big event/reception/awards ceremony I’d been working on for the past 5 months. It was a recognition of young women who have made great strides in their sectors, and who have made a difference to the community. About 400 people were there, including Congresswomen and Obama Campaign people.

It was something my team and I had worked very hard on, and I was proud of it. I had never really done event planning before, and had little experience on it, and the past 5 months were a great learning experience for me. And it made me think about my future more and more.

I wanted to be a part of this event because it was a subset of a large Women’s organization that is pretty well-known in the area. I’ve been aching to get more involved in feminist/women’s issues in my spare time, especially since my full-time job isn’t really in that arena. Its what I want to do for my life’s work, so I wanted to start somewhere.

The experience taught me a lot about myself and brought up some questions– where is the line between Activism, and Professionalism? Are both equally important?

Barbara Smith writes, in But Some Of Us Are Brave (people, get this book if you do not have it):

That word ‘professionalism’ covers a multitude of sins. I always cringe when I hear anyone describe herself as ‘professional,’  because what usually follows is an excuse for inaction, an excuse for ethical irresponsibility. It’s a word and a concept we don’t need, because it is ultimately a way of dividing ourselves from others and escaping from reality.

This quote sounds harsh, and I don’t mean to relate my experiences to it, but I mean for it to provide a background. The entire time spent on this event planning was time not spent on anything nitty or gritty. It required no analysis, nothing grassroots, no activism, no real challenge to any system. The time was spent on picking a venue for a gala, picking caterers, finding a speaker, marketing, and–last but not least– flower arrangements.

I mention the flowers, because to me, it represented the biggest disconnect I had with the entire situation. Here we were, we were all ‘professionals’, adding this to our resumes– organizing something that would honor other professionals. This is not unimportant. Women’s work is underacknoweleged, and underpaid, and a ceremony honoring women who have done great things is a wonderful idea. It’s just…I believe there are better ways to tackle this, there are more people to help, more important things to be done, or things I’d rather be involved with.

It was 2 hours till show time. I took off work early to arrive at the venue and set up for the evening.  I asked what needed the most help, and everyone immediately said “the flower arrangements.” My understanding was that we just wanted to put some flowers on the tables with the food, to make them look nice. That this understanding was an oversimplification, is an understatement. There were different sorts of flower-holding vessels. There were different types of flowers. There were diagrams. There were water dynamic-based tactical strategies to get these flowers to float in a specific way.

I tried my hand at putting the arrangement together, but felt more and more awkward. I don’t know a damn thing about flower arranging. Or what people like to see at food tables at galas. Everyone else was critiquing the way the petals fell, the buoyancy of the bouquets, and I finally just said “…does it really matter?”

I felt like they thought I was from Pluto. How could the placement of the petals not matter? And I couldn’t help but feel like the whole argument was frivolous and privileged and out of place. And I was feeling like an alien. So I told them I really would be much more helpful elsewhere and got the hell out of the flower area. I hung up signs, took donations, helped people find their way to coat check, and the whole evening progressed very nicely.

I by no means mean to degrade what we did for 5 months, or that night. I met an amazing group of women who are bright, thoughtful, feminist, and creative. We celebrated women’s efforts in the work place, and the great advancements we’ve made. For this, I smile. But when it comes down to it, we really didn’t challenge anything, or make anything better for the average woman, or anyone really. The activism part of the equation was completely missing.

I hope very much that women who love flower arranging and gala planning, and honoring already prominent, successful ladies will spring forward and continue where we left off, to make hundreds of other ceremonies of this nature. They should do this work, because its nice and inspiring, if that’s where their hearts are. My own heart is a different story. I need to challenge conventional standards, I want to get my hands dirty helping improve average women’s lives, I want to address structural inequalities due to race/class/gender, I want to come at everything from an anti-racist, feminist perspective, I want to write, I want to listen, I want to act. If I’m not a professional, so be it, I choose grassroots anyway. And if nothing else, the experience taught me this for sure.

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