D.I.Y. Activism: An Interview with Student Activist Dana Smith

Dana Smith - Feminist, Mathematician, Activist, Seamstress.

Dana Smith – Feminist, Mathematician, Activist, Sewist.

This is the first in a series of interviews with emerging feminists and student activists.

Dana Smith is a senior at Purdue University studying Applied Math and Apparel Design with minors in French and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS). An avid sewist, Dana makes her own clothes and believes that crafting can be transformative as it gives people greater control over what they’re making, wearing, and buying. She is particularly interested in the anti-sweatshop movement, combining her interests in fashion and feminism. On Purdue’s campus, Dana established a chapter of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and is active in United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), in addition to serving as a Resident Assistant for an all-women’s residence hall community.

I first met Dana through my work as the Writing Consultant in Purdue’s National and International Scholarships Office (NISO), housed in the university’s Honors College. She was drafting a policy statement on homeless women and access to reproductive healthcare as part of a scholarship application for students interested in public policy. But not long after, it seemed I ran into her everywhere – in our meetings for the campus Die-In in solidarity with Ferguson, MO last November, at meetings of the Purdue Social Justice Coalition (which supports individuals and groups planning and executing direct actions on campus and in the community), and in her campaigning for Purdue Student Government with a radical platform that included addressing issues like police brutality and sexual assault. This summer, I chatted with her about her activism, sewing her own clothes, and her plans for future activism.

Dana Bisignani [DB]: How did you first become involved in feminist activism?

Dana Smith [DS]: During my first year on campus, I became close with a mentor who helped me learn a lot about feminism.The first “feminist” book I read was actually Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. Although I now hold some pretty harsh criticisms of Lean In, nonetheless I recognize its importance as something that helped me gain entrance to feminism.

DB: Absolutely. A number of feminists have been critical of Sandberg’s arguments, especially for its lack of intersectional analysis and its neoliberal perspective. It created a lot of debate both within feminist circles and in mainstream news outlets.

DS: Basically, as I learned more about capitalism, I became more disillusioned with Lean In and the “lean in” mentality. It’s like, okay so only 23 Fortune 500 CEOs are women, but I could care less about that when over half of low-wage workers are women who don’t have the luxury of “leaning in” because their job is on the line. Increasing the number of women CEOs does not automatically correspond to better wages and fair labor practices for low-wage workers. Furthermore, for the very specific group of women to which Lean In does apply to, “leaning in” is not just going to make patriarchy change its mind about providing maternity leave or pay equity.

Prior to coming to college, I didn’t have much of a social consciousness and didn’t consider myself to be a feminist. But sophomore year, I started to get more involved. I took my first WGSS course, “Global Feminisms” [with Dr. Alicia Decker], which still colors a lot of my perspective on feminism. I also helped with planning International Women’s Day [at Purdue] last March.

DB: You’ve contributed to a number of feminist events on campus, including our Take Back the Night rally and march this past April.You ran for Purdue Student Government with a pretty radical platform this spring. Can you briefly describe that platform for readers and then talk a bit about what prompted you to run?

DS: Our platform centered on six main issues: improving sexual violence services, combating racism on campus, advocating for the rights of student tenants, addressing LGBTQ issues, fixing some outdated academic policies, and making the structure of Purdue Student Government (PSG) more accessible to students. I was prompted to run because I wanted to see PSG take a more active role in social justice issues, since the organization traditionally has not prioritized these topics. Running on something of a protest ticket was a good opportunity to shift the conversation and force other candidates to talk about issues they were avoiding. Although we didn’t win the election, I think that we still succeeded in many ways: shifting the focus of the debates, gaining momentum for projects like a rape crisis center, and finding other students who were committed to social change work.

DB: That’s a great way to think about it. So how did you become interested specifically in the exploitation of garment workers?

DS: I’ve been sewing and making my own clothes since I was 10. At first, it was a creative outlet, a way to make what I couldn’t find in stores, and a way to make what I did find in stores or see on the runway for much less. Over time it has come to encompass all of these things and also spur an interest in the garment industry. As my feminist consciousness developed, I started to consider what that meant for my interest in fashion, considering all of the obvious problems with the fashion industry. Since I’m more interested in clothing construction and creation (rather than design), this led me to reading and learning a lot about garment workers, especially with the Rana Plaza factory collapse.

A garment factory in Rhana Plaza, Dhaka collapsed in May 2013. Over 1,000 workers were killed, and it has been called one of the worst industrial disasters in history.

A garment factory in Rhana Plaza, Dhaka collapsed in May 2013. Over 1,000 workers were killed, and it has been called one of the worst industrial disasters in history.

DB: So how did you learn how to sew your own clothing? And how did you decide this could be an effective way to disrupt the garment industry?

DS: I asked my parents to sign me up for a class at [JoAnn Fabrics] when I was 10. I took a couple classes – pajama pants, tote bag, sundress, etc. – and then figured the rest out on my own. Along with the development of my feminist consciousness, I began to see sewing as a radical way that I can create something meaningful and have control over what I’m wearing and buying. Crafting can be subversive, in that it gives people – often women – agency within capitalism. I really like the language of “disrupting.” I don’t think that my individual choice to opt out of purchasing new clothing is going to bring the garment industry to a screeching halt. But I do think that the DIY [do-it-yourself] movement, craftivism, etc. – collective actions – can really send a message.

DB: Ok, this next question builds on what you say about individual choice vs. collective action. In the U.S. especially, we’re often told that how individual consumers spend their money – buy this, don’t buy that – is an effective way to address feminist or social justice issues – consumerism as a form of activism. What are your thoughts on that mentality?

DS: This is interesting. Sometimes it just seems like we’re shifting dollars from one capitalist corporation to another. But if, for example, we’re choosing instead to buy food locally at farmer’s markets, then I think that’s important. I guess I see [consumer choice] as one piece of an activist strategy, but I don’t think that consumerism is a sustainable tactic.

What are the pleasures and challenges of a D.I.Y. form of activism like sewing?

It’s fun to make something from start to finish and be able to tell someone that you made it! It’s fun to be a part of an online community of people who make clothes and be able to share patterns, tips, and ideas with people around the world. It’s really liberating, in a sense, to create something. It can also be challenging because sometimes it doesn’t work – things don’t always come out how you want. It can be challenging because it’s hard to not just buy new things. And it’s challenging because sometimes you don’t have the resources (whether it’s money, the right machine, the time, etc.) to make what you want.

I know you’ve been involved with anti-racist efforts and are passionate about reproductive justice. What other feminist issues are you currently working on/interested in?

Anti-sweatshop activism is my main focus going into this [academic] year. I’m working to bring a [chapter of] United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) to Purdue. Additionally, I do some organizing with folks in the homeless community downtown.This summer, I’ve been conducting several town hall forums to gather raw, honest feedback from folks experiencing homelessness about service providers, agencies, and the community in general. This organizing work comes out of my involvement on our PATH Street Outreach team (a partnership between Wabash Valley and the Civic Engagement & Leadership Development (CELD) office to connect unsheltered people to services) and several spring/fall break trips to Memphis, TN where we work with a group called HOPE (Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality). I think this relates to my feminism in that I find it impossible to think about feminism and to not consider economic inequality, and by extension, homelessness.

DB: What advice do you have for readers here who want to get involved in activism? 

DS: I think [the idea of] “activism” seems daunting at first,  like how will I ever do this thing?! But chances are there is already someone else or an existing organization doing what you want to do. Do some research, find these organizations and get involved. Also, I think it’s unwise to try to do something alone. History wants you to think that individuals like MLK or Rosa Parks did it alone, but they didn’t. They worked with so many other people. Always work with people.

To see Dana’s sewing, weaving, and fashion endeavors, visit her site – Dana’s Designs.

Dana modeling one of her creations, a pleated skirt.

Dana modeling one of her creations, a pleated skirt.