An Activist’s Heart: An Interview with Courtney E. Martin

Courtney E. Martin and Breeana GantMay 16, 2019Society and the IndividualPerSpectives

For this issue’s PerSpectives column, teen leader Breeana Gant interviews Courtney E. Martin, an author and entrepreneur who specializes in impactful social change.

Courtney E. Martin

Q: How did you get into social activism and cultural research?

I’ve had an activist’s heart from the time I was a little girl. I just always noticed injustice and asked adults about it. I think my parents did a great job of teaching me to trust that original outrage and continue to ask questions — which are basically the skills you need to be a good activist and journalist. What I wasn’t always great at was understanding how systems and cultures work, and that there is some strategy behind the best way to agitate for change. That came with many more years of analysis and activism.

Q: Was there ever a moment that you just KNEW this was what you were made for?

Great question! When I get to talk to audiences, especially students, about my books, I always feel such deep gratitude that I get to do this work, and that it’s actually useful to people. As long as what I write is powerful for even just one other person, it feels worth it to me.

Q: What is your favorite cultural subject to study?

I always say that I write the books that I need to read, so I suppose my own life, in a strange way, is my favorite subject. When I was 25 and feeling really disillusioned with the world and my own power to make change, I wrote a book called Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, which allowed me to travel around the country for a year hanging out with activists and asking them: How do you stay hopeful? How do you know your work matters? When I was turning 30 and wondering how I wanted to shape my adult life, I wrote a book called The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, which allowed me to spend a year thinking about and talking with other people about what actually makes a life fulfilling and fun. So I write for other people, but selfishly, my topics are always rooted in something I, myself, am struggling to understand.

Q: How do you think your work has impacted your community? How do you think it has impacted those outside of your community? Who do you hope to impact and/or help the most?

Each book has had a different impact. With my first book, which focused on body image and perfectionism, I actually got a lot of emails from girls saying that they reading it gave them permission to quit activities they didn’t actually care about, but were doing because they had been told they would look good on their resume. That was great. The thing I often try to do in my work is pierce someone’s delusion — whether that’s the idea that women have to be perfect, or that money will make you successful or happy, etc.

Q: Based on your work, how do you think individuals can make a difference in their everyday lives?

Look for the place in your own life where neglect exists. Who do you walk by that needs help? Who is it at school that other people ignore or, worse, make fun of, and how can you be an ally to that person? Have you expressed gratitude to the people who make your life and learning possible?

Q: Who has been most important and/or influential in your journey?

I have so many incredible mentors, but I always say that my mom is the most powerful person I know. As I was growing up, I watched her constantly doing community organizing in my hometown. There were always groups of women in our house, discussing books and films, donations going in and out to domestic violence shelters. Her leadership was both obvious and subtle, and often unsung. It had a huge influence on me.

Q: How do you practice self-care outside of your demanding schedule? What are your tips on balancing your personal life and the work you do on behalf of society?

I don’t really believe in balance. I think there are seasons of life and the best I can do is be aware of what season I am in and find some peace within it. I have two daughters — two and five — and I spend a lot of time with them. I also work and I love my work. I also have a women’s group that meets monthly and I love that — it feeds me and helps renew me for the exhausting and wonderful work of mothering. I also have a really strong partner who respects my work and does everything he can to share the labor. We joke that he’s the “chief domestic officer” in our house and I’m the “chief financial officer.”

Q: It’s clear that your work has been recognized. Has this affected you, your writing, or your following at all?

It feels amazing to be recognized with awards and that kind of thing, but my biggest aspiration is to be of use to people in the world, to change how people think so they can be braver and kinder.

Courtney E. Martin is an author, entrepreneur, and facilitator. She has written/edited five books, including The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream and Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists. She writes frequently for the New York Times, BRIGHT Magazine, and The On Being Project, among other publications. She has appeared on the TODAY Show, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. Her TED talks have been watched over 3.5M times. Courtney has interviewed luminaries as wide ranging as filmmaker Ava DuVernay, writer Zadie Smith, choreographer Alonzo King, organizer Ai-Jen Poo, rapper Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest, and designer Tim Brown. Courtney is also the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and has consulted with a wide variety of organizations — like TED, the Aspen Institute, The Obama Foundation, and The Sundance Institute — on how to make impactful, story-rich social change. She has an honorary doctorate from Art Center College of Design and received the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics. She lives with her partner, John Cary, and two daughters, in a co-housing community in Oakland.

Breeana Gant is a 12th grader at Matoaca High School in Chesterfield, Virginia. She is a part of the Girl Ambassador program at Girls For A Change (GFAC), a nonprofit that “prepares black girls for the world, and the world for black girls.” She is very interested in women's rights, international travel, and information science (IS), so much so that she plans to study IS for the next four years.