Putting the Active in Activism

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How one woman turned her passion for helping into a career in journalism and advocacy.

By Sarah Hanlon

With activism-focused writing clips published in Teen Vogue, Bust Magazine and Thrillist and an extensive experience in advocacy with groups including The Fresh Air Fund, PEN America and The Forum for Youth Investment, Elly Belle has accomplished a lot as a 23-year-old who launched her full-time careers in journalism and activism in 2017. While she’s always had a passion for telling stories and helping others, her passion for activism can be traced back to participating in The Vagina Monologues at Hofstra University.

The former Public Relations student catered to her interest in advocacy and storytelling by participating in the episodic play written by Eve Ensler. “It was so amazing to speak about important things that women and other marginalized communities,” she said of the production that explores female sexuality from a variety of perspectives. “That’s something that made me feel empowered and gave me more ideas for how much more I wanted to change the world and how much I wanted to do for the world.”

Madie Mento, a current student at Hofstra who has also participated in the school’s production of The Vagina Monologues, had a similar reaction to the impact of the show on college campuses. “When you first step into college as a woman, we are faced with so much regarding sexual health and sexual experiences that we aren’t taught when we’re younger because talking about sex, vaginas and female sexual health is still a taboo,” she said. “I feel that the Vagina Monologues is the perfect show to teach college women/female-identifying that talking about sex and your sexual health is totally okay and there are other people on campus who may have been through what you’ve been through.”

For Elly, the impact of The Vagina Monologues was powerful: “It was the most important part of my college experience.”

Robin Pereira, a former Hofstra student who is currently a Development and Special Events Fellow at NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, had the same experience with the show. “The Vagina Monologues was one of the most empowering and rewarding aspects of my college experience,” she said. “I was able to work with individuals of all genders and backgrounds to put on a show that embodied the power of femininity as well as addressed important issues such as sexual assault, female genital mutilation, coming out as LGBTQ and living life outside of the gender binary.”

While she didn’t have the chance to work with Elly personally before she graduated, she did note the impact Elly had on the show during her time at Hofstra. “I know Elly worked to make The Vagina Monologues very inclusive, she always remembered to include voices of women of color and folks outside of the gender binary,” she said. “Traditionally, The Vagina Monologues didn’t do the best job at being inclusive and I know that was something Elly was always thoughtful of.”

Working to make the show inclusive of others was an idea that Kat Smith, a current student activist at Hofstra who has worked with both Elly and Pereira, echoed. “I do think it’s a very dated show,” they said.  “I have a lot of problems with a lot of the language used in the show and a few of the monologues and Eve Ensler but I do think that the show still does have significance.”

In order to combat the dated nature of the show, Smith worked with fellow students to add talk-backs after the show to discuss what the show got right and what it got wrong about certain experiences.

Elly Belle reporting at the Peace First Summit in New York City on September 16, 2018. (photo courtesy of Elly Belle/Peace First Summit)

Though Elly left a long-lasting effect on The Vagina Monologues at Hofstra, it wasn’t just activism that she was passionate about during her time as a student. She liked telling stories, and she liked using her voice and her platform to help people. While she left high school thinking she would pursue a career in journalism, her switch to PR once she began taking classes in college was an obvious choice. “If I did PR and general communications, then I would be able to intern for non-profits over agencies.”

That’s exactly what she did. While in college, she held seven different internships with one core similarity: they were all either non-profits or centered around causes she cared deeply about. Some of her internships included Camino PR, The Fresh Air Fund, and PEN America. Despite the differences among all of the organizations she’s worked at, they all have something in common: they dedicate their work to advocating for the freedom and rights of women, minorities, underprivileged youth and marginalized communities.  

Now, Elly has made a career for herself as a freelance journalist and an advocate who focuses her work around one goal: “At the end of the day, my goal is always to do the work for other people.”

“It’s never for myself even when I’m coming from a place of advocating for sexual assault survivors or something that I’ve always experienced, it’s always about doing the work for other people and helping them feel seen and cared about,” she said. “Their story is important.”

As a journalist, Elly focuses the majority of her work around women’s rights, reproductive rights, sexual assault survivors, LGBTQ+ community members, transgender children and marginalized youth.

She also knows that as a white woman, she can’t relate to all of the people she advocates for since she focuses her energy into youth and minority groups. However, she does have a platform to tell under-represented stories that many people don’t have, and she isn’t afraid to use to the fullest advantage.

“I’ve experienced horrible things. But as a white woman, I have a lot more; I have privilege, and I have the means to change the world. I’m at this place where I’ve experienced these horrible things and my effort and addiction for good to help other people who have experienced those things. Everything comes from that place to help others feel seen and like someone is fighting for them and to feel helpful.”

But as a passionate advocate and a traditional journalist, Elly has to draw the line between truth and personal bias in her work. Journalists present the facts in a story without any bias, while advocates rely on their own bias and passion to campaign for issues that are important to them.

One look at Elly and the work she’s done could raise confusion for those who don’t know how someone could brand themselves as a journalist and an activist while managing to keep both areas of expertise separate.

However, Elly says it all comes down to the presentation of facts. As a journalist, she writes her stories (especially those about advocacy) with the accuracy that is expected of all journalists—it all comes down to how she presents those facts.

“The best journalism is good and is important because of the angle it comes from because you are unveiling a perspective about the world or a topic or person that hasn’t been shown before,” she said.

“Stories like these are fact-based, you’re just coming from a specific perspective. When I read the news, I don’t always like it but I read Fox News and Breitbart and The Hill and CNN and Vera Institute [of Justice]. I read all of these different publications and all of them are technically fact-based but they’re presenting different facts,” she explained. “When you’re a journalist you’re supposed to be unbiased but there’s a difference between being an unbiased writer and a human being and you’re both when writing a story. Fox News, for example, presents very specific facts and are not presenting other facts.”

Similarly, Pereira argues that diversity among writers is a necessity when it comes to fair, accurate journalism. “Diversity is necessary when talking about politics and activism because issues affect others differently,” she said. When stories are being told by people who have the same background and similar life experiences and ideas, reporting will not be diverse. Instead, she calls for diversity among writers to showcase new viewpoints and underrepresented stories.

Elly also notes how much of the journalism in popular news outlets come from a straight, white, often male perspective. “Traditional journalism has centered around whiteness, straightness, prioritizing the male perspective, the cisgender perspective, prioritizing the perspective of the people who are citizens. The shift we’re seeing in journalism and media is that the angle is changing.”

Elly looks to journalism in the same way she looks to advocacy: she wants to tell stories and represent perspectives that aren’t always given the platform.  

Elly Belle poses with Maya Soetoro-Ng, the half-sister of Barack Obama at the Peace First Summit (photo courtesy of Elly Belle/Peace First Summit)

Her repertoire of previous interviews includes the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students behind the “Never Again” movement to protest gun violence in schools and Lane Murdock, the 16-year-old student who organized the National School Walkout to honor those who lost their lives to gun violence in schools. She writes about survivors of sexual assault, women of color who are running for office, abortion rights and LGBTQ+ youth rights.

She also actively works with SparkAction, a nonprofit organization that combines advocacy and journalism to “mobilize action for and by young people.”

When she’s not writing stories or actively advocating, she dedicates her time to mentoring young girls and LGBTQ+ youth.

Though she may be busy with all of the different organizations and people she commits herself to, it all comes down to having the passion to dedicate time to causes that matter to her—a skill Smith thinks Elly gained in college. “I think Elly is someone who balances a million different things at once and I am very impressed by that,” they said. “I watched her do that and I think that’s something that every campus organizer learns just how to balance different things.”

It’s clear that among all of her work, Elly’s focus is consistent around uplifting the voices of those who are younger than her. “I have always thought that young people and kids and teens were the most important voices because young people are the most vulnerable,” she said.

“My goal is always to be proud of and excited that young people are being listened to and to empower the next generation of young people. The next 16-year-olds or 12-year-olds want to do something, and I’m constantly inspired by and in awe of the young people who are doing such incredible things. I want to uplift them and not only make their voices heard but help them turn their ideas into concrete actions in the world.”

As for her future, Elly will continue to make her mission revolve around helping younger advocates achieve their missions. “As ‘older’ young people, our role is to give guidance, but not to wag our fingers. We have to try to help make their ideas their stories the best they can be. My goal will always be to try to help young people try it to figure out the best so they can be themselves and go forth in their mission.”