Culture Undiscovered: Approaching Activism with Professor Sarah Buel

Sarah Buel knows about activism. A clinical professor of law and faculty director of the Diane Halle Center for Family Justice at ASU, she’s been working with women and children for more than 30 years. She founded the Harvard

Professor Buel was the closing speaker at the Womanity summit. Photo courtesy of

Battered Women’s Advocacy Project, the Harvard Women in Prison Project, and the Harvard Children and Family Rights Project, all while graduating summa cum laude from law school there. She narrated the Academy Award-winning 1994 documentary Defending Our Lives, and was working tirelessly to prevent domestic violence and aid its victims long before NBC named her one of the most inspiring women in America.

Professor Buel is a role model for advocates of social justice everywhere and an especially important person to talk about in this era of so-called internet slacktivism. Now more than ever, even the people who want to work for change are confused about what constitutes activism in the first place. The harsh truth is that activism is more than watching a video on YouTube -- it’s really hard work. At the ASU organization Woman as Hero’s April 6 summit, “Womanity,” Professor Buel had some important tips for anyone who wants to become (or already is) a voice for change.

  1. We have to keep dreaming. Over the years, Professor Buel’s gotten a lot of grief for saying “no” too often. If she didn’t, she says, she might still be waitressing tables, or living with her abuser. Social justice work demands that we dream, that we continue to demand the best for ourselves and others, because it is founded on the notion that our dignity, and the rights that come with it, are worth being difficult for -- even if that means rejecting misleading or inadequate human rights campaigns (see Kony 2012).
  2. Persevere. As Professor Buel tells her story, the one thing that becomes clear is that nothing can stop her -- not her elementary school counselor, who told her she wasn’t smart enough to go to college; not her abuser, who followed her from state to state; and certainly not her boss, who fired Buel for her work with female prisoners. Instead of giving in, Professor Buel got into Harvard, mailed that counselor her college diploma, and eventually got a new, higher-paying job. She has been persistent, because as a former victim of domestic abuse she realizes that abusers will be just as tenacious in their efforts to maintain control over the people that she’s helping.
  3. Be courageous. Being scared keeps us passionate, as long as we keep going. Professor Buel’s involvement with Arizona’s Voice for Crime Victims court watches, which ensure that judges are held accountable for their actions in the courtroom, have not made her popular with judges here. What’s great is that she doesn’t care, because she knows that they’re always going to need “someone who knows how to speak up.” If you find a cause worth working for, don’t shut up until the right people hear you.
If you want to help fight domestic violence, Professor Buel suggests checking out, or distributing fliers for the National Domestic Abuse Hotline, a selection of which are available here. If you or anyone you know is involved in an abusive relationship, call 1-800-799-SAFE for help.


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