Tag Archives: activism

This Girl Sued Pennsylvania’s Government for Her Environmental Rights

This story appears in the May issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

Before March 28 of this year, something exciting and potentially world-changing (in a good way) was playing out in Pennsylvania. Seven young plaintiffs, including 17-year-old Rekha Dhillon-Richardson, were suing their state, arguing that the government had failed to protect their constitutional rights by refusing to adequately and immediately combat climate change. Article I, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution guarantees "the right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment." This groundbreaking case, which requested strict reduction and regulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions in order to ensure a habitable planet for young people and future generations, made its way through the legal system until the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently upheld a lower court's ruling in the state's favor.

Even though they lost, Dhillon-Richardson and her allies made important ethical and legal arguments on the public stage. As many of us adjust to a presidential administration that denies the reality of climate change and scoffs at basic science, I talked to Dhillon-Richardson about what we can learn from this case and its creative pursuit of state-based avenues for progressive action.

VICE: Why did you get involved in this case?
Rekha Dhillon-Richardson: Because I believe that it is absolutely crucial that youth are central players in developing local and national strategies to fight environmental degradation. The fundamental human rights and futures of children and youth are disproportionately threatened by climate destabilization, even though we have had little to do with the production of the problem.

What have you learned being part of this process?
It's taught me how to be a more effective advocate for the things that I believe in and to use whatever avenues necessary to seek change and bring about justice. I have also learned that the court process is extremely slow; it is hard to make quick and significant changes through the courts. Those of us deeply concerned about issues of environmental injustice would be wise to explore multiple strategies to challenge the government.

Pennsylvania's environmental constitutional rights are pretty impressive. What do you think about the fact that we have rights on the books that aren't implemented?
Although Pennsylvania has extensive environmental constitutional protections, it is shameful and shortsighted that they are not being put into practice. I am encouraged by our government's consideration of the right to clean air, water, and natural resources—these are rights that everyone should have. However, it is very disappointing that Pennsylvania is failing to do the work to actually ensure that these rights are upheld. This case made me realize that just because a law is created in theory does not mean that it is applied in reality.

Has the new administration changed how you think about the case and what needs to be done to protect the environment?
The people Trump has chosen for his Cabinet are dangerous and are now in a position of authority. With this new administration that threatens the environmental movement, it is imperative that we continue to take immediate and significant action—protests, public education, youth organizing, and challenges in the court are all part of this resistance.

Are there things young people see about the future that older people don't?
My generation is ready and willing to fight for our human rights and for the rights of our earth. There are amazing kids all around the world who are standing up to environmental degradation and who live with the consequences of the decisions around extractive industries that are made in places like the United States. The natural world that my generation and the future generations will inherit is going to be very different than the one that older people have enjoyed. I think young people have the ability to imagine a better world—to have a vision for the longer term.

Do you think previous generations have let people your age down?
I do think we have been let down. Children across the globe have trusted the adults to make the right decisions—to lead us forward into a cleaner and more just future for everyone. We have been harmed by decisions that were made without our authorization.

What are your plans for the future? Has being part of this case shaped what you want to do later on?
I plan to become an environmental scientist—I start college this fall—and continue my advocacy work for climate justice, with a focus on areas in the world that are disproportionately impacted. Being part of this case has confirmed that young people are needed more than ever. Consequently, I also plan to continue to create platforms for young people to become leaders alongside me.

What We Saw at the Climate March on Washington

I showed up at the US Capitol area around 11 AM. By then people were streaming in from all directions. Volunteers directed people to the appropriate spots, and banners were laid on on the ground in preparation for the walk to the White House.

At the front of the march was a "human shield," a group of people with linked arms who helped clear the way for the different groups walking behind them.

The organizations involved were a diverse coalition that included Black Lives Matter...

...Native Americans...

...and lots of other left-wing groups.

When they got to the White House, protesters sat on the ground, their backs to the White House, then patted their chests in imitation of a heartbeat for 100 seconds.

After that, protesters flooded onto the National Mall. By then it was around 2:30 and the afternoon heat was taking its toll (it was 91 degrees, the record for this time of year in DC). Some people retreated into the shade...

...while others soaked up the sun.

The march was peaceful and almost celebratory at times, with lots of live music and arts installations.

Everyone, however, obviously felt this fight to be urgent—just days ago, the EPA removed pages about climate change from its website.

The Trump administration, in particular EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt seems dedicated to dismantling efforts to fight climate change, but Saturday's march shows how passionate the opposition is.

When You Find Out the World Is Against You

From the book WHEN YOU FIND OUT THE WORLD IS AGAINST YOU: And Other Funny Memories About Awful Moments by Kelly Oxford.Copyright © 2017 by Kelly Oxford. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. It's available for purchase here.

This story contains triggers for sexual assault.

I grew up in the '80s and '90s. My parents raised me to believe I could be anything I wanted to be. They even bought me books that said, "A girl can be an astronaut! A girl can be a doctor, just like a boy!" When I became a parent, I read this book to my daughter, and she asked, "Why couldn't a girl be an astronaut or a doctor? What does this book mean?" I put the book in storage, and I took note. I was telling my child she could be as successful as a boy when she had no idea boys had an advantage. The world had changed a lot since I was a girl.

"You should go to university. The kind of man you want will want to marry a woman with a deep education." This was advice from my well-meaning mother, and I considered this was possibly true, overlooking the fact that the subtext was: Go to school to get a man. The smart woman gets proposed to by the right man. I was raised on the objectification of women through a dialogue that was positive and even encouraging, by a feminist, no less!

Even so, the ideas around appearances were still out there, and I studied them like a PhD candidate. All in all, those boiled down to: Have long hair, be thin with a nice bust and hips. Don't have too many opinions and be a good listener.

Objectification. It is a hot, loaded word. Women have been bearing the weight of this behavior forever. But here were Donald Trump and Billy Bush taking objectification to a shocking next step. They were actually joking about sexually assaulting women. Billy's horrendous laughter in response to Donald's remarks put my head in an extreme place. I immediately open my Twitter account and see everyone tweeting about this. This is huge. This leaked tape is demanding a response. I have to jump in. I have no choice. Through a pit in my stomach, I tweet, "Grab them by the p—y," Trump says. "You can do anything." And Billy Bush is like, OK!—This is rape culture. This is what we hear & live.

My tweet is instantly being retweeted, but I feel like what I wrote isn't as clear as I want it to be. So I tweet again.

Billy Bush cackling after Donald Trump says "Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything." Is rape culture.

I read these two tweets and wonder if I should delete one. No, they're different. I sigh deeply and look back at the television, watching Donald and Billy Bush now shaking hands with a blond actress.

Just minutes before, the conversation between Billy and Trump had turned to this woman, who clearly turned the Donald on. To wit:

TRUMP: Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.


UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: Yeah those legs, all I can see is the legs.

TRUMP: Oh, it looks good.

I'm engulfed in a feeling, a sensation. My body is drowning in it. That feeling is white-hot rage.

This was the woman Trump just said "It looks good" about. It. He called a woman IT. You know how when you get bad news, or you are hit with a flash of sudden pain, it feels like time stops? Time stopped. I'm engulfed in a feeling, a sensation. My body is drowning in it. That feeling is white-hot rage.


I've been waiting for today all week.

1. It's Friday. Schwing!

2. I'm going to my friend Penny's house after school. She lives in a suburb, which is exciting. New houses, so fancy! I live in the inner city. Old houses, gross! We are taking the city bus, which is also very exciting. Taking city transportation is the closest I get to feeling like a kid living in New York City.

3. My crush Mike lives close to Penny, and he too will be on the bus. I will get to spy on him. Schwing!

"Penny!! Let's go." I puff clouds from my mouth into the air, grabbing her arm and sprinting for the bus. It's one of the coldest days of the year. Penny zips her backpack and tries to keep up.
"We're going to slip, we don't have to run."

"I won't slip, I have Sorels on! My mom got them on sale! Hold on to me."

I shift my bag off my shoulder and onto the other so Penny has space to grab, a "dad trick" that always works for me.

"Hold on tight!" I drag her in her Doc Martens across the ice-covered sidewalk. I pray this is the closest I'll ever get to being in the Iditarod, or a dad.

"Shit, Kel, the bus is going to be so full. Let's get the next one." I look to see what Penny is staring at; up ahead of us the number 47 bus has an epic line of middle school kids scrambling to getting on. I spot my crush Mike, he's ascending the bus stairs with his white-blond hair, like a wintry Viking child-god.

"We can't wait! We will freeze to death!"

"We can wait in the Circle K."

"Penny, hold on tight. We're getting on that bus. He's on it."



"Kelly, he's dating Gabby. Stop obsessing."

"No way. Gabby isn't on the bus. Don't you get it? I'm not missing this opportunity. We are getting on that bus."

I have done my hair today, in a ponytail with teased bangs. I even used hair spray, enough hair spray that this Iditarod run is barely causing my vertical hair wall to lose a single strand from its crisp wave.

My mom had no idea I'd added the hair spray to our grocery pile.

"I guess you're a teenager now," she said when she found me in the bathroom, backcombing my bangs, hair spray bottle sideways in my mouth. It was a small moment, and a minor one, but my mother was acknowledging me becoming a woman. I was trying to look beautiful, on my own, without her help.

I dig the Sorels deep into the crusty snow on the edge of the sidewalk and double my pace, keeping Penny and her slippery Docs on the ice of the sidewalk, dragging her behind me.

"Hey!!" I hear a girl's voice yell, and I turn so quickly that my cheek is stung by the air.

"Hahaha!" Penny laughs at the boy she'd actually run into. He is still trying to stabilize himself on the ice.

"I could have cracked my head, bitches."

He straightens his jacket and I turn, laughing, toward Penny.

"His voice hasn't even cracked yet, and he's worried about his skull?"

I was not a nice tween.

I stop dragging Penny as we reach the crowd of kids piling up into the bus. She nods in agreement.

"That guy is the bitch. He's definitely pubeless. He probably has the penis of a seven-year-old."

Neither were my friends.

"Penny, that's gross." I laugh, of course.

She squints her enviable aqua-colored eyes at me. "A half roll of Certs."

We walk up the two bus steps to the driver, and I pull my mitten, smelling and tasting of old spit, off with my teeth as I scan the bus for Mike. All I see are faces of people I don't have crushes on. The bus is packed, all the way to the back. With my naked hand I fumble around in my jacket pocket for my bus change. My glasses fog up.

"Please hurry, we have to go!" The bus driver yells at me as I blindly dump all the coins I have into his little money box and grab my ticket.

"Penny, I can't see." She grabs my shoulder as we move down the aisle. Penny has a bus pass and doesn't get yelled at. I need to get a fucking bus pass, they're only, like, fifteen dollars for students. My parents would rather pick me up than let me take public transport. They think I'm too young, the pains of being the oldest child.

I remove my glasses and stand in a puddle of sandy melted slush on the bus floor, holding the pole. Other students, adults, are all around and pressing into us. I feel alive with my cement bangs, glasses off, on public transport.

"I don't see him, Kel. Are you sure he got on the bus? Gum?" Penny offers a piece of gum but it's too close to my face and my eyes cross as someone bumps into my butt. I hope Mike didn't see my eyes cross. I put on an annoyed face to counter the cross-eyed idiot face. I'm bumped into again.

"Penny, I can't see shit without my glasses. This bus is too steamy." I put my glasses back on because steamy glasses are less embarrassing than crossed eyes.

"Oh, man," she giggles, "Mike is gonna see you and—"

And then everything goes silent. Those bumps into my butt were a hand and now that hand is crawling from my butt to my vagina on the outside of my pants. And then, the hand is there.
When I was a kid I would jump into the lake and stay underwater, just for the moment when things would go silent. I'd surface, let the yelling, talking, dog barking back into my ears, the sound of my feet as I ran down the hollow wooden boards of our dock. Then I'd hang airborne for a moment before hitting the water again. The loud rush into my ears, then numb silence. I lived for that lonely numb silence in this womblike peace and safety.

But now the tiny invisible soft hairs on my arms and neck stand on end because instead of the peace I felt in that silence, it is fear I now feel. I turn and face a small old Indian man sitting on the bench behind me and pulling his hand back from touching me. He smiles.

"Kelly. Kelly," Penny says.

I'm out of the water.

"Sorry," I say too loudly. Penny is looking toward the back of the bus.

"Look. Look. It's Mike. He's with some guy I've never seen before. Do you know who that is?" I see Mike and feel nothing. I shake my head no. Penny keeps talking. The bus keeps driving. Eventually, we get off and walk to her house. We have dinner, we listen to music, we talk about how Lindsay's dad always says he is going to come see her and he never shows up at the airport. The next morning, my mom picks me up.

"You have fun?"


I get home, go upstairs, and throw the hair spray in the garbage.

I SHAKE AS I type.

Women: tweet me your first assaults. They aren't just stats. I'll go first:

Old man on city bus grabs my "pussy" and smiles at me. I'm 12.

I send the tweet and go to the kitchen for water. My throat is so dry. If no one responds, I'll delete that tweet. It was too presumptuous. I'm asking too much.

At age twelve I didn't tell anyone about the Indian man on the bus, because I was embarrassed. Why was I embarrassed? Because it's my vagina. Because that's private? Because I was twelve and I was embarrassed and didn't want to ruin my sleepover at Penny's?

My water glass is overflowing in the fridge dispenser. I take a long sip.

It was the hair. I was trying to look attractive to Mike. I purposefully wanted Mike's attention, I tried to be pretty for him. Maybe my shame was in trying to look pretty. I looked so pretty that a stranger felt he could touch me.

"Grab them by the pussy." I shiver all over, feeling sick as I return to my room. The video of Trump and Billy on the bus is on repeat. I decide to delete my tweet, but when I check my responses. There are too many to count. Stories are coming in faster than I can read them. What is happening?

My stepfather sexually abused me from when I was 4–17, no one believed me, I have felt guilty and ashamed my whole life.

Age 7 at toy store, bend down to see Barbie, man reaches under my dress. I go home and bury the ribbon I had in my hair.

Saw doctor for eye irritation and he gave me a breast exam.

I'm laying on my stomach reading, my grandfather puts his hand up my shorts. I was ten.

I'm a secretary to priest. After service he says, "I always wondered what you'd look like with lipstick." Kissed me on lips.

My disgusting music teacher tries to kiss me, I was 12.

I was at a party, 15, smoked a lot of weed and passed out. Woke up to man raping me.

Swimming at busy pool, feel someone reach into my bathing suit crotch and grab me. They swim away.

Space needle elevator with my parents, man behind me rubs my ass. I'm 9.

I was on the x-ray table, tech "adjusted" my pubic bone for 10 mins. I'm 14.

Friend's dad pulled on my swimsuit bottom and looked inside the front. I was 9.

• I'm 5 or 6. Sitter followed me to bed, covered my mouth and put a finger in my vagina.

• Grandma's boyfriend put my hand on his penis. She said I lied and bought him a car.

• I was gang raped by a group of professional athletes. Guess it was my fault. I was staying in the same hotel.

• I'm 11 in hospital waiting room, man waits for my mom to leave then offers me $50 for a blow job.

• Family doctor asks mom to leave the room. He then tells me I'm old enough to get a breast exam. I'm 13.

6 years old. Sleeping. Friend's dad spoons me and holds me against my will. I beg him to stop, be he says he knows I like it.

Those stories all come in the first ten seconds. Then another four. Another six. This is not stopping. I realize I can't delete my tweet. I have to tweet again.

MY HASHTAG #NOTOKAY IS flashing into my feed over and over again. I check to see what these women are tweeting at me. I can't be the only one reading these at this point. I want everyone to read them. And simultaneously, I want them to disappear. It is awful. It is real.

• At 7, in grocery store, man presses his penis on my neck. This is my second tweet ever. #notokay

• Guy interviewing me for a job tries to get my clothes off, I'm 15. #notokay

• #notokay in 1941 my bible teacher, my dad's best friend molested me and my sister. Ages 13 & 7. Some things don't change.

• Chiropractor rests his clothed genitals on my hand. Scared. No one was around #notokay

• 40yo guitar teacher teaches me to strum by stroking my leg. He asks to kiss me. I'm 13 and I don't go back #notokay

• He was a friend giving me a ride home. I just wanted to get away. #notokay

• I can't send mine without losing my peace. Thank you for doing this. #notokay

• My brother raped me repeatedly for 3 years, told me it was my fault I was born a girl. I was 9. #notokay

• Age 7, guy masturbates while watching me play handball. Mom calls cops. I can't remember color of pants. He goes free. #notokay

• First time I remember I was 7. Mom's BFF. Pretty sure he was the first. Not the last. #notokay

• I don't remember the first time. I just know my mom took me from bio-dad at 8 months after catching him. #notokay

• I made anon acct to reply: I was maybe 8, my older cousin put his hand down my pants and underwear and in me.

• High school civics teacher would rub the feet of an attractive student in the front row. She had no choice. #notokay

• Man on street walks by, moans in my ear "The things I'd do to you."

• Dad didn't believe me. #notokay

• Pediatrician neighbor teaches me how to masturbate, tries to get me to do it beside him. I'm 12.

• Podiatrist grazes my breasts while examining my foot. Felt violated. Kept quiet.

• Just one assault? A pelvic exam in ER. My back was hurt from gymnastics class.

• At my gram's funeral my 90 year old uncle says he wants to fuck me. His wife laughs it off. #notokay

I see that my Twitter account is trending in Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, New York. But that simply means that enough people are replying to me that my name is trending. These tweets could still go totally unknown. I have to make sure other people see this. I owe it to everyone who has responded to me. So, I decide to tweet: 1 hr ago I shared my sexual assault & asked if you could do the same. Look at my timeline. 1000s of stories. We must discuss. Not our shame. #notokay


I look down the hall to my girlfriends Karen and Erin, sitting with a few guys from the university hockey team. I decide to join them. Karen is one of my closest friends but I think she secretly hates me. This is because once she was hooking up with this awful athlete, and I knew he was a creep. So, I kept going into the room while they were trying to fuck. I turned on the light. I so unsexually got into bed with them and started talking about the weather. I told her she should leave. I was thrown out repeatedly because I was being a huge asshole, but I kept going back in, drunk, but determined to save her vagina. I remember her telling me something along the lines of "You're just jealous."

And that was partly true, I mean, I wished I could just have sex for the sake of horniness...but I was not there. I needed something more. I needed someone to genuinely like me for me. As a teenage girl with a body that society has deemed attractive, it's very clear you can get a large percentage of guys to have sex with you. That really didn't turn me on.

But tonight, all seems right in the world and between Karen, Erin, and me.

"Erin, I don't think I've peed all night." At the table are the hockey players Jesse, Dylan, Tim, Ross, and Warren. All are regulars, except for Warren. I'd never hung out with Warren. We were friendly with these guys and would flirt back and forth with consent, harmlessly.

"Pee, girl, pee!"

I dance to "99 Luftballons" all the way down the hall to the bathroom, as only a drunk person can. Carefree, cinematically, as if my life is perfect.

I push into a dirty stall and take one of the longest pees of my life. The kind where you think it's over and then suddenly realize there's possibly a second bladder tucked up behind the first one. This is another thing that only seems to happen to drunk people.

"I pull the stall door in and gasp. Warren is standing in the bathroom, facing me. He is six foot five and probably the best-looking human being in this bar. His face is Denzel Washington symmetrical. He looks angry. I open my mouth but I don't know what to say. My fight-or-flight instinct is raging but I'm frozen, unable to react. I know that this situation will not end well, and my mind begins to go to that dark place when he grabs my waist and picks me up. I feel like I'm a child, not sure why an adult is picking me up. Adults don't announce their actions to children, they just do them. What is happening? Are we about to re-create the Johnny and Baby performance from Dirty Dancing?

"Why are you in the girls' bathroom?" I ask mid-air before he lowers me into a wet sink and spreads my legs with his body. His perfect mouth comes close to my face, seething with hate. He is so close, I can feel his sweat and his spit as he begins to speak. "Do you know what rape is?" he hisses into my mouth, grabbing my body. My mind goes blank. A moment later Dylan enters the bathroom.

"DUDE." Though significantly smaller, he grabs Warren's shoulder. Warren puts his tongue in my mouth, then spits on me. Dylan leads him out of the bathroom, but Warren turns and looks back at me, eyes full of rage.

I'm left in a sink. Tasting Warren's Jack and Coke, feeling the damp of people's dirty hands seep through the bottom of my pants. I hop out of the sink, and walk back into the bar to "Tainted Love." Warren and Dylan are nowhere to be seen.

I walk right to Erin and sit on her lap, suddenly sober.

"Eew, you're wet."

"Warren came in the bathroom and asked me if I knew what rape was. He put his tongue in my mouth and then spit on me. Dylan saved me."

Erin's eyes widen, hand to her heart. We would protect each other from this day forward. I was seventeen years old.

Why haven't men stopped talking about us and touching us as though we are their objects?

WHEN I WAS TWELVE and the old man grabbed my vagina on the bus, I felt shame, because I was truly trying to get the attention of a boy and I innately felt as though putting hair spray in my hair had invited the grabbing. And Warren, well, he was just teaching me a lesson, right? I probably shouldn't drink so much and I definitely shouldn't go to the bathroom alone. Girls who do that could get raped.

I've always felt like rape is the invisible vampire I had to run from, if vampires were real and everywhere, all the time. Because I've never been raped, I've always waited for it, wondering where and when. Dark parking lots, elevators, bathrooms, hotel rooms, my front yard, my own bed. I feel it could happen. Anytime. All the time. I'm ready to fight, but I'm almost forty. I'm fucking tired, you guys.

I feel lucky that I've only have a handful of experiences with sexual assault. Of my five closest friends all of us have been assaulted, none of us has been raped. But among our mothers, sisters, friends, there are many who have—on dates, by family members, in the street. This is fucked. And now, a man running to be the President of the United States is making jokes about it. Making jokes about how he can do anything to a woman, he can grab them in the pussy.

Now more than 3 million women have been to my Twitter page and shared stories of strangers, relatives, family friends, close friends, peers, doctors, teachers, police officers, touching them. More than 3 million. The media have picked up on this: Vogue, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Boston Globe, everyone is talking about Trump, but everyone is also talking about the unraveling of secrets that I helped create this afternoon. My head is spinning. By the end of this week, more than 40 million people will read my tweets and share stories. I'll have been on the cover of the New York Times and on TV panels with Professor Anita Hill.

What is the story of women in this country? The neurotic witch hunts, being treated as property. Being kept in the home to raise children and make our men's lives easier. Being denied access to jobs we deserve or the recognition and equal pay for jobs we've done.

In the last one hundred years we've won the right to vote.

We've become leaders in politics, in industry, in media, in the arts.

Why haven't men stopped talking about us and touching us as though we are their objects?

When will it ever stop?

My cat Gertie jumps on the bed. I hold my hand out to pet her. We approach this moment as equals.

I turn off the television. I have to let the world go for now.

I don't know when this will all stop. Or when women will truly be equals. Sometimes I feel so alone, and other times I open my mouth or reach out and find that everyone is feeling the same way I'm feeling. And that the world wants to discuss those feelings, no matter how painful. The sharing is maybe the thing that helps us see that the world isn't really against us after all.


Follow Kelly Oxford on Twitter.

More Muslims Are Running for Office in a Vile Political Climate

When Abdul El-Sayed addresses a town hall of Democratic stalwarts in a conservative pocket of southeast Michigan, he lets out out a battle cry. "Who believes that we have to put people ahead of profits?" he roars. "Who believes in democracy over dynasty?"

The former University of Michigan varsity lacrosse player has the air of a coach confident he's on pace for a championship win. His athletic and academic success earned him a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, and his degrees in medicine and public health led Detroit mayor Mike Duggan to tap him to restore municipal control over the city's health department after bankruptcy proceedings in 2015. Now, at 32, El-Sayed is running to be Michigan's next governor. If elected, he'll be the first Muslim in American history to hold that position, a fact that he doesn't shy away from despite a national climate rather hostile to people like him.

Although Islamophobic acts appear to be on the rise and immigration policies designed exclusively to target Muslims have been imposed by President Donald Trump, more Muslim Americans seem to be vying for political office than ever before. While some members of Trump's Cabinet have, in the past, claimed that Islam is fundamentally at odds with the Constitution, echoing longtime right-wing paranoia about Sharia law, many of these nascent politicians say the things that put them on blast—their faith and immigrant roots —are what inspired their candidacies and desire to serve.

"My dad, he immigrated from Egypt, and he was looking for an America that was big enough for him too," El-Sayed tells the hundreds gathered in a banquet hall of overstated chandeliers and dizzying carpeting on a recent Tuesday evening. "He chose to come here because he knew he could raise their children to practice [their faith] as they wanted and be just as American as anyone else."

But his story is more nuanced than one might expect: El-Sayed's parents split up, and his father married Jacqueline Johnson, a white woman from central Michigan. In the middle of his stump speech, the candidate asks his stepmother's parents—Judy and Jan—to stand before painting a picture of Thanksgiving in their household.

"I've got my dad, Mohamed, who's a part-time imam and leads prayer at the mosque, and I've got my grandma Judy, and she's a deacon in her Presbyterian Church. And then we've got the wildcard, my uncle Piotr, who immigrated from what is now Poland, who's a devout atheist." El-Sayed says. "And we sit together, and we eat our turkey, and we have conversations about God and country, and we don't always agree. But I'll tell you we always respect each other."

The Democrat's fate rests on a resurgence of that kind of mutual respect after the state narrowly—and surprisingly —voted in favor of Donald Trump for president. The pitch seems to play well, albeit to a friendly audience: The crowd is dotted with pink pussy hats and jackets emblazoned with union logos. Nearly the entire group rises to its feet and cheers when El-Sayed wraps up his speech with an explicit appeal for support.

The man's cadence and energy remind Gary Fougni, a retired 63-year-old in attendance, of another candidate with a diverse background and midwestern roots: Barack Obama. Fougnie appreciates how forthcoming El-Sayed is about his background. He knows a bit about the challenge El-Sayed faces, having worked in the defense industry alongside many who swapped their Middle Eastern names for ones more familiar to those in the American Midwest.

"I was very pleased that he puts himself out there [with his faith]," Fougni says. Still, he doubts that sentiment will be shared very widely across the Great Lakes State. "It's gunna be an uphill situation for him, because unfortunately there's not a lot of open-mindedness... He'll give a good speech, but all they'll think about is where he came from."

This is exactly what many people with immigrant backgrounds fear when entering the fray of public life, according to Sayu Bhojwani, who heads up the New American Leaders Project (NALP). A majority of applicants to the organization's political trainings "cite some marker of their identity as an obstacle: name, religion, appearance, skin color, and/or immigration status," she explains. "They talk about how each of those things could be perceived as a barrier."

Despite those fears, NALP has seen double the normal number of applicants —and double the number of Muslim American applicants—over the last year.

When I drop in to one of the trainings for potential candidates from New York, Colorado, and Michigan at the Arab-American Museum in Dearborn, Bhojwani offers simple but essential advice. "Because of who you are, how you look, what your name is, you will be asked questions that perhaps a white candidate might not be asked," she says in a room tucked away from where other aspiring politicians are practicing their speeches.

Instead of getting defensive as opponents and voters whittle them down to a series of negative stereotypes, Bhojwani says, would-be candidates should take a sip of water, count to ten, and then "pivot back to the message and the reason that you're running."

Check out the recent VICE News Tonight segment on the ongoing crisis of displaced migrants drowning in the Mediterranean.

Derogatory comments and false accusations come with the territory, according to Nadeem Mazen, an MIT-educated engineer who serves in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, city council. Breitbart, the alt-right site formerly run by Trump White House strategist Steve Bannon, called Mazen an "aggressive anti-police activist" with "Islamist sympathies" just after he secured another term in November 2015.

Mazen was expecting such a blow. After all, he says, every single Muslim American he knows who's made an attempt at a career in politics "has been targeted in a smear campaign without exception."

But when I broach the prospect of facing off against angry Trump supporters with the potential candidates at the training in Michigan, few seem particularly worried.

"People might come at me with some xenophobic and discriminatory comments, but I think calling it out as it is is really important," says 28-year-old Ghida Dagher, who was the campaign manager for Abdullah Hammoud, a state representative in the Dearborn area. Still, she notes, it's important not to let prejudice dictate the terms of debate. "The more you feed into that rhetoric, the more that you get stuck in it."

Abdul El-Sayed has already taken his own share of abuse and factually dubious skepticism. Earlier this month, a right-wing blog accused him of having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, which he denies. Driving in what he calls his "trusty Ford Explorer" from a campaign stop in Northern Michigan into the potholed expanse of highways surrounding Detroit, El-Sayed says his faith is his North Star, but not really relevant to running the state of Michigan.

"I'm proud of my faith, and I'm proud of who I am. I'm not leaning away from it at all," he tells me over the phone. "I didn't change my name. I didn't shave my beard. My wife wears a hijab. But it's not what's going to build an economy. It's not what's going to rebuild our schools or address our public health challenges."

Part of why he's entering politics is to prove that politicians don't have to fit the old white man mould.

"For me," El-Sayed says, "There is a responsibility to stand up and say, 'Look, whichever color I am and however I pray, I think I've got a skill set that my state needs right now.'"

Follow Beenish Ahmed on Twitter.

How Black Female MCs Changed the Conversation Through Hip-Hop

Seated at a coffee table in an unidentifiable diner, revolutionary singer Nina Simone once told her interviewer that "an artist's duty [was] to reflect the times."

And she was right.

So far, there hasn't been a time where feminism, hip-hop, and the black women in it weren't desperately needed.

Unsurprisingly, black female MCs aren't widely acknowledged for their contributions to feminism throughout the ages. And it's even more unsurprising that the sexism and misogyny black female MCs faced (and still do) are generally less talked about. We're quick to minimize black female hardships in hip-hop largely because we've never had to put a microscope on what it's like to be a black female MC in a male-dominated industry.

That's why the voices of stars like Nicki Minaj ring so loudly when they make bold statements like "you need no man on this planet at all, period" in their interviews.

Minaj cuts through the noise because she's been the biggest voice in female MCing (despite contestation) for quite some time now. And her Marie-Claire interview certainly wasn't the first time that the ten-time Grammy nominee had expressed the double standards she's faced so far.

As a hip-hop fan and black female feminist, her position in the rap world is of particular interest to me because of her control (or lack thereof) in the game. She's in a position where she's had to be everything to be everyone, simply because, for a long time, there were no others.

And though some might find it difficult to consider her feminism groundbreaking, her very presence alone poses a particularly interesting question: What does it take to be a black female feminist in the game?

Before we can really look at Minaj's contributions, we must first take into account the magnitude of the female MCs who have come before her. We must examine the hardcore hood feminists who were at the forefront of intersectional feminism when it came to race, gender, social class, and even sexuality before hip-hop took the world by storm.

The year 1979 saw the rise of Harlem's Sylvia Robinson ("Rapper's Delight"), Philadelphia's Lady B ("To the Beat Y'all"), and the Sequence ("Funk You Up") as some of hip-hop's first female MCs.

During this time, feminism was in its second wave and began resisting conventional notions of beauty and femininity in lieu of social equality (e.g. The 1969 "bra burning" protests against the Miss America Beauty Pageant in Atlantic City.) At this time in New York, crime rates were soaring in the South Bronx as crack cocaine started rolling in. There was a major blackout, and a lot of community housing was literally on fire. The late 70s also saw the rise and fall of the disco era, with local clubs packed to the sounds of Donna Summer and Soul Train. For black people, it was also an interesting time of revolution with social justice movements like the Black Panther Party. But hip-hop would still prevail despite its rough infant stages and, in a way, ended up reflecting the disco sounds; it was music you could move to.

The 80s saw the rise of Salt-N-Pepa, both of whom were quintessential masters of ceremonies. Moving the crowd with their high energy and flow, their presence on the mic was larger than themselves. Often described as the "first Lladies of hip-hop," these women overcame being subjected to "misogyny, adversity, economic hardship, incarceration, sexual abuse/objectification, [and] violence" in the industry, according to Source. The self-described feminists pushed the envelope of what rap could mean for women at a time when there just weren't that many female MCs. In 1995, the duo won the Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group, making them the first female rap group to ever win that award.

During this time in the late 80s, feminism was starting to center on sexual liberation and control of the female body. With fights for reproductive rights, abortion reform, and birth control, feminism was starting to critique women's roles both in and out of the home and differentiate between sex and gender.

At the same time, MC Lyte was boldly making a name for herself in Brooklyn, stepping onto the scene at just 16 years old. Unlike other female MCs, like Roxanne Shante, who'd been introduced to the rap game as the "first ladies" of mostly male rap groups (she later went solo), MC Lyte made her emergence into the hip-hop scene alone and remained that way. She wasn't afraid to take on topics of sexuality, consent or talk about just how great she is.

But it wasn't until the third wave of feminism during the mid 90s that we really saw a reformation of sexuality in hip-hop. At that point, the feminist movement had de-mystified and un-tabooed notions of women's sexuality within the academic sphere. Now, with the help of female music artists, women's sexual liberation was becoming more than just a literal conversation at the table.

It was ranking high on Billboard charts, selling out in record stores, and playing at local clubs. Female MCs were using hip-hop as a medium and their music as a platform to send strong messages about femininity, sexuality, gender representation, and self-worth louder and clearer than a lot of activist monikers could.

The 90s were peak times for female MCs in hip-hop with artists like Lil' Kim, Foxy Brown, Lauryn Hill, Queen Latifah, and Missy Elliott, to name a few.

Unlike the MCs before them, Kim, Foxy, Hill, Latifah, and Missy all held their own on what it meant to be an individual artist. There was less of an emphasis on who the best lyricist was or who had a better flow, with record labels honing in on appearance, individuality, and sex appeal.

Kim and Foxy were two of the first high-profile female rappers to take sexual representation of the black female body to a new level. Kim not only owned her sexuality through raw, aggressive, lyrical stories, suggestive poses, and bold hairstyles; she also gave black women the permission to do so (though some would argue that this still "fell in line" with the black male fantasy and gaze.)

Nevertheless, Lil' Kim would go on to make the top of the Billboard charts with her debut album, Hard Core.

Where Kim catered to the "sex sells" model, rival Foxy Brown was "no nonsense and fearless" according to former VIBE editor-in-chief Smokey D. Fontaine in a documentary interview. The self-professed "dark-skinned Christian Dior poster girl" was also highly successful, selling more than 109, 000 copies of her debut album, Ill Na Na, in just one week.

And who could forget the pioneering anomaly that is Lauryn Hill? Critics still wax poetic about The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill as being one of the greatest albums of all time.

Her music had a spirituality that was matchless, timeless, and impossible to recreate. She was unapologetically herself in an era when female rappers were being marketed as sex symbols and didn't think twice about conformance.

Hill reinvented what the female MC could look like. Her thunderous flow, soul-hitting lyrics and vocal tone and ability were not only unmatchable—they had also never been done before. She was the first MC to gain recognition for bridging the gap between womanhood and spirituality and contextualizing the struggles female MCs faced in the game.

In documentary My Mic Sounds Nice: The Truth About Women in Hip Hop, Fontaine goes on to note that "hip-hop is based on the truth… [But] when it comes to a woman's story, being who they are more often than not is going to have tales about how a man has done them wrong. Ultimately, [fans] don't want to hear that."

But when it came from Hill? Yes, you did.

She wasn't afraid to call out inconsistencies in our culture and hypocrisy in the industry.

Queen Latifah ("Who you callin' a bitch?"), 'Da Brat, Left Eye, and Missy Elliott were also artists who ignored the idea of appearing sexy or hard, and were all MCs who diversified and revitalized black women through creative videos, hood aesthetics, and innovative sounds.

Both hip-hop and feminism didn't care about how black women were represented until we claimed an identity for ourselves. Lil' Kim and Foxy were among the first to embark on their journey to reclamation by intentionally identifying as "bitch" in their music.

The Hampton Institute, an online grassroots think tank, likens the now more popular term "bad bitch" in the rap world as both "a woman who de-emasculates her man by running the household and being financially independent, or as a woman who simply does not know her place."

It's less likely that Kim and Foxy would align themselves with the latter.

However, mainstream feminism was still largely dominated by heterosexual, middle-class, Western white women who didn't create open, inclusive spaces for women of color, lower-class women, queer women, sex workers, or domestic workers. Feminism was still high off of the effects of earlier waves that fought for equal women's rights, such as the right to vote (which, again, did not include poor women of color) and was only now warming up to the idea of multidimensional feminism (or, as author and poet Alice Walker coined in the late 1960s, "womanism.") Activists and feminist writers like Bell Hooks took matters into their own hands with essays on everything from the racialization of black women within feminist spheres, to the dissonance among the issues, to the lack of unity between race and social class, to the radicalization of black self-love both in and out of our communities.

The very presence of female MCs meant acknowledging them not only as equals in the rap game but as black female rappers in the rap game and as black women in general. It meant humanizing a demographic that had long been dehumanized since slavery. And it also meant identifying the obvious misogyny in hip-hop, a still highly patriarchal arena that had desensitized, normalized, and even commercialized the use of the words "hoe" and "bitch" in relation to black female bodies. Regardless, music by female MCs posed a threat to the very pillars of patriarchy in hip-hop, all the while trying to figure itself out. A black female in a male-dominated space became political, whether she meant it or not.

Much like in modern-day activism, black female bodies have often been at the forefront of the battlefields raising our fists for our communities while simultaneously being ignored or forgotten about. Sparking meaningful social change in hip-hop means not being afraid to speak about sexuality and identity politics outside of an underground subculture. It also means acknowledging the double standard between Nitty Scott MC and Kendrick Lamar, who, as one of my hip-hop-head friends would say, is "able to make politically charged music and still exist on a mainstream level."

Is it fair to criticize MCs for wanting to move forward in a mainstream career riddled with sexist sentiments? Should female MCs work harder to "demand" respect in an industry that has profited off of [black] female slander? Or should female rappers come together to form a collective of sisterhood in order to tackle the issues together? And is it even up to female MCs at all?

And ultimately, can hip-hop today exist without misogyny?

The answer is not a clear one.

Being a black female MC today means an introspective look at what it truly means to be both an artist and a black woman in our current sociopolitical climate. It's getting real raw, gritty, and honest with oneself—a responsibility that our male counterparts aren't always tasked with.

Hip-hop feminism and former female MC contributions birthed unapologetic acts like JUNGLEPUSSY and Princess Nokia, both of whom make music with strong messages of female positivity, freedom of sexuality, and a celebration of the female spirit. In a talk with Galore TV, Nokia, whose Afropunk-esque roots speak for themselves, points out that "before hip-hop got [really] corporate and it had those qualms of aggressive masculinity that were almost a prerequisite to sell records, hip-hop was very female-oriented."

We're now seeing a renaissance of new, independent artists whose work dismantles the narrative that says you can't be successful as a trans rapper, queer tomboy or an Afro Latinx bruja without pandering to the male gaze.

And gone are the days when women needed to prescribe to problematic notions of female objectification and "video vixen-ism." Artists now are moving away from larger narratives like these and slowly tapping into their own personal and political truths. We're reverting back to a time when art was an exploration of who we were as individuals and less about how we could be marketed, packaged, sold, and distributed to the masses. There's now less of a need for artists to actually sign with labels in order to be successful, affording MCs the artistic freedom and ability to build their brand, identity, and overall aesthetic, organically.

In other words, the music industry is slowly morphing into what black female MCs historically have had to be: self-sufficient and grassroots.

It only makes sense that rappers like Young M.A., Quay Dash, Kari Faux, Jean Grae, and Nezi Momodu would be a significant part of this shift with sex-positive/laden messages and carefree black girl vibes.

The waves and the droughts of female MCs makes us question why, then, someone like Nicki Minaj can truly be considered monumental to feminism in hip-hop. For someone who's continuously claimed the "queen of rap" title but failed to adequately defend her position, it leads us to wonder: With such power and visibility, is Minaj really a celebration of womanhood in hip-hop through her music, message, or actions?

Even rival Remy Ma, after her second diss track, admitted that though she "[didn't regret ["shETHER"], [she was] not particularly proud of it," and believes that women "work so much better when [they] work together."

Minaj's feminism, though positive, is rooted in monopoly; feminism becomes a much less nuanced conversation when you're the only woman in the room. With power comes responsibility, and Minaj exists in a unique space where she is the only high-profile voice at a time when we need to hear more from intersectional communities and backgrounds. To consider her contributions socially significant is to discount the work that was done before her, or work that exists outside of her music and audience.

And for Canadian black female pioneers like Michie Mee and newcomers like the Sorority, it's also an uphill battle in an industry that has historically struggled to stand on its own two feet (and, despite, Drake, still struggles to stand now).

While the future of feminism and the female rapper is still a bit hazy, one thing is for certain: The tides are now changing, and it's time we all acknowledged the groundwork laid before us.

Follow Lindsey Addawoo on Twitter.

Inside the Sex Museum Using Erotica to Push Activism

A few blocks off Vegas Strip, in the shadow of the giant gold phallus that is the Trump Hotel, sits the Erotic Heritage Museum. Once a simple tourist trap for visitors looking to be titillated with a Puppetry of the Penis performance and some risqué exhibits, the museum is trying out a new, more activism-heavy approach as the country enters the Trump age. 

Opened in 2008 and primarily bankrolled by Harry Mohney, the founder of the Déjà Vu chain of strip clubs, the Erotic Heritage Museum was already a more progressive sex museum than some of its contemporaries due to its treatment of pornography as a legitimate art. While other institutions shy away from all but the artsiest of adult films, the EHM was setting up to host the unabashedly porny Adult Film Festival of Las Vegas when I arrived to tour the collection. 

I met with Dr. Victoria Hartmann, the museum's director and a sex scholar, for a tour of the property. Drawing from her own 20 years of experience producing in the adult-film industry, Hartman has played an active role in the museum taking on an increasingly accepting and progressive stance over the years. 

We began in a mockup of a red-light district, meant to convey the museum's staunch support of legal sex work. Elsewhere in the museum is a lineup-room tableau, also meant to help normalize the scenario of working girls meeting prospective clients for non-Nevadans passing through. 

"If someone's going to choose to do sex work, whatever the reasons are, we believe they should be as safe as possible," said Hartmann.

Inside the main entrance of the museum's exhibits, guests are greeted by a talking Trump statue. This spotlighting of Trump, Hartmann said, plays into the museum's dedication to calling out the sexual hypocrisy of political leaders who would seek to legislatively restrict women's reproductive rights while simultaneously philandering or engaging in deviant acts. A wall of political sex scandals and cardboard cutouts of Monica Lewinski and be-dildoed Bill Clinton have long been popular attractions. 

But with the current administration so hell-bent on silencing journalists and obfuscating truth, the museum has doubled down on championing of freedom of speech and political parody as a cornerstone of it. 

"We even plastered the First Amendment right up on the roof, facing Trump Tower, on Martin Luther King Day," said Hartmann. "Just as a permanent reminder that the First Amendment, not him, rules here." 

She pointed across the room to a wall full of posters from the January 21st Women's March that the museum was in the process of turning into a permanent exhibit. 

"Vegas is a playground," said Hartmann. "We don't worry too much about protesting. But this march drew about 15,000 people, which is unheard of for us."

Next, the tour took us to displays on sex research done by the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, a sexology research center operating from 1919–1933 in the Weimar Republic before the Nazis burned its books and documents. Hartmann made it clear that this section being in such close proximity to the Trump content was no accident, noting that "something like this can happen anywhere." 

As Hartmann whisked me from one display to the next, the latent themes of progressivism further crystalized. Despite its owner being a man who made his fortune trading in seductive women, this museum was hardly a man's lurid collection of ancient erotica  à la The Handmaiden that one might expect. 

Tracy Sydor's 100 Women and the Survivors' Wall

More than a repository of artifacts, the EHM is positioning itself as a space primarily seeking to empower women, LGBTQ people, and other traditionally marginalized segments of the sexual spectrum. As part of this empowerment push, the museum has recently opened a Survivors' Wall plastered with blank notebook pages as a cathartic way for victims of sexual violence to share their stories.

"The fun stuff is great," said Hartmann, "but we also need to look at the more challenging things, so we're aware of all aspects of sexuality."

When asked about what initially attracted her to the position, Hartmann told me that "sexuality doesn't have outliers, and this museum is meant to be all inclusive. We want to celebrate everyone's erotic history in a non-judgmental space of acceptance. There's no real way to box anybody in. Sex and gender are so diverse. And as long as there's consent and people are enjoying themselves, I personally have a hard time understanding why anyone would be judged."

This inclusion extends beyond the exhibits. Hartmann told me there are three gender diverse and a few openly non-monogamous people on staff. She also said that, as the facility has slowly emerged as a beacon of resistance in the desert landscape, the museum has been getting a surge of requests from people seeking to work or volunteer there, some simply wishing to "exist within the activist space" the place has created.

"We want to be the antithesis to the pointlessly malicious and cruel movement we see popping up," said Hartmann. "Las Vegas took us pretty casually all these years, but after the election, people started seeing us as activists. But I think we're just doing what we've always been doing, and everyone else is finally starting to catch up."

Follow Justin Caffier on Twitter.

How to Get Out of Your Bubble and Start Making Change in Your Community

I spent the Day Without a Woman at a mini-conference for aspiring activists. It neatly solved the problem of what to actually do when you’re refusing to work or spend money. (Other options: tweet to raise awareness? Sneak into a showing of Hidden Figures?) Here’s what I learned.


British Airways Crew Members Are Striking Against Their Bizzarely Low Wages

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Take a trip out of central London on the Piccadilly Line, and within an hour you'll arrive at Hatton Cross, a tangled suburb of concrete buildings, snaking roadways and sallow fields stretching out to the horizon. This is airport country: planes fly low in the sky, there are rental car depots on every corner, and people walk along the pavements in Heathrow uniforms.

For the past week, Hatton Cross has been the location of the striking Heathrow-based cabin crew of British Airways. On the sunlit tarmac outside the underground station, they wave "Unite the Union" flags and cheer at vehicles that honk in solidarity. Young and immaculately turned out, they're not your stereotypical trade unionists; the protest song on their portable boom box is "Starships" by Nicki Minaj. They've transformed the bar of a local soccer club into a home base, where supportive members of the public and other trade unionists make them sandwiches and drinks.

It's unclear why the British Airways strike hasn't received the same traction as, say, the fast food workers' campaign for a living wage in the US. At their heart, both campaigns tell the same story: a group of workers fighting against a giant corporation that wants to squeeze everything out of them it possibly can, while paying them the lowest wages it can get away with.

British Airways (BA) cabin crew members are striking for a pay increase to their eye-wateringly low salaries. Basic pay for new entrants is as little as £12,192 [$14,832] (though the airline claims crew earn a minimum of £21,000 [$25,500] after allowances and bonuses) and there is no London weighting, despite the fact contracts state that cabin crew members must live within two hours of the airport. Some are choosing to commute from outside of London, but this means they could work on a long haul flight (as long as 16-and-a-half hours in some cases) and then have to drive three or four hours before they get home. 

Many are in debt—I met one cabin crew worker who told me she has maxed out two credit cards since joining BA—and according to a Unite members' survey, over half work second jobs on their days off to earn extra money. This means many work a minimum of six days a week. On the other hand, Willie Walsh, the boss of IAG (BA's parent company) took home £6.5 million [$7.9 million] in 2015. According to the Guardian, the airline group is forecasting annual profits of €2.5 billion [$2.67 billion], largely driven by BA.

The airline appears to not be playing nice with its striking employees. "They keep sending us emails about 'the consequences of strike actions.' We are taking legal action and we've done everything we can to avoid a strike. We've gone through all the legal processes. Now they're talking as though we're doing something wrong," says Charlie, one of the strikers. Like most of the cabin crew members I met, she's young, and although she's not overtly political, she's indignant about the way she's been treated. Another striker, Lexy (not her real name), feels similarly: "I've seen a new side to BA."

"When we win—and I say 'when,' because we will—we'll win for everybody."

As punishment for striking, BA is taking away staff travel for two years, vacation concessions, and bonuses for 2017. This means some striking workers won't get the advertised salary of £21,000 per annum, because that includes bonuses. The airline is also offering incentives (or, to use the strikers' term, "bribes") for cabin crew members not to strike: those who stay at work get priority for free flights and upgrades to first class. Unsurprisingly, the strikers are angry about it: "When we win—and I say 'when,' because we will—we'll win for everybody," says Charlie. "Not just those who have had their bonuses and salary taken away, but everybody who is struggling. And they are getting extra things for going in and helping a company that is exploiting them."

Cabin crew members have been on strike for a total of 26 days since January 10 but they've been negotiating with the airline for nearly a year. The first offer BA made meant a maximum increase of just £33.25 [$40.47] per month before tax, and it locked workers into a three-year contract, meaning further increases would be even harder. The workers rejected it. BA then made an offer to the union through third party negotiators, but it too was rejected because it wasn't backdated and the amount was considered too low. So BA went back to its inferior first offer. "They're a horrible company to negotiate with," says Charlie. "They are stubborn and they refuse to see the bigger picture."

BA has indulged in various public relations exercises to convince customers that the strikes have had no effect, but strikers aren't so sure. "They've spent thousands on leasing from other airlines like Thompson and Thomas Cook," says a senior cabin crew member, Gareth. "But they're saying it's for 'operational requirements.' They'll also blame the weather. So on a day like this," he gestures outside at the afternoon sunlight, "they might say there's snow or something." Still, it's a step down from the company's actions during the BA strike in 2010, where the airline was paying pilots huge sums of money to work as cabin crew.

The strike has taken its toll on the cabin crew, too. One of the most prominent features of their makeshift headquarters is a food bank. When I visited, strikers were entertaining guests from RMT union who had brought them fresh supplies of food, shampoo, and tampons. "Our union has a hardship fund," says Gareth. "Colleagues from Worldwide airlines and Eurofleet have also donated. There have been a lot of shows of solidarity from other unions; we couldn't have done this without them." He looks at the tables stacked high with pasta and shakes his head. "You've got the flag carrier of Great Britain and its crew are relying on handouts."

Nevertheless, the strikers promise me they're not planning on giving up. Union membership is increasing, and some of them are beginning to sound like dyed-in-the-wool activists. "It's the first time I've ever been on strike and it feels really empowering. I love my job and I want to be back at work, but it's good to stand up for what's right; it's empowering to know you're not alone," says Lexy. "I wouldn't go back on my word; it's an insult to all these people I've shared the picket line with."

Others view the dispute as a symbol of a wider problem in the economy; where ordinary people are forced to live in relative poverty while their work enriches the likes of Willie Walsh, a millionaire several times over. They're starting to feel like it's a problem that needs changing. "How can they get away with this? You can't have people living and working in central London on poverty pay," says Charlie. "Not when we're the ones who are making those bonuses for [Walsh], and making the planes fly on time. It's unfair, and the economy is going to have to change somehow, and we're getting like-minded young people together to change it."

Follow Ellie Mae O'Hagan on Twitter.