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Women's Week panelists say activism is far from dead

Here's what you do with anger, says Debra Daniels: You use it to propel you through scary situations.

"I've had things that so enraged me that I had to speak out," she said. "I might not have, otherwise."

Daniels was part of a diverse group of women in "Activism in Utah: Continuity and Change," a Women's Week forum Wednesday at the University of Utah. Now a director of Salt Lake City's Rape Recovery Center, Daniels has long been an advocate for families affected by violence.

Other activists on the panel also spoke openly about dealing with outrage. Norma Matheson, widow of former Gov. Scott Matheson and mother of Rep. Jim Matheson, said Utahns often asked her, "Don't the things people are saying about your son (in last November's congressional race) upset you?"

"I told them, 'That's their problem,' and I really believe that," she said. Her husband would have said, "I'm too busy to let that interfere with what we're trying to do."

And while Daniels has used anger to bolster her courage to "dance on the edge of the rooftop," as Cherokee activist Wilma Mankiller has said, others on the panel cautioned against allowing one's indignation to take over.

"Anger can turn on (you) and begin to consume your energy," said Utah Supreme Court Judge Christine Durham. She joked that she's mellowed in the decades since she led pro-Equal Rights Amendment rallies at the State Capitol. "I don't get as angry as often. Maybe that comes with being old and tired. So for those of you who are young, there's something to look forward to," she said wryly. Durham added that when you realize you're not going to change your opponents' minds, it's often best to move on to a winnable battle.

The Supreme Court judge inspired a ripple of warm laughter when she said, looking back at her experiences, "I had a hard time identifying a successful activist moment." Still, Durham wouldn't label anything a "loss."

"I made friends — not just kindred souls, but great souls," she said. "My deepest satisfaction has come from what you might term unsuccessful activist experiences."

Daniels added that listening to differing views makes a well-rounded activist. "Every person you come in contact with teaches you something," she said. "Is it about the person who's more powerful, more well-known, or is it about hearing the tiniest voice?"

A retired school teacher in the audience asked the panelists if they saw a lessening of interest in activism among young people. Not if we can help it, they answered.

"I have a 12-year-old daughter, and . . . I have the responsibility to make her aware that things were not always this way" and women didn't have the freedoms they enjoy now, said Rebecca Chavez-Houck, resource development manager of Centro de la Familia. "And they can go back the way they were 50 or 60 years ago if she's complacent. Sometimes she looks at me and says, 'Oh, brother,' but then I hear her talking to her friends." Those conversations show "she's taking some things to heart."

"Even if you don't have your own daughters," Chavez-Houck said, "you can still be a good influence on nieces, friends, other girls."