Photo courtesy of Rolling Stone
Story by William Green / Contributing Writer
Actress and activist Ashley Judd discussed her involvement in the “MeToo” movement and urged students to speak out against injustice at an event Wednesday at Vanderbilt University.
In Vanderbilt’s Langford Auditorium, the Nashville-area resident recounted how her troubled upbringing and the multiple incidents of sexual abuse she suffered, both as a child and an adult, inspired her to become a vocal advocate for women’s issues all over the world.
Judd was named one of Time magazine’s People of the Year for 2017. She was a part of a group of women the magazine dubbed the “Silence Breakers” for their act of speaking out against sexual assault and misconduct in their industries. Judd was also part of a group of women in Hollywood, who were named Entertainers of the Year by the Associated Press, for the same reason. She helped spark the MeToo movement by publicly revealing her assault by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein to The New York Times in October 2017.
Judd didn’t hold back surprise at the position she had found herself in, considering how far she’d come.
“How did a person like me end up a Time person of the year for advocacy?” she asked.
Judd wasn’t always the outspoken campaigner she is today. During a challenging childhood that often left her totally on her own, the first person she learned to advocate for was herself. The combination of her father’s alcoholism, her mother and sister’s chaotic careers in country music and her parents’ divorce meant that she moved often, and some years, she was completely alone for months at a time. She recalled how difficult it was just to ask a neighbor in Kentucky, a woman she’s still close with today, for access to her washing machine so she could do her laundry.
Judd also found her voice through recurring experiences with sexual assault, both as a victim and a witness. When Judd was molested at age seven by an older male relative, she tried to speak up to her family but was dismissed and was told the man was “nice.” She was told that the man couldn’t have done what Judd knew he did. She also faced blowback from one of her close high school friends and the girl’s family when she blew the whistle to school administration about a coach at the school who’d been molesting the girl.
“Doing the right thing isn’t always the popular thing,” Judd said. “But, it is worth it.”
Judd continued to nurture her activist spirit with various campaigns and protests that she organized as a student at the University of Kentucky. She protested the school’s investments in apartheid South Africa at the time and racist comments made by a member of the school’s board of trustees.
After school, she deferred her commitment to join the Peace Corps and, instead, went to Hollywood to pursue her dreams of acting. Judd very quickly established a successful career as an actress, but that didn’t stop her from continuing to advocate for the causes she believed in, especially women’s issues.
Judd is deeply involved with numerous nongovernmental organizations that work on issues of reproductive health, women’s rights and human trafficking, including the United Nations Population Fund, Population Services International and the Polaris Project.
As part of that work, she had just returned from a trip to a refugee camp in Bangladesh. The camp houses displaced members of the Rohingya ethnic group, a Muslim minority from Myanmar who’ve been subject to what many in the international community have decried as ethnic cleansing and forced migration by Myanmar’s government.
Judd cautioned her audience that they didn’t have to travel around the world and command an international spotlight to be a force for change in the community.
“Not all achievements have to be sweeping,” she said.
And, to Judd, listening and connecting on a human level with someone facing injustice was just as important as speaking for them.
“When we speak, we can tell a couple of different stories, from the head or the heart,” Judd said. “And, when we speak from the heart, it goes right to the heart.”
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