THE ALL-IN ACTIVIST: NATALIE PATE

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Natalie Pate is a renaissance woman. Or should I say, renaissance activist. She’s a senior at Willamette University (Salem, OR) double majoring in Politics and French/Francophone Studies, has interned for Direct Relief International and Global Health Connections and now serves as a Student Activist Coordinator for Amnesty International. In her spare time (she has some?!) she’s writing a dystopian novel on the justice system and also helped spearhead a safe sex initiative on campus. If you’re like me, reading this resumé is mind-blowing, if not a tad intimidating. But here’s the best part about Natalie: Not only does she kick ass, she wants everyone to do the same right along with her. She’s approachable, ambitious and straight up awesome, which makes her our all-in-activist.

HBIC: You currently work as a Student Activist Coordinator for Amnesty International. How did that happen and what got you interested in activism in the first place?  

NP: Until I was 16, I was sure I wanted to sing and dance on Broadway. But as much as I loved entertaining, I felt like I needed to be doing more. Amnesty was this beacon. I wanted some outlet to impact change.

I was told consistently by my advisors “You have to have a degree in this, you have to speak this many languages, and you have to be an expert in your field,” [to work for them.] But after my sophomore year of college, I thought to myself, “Maybe Amnesty has something I can be doing now.”

Maybe that was false confidence, but I called them and said, “Hey I’m going to be in San Francisco for a road trip. Can I stop by your office and see if it’s some place I’d like to work?” And they were like “We’d love to have an interview while you’re here!”

HBIC: That’s amazing! So what is your work like? 

NP: We start with education, because I don’t want anyone in our group to feel uninformed or like they’re just jumping on the bandwagon. The next stage is doing some sort of dialogue component. So we can say, “Why are people for this? What’s the controversy and why aren’t we finding solutions?”

I want [my group members] to feel empowered enough to take part and continue to make change. So we do a lot of activist training. Anyone can be an activist. But for a lot of activists, these things we are battling are part of a system that has been established over hundreds of years. We can’t change it with one campaign. So if we are going to do only one action, it needs to be one more step that the activists that follow me don’t have to take.

HBIC: What does the word activist mean to you?

NP: It means someone is taking action on an issue they find important in a way that they think will bring attention or a solution. It’s difficult because if I’m at a pro-choice rally and there are pro-life protesters there, ultimately we are both activists. We just don’t see the other as one. 

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HBIC: What advice would you want to give to a young student who wants to make a difference but doesn’t know how?

NP: Always question your work and your position in the world, because you can have the best intent but not have a positive impact. If people thought more about their impact rather than their intent, their actions and their perceptions of the world might be more helpful.

So for a person who says, “I don’t know how to make a difference, I’m just a student,” just take the effort to step in and have a conversation! You may not be that glorious person with the megaphone, but movements aren’t made up of that leader . Movements are made up of all the people who are taking part in it.

HBIC: How has being a woman influenced your activism if at all?

NP: Well I don’t wake up and say “I’m a woman doing this.” But it definitely has brought up certain conversations. There are areas of the world where I want to go to that aren’t necessarily safe for me because I’m a woman. And that’s hard to swallow because I don’t see me being a woman as a limitation. I don’t doubt my ability, I don’t doubt my passion. If anything, it fuels me. There are activists before me that couldn’t even vote. Not only  can I vote, but because of everything they’ve done before me, I can lobby. I can lead other activists.

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HBIC: Let’s switch gears and talk about the activism in your education. For example, your senior thesis is on the Federal Death Penalty. What got you interested in that?

NP: My degree as a whole was much more internationally focused, but [as a way to avoid writing two theses at once], I got put in an American Politics thesis seminar and so I took the topic of the death penalty that I had done more international work on. I originally thought it would be a comparative analysis. Why does the United States claim to be this leader, but we are one of the top five executioners in the world and the other four are countries we don’t usually compare the U.S. to. So it boiled down to looking at the federal death penalty. The federal death penalty is looked at  as the end all, be all, but we’ve actually only executed three people in the past 52 years. So the puzzle was looking at why we don’t actually use federal death row. And why aren’t people who are pro- death penalty aren’t upset about that?

HBIC: You’ve said you find the American prison system fascinating. What about it piques your interest? 

NP: Nelson Mandela’s autobiography has a quote in it: “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” That quote stuck with me. We say that there are some things that are morally right and morally wrong, but when you actually look into it, that is never the case. There’s people who may have killed someone out of defense or maybe it was for survival. I realized that there is this entire portion of society that we separate from ourselves. We systematically don’t help them. And that was similar to my Francophone thesis on cannibalism. It’s this portion of society that we deem as separate. But we are missing out on huge portions of people and cultures and all these different life experiences by viewing them that way.

Natalie at a recent Amnesty event in New York

HBIC: You say that after graduation you want to write for a human rights publication. Do you see yourself as the type of journalist that wants to raise awareness or do you see yourself writing policies? 

NP: That’s the ultimate question! I’m constantly torn. Part of me thinks that impact journalism is the reason why I wanted to get involved in the first place. I want these stories to be known to people.

Like one night when I was in D.C., I was riding the metro late at night, and there was this woman on the ground and there was a huge mob of people around her. And I realize one of the people surrounding her is my brother. And then the doors to the metro close and it keeps going. And I’m freaking out thinking “I don’t know what’s happening, I don’t know where my brother is going,” But I end up finding out that it was a woman cross-dressing for pride weekend and bunch of people were attacking her, saying “Why don’t you make yourself a real girl,” and eventually started beating her. And until my brother stepped in, everyone else was filming it. No one was  doing anything.

So for me, impact journalism tells that story. Because I know the people on the train know what happened. They filmed it, but it wasn’t published anywhere. Obviously I can’t cover every human rights abuse everywhere, but part of the reason why they aren’t changing is because people don’t know about it. Or why they should care about it. No matter what, I want to do human rights work. And If I find speaking to people to mobilize at the grassroots level is the most effective way, then that’s how I want to do it.  

HBIC: An activist-journalist, perhaps? 

I always say activists are working towards their unemployment. We are working towards a day when someone will say “Hey, there are no more human rights abuses! You’re fired!” I would love that day, but unfortunately I know that’s not going to happen in my lifetime. I know that ideally anything I can push through can be seen by people as a step that they don’t have to. So they can get that much closer to theirunemployment.

http://thehbicproject.com/interviews/npate/

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