Interview conducted by SCAN’s web editor, Shavonne Clarke
Around the office, we call her tireless.
She works nights, weekends, and probably in her sleep from her office in Mahomet, Illinois, and she is a remarkable activist for children. Today, we’re in conversation with Diana Onken, Save the Children Action Network’s Director of Mobilization.
How did you get into grassroots organizing?
My activism journey started in college in the 1990s. I attended Illinois State University and vividly remember attending Festival ISU during the first few weeks of classes. I was energized to find other like-minded people who wanted to do something about things like deforestation and discrimination against women and people of color in particular. From there I joined some student groups and became very active.
What’s your most memorable experience as an activist?
Wow, that’s a tough question! There are so many.
The one that comes to mind is the very first Take Back the Night march I helped organize and participate in. Take Back the Night is a march against sexual violence. Its name calls upon all of the “rules” women are given, including the one I heard repeatedly in college which was “don’t got out alone at night.” The suggestion of course was that if you did go out by yourself and someone attacked you, then it was your fault.
This march was incredible. I don’t remember exactly how many people showed up but it seemed like hundreds. This was a big deal on a campus in the 90s, which wasn’t exactly known for being a decade of political activism.
I remember running up and down the street shouting chants and then hearing speakers afterwards. Women told their stories of sexual assault and one woman sang Tori Amos’ “Me and a Gun,” a song about a woman experiencing rape.
I could have left that event feeling defeated and sad after hearing those stories. Instead I felt angry but also empowered. Because here were a group of (mostly) women who were saying, “Enough!” Here were a group of women who were committed to standing up and making change.
What’s your best piece of advice for bringing attention to your issues at events?
Show that you care. You may not have memorized every fact or figure. You may not have the answer to every questions someone asks you. That’s all ok if you show each person you talk to that you are passionate about helping kids. That’s as true at an event as it is when talking to a lawmaker.
Why is Illinois an important state to advocate for kids in?
As a large Midwestern state, Illinois contains a diverse population that covers the gamut politically. Since Save the Children Action Network is a bipartisan organization, that gives us an opportunity to engage politicians across the political spectrum and demonstrate that all kinds of folks care about these issues.
We hear you were an English major in college. How did you end up in grassroots organizing?
I changed my major several times in my first year or two of college. Eventually, I landed on English Education, thinking I would be a high school English teacher. As I got closer and closer to graduating two things happened. First, I had an “uh oh” moment when I realized I didn’t want to teach high school English. Second, a staff member from an organization called Peace Action came to speak to my school. I remember sitting in the audience thinking, “Wait a minute. You can do this kind of work for, like, a job?”
From there, I applied for and was hired to be an on-campus intern for Peace Action. After graduation, I was hired by Peace Action to run their student network. I moved to Washington, D.C. for that position, and the rest is history.