Activist, advocate and assistant professor Christina Ballard: “The power of symbolic speech”

Published by Robin Bailey on

Christina Ballard checks in with a student in her Public Speaking class. Robin Bailey / The Mainstream

Standing outside a capitol building, two strips of duct tape were slapped across communication studies instructor Christina Ballard’s mouth — another two to her chest, holding up a sign: “The power of symbolic speech is that it conveys a special message.”

Christina Ballard protests at Wisconsin’s capitol in 2012. Photo provided by Christina Ballard

This was in 2012, after Wisconsin — where Ballard lived at the time — had banned any signs or other displays from the grounds of state buildings without “express written authority of the department.” But Ballard had found a way around the new rule.

Two people she knew, one conservative and the other libertarian, had invited Ballard through Facebook to a rally in support of the governor at the capitol.

“If you didn’t have a permit, you couldn’t be inside the capitol protesting,” Ballard says. “But guess what? I got invited.”

Ballard used that invitation to freely protest the decisions made by the Wisconsin government without directly disobeying them. “It didn’t matter that I didn’t stand anywhere near [the people that had invited me],” she says.

“So I made signs, and I taped them onto my clothes — I put tape around my mouth — and they couldn’t kick me out because I had been invited as part of that rally,” Ballard says.

Ballard’s activism, especially related to speech, is something innate; she exhibits that spirit wherever she goes. On her LinkedIn, Ballard describes herself as an “advocate for civil rights, mental health, transportation equity and workers’ rights.”

She grew up steeped in political action: her grandparents emigrated through Ellis Island from Italy between the world wars, Ballard’s mother, a town supervisor, ran for a county legislator position and her father was one of the first physicians in New York to treat men with AIDS.

“I saw how poorly people were treated because of something that wasn’t their fault,” Ballard says, “and I’ve always thought it’s important to raise everybody up. Everybody deserves the same platform.”

“The first thing I can remember doing, I still have a certificate from it — sent to me by President Ford,” Ballard says. “They were renovating Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty; I thought it was a good cause, so I went around and collected money to send to the renovations, and I got this nice certificate and letter from the president.”

Ballard, a high school drop-out a year ahead of her would-be graduating class, earned her first associate degree in criminal justice and corrections in 1991 at Tompkins Cortland Community College in Dryden, New York.

Christina Ballard teaches her Public Speaking course.
Robin Bailey / The Mainstream

“If community college hadn’t been an option, I likely would not be here now,” Ballard says. “So that does make me want to support other people in similar circumstances, but also the community college model as a whole.”

After her degree, Ballard then spent three years working as a residence counselor in a group home for felons on early release, many of whom were mentally ill or drug dependent.

Ballard was the youngest counselor there — only 19.

“I had to learn a lot about common mental health issues, like depression and anxiety; we had some [people] with schizophrenia,” she says. “My job was helping them with basic life skills and socialization.”

Later in life, while living in Wisconsin, Ballard volunteered with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, presenting “Ending the Silence” sessions, which aim to teach adolescents the warning signs and positive, helpful reactions when confronted with mental health conditions in themselves or others.

That lifetime of experience came in handy for Ballard last year, when one of her public speaking classes experienced a collective trauma.

“There was a bad accident involving a student in my class which some of their peers witnessed — and we had other students who had experienced similar traumas recently,” Ballard says. “I made sure we had space to talk about what was happening.”

Christina Ballard works with an individual student in her Public Speaking class. Robin Bailey / The Mainstream

This dramatic shift in classroom dynamics led to many students coming to Ballard for all kinds of things happening in their life. “It was a lot for me, emotionally,” she says. “Sometimes I wasn’t prepared for the things people wanted to talk to me about. It surprised me how open people were about what was going on in their lives, but it made sense, after what happened and the space we created.”

Ballard describes a scene where, days after the initial accident, a close friend and peer of the affected student fell into Ballard’s arms, sobbing. “I’m not a hugger!” Ballard says. “But of course I don’t want to brush people off, if that’s what they need.”

Despite being in close contact with UCC’s Student Services department throughout the term, the created environment was still emotionally draining, Ballard says. “I did a lot of reflecting this summer on boundaries — like, what can I do to protect myself — because when people share what’s going on in their lives, I do feel that. I’m an empathetic person.”

“I worry about what I can do for them, or if I gave them the right advice or if there’s something more I could do… but that’s not my job,” Ballard says.

Today, Ballard hopes to help others on a broader scale in her community. She currently serves on the Umpqua Valley Rainbow Collective’s (UVRC) board of directors as director of communications and technology.

Most recently, at last year’s — and UVRC’s first ever — pride festival at the fairgrounds, Ballard supported those attending as part of the de-escalation team.

In the past, Ballard, served on Wisconsin’s AIDS Network’s board of directors for four years; prior to that, while working on her bachelor’s and master’s at SUNY Brockport, Ballard teamed up with the Congressional Black Caucus and led three lobbying events to DC on issues about diversity, equity and education. These actions were part of her role as the student services director in SUNY Brockport’s student government.

“It’s important for me to get involved because I moved here by myself,” Ballard says. “It’s just me and my cats. The only way I can get to know people is if I put myself out there.”

NAMI offers a volunteer, non-crisis peer support service called HelpLine through text, phone and email Monday through Friday, 1 p.m. to 1 a.m.

For those needing help in a crisis, NAMI recommends:

  • 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: Call or text 988.
  • “The 988 Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals in the United States.”
  • Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741-741.
  • Crisis Text Line provides free, 24/7 high quality text based mental health support and crisis intervention by empowering a community of trained volunteers to support people in their moments of need.”
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: Call 800-799-SAFE (7233).
  • “Contacts to The Hotline can expect highly trained, expert advocates to offer free, confidential and compassionate support, crisis intervention information, education and referral services in over 200 languages.”
  • National Sexual Assault Hotline: Call 800-656-HOPE (4673).
  • “Calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline gives you access to a range of free services… made up of a network of independent sexual assault service providers, vetted by [the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN)… [which] combine all the advantages of a national organization with all the abilities and expertise of local programs.”
  • The Trevor Project: Call 866-488-7386, text START to 678-678 or chat online via their website.
  • “Our services are 24/7/365, nationwide, one hundred percent free and confidential… You’ll be connected to a Trevor counselor who is understanding of LGBTQ issues and won’t judge you. Your conversation will be anonymous, and you can share as much or as little as you like.”

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