Wednesday, January 24, 2018
News Roundup

Sunday Conversation: Attorney Erin Aebel

Erin Aebel sure doesn't look like a "surly woman." The St. Petersburg native is a fast talking and faster texting health law attorney and partner at Tampa's Shumaker Loop and Kendrick. She's a mother of two, a popular philanthropist, a patron to local artists and a sucker for bright lipstick and statement fashion finds.

But none of the more than 4,500 people who have joined her homemade Facebook group "Surly Feminists for the Revolution" — a response to President Donald Trump's election — are ill-tempered or dour, Aebel says. That's why the group is working.

Since it's inception, during a post-election conversation with other businesswomen at south Tampa's Crumb and Cork, Aebel's "Surly Feminists" have attracted Democrats and Republicans, men and women and even a few Trump supporters from across the nation and as far away as the UK, the Philippines and Australia.

The group calendar is already full well into 2018 with events planned with others like Action Together Tampa Bay, and St. Pete artist Chad Mize has sold hundreds of "Surly" T-shirts to raise money for the ACLU.

Aebel left it up to the group members to create an identity for her brainchild and sums it up as a "positive force to combat misogyny and hate with philanthropy and activism."

The 45-year-old progressive recently spoke to Tampa Bay Times staff writer Anastasia Dawson about what the group has taught her to appreciate about Donald Trump supporters, how to be a productive part-time protestor and the power behind making good with a bad name.

So why are you so surly? How did you come up with that phrase and do you find it any more appealing than being called a "nasty woman?"

It just popped out of my head when I was thinking about the "nasty woman" comments and it just works in so many ways. Sometimes you just feel so, so surly, and I think the name "Surly Feminists" opens this up to men, all genders and identifications, all political parties, all walks of life. I've always disliked Donald Trump for the things he's said about women and minorities and when he won the presidency I felt like it was a slap in the face to some extent. But I'm the kind of person that tries to react in a positive and energetic way to a slap in the face, so the "Surlys" have really helped me deal with it better. There was a lot of wine and a lot of tears on election night.

What is it like, then, to work side by side with people who voted for Trump but still identify with your group? Have you found the secret to bridging political partisanship?

I have learned a lot from listening to people and the reasons why they voted for Trump. There are many, many Christians, many in our group, who feel like Christianity has been maligned and Trump could help their pro-life stance through executive actions. There are other hardworking folks with their own businesses or economic struggles who feel like Trump speaks to them directly while Hillary didn't really address their issues or try to relate to them. Then there are others who, I think, want to just blow everything up in the government because it's just not responsive to the people and I agree with Trump on that point, but I don't think he's actually drained the swamp. And then there are people who think the government is overregulated and they need to cut that out, and people who just want lower taxes, so I've really learned a lot keeping an open mind. I think if we want to create a positive forward action we need to find common ground on issues and have face-to-face conversations with each other instead of just relying on assumptions about people and false news.

So is Trump and this explosion of dissent what the country really needed?

I think it's terrifying and uniting at the same time. I've made hundreds and hundreds of friends in these few months, not just on Facebook but in person, and they're all coming together to unite for a common cause. I think we're all, in the group, interested in supporting good candidates for office and supporting people who are feeling threatened. What's really hard is these are the basic values of what I was taught to always do; be honest, work hard, tell the truth, be ethical, put other people first, and I feel like a lot of that is lacking in the current leadership and clearly I'm not the only one. But seeing this group turn up at events and voting booths and do something instead of just sitting around being frustrated is really encouraging. And there's so much going on right now that you have no excuse not to be politically active.

But there are so many grassroots groups organizing events and signing up volunteers, how do you know you'll make the biggest impact possible with your time investment?

We want to be involved in local, state and federal politics, but one of the best ways to make an impact on all fronts is to support good local candidates. There are hundreds of us spread out across Tampa Bay, so when the time comes for us to start getting involved in campaigns we can have volunteers say "We like our representative Kathy Castor or Charlie Crist, we can send them a donation, but we can also send people to work in other near-by districts to swing them to the Democratic side. I think we're going to see a lot of that here, and we'll be like a microcosm of what's happening in the rest of the country.

Most of your members are stepping into the activism arena for the first time, what advice do you have for those looking for a cause that best fits their beliefs?

I've always been politically active but it was more as a businesswoman who would throw a party, pour some wine and write a check. During the election I realized I wanted to be more hands on in my charitable work and political work. So in charity I've been doing more direct pro-bono work and served food at Trinity Cafe on inauguration day, and politically I'm still able to do the fundraising and go to events because I'm not doing it all myself. I think the biggest impact comes when you get out of your comfort zone. I'm going to the Holocaust Museum soon for an event to benefit refugees and I really want to visit a mosque - I just donated to CAIR for the first time in my life. It's energizing to get out of my circle of business people in south Tampa throwing fund raisers and that plays a big part in fueling me to do more.

Contact Anastasia Dawson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.

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