Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

Nicky Grist: Single-Minded Change Agent

What it takes to create a more just society for all singles

At the forefront of the movement to create a more just society for all single people is Nicky Grist, Executive Director of the Alternatives to Marriage Project (AtMP). AtMP is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the goals of erasing marital status discrimination from our laws and policies. Its members come from all 50 states as well as Canada.

Nicky came to AtMP with great creds both as an activist and a scholar. She has worked for foundations, for non-profits in New York City and in Nairobi, Kenya, and in both federal and local government. She has degrees from Yale and Princeton and an executive certificate from Harvard. You can see her energy, dedication, and intellect as she reaches out to government, to other groups seeking social justice, and to individual unmarried Americans, and as she works so hard to develop her own expertise and advocacy skills.

I love watching Nicky in action. At a fund-raiser, a donor tried to hand her a check before she gave her pitch and she declined it. "Listen to me first," she said, "then rip up that check and write a bigger one."

I think you will enjoy this interview with her.

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1. Bella: Let's start with the personal. Is there something that happened in your life, or in someone else's, that really brought home to you the need for change? I'm talking about change on any level - the way we think about people who are single in everyday life; the place of singles in the workplace, in the law or in public policy; or anything else that seems relevant. Do you have a story you can tell about this?

Nicky Grist:
There is a little scene that keeps replaying in my mind. I can't say that it galvanized me to work for this type of change at the moment it happened, but it did make me feel guilty and uncomfortable. Since starting this work I often look back on this scene and think "If only I knew then what I know now!"

I was the executive director of a small community service organization. One of our programs offered workshops about how to buy a house (qualify for a mortgage, work with a realtor, etc.). Originally the workshops were free, but the institutions that supported the organization pressured us to start charging participants a small fee. I asked the staff to poll participants about what they would pay, and to experiment with various fee structures. The staff came up with one price for singles, and another price (less than twice that) for couples. I cringed, but at the time couldn't articulate why it felt so wrong! Looking back, I wish I had said one of two things: either "every individual will benefit from learning how to buy a home, so let's charge them all the same," or "everyone who's trying to buy a home should have a ‘buddy' to support their goals, so let's encourage participants to bring a buddy by giving them a discount, and if someone doesn't bring a buddy let's match her/him up with another participant and then give them the same discount."

2. Bella: Is there one particular issue or goal that is especially important to you as you try to create social change?

Nicky Grist:
Generically speaking, I believe public policies should be fair and should respect the reality of people's lives. That means looking at actual behavior, not just profiling people. I believe policies should help people do and be their best, not create obstacles that hold them back.

More specifically, AtMP spends a lot of time on various aspects of health policy because so many of our members have experienced discrimination in access to health care, and because so much of the public conversation about right and wrong is focused on health care.

3. Bella: In your experience of trying to persuade skeptics of the importance of fair treatment for singles, or accurate perceptions of them, is there any particular example or line of reasoning that seems to be especially effective?

Nicky Grist:
I really enjoy seeing people's eyes light up in epiphany when I explain that married people occupy less than half of all American homes; that the majority of American adulthood is spent outside marriage; and that single peoples' lives include lots of caring relationships that deserve recognition.

4. Bella: One difficulty I've often encountered is the misperception that if you have a positive message about singles or single life, that necessarily means that you are putting down marriage or traditional family life. Have you run into that, and if so, how have you dealt with it?

Nicky Grist:
Again, I focus on singles' roles in the rich fabric of caring relationships that make society function. Single does not mean hermit. In fact, a side effect of matrimania is that singles are often asked to be caregivers for elderly parents and other family or community members because they are assumed to have more time. There is growing recognition that an insular nuclear family model might not be the best building block for a sustainable society.

5. Bella: So much of the cultural and political discussion around marital status is about people who are officially married compared to couples who are unmarried - whether same-sex or not. I know that many uncoupled singles feel left out of that conversation, and they find that inappropriate. Is that a tension you've faced? What are your thoughts on creating change on behalf of all legally single people, regardless of whether or not they are socially coupled?

Nicky Grist:
AtMP has been on the receiving end of that criticism, and it has been a major topic of strategic discussion among our Board of Directors.

Our mission statement has long stated that AtMP advocates fairness and equality for all unmarried people. That's an amazingly wide range of people and of reasons for being unmarried and emotions about being unmarried. One of the things I like best about AtMP is that we don't favor one type of single over another, we don't try to tell people how to live, we don't judge relationships by what they're called, and we do think all adults should be free to form the relationships they want. That's why we look forward to the day when same-sex couples can marry if they want. However, our work focuses on making it not matter whether a couple marries, or an individual remains single, or a family includes more than one or two adults. We think relationships are good for people, caring relationships are good for society, and society should treat caring relationships fairly based on what the people in them do for each other, not what they call each other.

This year our Board of Directors carefully examined and reaffirmed this basic principle. The board recommitted AtMP to not only challenging policies that use marriage to give people rights and resources, but also proposing policy alternatives that maximize equality, autonomy and protection for singles and non-sexual relationships as well as intimate couples.

6. Bella: Can you describe an especially positive or memorable experience you've had in your role as a single-minded change agent? It doesn't have to be a big thing - it could be something small but especially meaningful or poignant.

Nicky Grist:
Last weekend I attended a fancy dinner for Charles's 75th birthday. Charles has been close friends with my partner for over 40 years. During those years he has literally become a guru to hundreds of people around the world. (We aren't followers; in fact, we like to needle Charles about learning to accept help.) At the dinner each guest stood up to tell a story, usually about how the guru had helped her or him. The story I told: Charles, my partner and I were in a taxi, and my partner said something foolish about a single mother who was "all alone in the world." I chided my partner, pointing out that the mother in question has an extraordinary network of support. I added it would be just as foolish to say that Charles is alone in the world simply because he never married - just look at the hundreds of people who would do anything for him if he'd let them. Charles was in the front seat; he turned around to reveal tears in his eyes and said that he had always heard people say pityingly that he was alone, and he had believed them until that moment! I felt blessed to have touched him and given him something after all his years of giving.

7. Bella: Over time, hundreds (maybe even thousands) of people will read this interview, and many of them care deeply about the topic of living single. I want to offer you the opportunity now to say whatever you'd like to them. It could be a story, an observation, a piece of advice, or anything else at all.

Nicky Grist:
Never forget that the personal is political, and it's not really enough to just feel good about your single life. Suggest real changes that need to happen, and follow through on your suggestions. Tell policy makers to make change, and by all means VOTE!

Bella: Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts and for all that you do for all sorts of single people. Readers, you can learn more about Nicky Grist here, and about AtMP here. Also take a look at the AtMP blog.

This is the second in a series of interviews of single-minded change agents. The first interview was with Thomas F. Coleman. You can read it here.

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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