This past week I was able to attend the Annual Conference on Gender Justice and Feminism at my university, the University of Northern Colorado. This was my first time attending and the eighth time this conference has been offered. The conference "offers an opportunity for all UNC students, faculty, and staff to engage contemporary and historical women's and gender issues, explore intersectionality within feminism, and identify avenues toward reflection, awareness and empowerment." I am so excited to be at a university that offers such a conference, FOR FREE, and be able to learn from scholars in these fields. Here are some of my thoughts from the day.
Upon arrival I immediately realized this was a special, significant event. The registration materials and swag were so professional and the room we were in was massive! There were approx. 250 people there for breakfast and the Keynote Address. My expectations for a free event, offered only to current UNC-people, were blown out of the water.
Then I opened the conference program. Could all info pages in conference booklets please look like this from now on?
Before the keynote we heard welcomes from several UNC employees. One of these was Fleurette (Flo) King, our Assistant Vice President for Equity and Inclusion. She spoke specifically about the name change for this conference. It was previously the Women's Conference. She said one of the most important things coming from the name change is that it's about "eliminating the can't do because of gender, and affirming the can do regardless of gender." What a fantastic way to start the day!
Dr. Consuela Ward from Kennesaw State University and the Montage Group was our Keynote Speaker. She spoke powerfully & passionately about the importance of women's stories and especially the stories of women of color. Two specific quotes that resonated with me from her talk were:
- It is not healthy to be strong all the time. The rubber band you’re pulling to be strong will break.
- If you don’t tell your story, somebody else can tell your story from their perspective.
Then we went to breakout sessions. I appreciated that in addition to titles and descriptions, each session was also labeled as Building Foundations, Making Connections, or Advanced Dialogue. This helped participants to know how deep the discussion and subject matter were likely to go so they could gauge whether that session was appropriate for their current experiences. My first session was "How did sexism and misogyny affect the 2016 Presidential election?" with Dr. Christiane Olivo. Wow. I mean, I knew it would be "wow." But, wow. A few points that stuck out to me included:
- Women are perceived, initially, as more honest than men. Women are considered more trustworthy than men (broadly, of course). Therefore, when a women does something that appears dishonest, it is even more difficult for her to overcome that issue. The perception of dishonesty hurts women far more than men ("her emails," Benghazi). Similarly, men start off with lower expectations for their ability to be honest. (What the what?!?!)
- Much of the rhetoric around the election had to do with the socioeconomic status of people who voted for Trump. But the research is becoming more and more clear that sexism and racism dwarfed the economic factors in voting for Trump. These slides showed some pretty astounding figures.
Then I went to the "Healing superwoman" session with Dr. Ward (our Keynote Speaker). This was a nice session with journaling and processing techniques that we can use to sift through our past, notice patterns, and be able to structure our future for better success.
Lunch was delicious (and free!) and provided a great opportunity for discussion as the tables were set for groups of 8. I joined a table of people I did not know who were a mix of staff and graduate students. There was a somewhat heated discussion happening about whether it's worth the time to try and change the mind of one racist/sexist/Trump supporter, or if you need to cut that loss and work toward changing larger systemic problems. Although the discussion was great (and so important!), the most meaningful interaction I absorbed was when a black woman looked a white man right in the eye and said "I need you to listen more." He started to sputter a response and she said "no, I just need you to slow down and really listen." I'm going to remember that. "I need you to listen more."
My next breakout session was "Working together across difference - How to practice genuine dialogue" with Dr. Cori Wong, our soon-to-be-heard Capstone Speaker. She did a very nice job presenting techniques for genuine discussion and we had a chance to work in small groups and consider situations/strategies/pitfalls more carefully.
My final breakout session was "Reproductive rights and access." This was a panel discussion with a NARALPro-Choice Colorado representative, a nurse from Denver public schools, and a State House Representative who represents Greeley (sadly not my district). Being fairly new to Colorado, I was very interested in learning more about our reproductive laws and efforts. Good news - we're doing really well! We have awesome people working hard to make sure birth control (and LARC in particular) is available to everyone for free. There is awesome research and data coming out of Colorado that shows what providing birth control does to lower pregnancy rates, lower STD rates, lower abortion rates, lower maternal death rates, and lower state healthcare costs across the board. Now if only ALL our legislators would rely on data when they vote...
The day ended with a Capstone Address from Dr. Cori Wong, from Colorado State University. Her "positive philosophy" theory is very interesting and her thoughts on Feminist Friendship really resonated with me, as seen in these slides.
I finished the day exhausted, mentally and physically. Although many sessions during the day focused on self-care, particularly in this current political climate, we also discussed how backing away or saying "I can't do that right now" is most definitely a privilege. Being a woman of whiteness (another new phrase I learned) has challenges, but my privilege is way up there. I recognize that I have so much to learn and so much I can offer to those who are not afforded the advantages I am, simply because of my skin color and gender representation. This is hard stuff. Gender justice and feminism are never-ending work and I'm so grateful to be at a university that honors that work with this annual conference. Let the ruminating, and the work, continue.