What do you call it when a group of amazing young women come together to design community and school based projects, while simultaneously discussing and addressing issues around gender equity, feminism and equality? FemSem 2015! The YWCA of the City of New York partnered with the Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality at Columbia University and created a weeklong seminar that encompassed an array of women who initiated conversations around a variation of topics including, Intersectional and Post-Colonial Feminism and Gender, Feminism, Politics and Activism. The seminar was held at Columbia University and hosted by our Academic Curator, Dr. Alondra Nelson, professor of Sociology and Gender Studies and Dean of Social Science at Columbia University.
During the first half of the week, the focus on Intersectional and Post-Colonial Feminism resulted in Dr. Nelson posing the question the world has been asking since the release of self-titled Beyoncé in December of 2013, “Is Beyoncé a feminist?” Laura Chief Elk, co-founder of the Save Wiyabi Project, expanded on the idea about post-colonial feminism while also unpacking her personal journey as a Native American woman and feminist. During that very same day, writer, speaker and technologist Samhita Mukhopadhyay brought enthusiasm to the room when she revealed her struggles with classifying as a feminist. She proposed questions such as: Can I like hip hop and be a feminist? Can a man pay for my dinner and hold the door for me? These are all questions she has asked herself and the girls in an effort to better understand their individual definitions of feminism. “When I first became a feminist I wanted women to be better than men” said Sasha, a FemSem participant, “…because when you’ve been oppressed for so long your desire is much more from the [feminist] movement.” Ultimately, Samhita Mukhopadhyay was able to bring these young feminists to the realization that there is no manual or guideline that define what a feminist is supposed to be.
Dr. Christina Greer, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Fordham University, arrived during the second half of the week and as she spoke about self-advocacy. She created a space for these young women to point out the qualities, accomplishments and assets that make them most incredible. Dr. Greer reviewed some of the obstacles that she confronted as a woman of color who desired more than what people wanted to give her. It was her inability to settle and accept the status quo that has led to her current success. Our last guest speaker, Dr. Jessie Daniels used a powerful presentation to address the issues of exclusivity in white feminism throughout history and in today’s society. Dr. Daniels utilized her own story as a platform for honesty and learning. Her passion for change is vivid in her work as an academic and an ally.
Before the week came to a close, our FemSem girls took a trip to Girls for Gender Equity NYC (GGE) where they met with GEG’s community organizing intern and some of the youth from Sisters in Strength. All of them shared their stories and engaged the girls in a deep discussion about their experience(s) with street harassment. Moreover, the girls learned about gender socialization, something many of them were unfamiliar with and spoke about the ways in which they can make changes in their communities, sharing their past stories and potential projects.
Each of these women, both speakers and participants, brought with them a handful of stories that put feminism, racism, equality and marginalization into perspective. Not only did each speaker teach but they were sure to inspire! They challenged these high school participants with academic readings that allowed them to partake in discourse that many are struggling to address in their college classrooms. “Feminism is more of a social issue than a political one… If we change society, as result you change the government”, said Gabrielle, FemSem girl.
At the top of the week, FemSem girls were asked to work on a project throughout the week that they can present back to their respective schools. These projects would shed light on issues dealing with feminism, activism and changes they would like to make in society pertaining to those topics. FemSem created and facilitated a space that allowed young women to transform their potential into power and there’s more to come. Stay tuned for updates on the girls’ projects!
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