Empowering Women of Color

“There’s no such thing as a safe space. We need to get over that, that there is a place where there is no violence, oppression or challenge you have to face.”

– Loretta Ross, co-founder and National Coordinator of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective

Ross’ fiery passion and quirky humor kicked off the 29th annual Empowering Women of Color Conference at UC Berkeley. As president of Woman as Hero at Arizona State University, I organized summits 3 years in a row  to bring our community together to discuss issues central to women’s rights and empowerment, and since I’ll unfortunately miss the Womanity summit this year, it felt fitting to continue the tradition by connecting with my new community in Berkeley.

The theme of the Empowering Women of Color Conference was: Talking Back! Our Voices Overcoming Violence. Ross, the keynote speaker, shared her story of early childhood sexual trauma and that without the support of her parents to help raise the child she was forced to bear at age 14, she wouldn’t have made it. She began therapy at age 25 and decades later is still proud to be using it as a way of healing. Ross launched her career in human rights advocacy and reproductive justice when she worked at the D.C. Rape Crisis Center in the 1970’s, which was at the time the only center run by women of color in the U.S. Through her experience, she fought against apartheid, racial and economic violence, and all the violences that take place in our intersectional lives.

Some of her other statements that resonated with me:

There are eight categories of human rights, but most of you don’t even know them. Why? There is a financial incentive to not teach you your human rights.

I believe the 9th category of human rights will be informational or digital rights. The digital divide is a form of oppression for communities without access to technology and the Internet.

We’ve had the civil rights moment, the women’s rights movement, the LGBT movement. There is one movement that has yet to be built-the human rights movement, one that is inclusive for all.

There is not one form of violence that is linear. It is structural and institutionalized.

We have to have a sense of humor in our work. Fighting Nazis should be fun. Being a Nazi should suck!

There were a number of sessions held at the conference to explore violence and healing. The three I attended were: 1) Ending Violence Against Women and Children and Promoting Healing Through Digital Storytelling, 2) Muslim Womyn, Not As Seen On TV, and 3) Drumming as the Movement

The first session had a lot of potential but because of lack of time, we didn’t get to actually create our stories, however I came away with a lot of great tools and techniques that I will apply in my own work. I also loved the facilitator, Monica Anderson aka Kin Folkz, this amazing black woman, scholar and activist, who really inspired me to pursue my interests in storytelling and becoming a woman of color in academia. She also brought her daughter, who is homeschooled, and that girl is so smart and level-headed. I never thought about homeschooling my kids before (when I have kids), but I am really warming up to the idea of independent learning. (This TEDtalk on hacking education by a young homeschooled kid also had a huge impact on me.)

The second session was interesting because I felt like coming in to it, I didn’t know what story or vantage would be told and how the participants would engage with the topic. The facilitators were college students that seemed a bit nervous and unprepared to cover more nuanced and scholarly analysis of Muslim women and feminism but they were strongest when they spoke from their own personal experiences about prejudice, family, love and their relationship with the hijab. It got a bit tense when a few participants (one Muslim, one non-Muslim) criticized the discussion from being too simplistic and problematic in how Muslim women and representation were being spoken about. Other non-Muslims asked how they could be allies without victimizing us or speaking for us. I give props to the facilitators for standing up for themselves and their narratives, but I also agree with the presentation not fulfilling what I had hoped it would have achieved based on the workshop’s title.

After spending most of my day sitting and listening, I was eager to do something active so I joined the drumming workshop. There was a taiko drumming entertainment session earlier in the conference which made me antsy to just hit something and let out my emotion. It’s been awhile since I’ve been around instruments (I play piano and am learning guitar) and it’s been killing my soul. I got to play the snare drum and learn some Afro-Brazilian inspired beats and played together with other women and it was AMAZING. Drumming is usually seen as a masculine, aggressive art, so it was great to be surrounded by strong, capable women in tune with the sound we were making on campus.  I am so captivated by the power of drums and really want to join a class now to learn more drumming from around the world!

Though I am not personally a survivor of domestic, physical or sexual violence, it is an issue that I am very passionate about as a human rights advocate. Coming to this conference allowed me to hear and listen to different experiences that I will never comprehend but I want to do my best to empathize and facilitate collective action around overcoming violence.

One of the most haunting things I heard was from one woman who was a victim of incest and has since stopped having a relationship with her parents because of that trauma. People ask her why she has no relationship with her parents anymore. Her response: “Would you have a relationship with your slaveowner after you’re free? Would you have a relationship with your pimp still after you’re free? My greatest loss is that I’m 25 and I will never have a mommy. No matter how many people say they will adopt me. It’s never going to happen.

As a storyteller, I hope to lend my skills and my craft to help others heal and share with the public the myths and structural inequalities that perpetuate violence and allow generations to inherit these debilitating crimes. I want to challenge the normalization of aggression as a part of masculinity. I want to poke holes in the greedy, self-destructive capitalist society. I want to shift the narratives of otherization and Orientalism.

At 23, I’m just now coming to terms with my identity as a woman of color and learning to align myself with that group. Sometimes it feels itchy and foreign, other times it feels just right. There are just so many issues that women of color deal with that I don’t even know where to begin in figuring out my position, privilege and responsibility to act! I’ll end with another great quote by Loretta Ross:

“The term ‘women of color’ was created, and they didn’t see it as a biological designation… It is a solidarity definition, a commitment to work in collaboration with other oppressed women of color.. we self-named ourselves this. This is a term that has a lot of power for us.”

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