Tag Archives: academia

The Best Conference You’ve Never Heard of: Empowering Women of Color Conference

This post is part of a guest blog series on women in academia for Bitch Magazine.

I don’t exactly remember  how I discovered the Empowering Women of Color Conference (EWOCC) in Berkeley, California but I first attended the event last year. Far from the stuffy conference rooms of a fancy-dancy hotel, EWOCC is a grassroots conference geared toward women of color, and open to all. This is a place that offers childcare, access for all people regarless of ability and offers low-to no cost registration. Last year’s conference was complete with spoken-word performances, a workshop on agriculture food justice, actually interesting panels, and a creative writing exercises.

This year, the 28th Annual Empowering Women of Color Conference was titled, “Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Bodies and Souls Building Life,” and seeks to honor a multiplicity of women’s experiences around labor: “As women of color, our journeys are marked by stretches of struggle and moments of victory. We seek to honor labor across generations: our mothers, grandmothers, and caregivers whose souls and bodies gave us life.“

EWOCC’s intention is to “build with ancestral ways of working that are attentive to the politics of liberation, decolonization, and healing.“

This year’s conference just happened last week. I asked the organizers to answer a few questions on the history and evolution of their event.

How did the Empowering Women of Color Conference start? 

EWOCC was founded in 1984 by a group of undergraduate students at the University of California, Berkeley. The initial project, was entitled “Women of Color in the United States,” and received an overwhelmingly positive response. Students decided to organize another event. In 1986, with the formation of the GA’s Graduate Women’s Project (GWP), it was decided to institutionalize this event and make the conference an annual project under the auspices of the GWP. EWOCC was one of the first conferences to present women of color with an opportunity to address the racial, class, and gender issues facing American Indian, African American, Asian American, and Chicana/Latina women.

How is it organized?

EWOCC is completely volunteer-run. Every year, the planning committee selects new members, based on their background, interest in planning, and their passion for continuing our conference. Our keynote speakers are chosen by the entire committee over several months of discussion regarding specific issues we want to address in our conference and who would be the best representative of these issues. In the past, notable women of color have given keynotes including Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua, bell hooks, Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Elaine Brown, Dolores Huerta, among many other extraordinary women.

How do you manage to stay true to feminist principles?

We stay true to feminist principles as the foundation of our existence. Specifically, the principles of community, education, holistic healing and overall empowerment are principles at the core of our conference, and why the planning committee remains dedicated to ensuring that this conference continues. This conference fills a gap in many traditional feminist spaces and discussions in that we address issues specifically facing women of color in the United States. We provide a safe space to facilitate dialogue and to share experiences in an empowering way unlike any other conference of its kind.

EWOCC is not the typical scholarly conference in that we expand the invitation participate to community members as both conference planners and presenters, rather than restrict our conference to the academy. We also strive to incorporate the arts, spiritual practices, and other means of knowing, more so than a typical academic conference provides.

How Can Harvard Help End Rape in India?

This post is part of a guest blog series on women in academia for Bitch Magazine.

Today, six men accused of gang rape in India head to court. If that sounds eerily familiar, it’s because just two months ago, six other men also went to trial for gang rape in India in a high-profile case involving a woman fatally assaulted on the bus in New Dehli.

After these terrible crimes come to light, we all want to see major change. In reaction to the New Delhi rape, Harvard University decided to sponsor a policy task force “to offer recommendations to India and other South Asian countries.” But the group received a critique from Delhi blogger Nivedita Menon, who wrote in a post called “Harvard to the Rescue!” that Harvard would be better able to discuss rapein South Asia not from the ivory tower, but by consulting with feminists on the ground in India. “It’s been a long hard haul, so it’s a great relief that the Harvard Law School has stepped in to take this burden off our shoulders,” writes Menon sarcastically.

Harvard’s plan is to produce a working paper to advise on the implementation of the recommendations from India’s Verma Committee, a report pulled together by three members of India’s judicial system that spells out crucial ways to make rape cases come to trial more quickly in India and to create harsher punshiments for people convicted of sexual assault. Feminists in the Global South may have overreacted to the plan for a working paper—it’s possible that Harvard has every intention of consult women across India on what should be done. However, the general sentiment seems to be indignation that Harvard would be able to “save” the poor women of India. This is illustrated in a letter in The People’s Record that charges Harvard with ignoring “the long history of Indian activists themselves fighting to end rape and sexual violence.”

There is clearly a need for collaboration internationally on rape issues, in addition to study.

In Harsha Walia’s piece on the Feminist Wire, she says, “While navigating my own relationship to Delhi and home, it has been infuriating to read Orientalist renditions of South Asian women needing saving from barbaric South Asian men.” Walla sees the myth of Western superiority as a part of a facade of gender equality “‘at home’ that invisibilizes, for example, the gruesome gang rape in Steubenville, Ohio, and US representative Todd Akin’s comments about ‘legitimate rape,’ and the ritualized colonial violence against Indigenous women murdered at alarming rates, and Black women in prisons and migrant women in detention centers, and women of color, poor women, transfolks, and sex workers.”

Let’s continue to create task forces, and study these issues. But let us also work on our transnational feminist collaboration and coalition building, so as not to continually repeat history and create different groups trying to achieve the same thing. I look forward to seeing greater coalition building between Harvard feminists and those on the ground in India.



Q&A with an Editor of Race and Class in Academia Anthology Presumed Incompetent

In my last post, I explained my love for the new anthology Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. Using personal narratives, empirical studies, and scholarly essays, over 40 different authors discuss the challenges faced by academic women of color in higher education. I emailed with Seattle University School of Law Professor Carmen G. Gonzalez about what it’s like to put together such a meaty and long-overdue book.

How did the idea for this book come about?

CARMEN G. GONZALEZ: As women of color who have managed to survive and thrive in academia despite formidable obstacles, we (the co-editors of Presumed Incompetent) felt a need and a responsibility to create a public dialogue about the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of workplace bias women of color experience.

Despite decades of struggle to achieve workplace equity in academia, both women of color and white women face daunting obstacles. For example, a recent study found that female faculty in the United States on average earn 6.9 percent less than men in similar academic positions.

At each full-time rank, women are hired at lower salaries than men, receive less career support than men (such as research leave, relief from service work and research assistants), and are tenured and promoted at lower rates than men. The statistics for women of color are particularly grim. Women of color hold only 7.5 percent of U.S. full-time faculty positions. But even this low number is misleading because women of color are concentrated at the lowest faculty ranks.

Those who differ from the invisible and largely uncontested white male norm find themselves, to a greater or lesser degree, presumed incompetent as teachers, scholars, and participants in faculty governance.

In other words, it is necessary but not sufficient to increase the numbers of women faculty of color. What is required is a transformation of the culture of academia.


What was the most surprising thing you found through your research?

The most surprising thing for me was how difficult it was to articulate the role of class in the experiences of women faculty of color. Our book focuses on the intersection of all three. But when one faces workplace subordination based on several intersecting identities, it can become difficult to tease out what part is due to gender, to race, to class, or to sexual orientation.

We don’t talk about class in the United States despite the fact that the United States has among the highest levels of income inequality in the developed world and the lowest rates of upward mobility.

Women of color from working class backgrounds face enormous obstacles—not only due to material disadvantage, but due to the alienating nature of academic culture. Without family members who can help them decipher the opaque rituals and expectations of academic culture, academics from the working class are essentially navigating without a map. They often struggle with isolation, with the disorientation of stepping into middle and upper class worlds, and with the nagging sense that they have abandoned their communities of origin or “sold out.”

How do you believe we, as a country, community, and world will be able to overcome overt and covert sexism and racism?

I don’t think we will begin to overcome overt and covert gender and racial bias until we stop pretending that we live in a “post-identity” society where race and gender no longer matter.

Only by talking openly about racism and sexism, in all of its manifestations, in all of the institutions that affect our daily lives, will we understand it, deconstruct it, and overcome it.

Lady in the Ivory Tower: If You Pack Only One Book, Make it a 570 Page Hardcover on Race and Class

I brought just one book to India: It was a 570 pages hardcover on race and class. It is true, I did consider that it could be used as a weapon or a seat if needed. Still, it got me through a 30-hour train ride. I call it my “survival book”—without it, the long, hot days of travel would have been unbearable. What would your survival reading be?

Before embarking on a trip of any extended length, many of us privileged enough to read this screen have an important choice to make—what book to bring? Yes, of course, those who have a kindle or tablet can essentially pack an endless number of books in their bag. But for those of us who prefer print or can’t afford the alternative, choosing the one or two books to haul along with us is a crucial decision. What did I choose on my most recent trip? Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (2012, Ohio University Press) was the book whose 570 pages would keep me company throughout my trip to India, and help me sort out my thoughts as I delved further into academia by drafting a Ph.D application.

It’s rare to find a book worth hauling across a foreign country. Though I was a bit embarassed at the weight of my bag, Presumed Incompetent deepened my understanding of the challenges women in academia face.

Presumed Incompetent has been four years in the making and maps a history that mirrors the history of higher education in the United States. The book’s more than 40 essays examine the working lives of women faculty of color. Using personal narratives, qualitative empirical studies, and scholarly essays, the authors discuss challenges that stretch beyond pay equity and overt sexual harassment. The book focuses on resilience in the face of adversity and developing supportive networks, as well as what academic institutions need to know to improve the tenure process. As Kimberlé Crenshaw, a prominent figure in Critical Race Theory and current professor at UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School said, “It reminds us that the mere passage of time is not enough to create equitable workplaces for anyone facing institutional subordination.”

You can preview the book here, I suggest picking up an actual copy. I do not necessarily recommend picking up an actual copy and hauling it around India, but in my experience, it makes not only a good seat but also an excellent mental support.

If you were to pack only one book for a long trip, what would it be?

Lady in the Ivory Tower: This Bridge Called My Back and the Backs We All Stand on

Bridge Called My Back

The new year brings with it new resolutions, fresh thoughts and affirmations, new ways of thinking of ourselves and the world around us, and a general feeling of possibility in the air. In all the newness that surrounds inaugurations and New Year’s parties and trips to the gym to stay true to that one resolution (at least for the first month), sometimes we forget where we have been. We forget whose backs we are standing on and how we came to be where we are now.

On the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the 1963 March on Washington, it is a good time to reflect on that iconic oration, but it is also a good time to remember the lesser-known prompt delivered by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who stood on stage with King. As the story goes, she urged from behind the podium, “Tell them about the dream, Martin. Tell them about the dream,” prompting the from-the-heart part of King’s speech. So, sure we all remember and were taught about many of the men at the forefront of the civil-rights battle. But what about the the ladies who also came before us?

There were women we seldom hear about, walking through university quadrangles and classrooms in an attempt to blaze their way beyond the ivory phalluses of the university (those white heteronormative spaces that they still are). Though women have achieved so-called parity under law, there are many spaces in which equality is yet to be seen, and academia is one of them.

The purpose of this blog series is to offer a feminist response to the culture of academia, including the experience of working, teaching, and researching within academic institutions, with a particular focus on women of color. Women’s rights, racial justice, and institutional sexism are tightly interwoven, and Lady in the Ivory Tower will examine those intersections with an eye toward making them clear to everyone. When you walk into a conference space, for instance, or an academic space, do you count the people who look even remotely like yourself? Do you think about the structure of the space and whether or not it includes those who identify as queer or women with children who might not be able to afford a conference-weekend’s worth of childcare? Do you consider whether or not the space is accessible for those with disabilities? If you don’t, you may be part of a privileged majority. No shame, no guilt, just an awareness of your positionality is all I would ask for.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott were both refused seats at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840 because of their sex. In the 1920s, Barbara McClintock was prevented from majoring in genetics at Cornell University because she was female, so she majored in botany instead. No big deal: McClintock went on to be a founder of the field of cytogenetics and was awarded the 1983 Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine.Anna Julia Cooper became one of the first three African-American women to complete a PhD in 1925. Since she couldn’t enroll in a doctorate program the United States, she graduated from the Sorbonne in Paris.

Fast-forward to 1981, when the anthology This Bridge Called My Back offered up an the work of a handful of women of color in academia, providing stepping stones to understand intersectional feminism. At the time it was written it was, as Nisha Agarwal put it in a Huffington Post remembrance, “a vermilion ink bloom on the crisp white wedding dress of the U.S. feminist movement.” In an effort to blur demarcations between intellectual and disciplinary spheres, and expose “the un/speakables,” as coeditor Gloria Anzaldua would say, for this new year and this new inauguration let’s not feel uncomfortable being women in the academy. Let’s live in borderlands and in acknowledging the backs we are standing on, resolve to help those around us be the bridge to their own power.