Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives: A Reflection on Activism and Social Media

This reflection by Women’s Center Director, Jess Myers, was written for and originally shared on the ACPA’s Standing Committee for Women blog. It has been republished on our site with their permission. For more on ACPA SCW, check out their website.

 

When the Women’s Center at UMBC at celebrated its 20th anniversary, the staff wanted to make a commemorative quilt. Each student organization and department the Women’s Center partnered with over the years made a square that was patched together into a quilt that was unique to the history of the Women’s Center. We indulged in this practice to honor America’s rich history of quilting and patchwork. For centuries, quilts have told stories and were uniquely linked to their creators, who most often were women. The process of quilting encouraged women to share their stories and build community with other women. This felt like an appropriate nod at history as we celebrated our own. With this experience, I’ve especially enjoyed this year’s Women’s History Month theme of Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives.

As our country has evolved so has the medium for telling our narratives. We now rely on various social media platforms to share our stories as we Instagram brunch with friends, share the latest viral blog on Facebook, and tweet our experiences throughout the day. What was once threaded and woven is now tweeted, liked, and hashtagged. And, while there may not be a beautiful quilt at the end of the day, many student activists of today are nonetheless weaving together an important story that will impact the future of women’s history. This is the story of the campus sexual assault movement happening now on college campuses.

Over the past year, I have been a part of a study with three other student affairs professionals exploring the strategies employed by activists involved in the movement to address sexual violence prevention and response on college campuses. Through observing online forums and the 23 interviews of both current students and recent graduates, a powerful story of activism unfolded. Our findings are rich and extend well beyond our original research question, but as I contemplate this year’s Women’s History Month theme, I am compelled to share the ways in which the participants used social media as a tool to weave together their stories and experiences as a medium to demand change on campuses and within our nation that support survivors of sexual assault and condemn sexual violence within our institutions of higher education. Participants in our study described using social media in several intentional ways, two of which I’ll explore here: to connect with other activists and as a tool for reducing power dynamics present in other spaces.

Sharing Their Stories with Others: Social Media as a Connection to Other Activists

Activists described the power of social media in helping them connect to other survivors and activists which supported a shift in momentum related to addressing sexual violence. By connecting with other activists, their story was no longer one of isolation but one that weaved into a greater context of support and validation. Several participants highlighted the power of solidarity when sexual violence related hashtags trended on Twitter such as Wagatwe Wanjuki’s #survivorprivilege which provided a forum to express their experiences. Moreover, one participant, Lynn*, captured the importance of this solidarity between and among activists from a variety of places. She said,

“There’s just a wonderful solidarity of knowing that you’re not alone… And when you see, as painful as it is to find other people who have been through what you’ve been through, there is an incredible level of empowerment that comes from knowing that somebody else has that experience, and that you’re not crazy.”

Creating New Spaces to Share Their Story: Social Media as a Tool for Reducing Power Dynamics

Closely related to the connection and solidarity activists felt from shared spaces online, some activists also identified the importance of online spaces as environments where power dynamics were reduced allowing their story to be told and heard. Some LGBTQ activists used online space because they did not have to out themselves in face-to-face settings. Other activists identified the importance of using social media as a forum where a variety of perspectives might be shared and validated, especially those that are historically marginalized. Vee, a participant who identifies as a queer woman of color, explained Twitter as community in which “I can breathe a sigh of relief, where I can get the validation I need.” When sexual assault stories highlighted by mainstream media often tell only the narrative of young, cisgnedered white women, the need for this counterspace online becomes even more important in ensuring all voices and stories are woven into the movement. Peter, another participant in our study, highlights this point:

“And if we’re talking about at risk communities, marginalized communities, communities that have been historically marginalized are not welcomed into the same spaces and so to a lot of people the only thing that they have access to and the only way that they are able to participate is through social media because of that anonymity that’s allowed that isn’t allowed for if you put your name to it.”

There is a power in hearing women’s stories. While remembering and recounting tales of our ancestors’ sacrifices and dedication is important, there is also great power in the stories being woven now. The story for these survivors and activists is still a work in progress, but during this Women’s History Month, I celebrate their efforts. Unlike a quilt which must be fully completed for the story to be told, social media is allowing me learn from activists across the country in real-time about their experiences, needs, and challenges. Their stories are already being woven into my practice as a student affairs professional and I am all the better professional for it. This will be a story not only tweeted, blogged, and hashtagged, but one that will be woven into the fabric of our national history.

*Although many survivors in the current campus sexual assault movement are choosing to publicly use their names and identities in their activist work and/or with media outlets our study uses pseudonyms to ensure confidentiality for all of our participants.

Sexual Assault Awareness Month 2015: Event Calendar

womencenterjess:

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Check out the UMBC calendar of events and save the dates!

Originally posted on UMBC Insights Weekly:

sexual_assault_awareness_monthApril is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Every two minutes, someone in America is sexually assaulted. 1 in 5 college women experience a sexual assault. 95% of college-aged victims know their attacker.

These are just a few statistics to highlight why this month of awareness is so very important for our campus and our greater community. We have several events this April that will honor the voices and experiences of survivors of sexual assault. Additionally, there are events that will seek to raise awareness about sexual assault and the importance of effective consent.

Please feel free to download our event calendar, mark your calendar with the events you plan on attending, and share the word with other students, staff, and faculty.

Supporting Survivors of Sexual Assault: Cultivating a Survivor-Responsive Campus Workshop (All workshops are in the Women’s Center)

  • Wednesday, April 8th from 12-1pm for UMBC students
  • Monday, April 13th…

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A Reflection from International Women’s Day from Inside the U.N.

A reflection written by Women’s Center intern, Narges Ershad

It has been many years that, in one particular day in the year many people would repeat a sentence to me and other women’s. “ Happy International Women’s Day”!  Throughout the year it has been days and times that people would appreciate me, or we would have critical conversation regarding women’s issues, and see how far we have come. But March 8th was always different.  International Women’s Day is celebrated around the world on March 8th, with each country having its own way of celebrating and recognizing the the freedoms or limitations that exist for women. Many organize marches on the streets of their home town, host round tables and panels about the achievements and limitations that women have to that day, and hold undergrounds celebrations and meetings in the countries that people can’t freely gather and talk about the topic.

A view from inside the UN.

A view from inside the UN.

This year during International Women’s Day, I along with many others from around the world, had the privilege of attending the Commission on Status of Women (CSW) conference that was held at the United Nation headquarters in New York City. Over the course of the week and throughout the conference so much came to my mind, so many people and stories inspired me, and I became even more determined about my career goals and role as an activist. As I marched on the streets of NYC with women leaders and activists from around the globe on International Women’s day, talked to leaders, attended panels and meetings, I felt great affirmation in wanting to be involved, do more, and get others involved in the rights for women as well.

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Here I am outside the UN for the Commission on the Status of Women conference!

 

I have always been interested to learn about other countries and ways and which that they are dealing with and addressing issues regarding women in their country. CSW59 was a place to learn and reflect on all I know and always wanted to learn. This is a 2-week long conference that state officials, leaders, researchers, founders and workers of different NGO’s attend each year to tell others about their country’s progress and see what everyone else is doing. It also provides time for leaders to collaborate together on what they can do as a whole to advocate for  gender equality for everyone.  Many sessions were organized around the topic of gender equality and women’s rights. It was a great feeling to see how all these organizers and leaders have made many great changes in their countries and hear what they are still fighting for through their activism. As topics such as female genital mutilation, sexual abuse, child marriage, human trafficking were discussed throughout the sessions, I was challenged to think more deeply and consider what role I play in making the world a better place for all girls and women.

I really enjoyed all the session, but one in particular really stood out to me was one hosted by U.N Women. They introduced a book called Transnational Feminist Movement. This is a great book that explores that transnational feminist movement and “contributions they have made to global knowledge, power and social change over the past half century.” In this session they also emphasized the importance of having everyone and not just women involved in the movement.

This conference inspired critical reflection within me. After this conference now I can look at gender issues with a more global knowledge and lens. I understand more about how we can help one another to build a better world, while respecting one’s place. I understand that this respect sometimes means having to listen and at times follow if we are asked instead of only taking the charge to lead and demand. It is important to remember how far the women’s movement has come, to recognize the progress and to appreciate all those who have helped us along the way. Just as importantly, we must remember that we have a long journey in front of us and we must keep fighting for all women.

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Our march throughout New York City

 

Non-Traditional but Together

womencenterjess:

A wonderful reflection written by Returning Women Student Scholar and Newcombe Scholarship recipient, Carrie Cleveland.

Originally posted on BreakingGround:

Carrie Cleveland ’16, Social Work, is a member of UMBC’s Returning Women’s Mentoring Group.

Carrie ClevelandYesterday someone told me I was invisible.

My first thought was that the word invisible was the best adjective to describe me as a member of this campus community. My second thought was just how sad that would have made me feel a year ago, before I helped form a network of people like me.

So what makes me invisible? If you were to line me up with one hundred other students who were a representative sample of UMBC’s student population, I doubt I would stand out, because what makes me different is not especially apparent: my age.  The beautiful thing about being surrounded by a wonderful group of traditional-aged students (18-25 years old) is that no one realizes just how old I am.  Most students guess that I am older than they are, but not by much.  When I say I am…

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Women’s History Month CWIT Spotlight: Alejandra Diaz

March is Women’s History Month!

Two  years ago Women’s History Month’s national theme was “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.” The theme honored generations of women who throughout American history have used their intelligence, imagination, sense of wonder, and tenacity to make extraordinary contributions to the STEM fields. At UMBC we honored this theme by partnering with the Center for Women in Technology (CWIT) to feature some of their amazing students participating in technology in the engineering and information technology fields. Three years later, we still find it meaningful and important to continue spotlighting the stories of UMBC’s CWIT women and with the 2015 theme of “Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives” there’s no better time than now to continue weaving the stories of our campus ITE women into the fabric of women’s history and current day lived experiences. So with that, we are honored to bring you the 3rd Annual CWIT Showcase in honor of Women’s History Month.

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Alejandra Diaz
Computer Science
CWIT  Scholar

Meet Alejandra Diaz! A CWIT Scholar and computer science major.

Meet Alejandra Diaz! A CWIT Scholar and computer science major.

Describe what sparked your interest STEM and the journey to choosing your major.

I’ve been interested in STEM ever since I was little. Funnily enough, the reason why I chose Computer Science as my major is because my dad forced me to take a programming elective in high school during my junior year. I whined about signing up for that class, but ended up loving programming to the point where I wanted to major in it.

Tell us about an internship, research experience or project that you are proud of.

I am really proud of my internship during the spring of my freshmen year at Ponte Technologies. This was my first major internship with a company, and I’ve learned so many things from that job. I refreshed myself in Wireshark and Nessus, and I learned the vulnerabilities a modern car has. You’d be surprised as to how easy it is to hack into a car!

Who are your role models in the engineering or IT field? How have their stories influenced your educational or career goals?

This might sound cliché, but my dad is my biggest role model in the IT field. He has come so far and now has more certifications and clearances than I can count. Seeing how he has progressed helps me outline what I want to accomplish during my career as an IT professional.

Explain your experience as a woman in a STEM major working with other women in STEM. How have you used each other to support your work and persevere in male-dominated fields?

I feel that a sense of community helps if any issue arrives because I’m a woman in STEM. My friends, who are also computer science majors, and I do homework together and study together. We don’t isolate ourselves in our classes, because we are just like the guys in our class – we’re here to learn.

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The Center for Women In Technology (CWIT) is dedicated to increasing the representation of women in the creation of technology in the engineering and information technology fields. CWIT efforts begin with nurturing a strong group of Scholars, grow to building community resources for other women in these majors, extend to fostering a healthy gender climate and ITE pedagogy in College of Engineering and Information Technology (COEIT) departments, and finally expand into outreach efforts to increase interest in technical careers. A successful program for female-friendly engineering and information technology education at UMBC will help make UMBC a destination for women (and men) interested in technical careers and serve as a national model for other universities.

For more information about Women’s History events and happenings, visit the Women’s Center myUMBC group page.

Women’s History Month CWIT Spotlight: Travis Ward

March is Women’s History Month!

Two  years ago Women’s History Month’s national theme was “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.” The theme honored generations of women who throughout American history have used their intelligence, imagination, sense of wonder, and tenacity to make extraordinary contributions to the STEM fields. At UMBC we honored this theme by partnering with the Center for Women in Technology (CWIT) to feature some of their amazing students participating in technology in the engineering and information technology fields. Three years later, we still find it meaningful and important to continue spotlighting the stories of UMBC’s CWIT women and with the 2015 theme of “Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives” there’s no better time than now to continue weaving the stories of our campus ITE women into the fabric of women’s history and current day lived experiences. So with that, we are honored to bring you the 3rd Annual CWIT Showcase in honor of Women’s History Month.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Travis Ward 
Computer Engineering
T-Site Scholar

Meet Travis... a T-Site Scholar in the CWIT Community

Meet Travis… a T-Site Scholar in the CWIT Community

Tell us about your experience in the CWIT community.

By being a member of the CWIT community, I have felt a connection to other students in class and socially that I wouldn’t otherwise have. In almost every class I have, there’s someone there that I recognize and can have a rapport with. Almost every group I have hung out or worked with from class has built up from a fellow CWIT member. Recently I have had the honor to be a part of several committees to encourage young women to enter the STEM fields or work beside new members to CWIT. These events have been some of the most satisfying experiences I have had at UMBC.

Based on your experiences, what do you want other men to know about the gender gap in engineering and IT?

Personally I think that most men are already aware of the gender gap in the STEM fields. I know my own major of computer engineering is particularly lacking in gender diversity. This is a frustrating issue as one of the hardest parts of working in this field is coming up with solutions to very difficult problems. Trying to solve these in a vacuum is a near impossibility. I know I can’t do it. The women that I work with have valuable insights and perspective that has helped me through a project more then once. They make just as strong of an addition as any man would. Everybody attacks design problems from a different angle depending on how they learned to problem solve. These unique perspectives are invaluable to a project and should never be overlooked.

How do you feel you are a role model for other men majoring in engineering and IT?

I have had a lot of support from women in my life help me get to where I am today. I think it is only right that I try to be there to offer support to anybody who may struggle here at UMBC. By being a mentor to other member’s of CWIT I hope any of our community members may feel more comfortable working in STEM. By being a member of the CWIT retreat committee, I was given the opportunity to mold many student’s first impression of UMBC. As a part of the Bits and Bytes group, we helped young women better understand how to get into the STEM fields, what kind of challenges they might find, and the kinds of support that are out there. I have tried to make my workplaces and classrooms more tolerant and accepting places. I encourage others to be accepting and nonjudgmental as well. I think this is important not just for encouraging women to participate in STEM, but for anybody.

How has being a man advocating for women in engineering or IT helped you better understand how important the stories of women’s experiences are?

By being in a community dedicated to diversity in the STEM fields I have learned a lot. Everybody has their own story, and with it comes their own take on a host of issues. While many of these are different and unique, I know I have been most struck by how many of them I can relate to. I think it is important to realize that there is far more that connects me with everybody in this community. Not just the men, and not just the computer engineers. All of us have found an interest our area and an aptitude for it. For many of us it was a surprise and wasn’t even something we were looking for. I know that we are all together exploring what these interests mean to us and its important that we have the support improves that journey.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

The Center for Women In Technology (CWIT) is dedicated to increasing the representation of women in the creation of technology in the engineering and information technology fields. CWIT efforts begin with nurturing a strong group of Scholars, grow to building community resources for other women in these majors, extend to fostering a healthy gender climate and ITE pedagogy in College of Engineering and Information Technology (COEIT) departments, and finally expand into outreach efforts to increase interest in technical careers. A successful program for female-friendly engineering and information technology education at UMBC will help make UMBC a destination for women (and men) interested in technical careers and serve as a national model for other universities.

For more information about Women’s History events and happenings, visit the Women’s Center myUMBC group page.

Gay Hair

A post written by Women’s Center Intern, Daniel.

So you’re out at your favorite vegan coffee shop sipping your $6 soy latte while reading City Paper and you peek over the top of it just in time to see a blue-haired cutie send a glance your way and wink as they strut out the door. When you walk into your sociology class on Monday, you scan the room and spot a classmate with pink bangs and an undercut and weave your way through the desks to sit as close to them as possible so that when the professor begins the chapter on sexuality you can roll your eyes and groan with them. Why? Cause that blue-haired cutie and the classmate with the undercut and the kid on the bus with the mohawk crusted in glitter are all totally queer just like you.

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Photo Credit: Audrey Gatewood

I stepped into gay hair territory in the summer of 2012 when I cut off all my hair and never looked back. Last summer I started dying my hair bright colors and I, again, haven’t looked back. I’ve been lavender, blue, pink, purple, and now platinum blonde. My freshman year, I attended my first impromptu hair party. Armed with clippers and bleach, my suitemate, a new friend of mine, and my biggest crush at the time went to town on each other’s hair. In a terrifying turn of events, I got to use clippers for the very first time on the one person whose hair I did NOT want to mess up. I actually did okay and went on to be a part of many, many more hair parties like this one.

A lot of us (and by “us,” I mean young, queer/gay, and trans people) don’t have the time or money to go to a hair salon to get our hair done and, frankly, not a lot of salons are willing to give us the cuts we want. A common experience among queer women (and a lot of other types of queer people) is taking a picture of a “man’s” cut or masculine style to a stylist and ending up with feminized version of it. “Passing” as a man well enough to sit comfortably in a barber’s chair is anxiety-inducing at best, not to mention trying to safely “pass” as a woman in a salon and a world of rampant transmisogyny. Getting your hair cut by a group of friends in someone’s poorly lit bathroom may not result in the most professionally done coiffure, but it beats being misgendered or told that what you want is too masculine or too feminine for whatever gender your stylist has assigned to you.

Getting a gay haircut can be an incredible experience that feels validating and makes you feel more connected with your community, but getting my gay hair gay cut this weekend made me think about what gay hair is and how politics of gender, identity, and queerness come into play with visibility and validation.

So, what is gay hair?

Promscape

“Gay Hair Squad” at Artscape

“Gay hair” is non-normative hair. It’s often brightly colored, always changing, and rarely professionally done. It blurs the lines of gendered cuts (why on earth do hair cuts have genders??) and challenges assumptions about the person wearing it. Some styles are more popular in some subcultures than others. For some, gay hair is an act of rebellion; for others, it’s a away to take control of their bodies or to step outside of them. For me, gay hair is how I make people see my queerness. When I dyed my hair lavender this summer, it was because I was worried that people were reading me as a straight, cisgender dude. I wanted them to look at me and see that I was not those things, even if they didn’t have the words for what I was, because being cisgender and straight are so far removed from my lived experience that being read that way felt like not only a big lie but a step back into the closet.

I love my gay hair and all my gay friends with all their gay hair. But I’ve come to realized that being able to have gay hair is a privilege most of us with gay hair have never thought about. The majority of people with gay hair are white, afab (assigned female at birth), and on the masculine side of the gender presentation spectrum– not because people of color or amab (assigned male at birth) or femme-presenting people don’t wear their hair in expressive and non-normative ways, but because our picture of “queer” looks like a thin, white, masc/androgynous person with colorful hair and cute shoes. Black women (cis and trans alike) don’t get to have cool and funky hair without being labeled “ghetto” and unprofessional. Queer trans women get serious criticism then they want short or masculine cuts like their cisgender counterparts because they aren’t performing femininity in the way that trans women are expected to in order to be validated and accepted.

Speaking of validation and acceptance, why is it that we assume queer people have to look a certain way, or that people who look or sound one way must be queer? Why is femme invisibility such a pervasive problem in queer circles that many queer women feel the need to cut their hair in order to be seen? In creating our own subcultures and modes of rebellion against gender norms and heternormativity, I wonder if we have not only isolated ourselves from the people for whom “gay” is not the primary mode of existence, but also created new barriers for already marginalized groups within our community. People who can’t have or don’t want gay hair should still be able to be recognized and validated in their identities, and we should be supporting our non-white and femme siblings in their pursuit of gay hair. Heck, everyone should try out gay hair. There’s something exciting about “breaking the rules” and toeing the ridiculous but still ever-present line of gender norms.

Besides, who doesn’t like a blue-haired cutie?