Women’s Center 4EVER: Reflections on My Last Day as Women’s Center Staff

Few college graduates can claim to have had the experience my fellow staff and I have shared while with the Women’s Center. Our jobs have been many things: one part employee, one part student, one part teacher, one part social justice programmer, one part artist, one part writer, one part friend, one part killjoy. I can’t speak for everybody, but I know I was able to work from many different angles–something I’ve always wanted in a job–and I was guided by my own passion for feminism and social justice. With the Women’s Center, I have gained quite a bit of insight into working with a professional social justice organization.

This is where I’m going to talk about what I’ve gained from my time with the Women’s Center.

I’m not crying or anything about it being my last day…

Working at the Women’s Center you gain a lot of different skills that become increasingly useful as you approach graduation and begin to enter the “real world,” as we so forebodingly call it (as if college is a wholly separate fantasy world where our responsibilities don’t exist). Here are a few of the most valuable things I’ve learned about, and that I’ve been reflecting on as I count down to my last day working at the Center.

Professional experience

First and foremost, the Women’s Center is a real live university department with an office and official logo and letterheads and everything. Working for the Center meant working in a professional space and conducting myself in a professional manner. We have tons of fun in the office, but we also work hard to get things done on campus. I would attend meetings with campus staff, write official copy for various publications, and (try to) conduct myself with the poise and responsibility of someone who wanted to represent the Women’s Center in the best way possible.

Vincent Adultman, or three children stacked on top of each other pretending to be an adult person, from Bojack Horseman.

Before I started at the Center, I took for granted what “professional experience” meant and how important it is; I thought I would simply enter the state of professionalism once I got a real job and made real money and had a real mortgage with a real wife and kids and a real white picket fence. Like a college student caterpillar becoming a business butterfly through the phenomenon of career chrysalis. No, professional experience is something truly important to new graduates out there, especially those who haven’t had as much time working in an office setting. Understanding how to represent your organization well and being familiar with the politics of professional life, whether that means comporting your language for student affairs or not wearing the boxers you slept in last night to work the next morning, can be crucial as you enter the professional world.   

Research

Sometimes I imagine that the writing and research you do in college goes away once you get your dream job. As if you will become Miranda Priestly and just have a vision of what you want, and then some poor highly-skilled people will work all night to make your vision come into reality. Nope, sorry (or maybe that it is your reality… then you can stop reading). At the Women’s Center, research and writing are at the backbone of what we do.

The plainest function of the Women’s Center is to make UMBC a better place for women and other minority students (for a more eloquent mission statement, go here); in operationalizing this mission, we have to continually make arguments, and we rely on research–sometimes our own–to justify them. For example, people know that sexual assault on college campuses is a big deal, but HOW and WHY do they know that? Somebody who was assumedly concerned about the welfare of sexual assault survivors on campus, raising awareness about this issue, and curbing rape culture decided to conduct some research. Now we have their work to thank for Take Back the Night, the Clothesline Project, and many of the other activist projects that the Women’s Center has taken the lead in planning. The Women’s Center’s own director, Jess Myers, conducted research about online anti-sexual assault activism.

The Women’s Center lives up to the expectations that are put upon any department under the umbrella of a “research university,” like UMBC. We encourage and advance research, and even do our own. By partnering with other departments, the Women’s Center is able to help promote student research, which is what happened to me. Working with both the Gender and Women’s Studies Department and Megan Tagle Adams at the Center, I was able to conduct original research and present it at URCAD. Independent research is an incredibly important part of being a UMBC student and, if you’re interested in going on to graduate school, it is integral.

Leadership skills

One of the most important things that I’ve learned with the Women’s Center is how to be a good leader. None of us come to leadership from the same angle. Some of us are the ones who can stand on stage and rouse the crowd. Some of us are the ones who work hard to develop an idea into reality. Some of us just want to stimulate a conversation by listening and asking questions. No matter how you come at leadership, it is important to know that anyone can do it. It doesn’t take a cult of personality or a penchant for fine Italian pantsuits–it just takes you. Whether it’s through the mentorships with the best bosses in the world, Jess and Megan, or through the independence you are allowed while working on your own project, when you’re working with the Women’s Center, you learn so much about yourself as a leader, a team player, and how you can be better.

I think the Women’s Center is incredibly successful at encouraging what I’m going to call “responsible leadership”–a leadership that is founded on respect for others and social justice. We lead by listening and reflecting. We lead through solidarity among differences. We lead through attention to the power inequities that affect our relationships. We lead because we care and are passionate about positive social change. I am proud to have come out of the Women’s Center, not only a campus leader, but one that is thoughtful, sensitive, and ready to listen.      

It’s not just that I’ve grown–it’s that I’ve been able to help my colleagues grow, as well. The staff at the Women’s Center is united in supporting one another and lifting each other up. As such, we are expected to do our best and push each other to be better. Coming into the Women’s Center, I knew I wanted to do big things on our campus, but I didn’t know how to make those things happen or where to even start. It was only by working with the Women’s Center as a team that we were able to make Critical Social Justice the important and sustainable initiative that it is today. I look back on the impact that CSJ has made with pride. I have affected change at UMBC, and the future looks bright. When I look back at the teamwork that was put into the program, it only makes everything feel so much more powerful.

Alright, this is where I’m going to get kind of abstract and very unapologetically sentimental.

I think the most important thing about my time with the Women’s Center, however, is that it was where I met my UMBC family. Some of my colleagues might see it differently, but I’m always inclined to understand relationships through kinship. See, my biological family is small. We’re just three people, so we have this thing where our friends become our family. For the longest time, I have had aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, cousins who are nowhere near related to me–we just love each other, and that’s enough. That same kinship that comes so easily between myself and my big extended family, is also sown among us at the Women’s Center. I’ve cried in front of most of the Women’s Center staff–and not the cute cry. It’s that big, ball of emotion weighing down on your throat, gaggy cry. I’ve also laughed so hard that I had big warm happy tears dribble down my cheeks. The Women’s Center staff has cried together, laughed together, seen each other at our worst, at our best, and at our strangest. We’ve allowed a truly special amount of vulnerability between each other. We work hard to build each other up, and we also trust each other to challenge one another when we need it. It’s a powerful dynamic that we share, and it’s nothing less than a family of feminists and activists intent on supporting one another in the most radically caring ways.

I was going to end this blog post–my last blog post–with something like, “I don’t know what I would have done without the Women’s Center…” but I find it’s near impossible to even think about my life without the Women’s Center in it, because all of my experiences with the Center seem to be firmly rooted in my heart and my mind. I have been profoundly changed and inspired with this amazing group of people and their transformative ideas for the future.
Maybe there’s everything left to say. I could go on and on on about the Women’s Center for forever. I often do if you let me. But all I can think to end this post with is a simple thank you to the Women’s Center staff who’ve shared two of the most unforgettable years of my life. Thank you for being you and sharing in this phenomenal journey.

Current and future Women’s Center staff: May your days be filled with white male tears and the promise of feminist futures!

UMBC Women Who Rock: Rehana Shafi

UMBC Women Who Rock is a blog series I’m working on throughout the 2014-15 academic year (and now perhaps beyond). In my role as Women’s Center director, I have some of the best opportunities to become acquainted with some of UMBC’s best and brightest women on campus. I admire the ways they live authentic lives unapologetically that challenge the stereotypes and assumptions that are often assigned to women. By debunking these stereotypes and forcing us to check our assumptions, they allow us to expand our notion of what a woman is and can be.

-Jess

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UMBC Women Who Rock!
Rehana Shafi, Director of the Sherman STEM Teacher Scholars Program

In the few UMBC Women Who Rock blog posts I’ve written over the past year, I end with the same paragraph every time. I ask my readers about which UMBC women inspire them and how the counter narratives they’re sharing with us allow UMBC and our greater community to be more of exactly who we want to be. I absolutely love the power of counternarratives and their ability to expose assumptions and reveal complexities and depth. And, while it’s so important to emphasize the counternarratives, after connecting with Rehana Shafi earlier this summer, I was reminded of the importance of also simply knowing the narrative of someone’s life.

Rehana speaking at the dedication of the naming of Sherman Hall.

Rehana speaking at the dedication of the naming of Sherman Hall.

Rehana and I are both a part of the Undergraduate Academic Affairs (UAA) Division and for the past four years have shared time together at leadership team meetings. During these meetings, I have looked to Rehana as a role model as I design my own concept of women’s leadership. I appreciate the time I have to sit with her around the UAA leadership table. She asks important questions, provides important context to discussions, inserts moments of humor and light-heartedness, and exemplifies confidence. I have learned a great deal from Rehana by simply being at the same table with her. And, despite having spent this time with Rehana, I recently was reflecting on the fact that I knew very little about her and who she is. This realization inspired me to set up a time to meet with her under the guise of a UMBC Women Who Rocks interview.

So, I asked her “Who are you?”

But, let me take a step back. This actually wasn’t the first question I asked her.

Rehana with the graduating class of 2013 Sherman Scholars.

Rehana with the graduating class of 2013 Sherman Scholars.

First, I asked her about her role as the director of the Sherman’s Scholars Program and what journey did she take to get there. She shared her journey starting out an exercise science major in college, which led her to a brief stint working as personal trainer. Through this experience she learned that she really liked educating people, which led her to the experience of teaching ESL to middle school students, which eventually led her to working in the Choice Program in an alternative school in East Baltimore County. Of course, the Choice Program led her to the Shriver Center at UMBC and she worked there for several years coordinating service-learning and K-12 outreach. Finally, she found the perfect opportunity in the Sherman STEM Teacher Scholars Program to apply everything she loved and was important to her about education, and she’s been working as the director ever since. We also talked about what it looks like for her to be a woman of color in a leadership position and the responsibility she feels to reach and support the few others on campus who look like her.

While this is a very condensed version of our conversation and her journey, through the simple act of storytelling, I realized how much Rehana and I had in common. We no longer just worked in the same division at UMBC but also had these neat little connections. We both have social work in our background and found our way into higher education as a way to find balance in self-care and still wanting to make a difference. We’ve both experienced first-hand the inequities of education and the ways in which children are pushed through systems. We both see ourselves as educators and that doesn’t have to include being in the classroom. We also both feel constrained by 5 and 10-year plans and would rather just be open to the possibilities.

When there was a pause in the conversation, I took a step back and looked at the questions I had prepared related to why she as a UMBC woman indeed rocks. I had scribbled down a note that asked “life outside of UMBC?” and that’s when I asked the big question, “Who are you… Who is Rehana outside of UMBC?”

Up until this point, I had been jotting facts down and was heading onto a third page to ensure an accurate portrayal of this UMBC Women Who Rocks. But, this is where the note taking took a pause and I just listened. As she attempted to answer this question, Rehana vulnerably explained to me, “I’m still searching for what that is.” In this part of our conversation she shared the deep impact the passing of loved ones has had on her recent journey. She spoke to the time she spent needing and wanting to take care of others around her but how that also impacted her ability to practice self-care. She’s beginning to figure out what self-care looks like for her and what that means to who she is. It includes eating well and exercising and maybe learning to swim or pick up sewing again. It includes what’s around her and not letting life happen while she isn’t watching. Through this simple question, I learned more about who Rehana really is and wants to be – and it’s way more than what exists on her resume or within her job title. It made me think about how often leadership and excellence is defined by doing, but the real challenge is really in the being.

This has me thinking a lot about a recent post another Women’s Center staff member wrote in the aftermath of the Baltimore Uprisings. She began her post with the question, “How are you?” and reflected on the deep importance this simple question holds in providing critical care to others. After my conversation with Rehana, I believe the similar meaning can be given to the question, “Who are you?” Asking the questions of “Who are you?” and “How are you?” is integral to practicing feminist leadership. I’m grateful for the time Rehana and I carved out during our busy days for her to share her story of not just doing but being. As I head into what I’m sure will be another busy fall semester, this experience has encouraged me to challenge myself to take the time to ask that short and immensely powerful question – “Who are you?”

Rehana with the Shermans and Dr. Hrabowski at the Sherman Hall dedication ceremony.

Rehana with the Shermans and Dr. Hrabowski at the Sherman Hall dedication ceremony.

 

Who are the UMBC women in your life that inspire you to think outside your expectations and assumptions? What are the counter narrative stories they’re sharing with us allowing UMBC and our greater community to be more of exactly who we want to be? Comment below and maybe you’ll just find them featured in a future UMBC Women Who Rock post.

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Check out other UMBC Women Who Rock:

Amanda Knapp (featured August 2014)
Susan Dumont (featured October 2014)
Jahia Knobloch (featured January 2015)
A Reflection on Encouragement and Accountability (February 2015)
Amelia Meman (March 2015)
Ashley Sweet (May 2015)

Protesting While White

A blog reflection written by Women’s Center intern Bree Best

For the past several months I have been trying to conceptualize what I wanted to say about white privilege and protesting, the struggle of identifying power structures, access to privileged dissent, and a whole litany of other things that I could go on about dealing with Racism = Prejudice + Power. One recent experience sticks out in my mind as indicative of just how harmful white privilege can be in spaces that are supposed to be about social justice.

Thirty-five of the 46 women who have publicly accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault are featured on the cover of New York Magazine.

Thirty-five of the 46 women who have publicly accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault are featured on the cover of New York Magazine.

At the end of March 2015, I went to protest Bill Cosby at the Lyric in Baltimore and immediately I noticed the appalling disparity between white women to women of color. As I looked for the protest organizer to discuss my concerns, I heard the protesters shame the patrons as they were walking into the Lyric – patrons who were overwhelmingly people of color. I came to protest Bill Cosby’s rape allegations and bring awareness to sexual assault, not to further marginalize already marginalized people.

When I expressed my concerns to the white woman protest leader, her response was immediately defensive: “We’re supposed to shame the patrons. They’re the ones that paid for the tickets to come see this show. That’s how a protest works.” I tried explaining my discomfort as a woman of color seeing mostly white women protesting a black man by yelling at people of color and mentioned that many of these same people being yelled at may have experienced white people yelling at them while protesting for Civil Rights, so perhaps a different strategy would be worth considering.

Peak white feminism at a Slut Walk NYC march in 2011. Using racism to combat sexism = FAIL.

Peak white feminism at a Slut Walk NYC march in 2011. Using racism to combat sexism = FAIL.

Ultimately, I ended up leaving the protest after the organizer told me that I was being combative (among other unsavory things). As I drowned my intersectional feminist rage in Blue Moon and mixed drinks, I considered how much more effective the protest could have been if the white organizer and participants had used an intersectional lens to think about how systems of power influence their lives, including their approach to activism. We need more critical dialogue not just about race and racism but specifically about whiteness, which is often forgotten in these discussions because it is the invisible norm against which everything else is othered.

Disrupting this white-centric framework is crucial for engaging in anti-racism. On a national scale, the Black Lives Matter protests are a direct interruption of that a Eurocentric worldview. Just as we need to decenter whiteness in the physical spaces like these protests, we also need for “allies” to decenter whiteness mentally so that they can engage in social justice without reproducing oppressive power structures or erasing the voices of people of color.

I’ve been in many situations like the Cosby protest when a white person got defensive when I pointed out a racial disparity or racially motivated power dynamics and I tried to push them to understand how problematic that can be, at which point they would either leave or ask me to leave by insinuating that I was being “difficult to work with.” These racial interactions are an everyday occurrence for me because I and many other black people must continually navigate “white space” while also decentering whiteness. However, in order to effectively dismantle white supremacy, black people cannot be the only ones working to disrupt white space – in our communities and our minds – but rather white people must also take on the often-uncomfortable challenge of confronting their own privilege.

Most places can be considered spaces of privilege and prejudice unless they actively work against oppression.

Most places can be considered spaces of privilege and prejudice unless they actively work against oppression.

With white spaces being virtually everywhere, my beloved Women’s Center at UMBC is no different. Throughout my internship I’ve had many conversations with Women’s Center staff about we can continue working to decenter whiteness, including more intentionally focusing on the voices and perspectives of women of color and developing strategies to more effectively enable white people to engage in constructive dialogue around race and racism. Dismantling white supremacy is a daunting task and I am equipped with the skills and opportunities to aid in this endeavor despite how exhausting this work can be.

As with most social change work, progress in anti-racist work takes time, a humbled nature, and patience. People make mistakes and call each other out. If that is the case, use the white leadership from the Cosby protest as an example of how not to react. Instead I would suggest: Take a breath, assess your privilege, welcome the lesson, and ask engaging questions that focus on creating an effective impact in communities of color. If people want to build diverse communities, then we as a community have to acknowledge and embrace our differences through understanding the greater systems at large that privileges few and oppresses many.

Another Women’s Center Director Confession: On Trolls and Harassment

Every once in a while on Facebook, I’ll post a “Women’s Center Director Confession” as a nod to truth, vulnerability, and my acknowledgement that I am always growing and learning when it comes to gender, gender equity, women’s issues and beyond. This confession needed more space than was Facebook-appropriate so I’m taking to the blog to write this latest reflection.
-Jess

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It’s been a year since the Women’s Center first started getting trolled on our Facebook page. In response, we created filters on our accounts to block those posts. The troll found a way around that by posting comments on photos. We created more filters and still the troll found ways to battle us. We blocked the accounts and new ones were created. Staff members were named and fat-shamed or slut-shamed in the posts. In the trolling posts, words were always spelled wrong and the grammar was worse so we did what we could do to laugh about it and find power in doing our own shaming of their editing skills in person together. We did inquire if there were ways to track IP addresses and see if the troll could be identified, but the quest seemed hopeless.

I wanted to share some of the trolling

I wanted to share some of the trolling “receipts” but they were too jarring to share on blog page that aims at being a safe and inclusive online space.

As summer turned into the fall semester, in addition to the online harassment, the Women’s Center staff also began to experience what I call face-to-face trolling. A group of guys would sit in the lounge area outside the Women’s Center front door seemingly not paying attention to anyone but themselves and their video games until individual staff members walked by. Suddenly, their conversations would shift to laughing about “wanting to f*** fat b******” or having threesomes or something transphobic. This was experienced in different ways by almost all the staff members in the Women’s Center and some of our regular community members, but it went on for several weeks without anyone bringing it up to each other. To each of us individually the comments were just odd and frustrating but not seen as a repeated pattern of harassment that needed to be addressed. Until one day, a staff member finally did mention one of these odd interactions during a staff meeting. Suddenly, all of us were sharing similarly weird interactions and comments made as we passed by the guys as well. In our ah-ha moment, we also began to wonder with each other if perhaps the online trolling and face-to-face trolling were somehow connected.

I reached out to others for help and while their responses varied, for the most part they weren’t as supportive as I thought they might be which led me to remain hesitant in pressing the issue further. So, I let it go on for far too long and with a laundry list far too long of various levels and examples of harassment. Looking back on the experience, I wish I would have called out (or called in, if you prefer) our allies to rally behind us sooner. I wish. Having had a lot of time to reflect on this, I’ve identified two big reasons on why I didn’t ask for help.

The first. Pure and simple sexism that had manifested within me as a type of gaslighting. Was it really a big deal? Was I over-analyzing the situation? Was I being the stereotypical crazy** lady who just is too damn sensitive and needed to lighten up? I thought, probably, maybe, yes???

Second, we were the Women’s Center. The Women’s Center is supposed to be the office helping others experiencing harassment and not necessarily the other way around. I needed to fix this. It started to feel like a dirty little secret. I felt embarrassed and ashamed. I felt like it was my fault. (For a more in-depth read on internalizing victim-blaming, check out this post shared on our blog).

The situation culminated with a pumpkin. Yes a pumpkin.

During a Women of Color Coalition meeting, a loud bang was abruptly heard outside the Women’s Center outside exit. When staff members went outside to inspect where the noise came from they found a pumpkin smashed to pieces on the sidewalk and exterior of the door. A sense of panic overcame them thinking the trolls had taken things to the next level. We later found out the pumpkin accidentally fell out of the window two floors above us. No foul play. While I was thankful the situation wasn’t what we initially thought, it provided an opportunity for me to hold up the mirror for myself and look at the reflection. What did I see? My staff was tense. I was tense. We felt unsafe and it didn’t matter if a true threat was there or not. It was our lived-reality and I needed to get my butt in gear and demand help.

We Hollaback at UMBC! event... Thanks to Shawna and Mel for the validation, empathy, and support!

We Hollaback at UMBC! event… Thanks to Shawna and Mel for the validation, empathy, and support!

So fast-forward to the start of the spring semester when I invited Hollaback Baltimore to the Women’s Center to give us a boost of confidence when it came to addressing street harassment, especially as it related to the work place. As we explained the events that had unfolded over the past semester, the facilitators, Mel and Shawna, listened in solidarity and without judgement. It wasn’t until then that I realized how much I needed someone to empathize with us (because that hadn’t happened yet). I needed someone to say they were sorry for what had happened (because no one had). With their empathy and support a weight felt lifted off my shoulders. A wave of healing came over me in a way I never knew I needed to be healed.

Addressing harassment is easier said than done. I now know that to be true. I’ve been quick to respond and move into action when others have shared experiences of trolling, harassment, and assault. I’ve created plans, put on my ally hat, and raised some noise. When I’ve been asked to take action, I’ve never thought, well this person is exaggerating and this really isn’t a big deal. I believed, supported, and validated with feminist rage. What I’ve learned from this experience is to allow others to do the same for me and my spaces and community. Asking for help is a strength not a failure. In fact, I’ve learned from this experience the importance in demanding for help.

Add this to my list of Women’s Center director confessions. It continues to grow as I learn more from my feminist community of students, friends, and colleagues. I am humbled. It’s vulnerable to share these failures, but I know I’ll do better next time… because sadly, I know there will always be a next time.

** Yes, I know I’ve promised to drop crazy from my vocabulary. This was an intentional move to highlight the experience of gaslighting.


Author’s Update: 

Since sharing this reflection, the Women’s Center has received a great amount of outreach and support. Thank you. This further proves the power and importance in naming our experiences, sharing our stories, and asking for help.
I also wanted to share an important part of this story that may not be as clear to others who were not closely connected to the experience. Through the help from other UMBC offices and departments, the issue has been resolved and we are okay! Thank you to all of those who expressed their concern and shared their ideas for “next steps” and how to help. Moreover, If you or someone you know on campus is experiencing harassment or unwanted behaviors, UMBC has policies and support people in place to help you. So, when you’re ready to ask for help, here’s some great campus resources.

I Loved You Once – Reflections from NCCWSL on Authenticity and Leadership

The following post are reflections from rising-sophomore Nitya Kumaran who represented UMBC at this years National Conference for College Women Leaders (NCCWSL). When Nitya found herself in my office after attending the conference in May she was full of energy, passion, complex thoughts, and challenges for herself. I asked her to write some of what she was thinking and feeling down so others who didnt attend the conference could also learn from her leadership journey. Nitya took up this challenge by sharing her thoughts in a conscious-raising way that presents itself as raw and authentic reflection of her journey and growth as a feminist leader. 

-Jess

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I Loved You Once

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Nitya with Elizabeth Acevedo at the Women of Distinction Awards

At the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders’ Women of Distinction awards, the last award winner was National Slam Poetry Champion — and a woman comfortable with her natural skin and hair — Ms. Elizabeth Acevedo! This Dominican woman had unabashed curls springing from her head like fresh beans from the soil, like flowers in the sun. She had coffee skin and a smile that charmed me to the floor. There were cheers all around and they took on a new volume at the mention of that last phrase. A few black women around me cheered particularly loud and I cheered with them.

Try Fair and Lovely for radiant skin!

The skin-whitening creams, my own dark skin, hate from another place and time struck my mind.  I couldn’t fathom the weight of that last accomplishment.

Easily and graciously, Ms. Acevedo’s whole face smiled and thanked us.

“I was a nina de la casa. A girl of the house. That’s all I was expected to be. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that if you want to do that, but I think everyone should have the choice.”

Her own difficult journey to become “her own woman” was shared with us with both hands. We weren’t supposed to become her, we were supposed to become our own women, find our own destiny.

The slam poetry began then and phrases still remain in my mind a month later and will remain years later:

“We may not see the fruit but we can be the roots.”

“The moments… Never regret how you spent them or how you meant them.”

As she shared her poetry, I thought of the oppression my mother had faced as a woman.

I thought of the memory of shame I had repressed for months.

I thought of how I had given myself the backseat in the car of my own life at times.

How the girls I grew up with had bowed to their own self-loathing, their own fears.

I willed it all to leave me now and forever.

Ms. Acevedo was the kind of woman who wouldn’t be quiet if she knew the answer.

She was the kind of woman who saw the miracle and victory of her existence.

She was the kind of woman who wouldn’t take up less air or space than what she fully deserved.

And she knew what she deserved.

The urgency in her voice made me shake inside and my tight self-control left me as tears found their way onto my cheeks. She was a speaker for the unspoken, for the silent and injured, for the ones who were shunned from the podium she gracefully occupied. I had witnessed a living free spirit, I had witnessed a woman who loved herself.

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“They tell us fat women can’t be loved, that we’re not attractive.”

I cannot believe she said that. The silent rule.

I thought of how I had picked the loosest shirt I could find before the conference, scared of exposing the flaws of my flawed body. My flawed mind. My flawed speech. I needed to cover my whole self because god forbid if anyone ever found out that I was never a perfect child.

I looked at the attractive lady in front of me and realized that I wanted to hug her. She was an attractive woman — period.

You are beautiful. You are gods child. Youre my child. Youre so beautiful. Dont say that. Dont do it. Please, my dear.

I have been a real hypocrite. I know that “fat” only refers to someone’s weight, and has nothing to do with beauty. Why is “fat” ugly, huh? If I gained weight, would I stop being beautiful? My mother and some of the most beautiful women I know are not skinny, and don’t look exactly or are exactly what the world says we must be to be worthy of love. And yet, if I put on weight, I am embarrassed of my body… how will anyone love me now? It’s a similar narrative that runs through my mind when people put me down because of my dark skin in the past. I thought I wasn’t enough to receive anyone’s love.

I realized then that every flaw of mine that I hate might be someone else’s flaw that they hate. My flaw is the same flaw that my sister might be hating in herself or my mother or my father or my future children or my friends. How can I look someone in the eye and tell them I love and accept them anyway, when they might have the same flaw of mine that I absolutely cannot stand?

I realized then that my life is going by and I’m only here to be happy and to make other people happy. Each person is someone’s child, is someone’s baby, is a beautiful creature who is learning and growing. And all children are beautiful, vulnerable, magical and valuable in their own unique existence.

Every time I hate on my flaw, I am also hating on someone else with that same flaw. When I tell myself that I am unworthy of love, I am telling someone else that, as well. And I would never want to do that. I love people. I want them to be happy. I mean we each started out as a single cell — we are walking miracles and we have so much to give to each other and the world.

So I’m trying to accept where I am right now. I’m trying to love myself so that I can share better love with other people — the kind of unconditional love we deserve. I’m trying to be brave. I’m trying to speak with confidence in silent classrooms. I’m trying to raise my hand. I’m trying to listen to my inner voice even when no one else believes in me. Because I have something to give to the world and my own hatred is not going to stand in the way of that. I am a leader.

I loved myself once. I loved everyone. I will love everyone again. I’ll love myself again.

Nitya and some of her newest NCCWSL friends!

Nitya and some of her newest NCCWSL friends!

Telling Our Stories at NCCWSL

On May 27th-30th, I went to University of Maryland, College Park for the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders (NCCWSL) to present the semester long Campus Action Project (CAP) Women of Color Coalition’s Telling Our Stories in a Workshop dedicated to combating women of color stereotypes. I, one of CAP team members, along with Megan, the advisor of the CAP, had fifteen minutes to talk about the semester long project and how our project addressed the stereotypes women of color are associated with and just importantly how they can reject it in favor for more nuanced stories and counter-narratives.Before I get to the presentation, I would like to talk about overall conference and its inner workings. These include the workshops, the keynote speakers, and the feminist camaraderie.

UMBC represented at NCCWSL!

UMBC represented at NCCWSL! Here Bree is with two other UMBC students, Isabel and Vanessa.

NCCWSL, sponsored by American Association for University Women (AAUW) and National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA),  is a three day excursion that takes you from workshop to workshop, keynote speakers, and moments to network throughout the day. I came to UMD on Wednesday, May 27 at around 8:30pm, settled in, tried to plan my few days at NCCWSL, and then fell asleep at around 12am. On Thursday, I woke up at around 8am got ready for the $tart $mart salary negotiation workshop. While getting ready, I met my roommate for the conference, Shauna, who just graduated from a university in Iowa. She and her advisors drove from Iowa to be at NCCWSL and present a workshop on their CAP project which was one big event involving women in male dominated fields. I liked the $mart $tart workshop (which are also offered, here at UMBC once a semester!) because it gave me the tools to know my worth going into a job and the confidence to argue for that worth. But still at the end of the workshop, I was still struggling with the idea of negotiating my salary but the leaders of the workshop were really helpful in reassure me about its merits. Then I went to the Finding your Voice and Sharing Voice workshops which  helped me and other conference goers hone in our voices and share them around us. I loved the speed networking workshop because I feel like I have a handle on networking but I need to pickup the pace with it while meeting other women.Then I went to the Women of Distinction Awards ceremony and I enjoyed the diversity of the people being recognized for their work in opening more doors for women to make more successful strides. I got a picture with Elizabeth Acevedo and Amanda Simpson and thanked them for their words of wisdom and hope.

Meeting Elizabeth Acevedo at the Women of Distinction Awards.

Meeting Elizabeth Acevedo at the Women of Distinction Awards.

The next day began with an empowering breakfast with fellow college women leaders and the sounds of the women drummers from the Bele Bele Rhythm Collective and then a great keynote by Maysoon Zayid, an actress, comedienne, and writer. If you have no idea who Zayid is, here is her Ted talk about having cerebral palsy and acting. She said some amazing and moving things about the leadership and inclusivity not only among gender and race but also ability. I felt like it was great bringing ability into context of activism and leadership because not everyone can go to protests and do physical action related things when it comes to activism. I really loved that addition to the line up as something to consider when leading a group. I transitioned from Zayid’s keynote to the From Silence to Self-Authorship: Storytelling for Empowerment workshop where talked about reading stories as children and what was missing from them. As expected, we talked about women’s stories as well as women of color stories are completely missing from young children’s stories and trying to find ways to start including those narratives in our present world. It was nice to see other people notice what I was noticing throughout my childhood. Then I went to the Career Fair and Dismantling Double Standard: Combating Gender Stereotypes on Campus which focused on other universities CAP Presentations related to about rape culture, domestic abuse, and racial discrimination. What I took from most of the workshop was shedding light on the different people effected by the double standard and how we can support them and create an area for people to share. After that workshop, my workshop group Addressing Stereotypes of Women of Color through a Gendered lens was up next!

Presenting at NCCWSL!

Presenting at NCCWSL!

Throughout the bustle of the conference, I managed to review my slides and major points that I wanted my audience to take away from the presentation. I was still very nervous but as soon as I got up and fumbled through my introduction I was ready! We asked about stereotypes and microaggressions  that the audience hears on a regular basis. Each answer to the question was well received with snaps, claps, and nods in solidarity with their replies. We talked about the idea we developed from Women of Color Coalition discussions and interests. The we discussed the photo campaign and its reception (34,000+ notes on Tumblr :-D). We discussed the people we utilized to embody the message of storytelling, from national speakers, Franchesca Ramsey keynote lecture for Critical Social Justice Week  and Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls fame, to community artists QueenEarth and Hollywood Infinite who are  singers, songwriters, and spoken word artists, to institutional scholars, Professor Kimberly Moffitt discussing the politics of woman of color hair.We then shared the experience of the showcase which was the culminating event. We ended by telling our own stories of how the project impacted our thinking about having a discussion of racism through creative means like this project. I told the story about a white guy saw my poster which said, “My name is Bree and I’m not white on the inside.” He bristled then asked me if it was offensive to make a comment about someone being “white on the inside” and replied with yes and an explanation about agency and how you are actively telling your black friend a story about himself that he probably does not identify with. He looked at me with disbelief and then said that no one explained to him why things like this was offensive. He thanked me for widening his perceptions and giving him something to think about. I left with the knowledge of engaging with people that I would have otherwise thought they won’t understand the politics behind identity. The audience loved my story about my interaction with the white presenting guy. We got some questions and applause for our work. I felt a deep connection with this particular group and their willingness to hear our project and its inner workings. I will take that with me throughout my life knowing that the work that I do is important, the critical racial lens I bring to discussion, and have confidence in those two things.

Presenting at NCCWSL!

Presenting at NCCWSL!

Throughout the planning and after presenting this particular project, I developed deep pride for the project and I hope to carry the spirit of Telling Our Stories alive beyond just this spring semester. I was genuinely shocked that it was so well received and that people were talking about it every where I was at the conference and some of the AAUW interns were buzzing about it. They even wrote a blog post about our presentation and how amazing it was to here about the way that we had to present. Getting to talk to other college women student leaders about their struggles and triumphs was really relieving. Seeing women of color in student affairs and doing other things besides being a bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, or Kimberly Crenshaw was really awe-inspiring because it shows me that I can do the important social justice work I was born to do and work up to the black feminist philosophy. Overall, I felt pretty welcomed in the conference, not only in physical presence, but also in suggesting ideas and talking to different people about general things that I am doing and in life. I didn’t have to preface things about the social justice work I do because the other attendees are doing the same work I am doing. It felt pretty intersectional from the keynote speakers to the workshops to the college women student leaders I talked with. This experience helped me in so many different ways I am glad I had the opportunity to represent the Women Center through the Women of Coalition. As I left NCCWSL, I brought with me a confidence that was always with me and an eagerness to make a difference that gives me hope that I can make my aspirations come true.

Working Mom: A New Adventure

A blog reflection written by Women’s Center student staff member, Carrie Cleveland

For the past ten years I have not had a paying job.  For the past ten years I have been home raising children.  For the past ten years my boss (or bosses) were little people who required me to tend to their every need. That is not a job where anyone gives you money.  There are performance reviews, bonuses, deadlines, and a ton of stress, but no monetary paycheck.

This week I started my first paying job in ten years.  I am the newest student staff member at the Women’s Center.  I am helping to program the Peer Connections Program for Returning Women Students for the next academic year.  Day one was perfect.  I was here on time, got my work done and went home without any drama.  Day two, well that is a different story.

Two hours into my five hour shift I got a phone call from my daughter’s school.  Luckily my husband was home so he could handle the situation, but he seems to forget that I am a work.  I am here to do a job and I am not available to answer every question immediately.  Now, I am not a globe-trotting mechanical engineer like he is, but this is a job and something that means a great deal to me.  So, after a quick little vent to my supervisor, Jess, I realize I may need to set some limits with him.

As I enter the world of a working person again, this means that some things in my home life will change.  I feel like it is a good build up to when I have a full time job as a social worker in a couple of years.  I also think it is great that my three daughters see that mom can do things that are important to her and that my life does not completely revolve around their lives.  So here I am.  A working mom.  Not a title I ever envisioned for myself, but I kinda dig it.