A 2014 Women’s Center Reflection

A Reflection by Women’s Center Director, Jess Myers.

As our world transitions into the winter holiday spirit, I am less than eager to celebrate this year. I am sad, angry, and feeling hopeless in the wake of grand jury decisions that are rooted in deep injustices and a system that does not work for all. When I look back on 2014, I’m tempted to just call it a wrap. Nothing positive to reflect on this year, folks… let’s pack it up and move on. Yet, the top lists of 2014 (here, here, and here) keep circulating through my social media feeds and I keep coming back to this reflection, digging for ways to find hope. I found it in re-reading the story of our new Women’s Center logo. Loyal. Constant. Strong and Resilient. Season to Season. Survival. Growth. In the face of injustice, the Women’s Center continues to grow its roots and extend its branches to keep doing the important work of growing intersectional feminism and cultivating critical social justice.

With this as inspiration, my list is easier to write. Here’s some of my favorite Women’s Center moments of 2014. What are yours?

Introducing our new Women’s Center logo to the UMBC Community
In January 2014, we rolled out our new logo. We wanted and needed a logo that would speak to the depth of all the Women’s Center is and can be for our UMBC community. We found it in the Wye Oak tree. What’s just as exciting is that conversations and brainstorming for the logo inspired us to revisit the mission statement of the Women’s Center. After a good run of almost 20 years, it’s about time we update it! We’ve spent a great deal of 2014 reflecting deeply on who we are and who we want to be and we’re excited to do another introduction of our new mission statement in 2015.

It was the inaugural year of Critical Social Justice

With 17 events and 15 co-sponsors, Critical Social Justice was successfully launched despite the polar vortex and a campus snow day. The theme of Engaging in Difficult Dialogues was explored in various ways throughout the week and called us all to think about the meanings and challenges of social justice from many different angles and across different spaces. The keynote address was brilliantly delivered by Jay Smooth who provided important strategies for engaging in difficult dialogues (check out his How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist video) and the importance of using our privilege to help “carve out a space” for the underrepresented and people rendered invisible in our world (for more on that, check out this awesome video). Later in the year, Reina Gossett came to campus as part of the CSJ line up in the fall and highlighted the lives of trans activists, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson and challenged us to reconsider history knowing so many marginalized people’s experiences are “written outside the archives.”
Just as importantly, every time I talk about Critical Social Justice I feel called to name the fact that a student staff member was the person who first envisioned CSJ. Amelia Meman spent her first semester working in the Women’s Center crafting the idea with support and nuance from our Coordinator, Megan Tagle Adams, to get it to the important initiative it is today. Once again, I’m reminded that the work of social justice doesn’t have to be a waiting game. You don’t need to wait until you’re deemed a leader or figure head or have been cited as an expert. It’s everybody’s work and everybody’s job.

For more on CSJ 2014, explore #CSJ2014 on Twitter or check out the CSJ website. And, get excited for CSJ: Creating Brave Spaces coming to UMBC February 16-20, 2015!

The snow didn’t stop us from Taking Back the Night

One of my favorite song lyrics sings “this year April had a blizzard just to show she does not care” and that repeated over and over in my head as I watched huge chunks of snow begin to fall outside at this year’s Take Back the Night. Only on this cold night in April, UMBC community members did in fact care so very much. Over 250 community members packed themselves on to Main Street and listened for almost two hours to over 20 students who shared their experiences of sexual assault at the Speak Out. They then marched throughout the Commons to help take back the night and spread awareness that rape and sexual assault are not UMBC values and must stop. So take that snow!

The launch of our new roundtable series


This year we officially said good bye to our long standing film series and instead offered a new roundtable series. Our first three roundtables (in February, September, and November) explored the intersection of race and gender and provided thought-provoking conversations in addition to validation and supportive space for UMBC community members to share the personal ways race and gender influences their lived experiences. With our largest crowd edging over 60 participants, we’re looking forward to what the spring line-up of roundtables will bring!

Presenting at the National Women’s Studies Association’s annual conference

NWSA 2014
While this favorite memory of 2014 may not directly impact everyone in our community, attending and presenting at NWSA was pretty awesome. First of all… bell hooks and Angela Davis were there and did not disappoint in their speaking of important truths and calls to put intersectional feminist into action. Three Women’s Center staff members also presented at NWSA. Student staff member, Amelia Meman, and our coordinator, Megan Tagle Adams, led two roundtable sessions addressing women of color voices at women’s, gender equity, and sexuality centers. They created important space to recognize the work of women of color working in women’s centers and the barriers they face as they navigate and disrupt the historic and present white-centrism of women’s centers. And, after spending almost a year researching, interviewing, coding, and writing, my research team finally did our first presentations together exploring the activist strategies that students use in their sexual assault activism work. We were able to share the ways these activists are specifically using social media as a tool to create awareness about sexual assault on their campuses and advocate for institutional and legislative changes. Overall, tons of learning to be had by all of us and we hope we’re better staff folks for the Women’s Center and UMBC community because of our learning experiences at this year’s NWSA conference.

Awesome Blog Posts and Staff Members

Fall 2014 Staff Photo
I don’t know about you, but I read every post on this little blog page of ours. We spend each staff meeting assigning writing deadlines to student staff members, and I’ll be honest, sometimes, I feel like writing is one of their least favorite assignments. Then, they post these amazing stories about their lives and important reflections about their experiences (I’m not kidding… read this and this and this  and this for starters). They allow themselves to become vulnerable and raw in their writings in a way that truly reflects the spirit and values of our Women’s Center community. Beyond their writing, our Women’s Center staff members show up to work each day with a fierce commitment to making the Women’s Center a better place. They challenge me to grow and push me to be brave. The Women’s Center wouldn’t be us without the important work our students do. I’m thankful for them.

Just as importantly, throughout 2014, our older (and newer) programs and groups continued to serve as cornerstones to the Women’s Center community. We now have a peer-to-peer mentoring program for returning women students and two of our Newcombe Scholars (Amy and Melissa) were featured on the Class of 2014 website. Rebuilding Manhood just wrapped up its 5th cohort experience. The Women of Color Coalition continued to gain momentum and participation. Between Women entered into its third year of providing important space for LGBTQ women’s voices. The Spectrum community met on a weekly basis to provide meaningful and revolutionary space for trans students to simply be them.

Newcombe Panelists - Oct 2014

Perhaps our country is indeed on a brink of a movement of change. If that’s the case, this year’s reflection leads me to believe the Women’s Center community and its members are ready to rise up and be counted in the fight for justice.

Black Lives Matter and Mental Brave Spaces

When discussing the concept and implementation of brave spaces, a lot of the conversation revolves around the idea that these spaces are inherently physical. We speak of transforming places into brave spaces, designating that certain locations at certain times are deemed an acceptable place to problematize and challenge the dominant power structures in society and the influence that they bear on our opinions and beliefs in conversation with others. What we never speak of is when we create these brave spaces within our own minds, grappling with these same concepts in a way that is more self-reflexive than would be in dialogue. Even though the majority of the time, these mental brave spaces do not come tethered to a specific time or location, they are still important to recognize as a valid form of creating brave spaces. The creation of these mental brave spaces are critical in that they allow people to take their individual connection to dominant power structures and problematize those relationships on their own terms. This is not to say that physical brave spaces don’t allow for the same sort of agency in choosing when to challenge oneself, but to argue that creating mental brave spaces allots for a more personal reflection on these dominant power structures at the pacing of the individual.

Before the rally and march for Justice for Eric Garner last Thursday, I was terrified. Not only for my life, but that I would not have the mental capacity to deal with facing the reality of racial injustice and police brutality. The conversation was everywhere, and I was actively engaged in it, but I did not know to what extent I was mentally and emotionally prepared to be a part of the activism in action. I was aware of the issues of police brutality and racial injustice, but I hadn’t ever been a part of something that had the potential to bring harm to me like the rally and march did. After deep and critical thought on the issue, and almost deciding that I could not bring myself to attend the rally and march, I decided to go. This was my mental brave space: challenging the conditioning that I’d had that caused me to fear the police as a black male-passing individual. The rally itself wasn’t designated a brave space, and there were no guidelines set up or enforced that would make it into one, but my complication of the effects of police brutality and racial injustice on me personally were what made me feel as though I was enacting a mental brave space.

Attending the protest is something that I will never regret, but I know that if I had chosen to stay home, if I had chosen to continue to exist in the fictional safety that society has constructed for those who remain complicit within a system, I would have always wondered. I can’t say that I would have regretted not attending, as I will never know, but I can say that I count myself lucky for having the tools to problematize my own fear and uneasiness and view them within the constructs of racial injustice and police brutality. Knowing how to operate within a physical brave space, and thus having the ability to create a mental brave space for myself, I believe that I was well-equipped to see why it was important in that moment for me to overcome my fear and attend the rally and march. Many of those present at the protest, without the knowledge and language of theory, were able to eloquently express the very same ideals that I’d been taught in my classes while seeming to have created mental brave spaces for themselves. Learning to navigate brave spaces, whether physical or mental, and whether taught through theory or self-learned, is a skill that I believe is becoming critical in this transformative time in our lives.