A story worth remembering– part 2: my experience

Screenshot from 2014-04-10 20:17:04

Sometimes its better to tell your own experience, rather than just the views of others. In this case, this idea is applicable in terms of the National Young Feminist Leadership Conference (#NYFLC2014) this year, with the first part of this article focusing on criticisms and reactions of those who had gone to the conference itself. This article will not only speak about the criticisms of other conference participants but will also tell what I thought.

First, let me express my thoughts on the conference. To start off, it was located at a Hilton Hotel-owned hotel chain called Doubletree. This hotel chain does not seem to have a rosy record at all. [1] The reason I mention their record is that the conference is seemingly supporting exploitation while also working to officially counter it.

Beyond this, there is something deeper: it was a privilege to be a member at a conference where people were talking about feminism. Still, there was an implied diversity among the participants: from my observation there were young people of all races, cultures, and religions, and even quite a bit of men. However, this idea seemed a bit fleeting, considering that many of the participants seemed to be white and female. In the opening plenary, that there were 650 attendees at the conference who came from 30 states. Then, there was the chant by campus organizers (0:00-1:33 in this video) who began the conference: “Women’s rights are under attack! What are you going to do? Fight Back!” which was repeated, then the one that seemed more radical (and was repeated twice):  “not the church, not the state, women must decide their fate!” Unfortunately, this call to push away such constraining structures was never heeded. After this, an older campus organizer (?) which was repeated four times in a row by the other campus organizers on the stage: “Feminists united will never be defeated!”

This energized me and made me think that the conference was going to have a lot of radicalism, but it did not. The plenary set the tone. The older speakers, four of whom were black and one who was Latino, with the rest who were white, spoke about: participation of women in government; support for the Democratic Party; fighting for reproductive rights and contraception; the ideal of diversity; nonprofits; a needed increase in the minimum wage; weakened social services under Title 10; the ‘war on women;’ domestic violence; rape culture and sexual assault; gay marriage; comprehensive immigration reform; voting and electoral participation; support of Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) despite its ‘imperfections;’ etc… Still, these ideas were more of a reaction to attacks of the right-wing for the most part, with no room for self-reflection, or thinking beyond the false dilemma of the two-party system.

A picture of the panel titled ‘fixing the system: why prison reform matters to the feminist movement’ which will be talked about below

The panel on prison reform seemed like it had some potential to go beyond these bounds. Still, one must consider that this panel was moderated by a white woman and campus FMF organizer (Kristy Birchard) with one other white women on the panel (a member of the Johns Hopkins University Feminists named Lidiana Economou Rodriguez); a black woman (the Advocacy Director of The Sentencing Project named Nicole D. Porter who later thanked FMF for giving them an area for discussion); a white man (Terry Schuster of the DC Trans Coalition); and a white attorney whose name I can’t remember. There were a number of takeaways from this panel:

  1. Too many people involved in mass incarceration and we must ask “should we incarcerate at all?”
  2. Some ‘new’ reform [which isn't actually new] called the ‘Prison Rape Elimination Act’ (PREA) which supposedly helps people which was promoted by three of the four panelists
  3. Sexual violence in prisons especially against cis and trans* women, and gay men
  4. Trans* folks are either homeless, in prison, criminalized through sex work, harassed by the police, or denied hormones
  5. States are actively working to harm women through shackling those who are pregnant who are a non-issue for many because they are mostly people of color
  6. The “incarceration system was built for male needs”
  7. Intersection of gender, minorities, ‘war on drugs’ (incl. racially bias drug laws)
  8. The power dynamics between staff and inmates
  9. Prisons are in theory meant to eliminate threats to the community
  10. “Justice system” is broken, but gay, non-binary, trans*, and queer folks are not “broken”

There were so many people at the panel that they needed a bigger room!

There were a number of tweets which described this panel as well

There were a number of interesting questions as well. The first of these was about the possibility of activism within prisons. Nicole D. Porter responded to this, saying that we must criticize mass incarceration as a social policy, and that there can be in-prison groups. The second of these was about differing treatment of LGBTQ+ people in prisons. Terry Schuster in response said that there is definitely a difference in treatment, that there is a shaming of those who have experienced sexual violence, and that it is hard to identify as LGBTQ+ in prisons until this new law, PREA, came along. One of the most thought-provoking questions was from a prison abolitionist, who was wondering how we can reform a system rooted in violence. Lidiana Economou Rodriguez responded to this, saying that the system is flawed and that we have to do something. Nicole D. Porter added to this, saying that prison abolition is important to the national conversation and that the conversation about public safety should be moved into a community setting instead of a setting of law and order. Terry Schuster closed this question out, saying that there should be a focus on crime victims, and talked abut an alternative vision of the justice system. The final question asked was about capitalism and how it intersects with prisons.* That is deeply Terry Schuster was the first to respond to this, saying that there is a need for education, but didn’t say much more. The final word was by Lidiana Economou Rodriguez who said that the incarceration system is a business which exploits disadvantaged peoples. It made me glad that such discussion was going on at the conference even though the panel could have been a bit more diverse.

*This was the first and ONLY time that I heard capitalism mentioned in the whole conference. For the rest of it, I guess it was implied but not mentioned explicitly or ever challenged. That is deeply disturbing and shows the views of those who organized it.

The next panel, I came to a bit late because I had to get lunch, so I didn’t hear all of it, but it was still an interesting one. It was about women’s rights worldwide, specifically focusing on women of color and reproductive justice (#wearebrave [the hashtag has some weird stuff, so be careful]). Unlike the other panel, there were six members and most of them were people of color. There were a number of takeaways I had from this panel:

  1. “Without women of color, there is no reproductive justice”
  2. Important to know how your identity connects with reproductive justice
  3. Storytelling and sharing stories are important
  4. Overcoming stereotypes is important as  being brave in saying that you matter and encouraging young men of color to run for office (implied to run for Democratic Party)
  5. No sort of ‘trickle down activism’**
  6. find allies within your community
  7. connect struggles
  8. be critical of yourself, do your own work, be inclusive… of those such as ‘corporate feminists’
  9. “Don’t make assumptions about where people stand”
  10. Need to start addressing power dynamics in the feminist movement and lead with love meaning you lead people into your cause, not lead them out

** See this tweet for more about this quote:

Later there was a comment about how reproductive justice isn’t just for women, and that you should work in your community, do zines, etc… There some interesting questions as well. One person asked how the panelists remain so positive. There were a variety of answers: self-care is important, you need to have a social live, create someone new, and forget those who call you out for your anger. As part of this, one of the panelists said that it is fine to be angry at times but your have to direct your anger so that you can navigate it. There was an interesting discussion toward the end of the panel’s discussion about a clash between those who are young and old in feminism. It started when a older black folk said that older people don’t reach out and there is a wall of misunderstanding. This older feminist said that there is a need to support each other and that there is a disconnect from older and younger feminists. A panelist made a point that was never refuted by ANYONE in the room: many of the big feminist organizations are led by white women, but that people of color are in the lower parts of this said organizations. In response to this comment and others in a back-and-forth with the older feminist, another panelist said that we should be kind and compassionate. Other panelists said that the movement needs to go on and that we need to move forward.

The tweets about this panel on twitter are interesting as well, providing a bit more information than I did, and they are as follows:

Finally, I get to the townhall-style discussion at the end of the first day. I didn’t stay at the conference after this, and I didn’t even hear all of the questions, but it was still interesting. It was, in my view, the only participatory part of the conference other than the questions during the panels. Interestingly enough, I found a tweet on this which seems to agree with this view (not my own). This section was more about non-profits, but there was no discussion of the non-profit industrial complex  [also see here]. FMF president Eleanor Smeal, who had spoken for lengths at the the first plenary, was the moderator of this ‘special general assembly,’ while others on the panel were:  the president of NOW (Terry O’Neil), president of the National Coalition for Black Civic Participation (Melanie Campbell), and Principal of Conway Strategies (Silvia Henriquez). The panel was racially-divided: two whites, and two blacks.

After introducing themselves and sort of situating themselves in their reformist thought, they began to speak their mind. The first question was not asked by the audience but by Eleanor Smeal, which focused on what college students can do. The panelists had varying answers: Silvia Henriquez said that they walked out of their job after being in corporate America and that knowing what your passion is, is important, Terry O’Neil said that your should join groups, connect, but not isolate yourself, while Melanie Campbell  said that your should have passion for people and causes. Eleanor Smeal responded to all of this saying that she put many things she learned in school to use, and said “Don’t feel guilty, organize!” The next question was from the audience and focused on why white women were not represented. Terry O’Neil in response to this implied that she has President Obama’s ear (figuratively, not literally) while Silvia Henriquez  said that the media portrays women negatively when they are running for office, and that you shouldn’t be silenced by attacks, instead working to change the narrative. Eleanor Smeal in response to all of this said that there is a gender gap in favor of female candidates and that America has a sex discriminatory system with both parties dominated by men. This last comment was interesting considering that the Democratic Party was seen as a better and viable alternative.

These questions were not all. I could go through every question, but instead it seems better to focus on the questions that had creative answers or brought up new topics. The first of these was one about balancing responsibilities between children and activism. Melanie Campbell said in response that you should step back and take care of your family, step forward if you need to, and bring your own issues to the table. Terry O’Neil said that its stupid to have an artificial relationship between children and parents, and that its ok to bring them into the work place. Silvia Henriquez spoke about doing whatever is necessary. Eleanor Smeal said strangely that “you can have it all!” and that childcare is necessary without specifying what that means. The claim that you can have it all is so absurd to be meaningless, but no one brought this up.

Another interesting question was by a student about creating a women’s center on campus and thinking of occupying public space along with a strange mention of the only-supports-Democrats Emily’s List. In response to this inquiry by panelists was varied: that you should ask yourselves the hardest questions; and have no stereotype in your brain. One question about the scariness non-profit world and recognizing the privilege of talking about feminism, brought some interesting perspectives. Terry O’Neil said in response that you can learn quickly with the help of others, Melanie Campbell said that you are relevant at the current moment and that you don’t need academia, Silvia Henriquez said that you should “volunteer where you can” and hire people who know how to do things. Eleanor Smeal closed out by saying that “movement comes from youth, not from those trying to protect their freedom.

The most interesting question was one which shook the panel. Someone asked about non-monogamous relationships, specifically about polygamous relationships. Two of the black women up on the stage (Melanie Campbell and Silvia Henriquez) said that “its your business” and one of them said that how you live your life if your choice. But, inherent to these ideas seemed an implied ideas that one’s relationship would be private and kept from public view. Interestingly, the older WHITE feminists on the stage said something different. Eleanor Smeal said that there is “not one way to get to equality,” that feminism wants to raise all boats, that exploitations should be ended and that NOW took a position on gay and lesbian rights before others. Terry O’Neil, the president of NOW, said that the feminist movement wants to change relationships to ones of mutuality and respect from dominance and disrespect. While no one came about explicitly saying that they supported polygamous relationships, the two white feminists seemed to apply it.
The final question while I was there, was about how one reaches out to others. Silvia Henriquez said that your should reach out to people you believe, mentor other people and that campus is where she started organizing about social justice issues. That’s all I have. You can read the full notes I took during the conference and an unfinished draft of an article about my experience at the conference from the third-person just for context.

It seems additionally that the next day after the one I wrote about was in theory ‘more worldly’ but really wasn’t at all. At the same time, the last day of the conference where there was lobbying of Congress, this seemed to be troubling because it makes the point of ‘work within the system, not outside it’ which means that radical views that want to imagine a new future outside the capitalist political landscape in the world are not included.  To finish off, I can say this: I didn’t really have many preconceptions of the conference before I came, but I can say that the conference could be better at actually including the spectrum of feminism, along with deeper intersectionality, self-reflection on the movement, and challenges to ‘typical’ liberal perspectives as well. In summary, FMF could do a much better job at the conference and while it is a good idea, much more needs to be done in order to make it serve a purpose of addressing what Mary Hawkesworth defined as feminism: countering all systems of oppression, not just patriarchy or so-called ‘women’s issues.’

From here, it is important to address the criticisms of NYFLC 2014 from participants. Here are those criticisms and my response:

Criticism: Denial of queer space and maybe queers not present at the conference.

My response: Well, its hard for me to tell since I am not a person who is not part of the LGBTQ+ community but there seemed to be little or no discussion on queer people or even LGBTQ+ people other than gay marriage. I have written about challenges to marriage and radical queer efforts in the past, none of which were covered by the conference.[2] This is deeply problematic as denies the inclusivity and intesectionality that the conference was supposed to cover.

Criticism: Conference doesn’t feel like it fully reflects feminism

My response: Well, considering all the different varieties of feminism,[3] the conference did not seem to fully reflect the spectrum of feminism. There seemed to be one main type of feminism: white, liberal feminism. Now, there were black feminists, but there were no diversity otherwise except in different groups that formed among participants.

Criticism: Best discussions between sessions or on twitter?

My response: Its hard to say for me because I wasn’t really checking twitter during the conference, instead I was trying to take it all in.

Criticism: Older white women as speakers not young feminists (female, trans*, or another disempowered group)

My response: Well, I counted in the opening plenary that there were four black speakers and one Latina speaker (who was an undocumented immigrant) but the rest were white. All of these people were white and older, except for the campus organizers who introduced the conference who were younger. Otherwise, such disparity

Criticism: Male feminists honored before queer feminists

My response: I didn’t see this happening while I was there (it was on the second day), but it seems deeply troubling. All feminists should be honored, not one group privileged over another.

Criticism: No sign language interpreter

My response: I didn’t think of this before I read it on twitter, but this is a problem as it is basically an act of ableism to not have an interpreter.

Criticism: Where are the radicals?

My response: That was my wonder as well. There seemed to be a LOT of liberals there, but not many ‘I want to overthrow the system’ or ‘we need system change.’ Interestingly enough, there seemed to be MORE radicals at PowerShift that I saw than those at this conference.

Criticism: A “second wave” conference?

My response: I personally think its a bit limiting to use the terms ‘first wave’ or ‘second wave’ or even ‘third wave’ in light of articles like this, this, this, this, a book , this, and many others. However, I think instead of asking if the conference was ‘second wave’ [4] one should at least consider if the conference was more geared toward reform or toward revolution. Obviously, it was geared toward reform and to liberalism itself

Criticism: Conference isn’t representative of real issues or inclusion

My response: This is seemingly true in light of what was earlier said. There is something deeper. I think much of what was said by the speakers was reactionary, in that they were reacting to Republican attacks, wanting to defend or expand social services… But there was no thinking beyond this, like imagining a new world, etc…

Criticism: Activism of youth not recognized

My response: This could be true, but by going to not all the parts of the conference, I can’t say if this is true.

Criticism: Privileges unchecked throughout the weekend

My response: Well, this seems definitely true. In fact, during the second plenary at the end of Day 1 of the conference, a young white woman came up to the mic and reminded everyone that conference attendees have a privilege to sit here and talk about feminism. She then said she was scared of going into the non-profit world.

Criticism: Twitter seemed to have more productive conversations than the conference itself

My response: I can’t say because I wasn’t really on twitter during the conference.

Criticism: Problem in rejecting conservative reporter

My response: My only issue with rejecting the conservative reporter was that it served to further legitimize the claims of Campus Reform when people said they weren’t wanted there. This could have been also because when people heard the word conservative, they associated it with the words ‘bad’ and ‘stay away from’

Criticism: Possible orientalism in discussing Mideast countries

My response: I can’t say if this is true, but if this was happening at the conference, it isn’t good at all

Criticism: Many issues that were covered like queer rights, racism, systems of privilege and oppression

My response: This is definitely the case. Just looking back at the topics of the sessions they covered is a bit chilling. They seemed to cover reproductive rights [Adopt-A-Clinic: Defending Your Local Women's Health Center; State's Attacks on Reproductive Rights], pregnancy and abortions [Pregnant? No Help. Fighting Fake Clinics; Failed Health Policies Across the Globe: Abstinence Only and Abortion Bans, gay marriage [Lesson's Learned: The Marriage Equality Movement], voting and state ballot initiatives [GOHV: The Power of the Student Vote & What's At Stake and State Ballot Initiatives Affecting Women's Rights], sexual assault [Rape is Rape: The Fight Against Campus Sexual Assault; Survivors of Campus Sexual Assault or IPV], family planning [Turning Religious Liberty Upside Down: Attacks on LGBT Rights and Family Planning; Lack of Universal Access to Family Planning Globally], skill building [getting off the ground: launching and relaunching; Beyond hashtags: building community and spreading the word through social and mainstream media; Get into it: Organizing On-The-Ground Activism; intersectionality in practice: organizing inclusively in your campus and community], and state legislatures [The response to state attacks: state capitols campaign]

There were some which allowed some room for challenging these issues (all ‘special caucuses’)

  1. #WeAreBrave: Women of Color and Reproductive Justice
  2. Fixing The System: Why Prison Reform Matters to the Feminist Movement
  3. Queer Folks
  4. Women of color
  5. Transgender and Gender non-conforming folks
  6. Male feminists
  7. Differently-Abled Feminists
  8. Ecofeminism: Gendered Impact of Climate Change (not a special caucus)

And then there was a token session on feminism abroad (other than the one about climate change): ‘Standing Shoulder to Shoulder with Women of Afghanistan’ which in its description, NEVER mentioned the war in Afghanistan but only the ‘fall of the Taliban’:

0410141920

This was deeply troubling and I was going to ask about this. Still, even with these ‘special caucuses’ and the one on ecofeminism, there seemed to a broad alignment of the conference with reformism and liberalism, giving little outlet to those who are radicals or revolutionaries.

Criticism: Conference was very heteronormative [the gender binary, only two sexes, etc... Associated with heterosexism and homophobia.]

My response***:The best example of this being a reality is when someone asked about non-monogamous relationships, specifically about polygamous relationships. Two of the black women up on the stage said that “its your business” and one of them said that how you live your life if your choice. But, inherent to these ideas seemed an implied ideas that one’s relationship would be private and kept from public view. Interestingly, the older WHITE feminists on the stage said something different. Eleanor Smeal said that there is “not one way to get to equality,” that feminism wants to raise all boats, that exploitations should be ended and that NOW took a position on gay and lesbian rights before others. Terry O’Neil, the president of NOW, said that the feminist movement wants to change relationships to ones of mutuality and respect from dominance and disrespect. While no one came about explicitly saying that they supported polygamous relationships, the two white feminists seemed to apply it. But, in general, there was little mention of the LGBTQ+ community which has gender, sexual, and romantic diversity.

***Similar to what was said the end of my response to the conference, but it makes the point even stronger.

A final lol to close on:

 

Notes

[1] Doubletree has:

  • been fined for not paying workers overtime in a branch located in Tuscon
  • unsafe conditions in its California establishments which prompted a bill in the legislature and a march on  the streets of Santa Monica
  • been accused by workers in Boston for “unfair labor practices…alleging that management illegally interfered with their unionization process”
  • been fined after an investigation by the US Department of Labor, finding that “the hotel [in Richardson, Texas] had violated parts of the Fair Labor Standards Act concerning minimum wage, overtime and record-keeping. All of the violations involved low-wage employees including dishwashers, bartenders, wait staff, bellmen, housekeepers and maintenance workers,” which is also described more in detail, here
  • been sued in US District Court in New York by a said worker for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act, who said that Doubletree didn’t pay the adequate amount for overtime by falsifying the hours they had worked, intentionally underpaid them, never paid them for overtime over a four year period as a housekeeper, never paid them for vacation days or reimburse them for cleaning supplies, and stole the tips (or gratuities) hotel customers gave to her
  • denied unionization attempts at the DoubleTree Hotel in Allston which is owned, but not managed, by Harvard. An article in The Crimson noted: “workers have not been granted a fair process to create and join a union without intimidation or interference from managers, despite repeated requests.” There was even later a march outside the hotel, protesting horrid conditions
  • made a settlement in California Court. Law360 notes “A group of Hilton Worldwide Inc. call center employees on Monday asked a California federal judge to grant final approval to a $950,000 settlement of a class action against the hotel giant, which stands accused of withholding workers’ wages and forcing them to routinely work off the clock.” More on this lawsuit is noted here.

DoubleTree seems to be common among certain progressive activist groups as a meeting spot (see here, here, here, here, etc…) so this is very relevant.

[2] See articles I’ve written for White Rose Reader: ‘The Commercialization of “Gay Pride”‘; ‘Equality for Some is Not Equality for All‘; ‘Gay Inc.’s Obsession with Gay Marriage’; and for Nation of Change: ‘Its the Way of the World: Bradley Manning and Gay Inc.’.

[3] According to wikipedia there are at least eighteen categories: liberal, anarchist, socialist and Marxist, radical, cultural, separatist and lesbian, black and womanist, Chicana, multiracial, Post-colonial, Third-world, standpoint, libertarian, post-structural, Postmodern, French, environmental and transfeminism. However, Wikipedia is not always the most reliable, but this listing was just meant to show that there are many strains that are present

[4] Martha Rampton defines this as a phase stretching from the 1960s to the 1990s when “sexuality and reproductive rights were dominant issues, and much of the movement’s energy was focused on passing the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing social equality regardless of sex.” If this definition is used, the conference was NOT second-wave completely as the Equal Rights Amendment was rarely mentioned, neither was sexuality. However, saying ‘second wave’ is already limiting in and of itself, so that is already problematic.

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About interestingblogger

I'm a social activist and a person interested in politics in general. I want to make a change and have a more just world for all.
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2 Responses to A story worth remembering– part 2: my experience

  1. Pingback: A story worth remembering– part I: criticism and controversy | Beyond the Barricade

  2. Pingback: Listing the articles of Beyond The Barricade | Beyond the Barricade

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