November 13, 2011

First Women of Color Conference Addresses Issues of Identity at Cornell

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Bringing together the Cornell community around issues of gender, race and identity, a group of 25 women hosted the first Women of Color Conference. Seventy-five people participated in the event, with registration filling within two and a half days of its opening, according to Ashley Harrington, the logistics chair for the Women of Color Conference Planning Committee.

The conference featured speakers and workshops, and publicity for the event emphasized that the conference was free to attend and open to everyone. Workshops ranged from an investigation of sex in the Bible to a presentation from Consent-Ed, a student organization that spreads awareness about sexual assault prevention and bystander intervention, according to Harrington.

“The workshops were really interesting and addressed specific issues like sex and beauty,” said Yan Wang ’12, who attended the conference.

The conference focused on embracing the multi-faceted identity of every individual, Harrington said.

Keynote speaker Sahra Vang Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American artist, embodied this sentiment in her opening speech by discussing her art in the context of her identity.

“We have internal conflict when we do not embrace all aspects of our identities,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen’s presentation also included a writing activity and open discussion, which corresponded the discussion-based format of the event.

“It is so important to have spaces like these to affirm ourselves,” Nguyen said about the conference.

Participants praised Nguyen’s presentation.

“She was like a rockstar,” Antoinette Gayle ’13 said. “She was a really great speaker, because she was so honest and relatable.”

The organizers of the event said they aimed to create a open, safe space for discussion about the intersections of race, gender and community.

“There was an openness and curiosity about understanding differences,” said Narda Terrones ’14, the publicity chair.

“It was cathartic,” Catherine Jung ’13, entertainment chair, explained as it facilitated honest self-reflection.

The conference attracted a diverse group of women and men and was not exclusive to women of color, Harrington said. Participants cited many reasons for attending the event, from receiving intriguing invitations through email lists to recommendations from professors.

Participant Kendra Bartell ’13 said she felt a personal responsibility to attend.

“As a white woman, there needs to be both sides to the discussion,” she said.

The planning committee started organizing the conference in October 2010 when Harrington sent an email looking for people willing to coordinate a conference on issues concerning women of color.

The organizers said the most important aspect of the planning process was the development of a mission statement.

“It took a semester to write the mission statement,” said  Marcela Cabello ’13, the funding chair.

Harrington explained the time as necessary, as the group wanted to create a totally open space that everyone felt comfortable in.

“We were very careful with our language,” she said.

Khamila Alebiosu ’13, workshops chair, agreed, saying, “Wording can reinforce what we are trying to deconstruct.”

Many of the chairs were leaders in their own cultural communities, Alebiosu said, so one of the greatest challenges was understanding one another’s differences.

“Disagreement was a common thread,” Alebiosu said. “We had to self-reflect to encourage self-reflection.”

“Creating cohesion amongst us was the hardest part,” Harrington said.

All six chairs agreed that the turning point in the planning process came when they participated in a retreat together and discovered that they needed an environment free from classification to work well together.

“The retreat showed evidence of tokenization,” said Harrington, referring to stereotypes about minorities. “Afterwards, the process became more organic.”

The idea of openness guided the conference, Harrington said.

“It started a dialogue that needed to happen,” Alebiosu said.

Looking to the future, the organizers said they want to continue the conference next year.

“We hope it is a sustainable thing. We opened a conversation, but there is so much more to do,” Cabello said.

Original Author: Erica Augenstein