October 7, 2013

New Initiative Will Provide Support for Women of Color at Cornell

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In an attempt to increase the satisfaction of women of color with their experience at Cornell, a new initiative will provide professional mentoring and other events stressing solidarity throughout the academic year.

The project will act as a liaison between undergraduate students and graduate and professional women of color and be funded under the University’s 2012 diversity policy, Toward New Destinations, according to Theoria Cason, residential hall director of Ujamaa, and Risë Nelson Burrow, assistant director of the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives, the founders of the project.

“There are a number of needs that we’re recognizing in the various undergraduate communities of color, where the women just need some guidance, or they are lacking mentorship,” Cason said, referring to information gleaned from surveys taken last academic year.

“They’re performing academically, and statistically they are matriculating through the University, but their satisfaction with their experience is very low,” Cason said.

According to Cason, women of color grapple with issues regarding self-worth and anxiety, which may stem from a lack of personally knowing professional women of color in their fields, especially when a student at a predominantly white university may be the only woman of color in their classes.

Beginning in Fall 2012, Cason and Nelson Burrow held a series of focus groups to gauge what undergraduates needed in a mentor. In Summer 2013, they crafted a proposal for this initiative, — which has not yet been named — that would fit in line with Toward New Destinations.

“Many of the women of color here are the only ones like them who identify as they do in a department or an academic field,” Nelson Burrow said. “Part of it is wanting to see other people who look like them and have the same needs as them. There aren’t that many opportunities for department organizations and for individuals to come together purposefully to talk about connecting, to talk about their experiences in a very authentic way.”

According to Nelson Burrow, the initiative stresses both professional development and personal interaction.

“I think a lot of times the women of color here who are participating in leadership positions are so stretched thin, because they’re holding up the campus community, they may have family obligations, they may have a number of jobs they’re working [or] they may be in a number of fellowship programs,” Nelson Burrow said. “[The program serves] to say, ‘I see you, I see what you’re doing. Great job, congratulations, thank you for your work, we value it; how are you? That often goes missing.”

Another issue that the project seeks to resolve is the lack of communication between minority groups of women, and provide a sense of unified energy between the events already planned by individual groups focusing on women of color.

“Everyone is so focused on trying to represent their own ethnicity that people don’t really think of uniting women of color,” Shamail Shahid ’14 said. “I feel like it’s very important because our experiences are very similar, and we might not even think so. We’re so focused on connecting with our own race that we forget to connect with other women that might be going through the same thing.”

Cason said the organization is aimed at eliminating the sense women of color may get that they need to compete, due to a misperception that only a few can have the opportunity to represent their communities in a field. “Sometimes there’s a sentiment that within society we are typecast, or we are selected to be the one person who diversifies an organization or institution, Cason said. “Recognize that you don’t have to compete against your sister to be the one, you can support one another, and there are opportunities for everyone. We’re all wonderful and awesome, and we can be wonderful and awesome in the same space at the same time.”

Stacy Dalepenha ’14, co-chair of the Women of Color Coalition, which holds an annual conference centering around issues faced by women of color, said that the new initiative was much-needed on campus.

“There are so many different women of color organizations that all do different things on the surface, but at the end of the day, we all share one common mission: to empower the women of color here on our campus and provide a voice for our peers who identify as women of color,” Dalepenha said.

According to Nelson Burrow, the mentoring initiative has a schedule already set for this academic year, including participation in the volunteer program “Into the Streets” in late October as well as different outings and regular meetings with women of color professionals.

But the first active step, as decided in a gathering of Cornell women of color on Monday, was working on a name for the initiative.

“We thought it would be extremely important for the group to name itself,” Nelson Burrow said. “Something that I think we all have experienced as being women of color is being called out of our name, or being called anything that is not necessarily affirming to our realities and our identities or how we express ourselves. We want to be very careful of how we name ourselves, and we want to give that opportunity to the women in the room.”