With the help of dedicated feminist leaders on campus, the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies department has organized a robust leadership conference for this Friday, April 1. The theme of the conference will be “Rethinking Leadership from the Bottom Up,” and it fills an important void for the feminist dialogue on Penn’s campus.
Both the Vagina Monologues performance and the V-Day movement create a vital space for the feminist community to come together to reflect on our relationships between gender, sexuality and empowerment. In addition to fundraising for Women Organized Against Rape, Philadelphia’s only full service rape crisis center, it sparks an awareness of how we still have a long way to go in terms of creating a culture free from gendered violence. Its performances range from brazen affirmations of unapologetic female sexuality in a culture that still largely shames it to poignant lamentations of violence against women. It encourages us as individuals and a student body to join the movement to end sexual violence.
Women’s Week, moreover, provides an important outlet for both meditation on women’s issues and celebration of accomplishments. With events ranging from discussions on the fashion industry’s impact on body image to panels on the challenges of being a women entrepreneur to a mediated discussion with authors of "Notorious RBG," Women’s Week reflects the diversity of gendered issues that female Penn students will face both on campus and as they embark on the rest of their lives.
These are all vital and vibrant facets of the feminist work on this campus, but they are not enough. A piece of the conversation that too often goes unaddressed is how the feminist movement can challenge existing paradigms of power, instead of advocating for women’s inclusion in the current one. Does a feminism that focuses on empowering women as individuals instead of promoting collective female empowerment inevitably neglect women of color, queer women, trans women, poor women and other women embodying intersectional identities? By focusing feminism on professional advancement, are we negating the more transformative and radical potentials of the feminist movement? Are there alternate modes of leadership that better promote feminist ideals — that better advocate for tangible, inclusive social change? What do these forms of leadership look like, and how can one “lead from the ground up?”
The feminist leadership conference seeks to address these difficult questions. The day will open up with a panel discussion on bridging the gaps between academics and activism with members of the Penn community, including Gina Dukes, College senior and founder of Students Organizing for Unity and Liberation, and Katie Clonan-Roy, a student at the Graduate School of Education who conducts activist research with young Latina women in Philadelphia. Following the panel is a workshop lead by spoken word artist and arts educator Kavindu "Kavi" Ade, where participants will reflect on the role of poetry in spearheading social movements, hear live performances of Kavi’s award-winning work and create original work of their own. The final panel brings together grassroots organizers and scholars — leaders whose work embodies alternate forms of leadership that arise in spheres with limited resources and challenging objectives. Titled “Leading in One’s Own Community,” this panel will question whether diffuse and collective modes of leadership — often with the help of social media and youth organizing — can be more transformative than traditional corporate or governmental modes of leadership.
The conference closes out with keynote speaker Mona Eltahawy, a columnist and international public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues and global feminism whose writings appeared in most major media outlets during the 18-day revolution that toppled Egypt’s President, Hosni Mubarak. She will describe her experience as “the woman explaining Egypt to the west” — as feminist publication Jezebel has coined her — and will lead a discussion on the dynamic role of journalism and social media in an increasingly globalized world.
This is an ongoing dialogue as we continually critique, expand and build the evolving feminist movement. The feminist community has a responsibility not only to celebrate its accomplishments, but to continually interrogate what we owe to its legacies, its multitudes, its future. The feminist community has a responsibility not only to aim for the assimilation of select women into positions of power, but to the transformation of the lived experiences of all women. The leadership conference challenges the feminist community to not only critically reflect on their experiences and work together to achieve goals, but also to expand the width of their imaginations.
Julia Slater is an English major from Burbank, Calif., and the Co-chair of Penn Association for Gender Equity
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