University News

FLAME Conference ignites discussions on feminism

High schoolers explore issues of gender inequality, sexuality with Brown students, faculty

By
Senior Staff Writer
Monday, March 9, 2015

President Christina Paxson P’19 spoke of personal experiences with gender inequality during her keynote address at the closing ceremony Sunday.

Hundreds of students from 22 Rhode Island high schools conversed with Brown community members on College Hill Sunday and grappled with issues of feminism, gender identity and sexuality at the first annual Feminist Leadership and Mentorship for Equality Conference. The event was coordinated by Feminists at Brown and coincided with International Women’s Day.

The purpose of the conference was to provide a safe space for open conversation on feminist issues. The day was filled with guest lectures, workshops and a final gathering that featured closing remarks by President Christina Paxson P’19 and musical performances.   

Feminists at Brown started planning the conference in the fall. Group members contacted student organizations — including Bluestockings Magazine, FemSex, Queer Alliance, Sexual Assault Peer Education and Sexual Health Advocacy through Peer Education — to generate a workshop schedule.

Feminists at Brown members also connected with teachers and club leaders at Rhode Island schools, making a concerted effort to reach as many demographics as possible, said Alice Hamblett ’17, one of the event’s organizers. “It’s a super diverse group, and it’s really important to unite these demographics so that they don’t miss each other,” she said.

The conference was free of charge to all attendees, and bus passes were provided to any students with travel obstacles. “We didn’t want any barriers,” Hamblett said. “We wanted to make it as accessible as possible because without all of the different perspectives, it defeats the purpose.”

As native Rhode Islanders, Hamblett and Anna Reed ’15, another of the event’s organizers, also wanted to “build a bridge between Brown and Providence,” Hamblett said.

At the event’s opening breakfast, Reed  and Hamblett addressed a packed Kasper Multipurpose Room. “Today is about you. Your questions are important. Your ideas are important,” Hamblett said.

In her speech, Reed quoted the Caribbean-American writer, feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde, saying, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences.”

Reed’s welcome address was followed by a talk by Meera Viswanathan, associate professor of comparative literature and East Asian studies.

This year’s FLAME conference is “already on fire with excitement and conversation in the air,” Viswanathan said.

Viswanathan, who moved to the United States from India 50 years ago, delved into personal anecdotes about her childhood and feminist awakening. She credited her mother, who stressed the value of education, as the only person who kept the family going. Viswanathan emphasized “resourcefulness, thinking broadly and creatively and refusing to accept … binaries.”

The event also featured a pop-up gallery in which Brown and Rhode Island School of Design students’ works were displayed. Sarina Mitchel, a member of RISD Feminists and a senior majoring in illustration, reached out to the coordinators about including art installations in the conference, she said. The exhibit showcased works from the course “XX/XY” during RISD Wintersession, which highlighted themes of domestic violence, gender fluidity and more. “The class is about gender studies and breaking the gender binary,” Mitchel said.

Yanice Grajales, a junior at Bayview High School, said she found the conference very informative, especially coming from an all-girls school. “You’d think at an all-girls school people would understand issues of sexism and feminism, but not many do. I didn’t even truly know and understand the issues until this year,” she said.

The conference also spurred Grajales to consider the issues of sexuality that female students at Bayview face. “Two of my friends are lesbians and are afraid and embarrassed to open up about it,” she said. “They are scared that people will look down upon it.”

Syrislynne Blanco, a senior at Hope High School, said she has been contemplating the idea of starting a feminism club at the school but worries that peers would view it negatively.

“People always associate feminism with a hatred of men,” Blanco added. “People need to understand that it’s about equal rights.”

Claudia Barbosa, a junior at Paul Cuffee School who immigrated to the United States from Cape Verde last year, expressed her desire to learn more about the “issues women face today,” citing domestic violence and sexual abuse as key problems.

Perla Cruz, a junior at Central High School, expressed a similar sentiment, noting, “A lot of girls … need to realize their worth and stand up to these issues.”

Several male students also attended the conference, including Woonsocket High School sophomore Elijah Cortes. “I hope by being here, I will be more educated about (feminism) and spread the word,” Cortes said. He added that he enjoyed attending a workshop on black women in hip-hop culture because “hip-hop culture is very big in Woonsocket.”

August Kahn, another male attendee and a junior at the Wheeler School, also recognized the importance of supporting the feminist movement. “Calling yourself a feminist and acknowledging gender inequality is a huge part. I’m here … as an observer. We need to make sure that everyone has the right to speak.”

The day concluded with a closing ceremony in Salomon 101 and a keynote address by Paxson. She brought her own personal educational experiences into her address, saying that feminism “was really not discussed,” but “it became glaringly obvious to see the drop-off in math courses (and) computer science courses grade by grade,” she said. “Because it wasn’t really talked about, I really didn’t become a feminist until later.”

As a woman in economics, which she called a “largely male-dominated” field, she became the first tenured woman in Princeton’s economics department, Paxson said. “It is important to recognize gender-based stereotypes and even more important to be confident in challenging them when you see them,” she said. “I hope that the results of today will inspire you to be leaders.”

Paxson’s speech was followed by performances by New Works Dance Company, Brown’s Tones, Adjunct Professor of Theater and Performing Arts Stephanie Turner and singer Catherine Braxton.

Looking ahead, Hamblett said she hopes that “the high school students will seek out the mentors they have connected with” and that Brown students will follow up with the Rhode Island youths they met.