University News

High school students drawn to FLAME

Conference offers workshops led by student groups on feminsim, gender, race

By
Senior Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2016

Gretchen Raffa speaks at the closing ceremony of the FLAME conference. She discussed her work as a director of public policy, advocacy and strategic planning at Planned Parenthood and the importance of empathy.

Feminists at Brown hosted the Feminist Leadership and Mentorship for Equality Conference for the second year in a row, bringing students from Rhode Island high schools and faculty members together to learn and discuss issues related to feminism.

FLAME was coordinated by a team of 13 Brown students headed by Alice Hamblett ’17, Lilith Todd ’18 and Malwina Skowron ’18.

The coordinators ensured that the conference included both theoretical feminism and practical feminism, Hamblett said. Some workshops included discussions on women of color and false stereotypes placed on them, while others emphasized the expression of feminism through spoken word and writing.

As the coordinators planned the conference, they paid special attention to details to make attendees feel comfortable and welcomed, such as not asking for their genders on the conference registration and inviting speakers in order to treat them like “real scholars,” Todd said.

The FLAME coordinators mainly advertised the conference to high school juniors and seniors, but attendees ranged from ages 14 to 20, Todd said.

“What’s nice about visiting high schools is I got to talk one-on-one to the students and be honest and say some of their concerns about feminism are valid,” she said. “One high school student brought up that feminism isn’t as important as inequality of race and class.” Todd agreed and told the student that many other feminists agreed with her as well. She invited that student to attend the conference to discuss this critical facet of feminism, she said.

FLAME hosted a variety of workshops at overlapping times to allow attendees to pick the workshops they want to attend so they can “craft their own day,” Todd said.

The conference workshops were held primarily in the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs with attendees gathering in Kasper Multipurpose Room for breakfast and lunch, which were provided along with transportation to the conference.

The conference was able to help its high school attendees become well-informed on feminism and how it applies to their own life.

“I figured out my voice and where I stand on issues,” said Lilia Merbouche, a senior at Woonsocket High School.

For Alexa Brooks Major, a junior at Bayview Academy in Pawtucket, the conference provided illuminating information. Her favorite event was “Spitfire: A Feminist Spoken Word Workshop,” run by WORD!, a spoken word group at Brown. Through one of the spoken word videos they were shown during the workshop, Brooks Major was inspired to speak her mind on politics more often in order to find her voice and recognize that her perspective is important, she said.

Because of the conference, Brooks Major realized that her struggles as a woman of color in a primarily white school are not just her own but are shared among other women of color as well, she said.

As Brooks Major grew up, she compared herself to other girls, noticing that her “hair didn’t blow in the wind like other girls’.” The compliments Brooks Major received were also different than those received by other girls. People would comment that she sounded “really articulate for a black girl” or had good handwriting, she said. At the time, she accepted any compliments she could no matter how problematic they were.

Self-love “starts with owning who you are. You can be a leader, but it starts with yourself,” said Allana Gilgeous, a senior at Tabor Academy.

Gilgeous spoke about her personal growth as a woman of color. She recalled a time when a white boy complimented her, saying she was “pretty for a black girl.”

At the time of the boy’s comment, “I didn’t love myself enough to see that was a problem,” she said, adding “I used to hate my skin and being black and my big lips and big nose.” It was only a couple of years ago that she began to feel beautiful and love herself.

A variety of student groups facilitated workshops throughout the day, including the Queer Alliance, Women in Computer Science, the League of United Black Women, Obsidian Magazine, Women Peer Counselors and Feminists at Brown.

Amanda Beaudoin ’17 facilitated one of the workshops titled,  “Act Like a Girl: Exploring gender and feminism in theater, comedy and music.” Beaudoin led a discussion about what it means to be a woman in performance and how women are portrayed.

“I’m just so impressed by (the attendees) and how intelligent and passionate they are about these issues. They really want to make a change, and I’m so glad to facilitate these discussions,” she said.

The discussions did not provide any answers or solutions, “but that’s how it works. It’s a work in progress,” Beaudoin added.

Various student performance groups were featured in FLAME’s closing ceremony in Salomon Hall, including the Ursa Minors, Extension Dance Company, Brown University Aerial Artists and Divine Rhythm Step Team.

“I feel like art is a form of activism,” said Gretchen Raffa, director of public policy, advocacy and strategic planning at Planned Parenthood of Southern New England and the keynote speaker at FLAME, during the closing ceremony.

“My feminism is a nonstop evolution,” she said. She spoke about her experience as a child, her journey to feminism and her work at Planned Parenthood. She noted that as her values have evolved, she has come to better understand the importance of empathy toward other people’s struggles.