2015 Drake University Conference on Gender Violence: Analysis and Action

This past saturday, Grinnell students Denisha Renovales (‘17) and Roselle Tenorio (‘17) attended a conference on gender violence at Drake University in Des Moines. This is what they learned during their time at the conference:

  • There is a SERIOUS lack of male and minority presence when it comes to the conversation on gender violence.
    • As we entered Drake University's Olmstead Center to attend the event, we immediately noticed that the audience was mostly white and mostly female. This phenomenon is unfortunately not unusual; there is a troubling lack of racial and gender diversity in the battle against gender violence. This pattern brings up a part of the history of feminism that people feel uncomfortable discussing-- white women spearheaded the first two waves, excluding other oppressed groups from the fight. The lack of non-female participants also reinforced the stigma that gender violence is only a women's issue and a women's fight.
  • Films have the power to create change
    • The Gender Violence conference at Drake University consisted of many workshops; students could pick and choose the ones they wanted to attend. We chose a workshop titled “It Gets Better...Sometimes” in which depictions of violence in the LGBTQ community were examined through film. Although we did note a positive shift in the portrayal of the LGBTQ community between Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Pariah (2011), violence against LGBTQ individuals remained a present factor throughout. These two films reinforced the power of media to reflect and influence changing social norms.
    • While both movies show the harsh reality of the violence that many members of the LGBTQ community face, one can’t help but wonder, are there enough films that are not about the struggles and hardships of the LGBTQ community? When do we transition to the point where sexuality is not the focal point, and LGBTQ people are just included in film? Lastly, why are there relatively few films in which we see members of the LGBTQ community get a “happy ending”? It may be a bit overly optimistic to think that media could severely impact violence in society, but as we ponder just how large of an impact that media can have on people, we want to leave you with the following question:

In order to eradicate gender violence do we have to first change pop culture or change our society?

  • Intersection of Race, Gender, and Sexuality
    • The conference had a panel led by Bonnie Campbell, the first female Iowa Attorney General. She pointed out that while she was working for the Clinton Administration, trans women were left out of bills aimed to protect women. Similarly, Professor Younger of Drake University brought up the lack of representation of trans people of color in pop culture.
    • I was left wondering why the discussion surrounding trans people, particularly trans people of color, was only of invisibility and erasure. Although there was an effort to create a trans safe space at the conference, I was unsure whether limiting this discussion to invisibility perhaps perpetuated the silencing of trans people of color.
  • We Now Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.

   The last workshop of the day, led by a Diversity Facilitator named Luana Nelson-Brown, focused on advocating for marginalized communities. Nelson-Brown started the workshop by putting us into groups and giving each identifying words or phrases such as “super smart student” or “drug dealer”, and asked us to attach every stereotype we could think of to these identifiers. Following the stereotype exercise was an activity called the “cage of oppression”. We were given an image of a cage and asked to identify which groups of people within different forms of oppression (racism, classism, sexism, etc.) are marginalized, as well as the groups of people that benefit from maintaining these systems of oppression. Once that task was completed, we were asked to place ourselves in the categories under where we felt we were represented. While this activity caused a lot of internal conflict, as this is not something people are often asked to do, it was an eye-opening experience that left us with the following revelations:

  1. It is extremely hard to place yourself into a category of oppression when you are not sure whether to consider where you think you fit versus where you think society would place you.
  2. All modes of oppression, even with their multiple dimensions and defining characteristics, are intertwined in some way, shape, or form, therefore one group cannot be liberated until the entire cage is destroyed.
  • There are levels to Political Correctness 
    • In order to participate in the stereotyping exercise effectively, we had to throw political correctness out the window. Maybe not so surprisingly, we were not only good at coming up with stereotypes but also had similar ideas of what certain stereotypes included. However, while filling out the cage of oppression graphic with the same peers, we struggled to sway the room toward a PC way of saying (for example) not-abled under the oppression of ableism. Regionally and generationally, there are different ideas about what is PC. Even amongst Denisha and myself there was debate about language. 
  • Grinnellian Privilege is a real thing, don’t take it for granted.
    • It is quite clear that Grinnell has a long way to go as an institution, but I think we often forget that we are a very privileged student body in many ways. While chatting with one of the Conference’s Coordinators it was presented to us that Grinnell is seen as not only more progressive but more malleable in the sense that the student body has the ability to apply pressure on the administration to make changes. The coordinator mentioned that this was the first time the University backed them, which the coordinator, as well as the two of us, assumed would play out differently at Grinnell. 
  • “Be ready to become part of a New Underground Railroad”
    • As a Grinnellian, the word social justice is thrown around often. However, we feel there is a disconnect between talking about and acting upon ideals of social justice. A session titled “Advocating for Marginalized People” ended on a brilliant and applicable note: “Be ready to become part of a new Underground Railroad.” The leader of the session, Luana Nelson-Brown, credited Michelle Alexander, the the author of The New Jim Crow, for the inspirational phrase. Action-provoking words such as these travel, and they are now in Grinnell. We hope to produce something from them. Maybe it’s having our own conference, or maybe it’s bringing people to our campus to help us make change. Regardless of how we show our presence on this metaphorical railroad, it is crucial that we enter this phase of our fight fearlessly, cohesively, and indiscriminately.