The three-day event, titled “Sisterhood: Who Am I? Who Are We Together?” was comprised of workshops with topics ranging from stereotypes of black women in reality T.V. to the experience of attending predominantly white colleges.
The weekend boasted several lectures by speakers like Rev. Sarai Rivera, the only councilwoman of color in Worcester and Lisa Wong, the first Asian-American mayor of Fitchburg, Mass.
The conference took place at the College of the Holy Cross and was sponsored by CHAS Consortium on High Achievement and Success). CHAS promotes success among college students of color through programs and events like the Women of Color Conference. Begun in 2000, CHAS is now has a presence in 26 liberal arts schools across the country. Partner schools include Pomona College on the West Coast, Oberlin College in Ohio, and, of course, Vassar College right here in Poughkeepsie.
The CHAS “Black and Latino Males Conference” will be held this year at Vassar from November 15 to 17. But last weekend’s event was CHAS’s first conference for women of color.
ALANA (African-American/Black, Latino, Asian-American/Asian, Native Americans) Student Cultural Center director, and one of the committee members who organized the conference, Luz Burgos-López stressed the importance of creating a conference specifically for women of color.
“Talking about feminism is often based on a white lens,” said Burgos-López. “The conference provided an opportunity to talk about that intersection of identities. You can’t separate the two.”
Megan Howell ’17, who attended the conference, found the conference enlightening.
“It was so eye-opening realizing my struggles as a person of color were shared by many other women,” said Howell. “For instance, black students at institutions like Vassar constantly have to prove themselves worthy—and all because some have this pre-conceived notion that all blacks are somehow less competent.”
Another student attendee Anuradha Datta ’16, one of Vassar’s Veteran Posse Scholars, was impressed by the pure scope and breadth of the programming.
“We even had workshops on romance and sex as it relates to being a colored woman on a majority white campus (we are not exactly seen as attractive, therefore negatively affecting our self esteem over time),” wrote Datta in an emailed statement.
Workshops also touched on the topics that were both societal and personal.
Datta continued, noting “Another workshop talked about the fetishizing of ‘exotic’ women in the media, i.e. Basketball Wives, Love and Hip Hop, etc. Lectures on confidence, navigating academia, and identity were also available.”
Burgos-López said those kinds of conversations were the ones the conference intended to nurture. “It was a place where the students didn’t have to reaffirm that racism, prejudices and micro-aggressions still happen everyday. People think we’re past that, but we aren’t,” said Burgos-López.
Howell also said she was surprised by how willingly students shared their experiences.
Fernanda Martinez ’14 too was moved by the safe conversation space the conference offered. She met students there with whom she shared a unique affinity.
“The best part was connecting with women of color from other institutions similar to Vassar,” said Martinez. “I came away with a lot of really great friends.”
Burgos-López explained that fostering these connections and open conversations were two of the main goals committee members had for the conference.
Burgos-López felt this particularly came to life in the first workshop given by Rashaunda Tyson, a 2004 graduate of the College of the Holy Cross. Students were given a chance to discuss their experiences with prejudice.
“It was extremely powerful,” observed Burgos-Lopez. “There were some tears by the end.”
Other speeches were less emotionally charged, but still prompted deep reflection. Datta was particularly interested in a speech given by Rev. Sarai Rivera.
“One thing that surprised me was the statement that Latina were comprised of ‘the blood of the oppressor and the blood of the oppressed,’ according to councilwoman Rivera,” wrote Datta. “It really made me think about their struggle, as I have a daughter who is of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent.”
But for all the discussions of struggles and hardships, Datta and her fellow students came away encouraged.
On a parting thought, Datta added, “We are the future face of leadership in this country,” Datta wrote. “This weekend was an inspirational reminder of just that.”