Workshop series to focus on diversity and oppression

Spanning April 7 through 25, the Office of Campus Life and Diversity invited several experts to hold a workshop series on intersec­tional antisemitism, intersectional racism and Islamophobia. The series was designed to di­rectly engage up to 75 students in discussions about the relationships between those three forms of oppression and the broader socio­cultural meanings of those interactions. These workshops are especially relevant given recent campus climate conditions, epitomized in the controversy surrounding BDS.

Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Sam­uel Speers explained, “The key feature of these workshops on racism, antisemitism and Islam­ophobia is that they are designed intersection­ally—meaning that they deal with multiple forms of oppression together, so that we see the connections between these three different forms of oppression being considered. Each of the workshop leaders is committed to present­ing their session in relation to the other two sessions.”

Workshop leaders Talia Cooper and Sonia Alexander presented the session on intersec­tional antisemitism, the first event in the se­ries. Cooper reflected, “I think we really got the message that students did not feel that they were being heard around a lot of topics that were affecting their lives and that students, when they talk about it, want to be supported by the Administration. It sounds like continu­ing to have some of these conversations will be really great for the campus.”

The workshop series encourages stu­dent-faculty interaction by giving them a com­mon language for engaging in conversation about these three topics. Speers elaborated, “The model for each of these workshops is to have both a session for students and a session for faculty and administrators. So we think this relatively small program can have a significant impact, given the extensive networks with which each participant is connected. It’s a pilot initiative for programming that we hope to de­velop more fully in the future.”

Serving as an introduction to discourses about power, the session outlined the theoreti­cal apparatus for this line of thought. Alexander explained, “The main point of the workshop is to take a look at antisemitism from an intersec­tional analysis, so looking at how antisemitism operates along the four I’s of oppression: Insti­tutional, Ideological, Interpersonal and Inter­nalized, which is a model we apply to any form of oppression.”

At this level of abstraction, the discourse about power applies equally well to racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia. Cooper noted, “Our workshops are an introduction to how power works, how racism works, how privi­lege works, getting to understand some of the basics, how these factors function in our own lives and on our own bodies.” Working from the analogy of a multidimensional Venn dia­gram, this line of thought conceptualizes each factor of power as a sphere that overlaps with every other factor of power. The individual sits at the locus of the multidimensional Venn diagram, so that the point of intersectionality defines the individual’s identity.

These workshops are intended to supple­ment ongoing campus efforts to combat iden­tity discrimination on multiple fronts. Existing resources try to take into account the inherent interconnectedness of students’ different iden­tities and the oppression they face because of those identities. Associate Dean of the College Edward Pittman wrote in an emailed statement, “The main offices of Campus Life (ALANA, International Services, Religious and Spiritual Life, Women’s Center, LGBTQ Center) have always sought to approach this work without always having students to ‘choose’ which iden­tity is important at a particular moment.”

Speers agreed that campus offices have been working to incorporate intersectionality in considering questions of identity and oppres­sion. He said, “For some time, Campus Life and Diversity has sought an intersectional ap­proach in its work. Any other approach risks a) pitting historically under-represented com­munities against one another and b) leaving assumptions and structures in place that need changing.” He continued, “Of course intersec­tional work has to get to the level of concrete practices and behaviors, and these workshops seem promising as [one] way of doing that.”

The workshop used narrative knowledge of the interaction of these systems of oppression and discrimination to connect the particular experiences of students with the abstract appa­ratus of discourses about power. Alexander re­flected, “We organized the workshop through a bunch of interactive games and activities, looking at stories and having discussions about what was going on in those stories.” From nar­rative knowledge, the workshop directed par­ticipants toward further reading, discussion and activism through a process called praxis.

The workshop leaders developed their ex­pertise through a careful synthesis of personal experience, scholarly research and extensive discussions with people from all backgrounds in workshop settings. Alexander stated, “I think being involved in activist communities and ac­tivist movements for a very long time, and also grappling with Jewish identity and seeking out radical Jewish life experiences, were some of the personal things that led me to want to learn more about this work.” She continued, “I did specific reading and research so that I could understand and be a part of some of the history that is involved—reading Penny Rosenwasser, and then having discussions with a lot of peo­ple to understand what is the complicated his­tory around Jews.”

Cooper chose research questions that ques­tion the implications of her own identity. She described, “In order to be effective activists, we have to be grounded in our own identity: What does it means to be a white, Ashkenazi Jew? Answering that question means doing more research, so that we can be more effective in what we do.”

Campus Life is beginning to take into ac­count these same types of research questions in its programming. Speers explained, “I see these workshops as an important opportu­nity to open up further consideration of the relation between intersectionality–looking at multiple identities and forms of oppression simultaneously—and spirituality. What are the inner resources for intersectional work? What is the relation between identity work and the growing interest in spiritual and contemplative practices?” Considering these inner resources, he cites, “Part of what I love about my work at Vassar is that it is profoundly interreligious. I see students from many different worldviews (both secular and religious) enjoying Friday night Shabbat at the Bayit or attending pro­grams like the special Jummah prayer we held on campus this year in conjunction with a local mosque, or embracing their experience at a lo­cal Buddhist monastery.”

Considering the campus climate as a whole, Alexander observed, “I think it’s great that Vas­sar wants to have these conversations.” The structure and tone of such conversation will remain major factors for determining its im­pact on the community. Although recent efforts seem to have established a direction towards freedom of expression and a strong sense of self-identity among students, Campus Life is still working out the implications of its work­shop series. Speers urged, “Addressing under­lying forms of oppression needs more than a problem-solving mode; we need to make it an ongoing part of our institutional culture.”

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